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Care About Your Culture? Learn The Lessons I Didn’t Before Scaling

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By Olivier Pailhes, CEO, Aircall

Culture is easy when the team is just you, your three co-founders, and the $400 espresso machine you talked yourselves into. It’s the next few chapters where things usually fall apart.

Some founders become tyrants, turning their culture into more of a cult. Others embrace laissez-faire, letting culture slip as long as revenue sprints ahead. Either way, you could blink twice and suddenly be the head of an organization you hardly even recognize.

So before any more founders meet that fate, I’d like to offer some concrete advice around this intangible (but essential) topic.

Culture Is The Consequence of Your Actions

Your company culture is not a collection of adjectives you aspire to be, it’s the by-product of the behaviors you repeat. There are two key implications here.

First, words follow actions. They have no meaning or authenticity until an action arrives for them to describe. And second, culture requires consistency. That’s what separates random acts from defining qualities.

Take transparency, for example. It’s not a word my co-founders or I wrote down in the early days. We just thought sharing key financial data with our first employees would be a good way to inspire commitment and incentivize performance. And the fact that we continued that practice as our staff (and the stakes) grew allowed it to become a true cultural trait. Even today our all-hands meetings explore sensitive issues like our Series B funding process.

Unfortunately, I haven’t always paired that transparency with trust. My employees have often heard me say that I consider them all co-owners of our company’s future and I expect them to lead their functions forward. But this summer they also saw me waver for months over whether to fill a critical management role via internal promotion or external hiring. This misalignment not only confused a loyal and talented colleague, it temporarily drained morale from the wider team as well.

The good news in all of this is that you really don’t have to waste time laboring over abstract value statements. The bad news, though, is you may have to spend much more time reflecting on which behaviors you’re actually modeling.

 

Culture Can’t Always Be Learned ‘On The Job’

Every hiring decision is a bet on future potential. You can study someone’s history, test for certain traits, and call their former colleagues, but you never really know how they will perform in your unique environment. This is especially true in startups, where you are often recruiting younger candidates with shorter resumes.

As a result, every hiring manager has to decide for themselves which attributes candidates must already possess and which attributes candidates can eventually acquire over time. I think too many decision-makers place “culture fit” in the wrong column.

It happens often with extremely charismatic or talented candidates. You convince yourself that their profile is too good to pass up and your culture will eventually smooth out their rough edges. But the truth is not everyone is willing or able to assimilate. And it’s these outliers who often throw your company the furthest off course.

When building out our first sales development team, for example, I rationalized all kinds of warning signs. I was certain that sacrificing culture fit for revenue potential was just something we had to do at that stage of the business. Not surprisingly, the experienced army I thought I was hiring didn’t deliver on the battlefield and ended up creating entirely new problems within our camp.

So considering how thin the line is between a good call and a bad bet, I think founders should strive to stay involved in the hiring process as long as possible. Delegating this responsibility and clearing more slots on your calendar may make you feel like an efficient executive, but there’s nothing efficient about having to repair the damage done by employees who leave as a result of cultural complications.

Even if it’s just a 20-minute chat prior to extending an offer letter, it’s a commitment I now plan to keep for (fingers crossed) our next 200 hires.

Culture Won’t Travel Without Ambassadors

If the culture I adore is ever going to grow stronger and spread wider, I know it can’t be dependent on individual personalities. Four co-founders may have been enough to pass the principles onto our first 40 employees, but more recently our limitations have become harder to ignore.

For instance, I strongly believe Aircall must remain a company that celebrates success to balance out the everyday stress and struggle of working at a startup. But there’s something not quite right about me hanging out until last call at the karaoke bar anymore. My work and my family would inevitably pay the price.

Finding colleagues willing to take my place at happy hour was easy, but cultivating a group capable of sustaining the rest of the culture has been slightly harder. My initial impulse was to simply lean on senior hires and pass the responsibility to whoever was in the row right below me on the org chart. And while it sounds obvious when I say it now, I’ve realized that tenure is more important than role when it comes to relaying company culture.  

So going forward I want to be sure I’m identifying and developing advocates at every level of our organization. Because this kind of distributed ownership not only makes the culture more resilient, it also provides the crucial, bottom-up reinforcement it needs to truly prosper.

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Aircall is a proud Gold Sponsor of SaaStr Annual 2018. Look for Olivier there!

Published on January 17, 2018
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