Entrepreneur

20 rules of thumb for building a great startup culture

(Editor’s note: Scott Weiss is the former co-founder and CEO of IronPort Systems. He submitted this column to VentureBeat.)

Developing a good, healthy culture is extremely important at a startup. Culture reflects the essence of a startup’s operation because it directly affects the success of a company’s hiring practices and overall strategy. It is, at its core, essentially a set of shared norms and a key source of strength and guidance when a startup goes through those virtually inevitable trying times.Some fundamental practices are obvious “must-dos” in building a strong culture.

You must, for example, work to engender trust. As a decision maker, you rely on information being passed to you by the people who report to you. As the CEO, however, you cannot rely solely on this information. You also need to “dip” down into your organization and learn directly from employees at all levels and virtually all skill sets. As a leader, this is how you develop an intuitive sense of your business, one that can only be formed by hearing directly from staff in every corner of the company.

While these points create the core foundation for a good culture, it’s just the beginning. Here are 20 additional rules of thumb I’ve discovered over the course of my career to build and enhance culture at a more granular level.

  • Personally interview every new employee until the startup has 50 employees. Then interview everyone that will manage others.
  • Spend 30 minutes a week on Mondays talking to new employees as part of their first day. Close the loop within a month by dropping by their desk to see how things are progressing.
  • Make a point of having lunch with every employee and learning not only names but some details about each one. When the startup reaches 50 employees, take out two at a time.
  • Personally roll out the value, strategy and history of the company during a comprehensive employee orientation session within the first 90 days of the hiring of multiple employees.
  • Hold at least one all-hands meeting every quarter and, to underscore the startup’s team concept, make sure at least one additional executive joins you in leading the meeting.
  • At every meeting with all employees, set aside 30 minutes for questions and press for no fewer than five.
  • Review Powerpoint slides after every meeting of the board and report as much as possible about what was discussed to all employees.
  • Get in the habit of creating employee “notes from the road.” Send an e-mail or blog to all employees after every trip to customers and every trip to a conference, detailing key insights, and do the same whenever a key competitor makes major news.
  • Ask your executive team to review what you write before you send it.
  • Set annual and quarterly goals (two to five is about right) for the company, as well as for each employee.
  • Personally roll out the performance review process to everyone. You need to be the leader speaker, not somebody from human resources.
  • Give your direct reports a performance review at least twice a year. Spend at least five hours preparing each person’s review and take at least an hour to present it. Listen closely to feedback.
  • Emphasize the value of “speaking up” every time you get the chance – during employee orientations, lunches, evaluations and all-hands meetings.
  • Continually demonstrate that no task or chore is beneath you. For example, fill the coke machine, help clean up after a group lunch, and make a point of helping in moving activities.
  • When a team has to work over a weekend, make a high priority of being there as well, even if it’s just to stop by and buy them a meal to show your appreciation.
  • Attend every company function, event and party and act as though you are the host.
  • Promote mainly from within whenever possible, and always base the decision solely on performance.
  • Follow the rules of being relatively Spartan and take and maintain a modest office, park your car in the back lot and fly coach, not first class.
  • When something significant goes wrong, take all the blame.
  • When something goes unusually well, give all the credit to others.

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with many successful executives and have found these tips to be very effective. Practice makes perfect too, so embrace as many of these ways as you can as they truly make an organization’s culture sounder.


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