Start-Up Corner

“Goodness, please draw me up a termination letter, I need to sack this girl”. 

Me: “Just like that?”. This would be the third person in 6months.

I just got off a 14minute call with my friend who suspended his staff for “not showing up at the office” and eventually wanted to fire her. He complained about spending too much money renting workstation for her to work and her not showing up means his money was wasting. 

I asked him a very simple question, “did she get her job done from home?” and he said “yes”. 

You would even ask, what was her job? Send emails, write articles, blog and respond to social media? 

We went on to have a very long conversation which was me just trying to debunk a couple of things to him and deconstructing his mindset. If she was coming from so far away, I did not see the reason why she couldn’t do “that work” from home (with an enabling environment and work tools like good internet). She can report in person for meetings and customer engagements. 

I successfully convinced him to make adjustments to his work culture and encourage responsibility instead of presenteeism. Give her deliverables and supervise not monitor. 

The guy has probably worked all his life in organizations where he had to “clock in and out” for 5 years, so for him, that is how “work” should be. Now it has also become his yardstick for judging productivity in his own organization.

Well, I’m glad he listened. We re-worked his company culture, helped him with recruitment advisory and sent him a couple of books and videos every founder should watch. Now he no longer has to need to pay monthly for the office space and he has more people on his team who work from home 3times a week. According to him, “they are equally as productive if not more, I just need to communicate frequently”. 

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What was the problem? Culture.

Company Culture is not paper rules and regulations, it is the way you view work, results, achievement and how you react to them. Culture is who you hire and fire and why it is what you celebrate and reward, it is everything that identifies you as a company. Typically, in a start-up situation, the culture is heavily influenced by the founders of the company, so your startup culture tells me a lot about YOU.

Before this engagement and many more like it, I have set out in the past 2 years on a “self-imposed mission” to immerse myself in the gray, experimental and interesting world of startups to gain insights about startups in Africa, their culture and why they act the way they do. It’s simple, they don’t understand the power of culture and what impact it has on their business growth and sustainability. I don’t also blame them, like culture, it is what they are used to.

I constantly reflect on my time in Great Place to Work, Partners in People Africa and Microsoft, and I am so grateful for the cultures that have shaped my perspective about work and life generally.

Truth is, some organizations understand that employees are more productive when they enjoy the work that they do, the people they work with and the people they work for, which always boils down to a deliberately built great culture. I know this because I spent the better part of my career at Great Place to Work conducting back to back focus group discussions and interviewing employees about organizational culture and how they feel about their organizations and assessing how what they feel affect their productivity. Now I can tell you for free that the impact of culture in your organizations both positively and negatively is too important to leave to chance or ignore.  

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Now, startups are a different cup of Lipton tea and I understand the peculiar struggle as a Nigerian in business.

Most start-ups begin operations with small teams of 2 or 3 persons working on a dream or something they believe can grow bigger. The founders are also busy building products, concentrating on marketing, selling, making money, growth and customer acquisition. So, it’s easy to overlook the importance of getting their culture on the right track in the early days, as they tend to face new issues and challenges every other week.

But take a minute and circle back, the house will pay off. BUT great culture will be your game changer. 

Just a few things that you might want to know though;

  1. Your startup is forming its culture whether you know it or not, the difference is, you have no control, it’s not deliberate and it’s not strategic. The danger in this also is, if it is a positive culture then it’s difficult to replicate, if it is a negative one then it is difficult to correct. 
  2. When we talk about startups and building company culture, they think about organizations like Microsoft and Google with large budgets, a huge number of employees, cool office spaces, sneakers, and tennis tables. While all these are nice-to-haves, that’s not all culture is about. It goes to as little as your recruitment to how you answer your emails. The culture conversation is for every organization that wants to succeed with their people.
  3. Bad culture is the one that “just happens”, great culture is built and nurtured for the good of your company/business. They serve a very strategic purpose from helping you get in the right people, to firing the right people, making you attractive to investors, become your best branding/marketing strategy and even become your competitive advantage. 
  4. Culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where your employee handbook (if you have) leaves off. Culture tells you who to hire, how to react to your employees, what to reward, determines whether people talk or hide problems. The most important one could be that culture tells your people what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is, of course, most of the time. This is key because your employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day, and culture will be their guide. 
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No doubt, you can blow and sell your market without a strong culture, but I am a firm believer that you can’t create something unique, compelling and sustainable in the marketplace unless you first create something unique and compelling in the workplace”.

For the leaders who have successfully built a great culture, their feedback is that 

“culture gave them an opportunity to be innovative and create their own competitive advantage”.

Culture is the foundation for future innovation and your job as an entrepreneur is to build the foundation of your business so others can run with it even in your absence.

At this point, I know you are already thinking of giving this “culture thing” thought for your own startup. Luckily, your startup is still small, and already attracting great talent that is passionate and hard-working as it is, so you can get right into setting up your culture early. If you have operated for a while without it, then it’s time for a culture refresh and a culture transformation journey which will bring you even better results.

I will show you 10 easy steps to creating your company culture. Just not today. For now, take this in and get your mind ready for some fun work. 

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