Tag Archives: norms

Let’s Take the Cult out of Silicon Valley Culture

I am big believer in strong corporate cultures.  Culture can be used to set powerful norms.  Culture can bind people in an organization to a common set of values bigger than their quarterly objectives and key results (OKRs).  Culture helps attracts the right people to your organization – and can drive out the wrong ones when they get swarmed with corporate antibodies for showing the wrong values and behaviors.

Culture, to paraphrase Henry Ford’s thoughts on quality, is what happens when no one is watching.

But never forget the first four letters of culture spell “cult” and too often, in Silicon Valley at least, corporate cultures become corporate cults:

For many Silicon Valley companies, culture is a point of pride and is meticulously captured in long slide presentations, such as the Netflix or HubSpot culture decks. [2]

When culture turns to cult in Silicon Valley, it’s often arguably benevolent – a strong leader espousing a visionary worldview combined with positive incentives for employees to spend as much time as possible with each other and/or at work.  The company provideth all:  free transportation, interesting work, fun recreation, great food, social events, perhaps (indirectly) even a significant other.  So why not spend all your time with the company? [3]

But sometimes Silicon Valley cults are not benevolent – Theranos being the best recent example.  Continuing to work in such environments, prioritizing the needs of the cult over common sense and business ethics can do lasting damage to your personal relationships, to your health,  and to your career.

cultsI first started studying corporate cults when Business Objects was competing with MicroStrategy back in the 1990s.  I found this book, Corporate Cults:  The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization, and had a few conversations with its author, Dave Arnott.

The first thing I learned from Dave was that, if you’re competing against a cult, that you should not attack it.  Attacking it, per Dave, only makes the cult stronger as the attack drives member together to defend the cult.

Consider some of the following similarities between cults and startups:

  • Charismatic leadership. Startups are often led by charismatic people, passionate about their beliefs and persuasive that the company is on a broader mission. [4]
  • Isolation from friends and family. This happens naturally at startups with long work hours, but is often exacerbated by the culture committee’s active social and events calendar.
  • Homogeneous recruiting. MicroStrategy supposedly preferred recruiting in its early days not just out of MIT, but out of one specific fraternity.  Many startups recruit similar people, all from the top programs across the country.
  • Hazing and rites of passage. Many startups have rigorous bootcamps where only the best get through.  Trilogy’s three-month bootcamp was the intense I’ve heard of.
  • Elitism.  Once recruited and having passed bootcamp, members are reminded of how much better they are than anybody else.  For example, HubSpot loved to tell recruits (based on specious logic) that it was harder to get into HubSpot than Harvard.
  • Specialized vocabulary.  At HubSpot, you’re not an employee, but a “HubSpotter.”  You don’t delight your customers, you give them “delightion.”  No one ever “quits” or is “fired,” former employees “graduate.”  How pleasant.
  • Demands for absolute loyalty.  Theranos did this frequently: “if anyone here believes you are not working on the best things humans have ever built, of if you’re cynical, you should leave.”
  • Excommunication of former members.  Former employees are more “dead to us” than “working somewhere else.”  Theranos was particular brutal in this regard, not only frowning on continuing relationships with former employees but subjecting them to constant surveillance and stunning legal harassment.

I’m not saying long work hours, free lunch, and and ping pong tables are bad.  I am saying that many Silicon Valley cultures border on cults.  Leaders should pay attention to this and try to avoid falling into common cult patterns, for example, by ensuring diverse recruiting programs, by building on-boarding programs that are more training than brainwashing, and by creating a culture that values dissenting opinions.  [5]

Employees should keep an eye out for lines getting crossed.  As they say with authoritarian leadership, it’s a boiled-frog problem — it happens slowly, you don’t notice any changes, and then wake up one day in an authoritarian regime.  Don’t let that happen to you, waking up one day to discover that you’re working at a malevolent corporate cult.

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Notes

[1] Hint:  if everything is too secret, if management is routinely caught lying to customers and investors, if anyone who challenges management is summarily fired, and if you hear things like “if you don’t believe [our new product] is the most important thing humanity has ever built, you should quit now” – then you should probably go find a new job.

[2] Which nevertheless didn’t stop HubSpot from getting a good mocking in Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble.

[3] Some would certainly argue that even this is unhealthy.  Dave Arnott would argue there should be a line between “who are we” and “what we do.”  Even benevolent cults somewhat dissolve this line.

[4]  Which was so marvelously parodied in HBO’s Silicon Valley in a minute-long montage of founders pledging “to make the world a better place through Paxos algorithms” or “make the world a better place through canonical data models to communicate between endpoints.”

[5] Which is particularly important in a culture led by a strong leader.

 

 

Not in My Kitchen, You Don’t: Leaders as Norm Setters

There are two types of restaurants:  those where it’s acceptable for a cook to pickup dropped food and serve it, and those where it’s not.

food on floor 2

Sure, when asked, everyone would say it’s unacceptable to serve dropped food in their kitchen.  But is that how their kitchen actually runs?  One of my favorite definitions of culture is, to paraphrase Henry Ford’s thoughts on quality, “what happens when no one is watching.”

And if managers really run such clean kitchens, then why are there so many:

  • Websites with typos?
  • Webinars with logistics problems at the start?
  • Demonstrations where something breaks?
  • Presentations where the numbers don’t foot?
  • Customer meetings that start late?

The fact is most managers say they run kitchens where it’s unacceptable to serve food that was dropped on the floor, but all too often they don’t.  Dropped food gets served all the time by corporate America.  Why?  Because too few leaders remember that a key part of their job is to set norms — in our company, in our culture, what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Defining these norms is more important than defining quarterly OKRs or MBOs — both because they persist over time and because they help define culture — yet few managers treat them as such.  Sure, some managers like to emphasize values, and will frequently story-tell about a focus on Trust or Customer Success.  And that’s great.  But that’s all positive reinforcement.  Part of norm setting — particularly the part that says what’s not acceptable is our culture — needs to be negative reinforcement:  you can’t do that here.

gordon

That’s why I love Gordon Ramsey and his shows like Hell’s Kitchen.  “YOU CAN’T SERVE THAT, IT’S BLOODY RAW!”

He is a clear, if overzealous, communicator who sets very clear norms.  The power of norms is that, once set, the culture reinforces them.  Everyone quickly understands that in our kitchen you don’t serve dropped food and people will call each other out if someone attempts to do so.

I remember over a decade ago, mixed in a deluge of corrections I’d made on a press release, I wrote something like this:

“No, No, No, No, No, Goddammit, No — Never [break this rule and do that].”

The guy who wrote the press release was new.  He complained to HR that my feedback created a hostile work environment.  The complaint made me pause.  Then I thought:  you know what, for someone who writes like that guy does, I want it to be a hostile environment.  Cook like that in someone else’s kitchen.  But not in mine.  (Yes, he quit shortly thereafter.)

Over time I’ve learned that you don’t need to scream like Ramsey (or my younger self) to establish clear norms.  You just need one, simple, almost magical word:  unacceptable.  Just as it’s unacceptable in this kitchen to serve food that’s been dropped on the floor:

  • It’s unacceptable in this marketing team to publish work with typos.  (Work on your writing skills and have a better process.)
  • It’s unacceptable in this events team to have logistical problems at the start of an event.  (Test them all, three times if necessary, before running the webinar.)
  • It’s unacceptable in this SC team to have demos crash during sales calls.  (Test every click before you start, and don’t go off-road for the fun of it.)
  • It’s unacceptable in this finance team to create slides where the numbers don’t foot.  (Cross-check your own work and then have someone else cross-check it again.  Or, better yet, use a system to publish the numbers off one database.)
  • It’s unacceptable in this sales organization to start customer meetings late.  (Our standard practice is to book the meeting room 30 mins before the meeting start, arrive 30 mins early, and test all logistics.)

When it comes to norms, you get what you expect.  And when you don’t get it, you need to be clear:  what happened is unacceptable [1].

Since this is all pretty simple, then why do so few managers spend time defining and enforcing such operational norms?

First, it will make you unpopular.  It’s far easier to be “surprised” that the webinar didn’t work for anyone on Chrome or “understanding” that sometimes demos do crash or “realistic” that we’ll never eliminate every typo on the website.  But remember, even here you are norm-setting; you’re just setting the wrong norms.  You’re saying that all these thing are, in fact, acceptable.

Second, it’s hard because you need to be black-and-white.  A typo is black-and-white.  Numbers that don’t foot are black-and-white.  But amateurish PowerPoint clip art, poorly written paragraphs, or an under-prepared sales presentation are grey.  You’ll need to impose a black-and-white line in defining norms and let people know when they’re below it.  Think:  “this is not good enough and I don’t want to debate it.”

Third, your employees will complain that you’re a micro-manager.  No one ever calls Gordon Ramsey a micro-manager for intercepting the service of under-cooked scallops, but your employees will be quick to label you one for catching typos, numbers that don’t foot, and other mistakes.  They’ll complain to their peers.  They’ll cherry-pick your feedback, telling colleagues that all you had were a bunch of edits and you weren’t providing any real macro-value on the project [2].  You can get positioned as a hyper-critical, bad guy or gal, or someone might even assert that it’s personal — that you don’t like them [3].  A clever employee might even try to turn you into their personal proof-reader, knowing you’ll backstop their mistakes [4].

But, know this — your best employees will understand exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.   And they will respond in kind:  first, they’ll change their processes to avoid breaking any of the established norms and second, they’ll reinforce those norms with their teams and peers.

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Notes

[1] And people who do unacceptable things don’t last long in this organization.

[2] No one would ever say “the ambiance was great, the service prompt, and the customer should have been happy despite the raw scallops,” but somehow many business people will say “the vision was great, the idea creative, and that the CEO should have been happy despite all the typos and math errors.”

[3] Ergo be careful in your approach.  Feedback should always be about the work — criticize the performance, not the performer.  And you must be consistent about enforcing norms equally across all people.  (Norms aren’t just for the ones you don’t like.)  Proof-read only the first page or two of a document and then say, “continued review, but stopped proof-reading here.”  Or, borrowing from The Best Work Parable, you might just stop everything at page two, send the document back, and offer to read only a properly written version of it.

[4] This begs fundamental questions about approvals.  Say you approve a press release about last quarter’s results and it contains both several typos and several incorrect numbers.  Does your approval let people off the hook for those errors?  How will they see it?  What does your approval actually mean?  Are you approving every number and every comma?  Or are you, in effect, approving the release of the headline on a given date and assuming others are accountable for quality of the body?

Win Them Alone, Lose Them Together

It was back in the 1990s, at Versant, when my old (and dearly departed) friend Larry Pulkownik first introduced me to the phrase:

Win Them Alone, Lose Them Together

And its corollary:

Ask for Help at the First Sign of Trouble

Larry told me this rule from the sales perspective:

“Look, if you’re working on a deal and it starts to go south, you need to get everyone involved in working on it.  First, that puts maximum resources on winning the deal and if — despite that effort — you end up losing, you want people saying ‘We lost the Acme deal,’ not ‘You lost the Acme deal.'”

It’s a great rule.  Why?  Because it’s simple, it engages the team on winning, and most of all — it combats what seems to be a natural tendency to hide bad news.  Bad news, like sushi, does not age well.

Twenty years later, and now as CEO, I still love the rule — especially the part about “the first sign of trouble.”  If followed, this eliminates the tendency to go into denial about bad news.

  • Yes, they’re not calling me back when they said they would, but I’m sure it’s no problem.
  • They did say they expected to be in legal now on the original timeline, but I’m sure the process is just delayed.
  • Yes, I know our sponsor seemed to have flipped on us in the last meeting, but I’m sure she was just having a bad day.
  • Well I’m surprised to hear our competitor just met with the CIO because they told us that the CIO wasn’t involved in the decision.
  • While the RFP does appear to have been written by our competitor, that’s probably just coincidence.

These things — all of them — are bad news.  Because many people’s first reaction to bad news is denial, the great thing about the “first sign” rule is that you remove discretion from the equation. We don’t want you to wait until you are sure there is trouble — then it’s probably too late.  We want you to ask for help at the first sign.

The rule doesn’t just apply to sales.  The same principle applies to pretty much everything:

  • Strategic partnerships (e.g., “they’ve gone quiet”)
  • Analyst relations (e.g., “it feels like the agenda is set for enemy A”)
  • Product development (e.g., “I’m worried we’ve badly over-scoped this”)
  • Financing (e.g., “they’re not calling back after the partner meeting”)
  • Recruiting (e.g., “the top candidate seemed to be leaning back”)
  • HR (e.g., “our top salesperson hated the new comp plan”)

I’ll always thank Larry for sharing this nugget of wisdom (and many others) with me, and I’ll always advise every manager I know to follow it.