About once a quarter, Velentium offers its staff the opportunity to read & discuss a business-related book together. It’s a chance for us to take a break from chopping firewood and sharpen our proverbial axes by studying how to become more efficient or proficient at our work.
Matt Leaverton & Jason Smith contributed to this post.
Today, we’re highlighting a few key takeaways from What You Do is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz, cofounder of LoudCloud / Opsware and the venture capital firm a16z. Horowitz’s main thesis is that an organization’s culture is the set of assumptions its people use to resolve everyday problems, and that those assumptions are formed by what you do.
Depending on the specific example he’s discussing, the “you” in “what you do” refers to (a) the organization’s leadership; (b) the organization as a whole; or (c) the organization’s members. The “what” in “what you do” also changes according to context: it refers to (a) visible actions performed by leadership, including implicit approval communicated by inaction from leadership; (b) the organization’s official activities; or (c) typical actions and interactions undertaken by the organization’s member individuals and groups.
Already, that’s a lot to take in.
Horowitz’s point in discussing the issue from all of these angles is to stress that actions create identity; identity drives decisions. If an organization wants its people to have the freedom to exercise their best judgment, within a given set of boundaries, and without the exhaustion, frustration, and resource drain that is continuous micromanagement, the organization must define its identity. And the only way an organization’s identity gets defined, according to Horowitz, is through actions. What you do shapes who you are. Who you are informs what you decide to do. And on it goes.
If you don’t intentionally use your actions to shape who you are, Horowitz says, your organization’s culture will be the product of chance or mistakes. As he puts it, “There’s a saying in the military that if you see something below standard and do nothing, then you’ve set a new standard. This is also true of culture--if you see something off-culture and ignore it, you’ve created a new culture.” Culture evolves as business strategy changes, as the social environment changes, as management structure changes, as team makeup changes. It takes much more than a set of platitudes called “company values” on a website or the conference room wall to keep “who you are” from straying off-course.
To that end, Horowitz offers plenty of insight and suggestions on purposeful actions leaders can take--proven to work (or fail!) in a variety of contexts, from feudal Japan to modern-day McDonalds, from revolutionary Haiti to major tech companies like Netflix, Uber, Apple, and Intel. We don’t have space to discuss most of them in this blog post, but here are a few highlights:
- Virtues, Not Values
The difference, as Horowitz defines it, between a value and a virtue is that while a value expresses your belief, a virtue is your active pursuit or embodiment of that belief.
To be effective, your organization’s virtues must be:
- Explicitly defined, including what they don’t mean
- Distinguishing--noticeably atypical, at least for your field
- Traceable in their application to memorable, complex, real-world dilemmas and case studies
- Embodied by its leadership
Unpacking that last point, Horowitz says that leaders should base the organization’s virtues on a mixture of their strengths and their aspirations. “Be authentic to yourself” but “know which parts of you need work,” and make rules, hire support, and train personally to counterbalance your shortcomings.
- Know When Culture is Broken
Horowitz outlines three indicators of a broken culture:
- The wrong people are quitting (and it’s becoming a pattern)
- The organization is failing to achieve its top priorities
- Someone in the organization does something truly shocking
If any of these things are happening, it means something is wrong at ground level. Leaders do not have the same experience of organizational culture that those they lead do. Leaders are pointing to goals and setting expectations, while everyone lower down the management ladder are working to interpret those expectations in practical terms moment by moment. Leaders rarely see all the minor outworkings of misinterpreted or misapplied directives on a day-to-day basis… until they add up to something big, something measurably off-course. When that happens, it’s a sign that culture needs to change.
- Culture is Always in Motion
Because no organization (or its leadership!) ever achieves 100% compliance with its cultural aims, all culture is at least partly aspirational. And because the organization’s members, goals, and external conditions are always changing, remaining intentional about your culture is always relevant.
- Culture Changes Require Constant Contact
People have to feel the urgency to break established patterns of behavior. They must be motivated by continuous reinforcement, by consistent application to all levels of the organization and all strategic decisions, by “shocking rules” that they encounter regularly, and by memorable stories and straightforward reasons that justify those rules and exemplify how and why they are applied. Nothing about culture is “set it and forget it.” Culture is lived. Who you are is what you do--unless you make a change, repeat it, and reinforce it, until what you do becomes who you are.
At Velentium, our culture is designed to operate according three values (yes, we say values because that’s a more familiar business term than virtues):
- Results++ “We do the job and then some”
- Honorable “We do right for Right’s sake”
- Humble Charisma “We strive to be people others want to be around”
These values are like Horowitz’s virtues in that they simultaneously describe actions and aspirations. Our leadership reinforces them continuously with a short but powerful phrase: “You decide.” Around here, “you decide” doesn’t mean a license to do whatever you want--it means go back to your desk, evaluate the options, and pick the one that best embodies Velentium’s three values. Then act on it. “You decide” means “you take ownership of the decision-making process, as well as responsibility for carrying out the final decision.” It also means “leadership commits to supporting your decision--if you can justify it using Velentium’s values.”
When we tell people our values and describe how they work in practice, they’re typically puzzled, taken aback, or excited. Those who get it, who see the potential and get excited, are our favorites. They’re the ones we like to hire, or they represent the companies we like to work with. Velentium’s mission is changing lives for a better world, and meeting that mission begins with culture. Because we agree with Horowitz: What You Do is Who You Are. And you’ve got to keep working at it.