Jun 252015

The Difference Between Culture and Values

The Difference Between Culture and Values

This topic has been bugging me for a while, so I am going to use the writing of this post as a means of working through it. We have a great set of core values here at Return Path. And we also have a great corporate culture, as evidenced by our winning multiple employer of choice awards, including being Fortune Magazine’s #2 best medium-sized workplace in America.

But the two things are different, and they’re often confused. I hear statements all the time, both here and at other companies, like “you can’t do that — it’s not part of our culture,” “I like working there, because the culture is so great,” and “I hope our culture never changes.”  And those statements reveal the disconnect.

Here’s my stab at a definition.  Values guide decision-making and a sense of what’s important and what’s right.  Culture is the collection of business practices, processes, and interactions that make up the work environment.

A company’s values should never really change. They are the bedrock underneath the surface that will be there 10 or 100 years from now.  They are the uncompromising core principles that the company is willing to live and die by, the rules of the game. To pick one value, if you believe in Transparency one day, there’s no way the next day you decide that being Transparent is unimportant. Can a value be changed?  I guess, either a very little bit at a time, slowly like tectonic plates move, or in a sharp blow as if you deliberately took a jackhammer to stone and destroyed something permanently.  One example that comes to mind is that we added a value a couple years back called Think Global, Act Local, when we opened our first couple of international offices.  Or a startup that quickly becomes a huge company might need to modify a value around Scrappiness to make it about Efficiency.  Value changes are few and far between.

If a company’s values are its bedrock, then a company’s culture is the shifting landscape on top of it. Culture is the current embodiment of the values as the needs of the business dictate. Landscapes change over time — sometimes temporarily due to a change in seasons, sometimes permanently due to a storm or a landslide, sometimes even due to human events like commercial development or at the hand of a good gardener.

So what does it mean that culture is the current embodiment of the values as the needs of the business dictate?  Let’s go back to the value of Transparency. When you are 10 people in a room, Transparency means you as CEO may feel compelled to share that you’re thinking about pivoting the product, collect everyone’s point of view on the subject, and make a decision together. When you are 100 people, you probably wouldn’t want to share that thinking with ALL until it’s more baked, you have more of a concrete direction in mind, and you’ve stress tested it with a smaller group, or you risk sending people off in a bunch of different directions without intending to do so. When you are 1,000 employees and public, you might not make that announcement to ALL until it’s orchestrated with your earnings call, but there may be hundreds of employees who know by then. A commitment to Transparency doesn’t mean always sharing everything in your head with everyone the minute it appears as a protean thought.  At 10 people, you can tell everyone why you had to fire Pat – they probably all know, anyway.  At 100 people, that’s unkind to Pat.  At 1,000, it invites a lawsuit.

Or here’s another example.  Take Collaboration as a value.  I think most people would agree that collaboration managed well means that the right people in the organization are involved in producing a piece of work or making a decision, but that collaboration managed poorly means you’re constantly trying to seek consensus.  The culture needs to shift over time in order to make sure the proper safeguards are in place to prevent collaboration from turning into a big pot of consensus goo – and the safeguards required change as organizations scale.  In a small, founder-driven company, it often doesn’t matter as much if the boss makes the decisions.  The value of collaboration can feel like consensus, as they get to air their views and feel like they’re shaping a decision, even though in reality they might not be.  In a larger organization with a wider range of functional specialists managing their own pieces of the organization, the boss doesn’t usually make every major decision, though guys like Ellison, Benioff, Jobs, etc. would disagree with that.  But in order for collaboration to be effective, decisions need to be delegated and appropriate working groups need to be established to be clear on WHO is best equipped to collaborate, and to what extent.  Making these pronouncements could come as feeling very counter-cultural to someone used to having input, when in fact they’re just a new expression of the same value.

I believe that a business whose culture never evolves slowly dies.  Many companies are very dynamic by virtue of growth or scaling, or by being in very dynamic markets even if the company itself is stable in people or product. Even a stable company — think the local hardware store or barber shop — will die if it doesn’t adapt its way of doing business to match the changing norms and consumption patterns in society.

This doesn’t mean that a company’s culture can’t evolve to a point where some employees won’t feel comfortable there any longer. We lost our first employee on the grounds that we had “become too corporate” when we reached the robust size of 25 employees. I think we were the same company in principles that day as we had been when we were 10 people (and today when we are approaching 500), but I understood what that person meant.

My advice to leaders: Don’t cling to every aspect of the way your business works as you scale up. Stick to your core values, but recognize that you need to lead (or at least be ok with) the evolution of your culture, just as you would lead (or be ok with) the evolution of your product. But be sure you’re sticking to your values, and not compromising them just because the organization scales and work patterns need to change.  A leader’s job is to embody the values.  That impacts/produces/guides culture.  But only the foolhardy leaders think they can control culture.

My advice to employees: Distinguish between values and culture if you don’t like something you see going on at work. If it’s a breach of values, you should feel very free to wave your arms and cry foul. But if it’s a shifting of the way work gets done within the company’s values system, give a second thought to how you complain about it before you do so, though note that people can always interpret the same value in different ways.  If you believe in your company’s values, that may be a harder fit to find and therefore more important than getting comfortable with the way those values show up.

Note:  I started writing this by talking about the foundation of a house vs. the house itself, or the house itself vs. the furniture inside it.  That may be a more useful analogy for you.  But hopefully you get the idea.

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Dec 062012

Book Short: Culture is King

Book Short:  Culture is King

Tony Hsieh’s story, Delivering Happiness (book, Kindle), is more than just the story of his life or the story of Zappos. It’s a great window into the soul of a very successful company and one that in many ways has become a model for great culture and a great customer service model.  It’s a relatively quick and breezy read, and it contains a handful of legendary anecdotes from Zappos’ history to demonstrate those two things — culture and customer service — in action.

As Hsieh himself says in the book, you can’t copy this stuff and believe it will work in your company’s environment as it does in Zappos’.  You have to come up with these things on your own, or better yet, you have to create an environment where the company develops its own culture and operating system along the broad lines you lay out.  I think Return Path has many similarities with Zappos in how we seek out WOW experiences and in our Core Values, as well as the evolutionary path we took to get to those places.  But as much as I enjoyed reading about a like-minded company, I also recognized the specific things that were different and had a good visceral understanding as to WHY the differences exist.

It is the rare company that gets to $1 billion in revenue ever – let alone within a decade.  For that reason alone, this is a worthwhile read.  But if you are a student of organizational culture and believe in the power of values-driven organizations, this is good affirmation and full of good examples.  And if you’re a doubter of the power of those things, this might just convince you to think twice about that!

Aug 022012

The Best Place to Work, Part 2: Create an environment of trust

Last week, I wrote about surrounding yourself with the best and brightest.  Next in this series of posts  is all about Creating an environment of trust.  This is closely related to the blog post I wrote a while back in my series on Return Path’s Core Values on Transparency.  At the end of the day, transparency, authenticity, and caring create an environment of trust.

Some examples of that?

  • Go over the real board slides after every board meeting – let everyone in the company know what was discussed (no matter how large you are, but of course within reason)
  • Give bad news early and often internally.  People will be less freaked out, and the rumor mill won’t take over
  • Manage like a hawk – get rid of poor performers or cultural misfits early, even if it’s painful – you can never fire someone too soon
  • Follow the rules yourself – for example, fly coach if that’s the policy, park in the back lot and not in a “reserved for the big cheese” space if you’re not in Manhattan, have a relatively modest office, constantly demonstrate that no task or chore is beneath you like filling the coke machine, changing the water bottle, cleaning up after a group lunch, packing a box, carrying something heavy
  • When a team has to work a weekend , be there too (in person or virtually) – even if it’s just to show your appreciation
  • When something really goes wrong, you need to take all the blame
  • When something really goes right, you need to give all the credit away

Perhaps a bit more than the other posts in this series, this one needs to apply to all your senior managers, not just you.  Your job?  Manage everyone to these standards.

Oct 052011

Building the Company vs. Building the Business

Building the Company vs. Building the Business

I was being interviewed recently for a book someone is writing on entrepreneurship, which focused on identifying the elements of my “playbook” for entrepreneurial success at Return Path.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had a full playbook, though I’ve certainly documented pieces of it in this blog over the years.  One of the conversations we had in the interview was around the topic of building the company vs. building the business.

The classic entrepreneur builds the business — quite frankly, he or she probably just builds the product for a long time first, then the business.  In the course of the interview, I realized that I’ve spent at least as much energy over the years building the company concurrently with the product/business.  In fact, in many ways, I probably spent more time building the company in the early years than the business warranted given its size and stage.  This is probably related to my theme from a few months ago about building Return Path “Backwards.”

What do I mean by building the company as opposed to building the business?

  • Building the business means obsessing over things like product features, getting traction with early clients, competition, and generating buzz
  • Building the company means obsessing over things like HR policies, company values and culture, long-term strategy, and investor reporting

In the early years, I did some things that now seem crazy for a brand new, 25-person company, like designing a sabbatical policy that wouldn’t kick in until an employee’s 7th anniversary.  But I don’t regret doing them, and I don’t think they were wasted effort in the long run, even if they were a little wasted in the short run.  I think working on company-building early on paid benefits in two ways for us:

  1. They helped lay the groundwork for scaling – what we’re finding now as we are trying to rapidly scale up the business, and even over the last few years since we’ve been scaling at a moderate pace, is that we are doing so on a very solid foundation
  2. The company didn’t die when the product and business died – because we had built a good company, when our original ECOA business basically proved to be a loser back in 2002, it was a fairly obvious decision (on the part of both the management team and the venture syndicate) to keep the business going but pivot the business, more than once

Starting about four years ago, for the first time, I felt like we had a great business to match our great company.  Now that those two things are in sync, we are zooming forward at an amazing pace, and we’re doing it perhaps more gracefully than we would be doing it if we hadn’t focused on building the company along the way.

I’m not saying that there’s a right path or a wrong path here when you compare business building with company building, although as I wrote this post, my #2 conclusion above is a particularly poignant one, that without a strong company, we wouldn’t be here 12 years later.  Of course, you could always argue that if I’d spent more time building the business and less time building the company, we might have succeeded sooner.  In the end, a good CEO and management team must be concerned about getting both elements right if they want to build an enduring stand-alone company.

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