Why Getting Culture Right Should Always Be Your First Priority

Culture will make or break your organization. Are you doing enough to drive long-term success?

This article originally appeared on Techpoint.org.

There is no shortage of challenges for fledgling startups. From securing funding, to creating a differentiated product, to breaking into new markets, the road to success is long and filled with obstacles, and the odds are stacked against you. According to Forbes, 90% of tech startups will fail.

As soon as any new startup launches, the clock starts ticking, and founders face one of their most important decisions: choosing employees to fill crucial roles within the team. Hiring the right people will drive innovation and create a clear runway for the company’s success. Hiring the wrong people can poison culture and stymie productivity, putting the fragile startup at risk.

Hiring top talent is challenging enough at a well-established company, let alone a startup. An unknown brand and an unproven product aren’t everyone’s dream opportunity, and leaders will need to work hard to communicate their goals, vision, and values, and hope the opportunity is attractive enough for a candidate forgo the stability offered by larger organizations. While startups may not be able to offer top-of-market salary or premium perks, they can offer something that large companies can’t: the opportunity to build a company culture from scratch. Startups have a unique opportunity to hire people who exemplify organization values, and to create a culture of innovation and performance from the beginning. Employees will get the chance decide how organizational values will be implemented and reinforced every day. They’ll get to set the cadence for how work gets done, establish norms for reporting and meetings, create the foundation for community involvement initiatives, and set the tone for how communication happens in the organization. Since there is no “way we’ve always done things,” early employees are in the driver’s seat when it comes to culture.

My co-founder Scott Burns and I are fortunate to have learned our fair share of lessons about creating culture and building teams from the ground up at ExactTarget and GovDelivery. At our former organizations, we quickly noticed how our best leaders and teams created their own cultural norms, and how they collaborated to drive outstanding results. We also saw how quickly negativity, mismatched values, and lack of transparency caused frustration and hindered productivity. When we launched Structural earlier this year, we set out with a clear mission is to enable organizations to unleash the potential of people and teams. We’re applying the lessons we’ve learned about fostering culture in both our hiring strategy and our product. Here are 4 ways we’re creating more ways for our people, and our customers, to succeed:

We’re choosing collaboration over hierarchy: Top-down decision making leaves employees waiting for direction instead of making progress. We aim to hire people and leaders who share our commitment to creating ways for employees to succeed, who feel personal responsibility success of our organization.  We take the time to find and hire employees that share our organization’s vision, we to trust them to innovate and execute independently. If we’re not sure that a potential hire shares our vision, and believes in what we’re trying to accomplish, we don’t extend an offer, even if their skills are a match for the open position. This strategy ensures that our team stays focused and committed on the organization’s long-term success, not just day-to-day tasks.

We’re ensuring leaders and employees model our core values: If your organizational values include a commitment to innovation, but your managers require employees to run each new project or idea through corporate bureaucratic channels before making a decision, your values will ultimately ring false to your employees. At Structural, our missions is to unleash the potential of people and teams. We achieve this by providing leaders and employees more access. Access to data, access to their teammates, access to leadership, and access to the tools they need to get their jobs done.

We’re prioritizing transparency: By joining a startup, many of our employees are trading the stability of a large, established employer for the opportunity to make an impact and fully utilize their broad set of skills. In exchange, we’re committed to being upfront with them about the future of our product, our hiring decisions, our long-term objectives. We set goals, and we revisit them quarterly, even when we’ve failed to achieve them. When we face a major decision point, we explain our options, and openly welcome feedback from our team. As leaders, we rely on our employees input and ideas to drive us forward, and that can only be accomplished if everyone has the information they need to understand how decisions will impact the company.

We’re consciously committing to diversity and inclusion: Recent research has unequivocally proven that diverse teams drive better results. It’s no secret that many tech startups are still struggling to create cultures where people feel welcome and included regardless of age, gender, location, or race. At Structural, we’re fortunate to get the chance to not only build our own diverse teams, but to collaborate with colleagues across the High Alpha portfolio to leverage the knowledge and expertise of hundreds of colleagues from diverse backgrounds. We recognize that the more we can incorporate our team’s unique experiences, education, and insights, the better positioned we’ll be to outperform our competitors in the long term. We encourage our employees to bring their whole selves to work, and provide channels for them to share their interests, ideas, strengths, and weaknesses so we can better work together to achieve our common goals.

The most important decisions you’ll make at a new company are around personnel. We are faced with high-stakes decisions around composing teams to support diverse points of view and high performance.  In these critical people decisions, we always come back to the vision we have for our organization, and how these decisions will impact the culture we’re trying to create.  When time is limited, there is a tendency to focus on what skills employees can offer your organization in the short-term, regardless of their personal motivation. This type of thinking could spell the beginning end for a new company’s culture, which more than likely will delay the organization’s progress and ultimate success. Instead, startups should be making sure there is alignment in an employee’s motivations, your organizational values, and the culture you hope to create.

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