"Empowerment" is not a corporate culture

Earlier this week I took a break from work to read Quora, and stumbled on an answer by Ali Aydar to the question: “What was it like to work at the original Napster?” Ali’s whole post is interesting, but one particular element stuck out:

Everybody was excited about the future, happy about what he was working on, and free from any corporate or legal constraints. The intrinsic value of what we were doing was so high that we would have all probably worked for free. It's no wonder that we were able to overcome significant technical challenges to build a scalable service.
As I've grown and matured as a manager and now a CEO, I've come to understand that the right corporate culture is critical in creating an environment that incites the creativity necessary to achieve disruptive innovation. That's what we had at this time, and it was nothing short of awesome.

You always hear a lot of lip service regarding good corporate culture, but few specifics. Good cultures should be “innovative.” They ought to be “empowering.” More often than not these vague descriptions evoke Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. 

I’ve been exposed to a few very, very different corporate cultures (sometimes even in the same company with a change in executive leadership!). Some of my companies have been like startups, full of young, happy people trying to change the world. One was highly vertical, with rigid reporting structures and lots of fancy titles. Another was almost paternalistic; the CEO saw himself as the company’s “daddy” and the employees as his children (this, by the way, is not a good thing).

Building a good culture requires a handful core principles that are clear, easy to understand, and universally applied to everyone from the CEO down to the janitor. They should be concise and easy to apply each day. In the organizations I have a hand in running, we’ve boiled the culture down to demanding four things from everyone on payroll:

- Team Player. No organization’s success rests on a single person. People who can make those around them more productive and successful are worth more than the highest-performing individual contributor.

- 100% Effort. Exceeding goals and expectations means having a motor that runs at the highest level, all the time. No matter how well someone is performing, they need to be working every day like the entire company is on the line.

- Positive Attitude. We spend most of our lives at work, so shouldn’t we spend that time with people we enjoy? Being around negative people sucks, and it’s demoralizing. Having a positive attitude picks up everyone around you.

- Serious Results. If we don’t deliver, we go out of business. The firm needs to have a belief that it exists to deliver results for clients, and each person needs to understand they have a role in delivering those results. 

The order of those four items is not accidental. Serious results is the least important element of an employee’s performance or a company culture. I’ve never met a hard working, positive team player who was unable to deliver results without coaching and development. 

Likewise, a high performer who’s not a team player is of no value. Years ago, we let go the top performing member of our sales team. She was a dynamic, exceptional sales person, but a completely toxic personality. Her presence made it harder to retain talent and scale the business; losing her meant short-term pain, but helped us grow more quickly in the long-term by retaining the rest of the sales team.

If you want to create a great company culture, ditch the buzzwords. Things like empowerment are important, but they are a naturally occurring result of good culture, not a starting point. Our recipe has been to set a clear objective for the firms growth, and hold everyone accountable to the four points above. 

Not surprisingly, positive people who are working as hard as they can together will create a great culture on their own.