CommonLit Insights How To Make Sure Your Company Culture Doesn't Break You

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

This post was originally published in Forbes on June 20, 2018.

I have always been skeptical of corporate culture. When I hear the word, what comes to mind is those cheesy inspirational signs from the 90s featuring high-def photos of jungle animals and waterfalls. You know the ones. My dad used to have one that said, “LEADERSHIP: Staying in front of the pack.”

Then, I started a company. Needless to say, my skepticism went away. Now, I feel very strongly that Peter Drucker was right: Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Your company may have a great long-term strategy written down in a 60-page business plan, but if you have a bad culture, it won’t matter at all.

If you’re thinking about improving your company’s culture, you first need to understand what culture is and isn’t. Culture is not:

  • The formal policies in your employee handbook
  • A series of values displayed on a wall
  • Going out for happy hour once a month with your coworkers
  • Office perks
  • Doing trust falls with your colleagues at an annual retreat
  • Having a company mission statement

All of these things are indicators that you might have a good culture. But the thing about culture is that it is much, much more than the sum of its parts. It’s impossible to fake, and impossible to miss. Culture dictates the way your coworkers think about their work, how they interact with each other, and how they approach complex problems. In other words, it dictates how your employees behave everyday, which is a pretty big deal and something that will certainly affect your bottom line.

When you’re working in an organization with a strong culture, it’s obvious. The tough days are rewarding. You are free to be yourself. You talk through problems rather than avoid them. When someone gets fired, it’s pretty obvious to everyone why they weren’t a fit. You give honest praise to your coworkers, and you really mean it. You constantly seek feedback from your boss and colleagues because you sincerely care what they think. Most importantly, you feel like a productive and valued member of a team working toward something much, much larger than yourself.

The first step to building a strong company culture is defining the three to four qualities that you value in your employees. Don’t borrow them from another company — these values should be unique to your company and the way you do business. Next, come up with an acronym or some way to make your values really easy for your team to remember.

Here are CommonLit’s Team Values, otherwise known as “SLAY:”

Sweat the Details: Since we serve children in over 42,000 schools, every detail about our educational program matters.

Learn & Share: As we grow, the work gets more complex. This means that we need to constantly learn new skills and teach others.

Align Yourself: Prioritize the right tasks, and always remember to “keep the main thing the main thing.”

Yield to the Team: Our vision is to serve 20 million students by 2020. We will succeed and fail together. It’s not about you; it’s about the team and our collective goals.

Defining your organization’s culture in writing like this will give your team a common language, which is helpful in terms of pointing out what is and what isn’t in line with your values. This document of examples (and non-examples) will become an extraordinarily practical tool. For example, at CommonLit, we refer to SLAY in the hiring process, during our formal review process, and even in regular 1:1 coaching meetings. As our company has grown, our institutional understanding of what SLAY means has also grown.

We also occasionally revisit our company values; they aren’t set in stone. For example, we realized that there was an inherent tension between “Sweat the Details” and “Align Yourself.” It’s possible for someone to get so caught up in the details that they cease to be aligned with the larger priorities. Making this tension known allowed everyone to reflect and self-correct.

Once your team has internalized the values and tensions on an intellectual level, the real work starts. The final step is to create systems that reinforce the related behaviors you want to encourage. For example, if your team has a culture of continuous improvement, one way to encourage this value might be to ask each department to hold regular retrospective meetings to discuss completed projects and propose improvements to processes.

Invest whatever time it takes to get these systems started, so that your culture becomes a part of the steady rhythm of your company. It’s worth it.