The Power of Culture: Be Deliberate or Be Disrupted

This article was published in the Tech Summit 2020 issue

by Nate Gardner, Chief Customer Officer, MX

I’m constantly inspired by the brave humans who set and achieve audacious physical goals such as scaling Everest or running ultramarathons. These people have a conviction and mental fortitude that carries them past the pain required to achieve the near-impossible. They know all that’s required — including grit and team work — and most importantly, they embody the immortal statement of Friedrich Nieztsche that “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In short, these high achievers have a clear sense of the “why” behind what they do. The why motivates them toward success.

Companies that want to achieve the near-impossible must likewise have a clear sense of their why. If your team doesn’t know why you exist, you won’t be able to persist in running an innovative organization and holding good governance. You’ll lose steam midway up the summit, or quite possibly before you ever reach basecamp.

So, how do you get this right? It starts and persists with culture. Specifically, it starts with choosing a deliberate culture. The alternative is that your culture slides into a state of either toxicity or sterility.

A deliberate culture is one where your organization’s stated mission and values are highly visible and manifest in the total operations of the company. The say-to-do ratio is high, trust is high, intrinsic motivation is high, the speed of the organization is fast, and risk resolution is fast. As a result, team members are smart, creative builders, who solve problems and govern themselves. Everyone knows the why and is committed to it.
By contrast, a toxic, hypocritical culture is one where your organization’s stated mission and values do not manifest in the operations of the company. The say-to-do ratio is low, trust is low, people react in fear, and intrinsic motivation is low. As a result, the company moves slowly, doesn’t innovate, and is constantly bogged down by in-fighting, toxicity and fear. People either don’t know the why or, even worse, are not committed to it. Your company cannot last in this state for very long. If you don’t drive towards a deliberate culture, you’ll descend into a sterile culture.

A sterile culture is where policy replaces values and revenue becomes the only believable objective inside the company — anything else will be jokingly dismissed in hushed whispers at the water cooler. The mission, vision, and values get lost in hundreds of policies created by a bloated bureaucracy. People work, but their work is mediocre and uninspired. In addition, since individual intrinsic motivation is absent, fear is omnipresent and people take timid action, constantly worried that they’ll accidentally do something that departs from company policy. At this stage, if the company does not somehow find a way to re-establish a deliberate culture, it’s only a matter of time before some fast-moving company with a deliberate culture thoroughly disrupts the space and the company with a sterile culture shuts its doors.

So, how do you create a deliberate culture? We’ve learned a few essentials at MX as we’ve grown. Specifically, we created a rich and rigorous mission, vision, and values, formed from deep consideration and open, direct, and honest debate, coupled with an unwavering commitment from each member of the executive team. We then received feedback from the organization on whether these genuinely resonated, and we integrated that feedback as part of the canon. Once the mission, vision, and values were set, we made them extremely visible in the office by putting them up in various forms on multiple walls and highlighting them on our website. We also designed our recruiting process around our mission, vision, and values to ensure that the people we add to the team resonate to their core with these values. This allows MX to drive the values from day one, empowering new recruits to be cultural ambassadors and take ownership when they see something that’s not in alignment.

In addition, we made the continual infusion of our mission, vision, and values a priority by establishing a roadmap for how they can more completely empower our operations. For instance, we integrated them into how we operate monthly town halls where we allow team members to respectfully challenge and question executives openly or anonymously. We’ve also integrated them into anonymous quarterly and annual in-depth surveys, and we publish the results on how we’re doing at living up to the mission, vision, and values.

If you were to walk through the halls of MX today, you would not just see the values posted on the walls of MX — you would see them highly visible in the transparent sharing of data and information on digital displays. You would also see them in the way individual contributors and teams emerge as field leaders taking ownership for solving problems. Instead of complaining about them, you would see a highly visible deliberate culture in the very way the people of MX intentionally live the mission, vision, and values of MX as first guiding principles to action and operation.

In summary, our advice is to determine your genuine purpose, set your values to achieve that purpose accordingly, give team members the constant time, resource, and priority they must have to persist and expand, and do the very hard work of genuinely living and operating according to these values — from the CEO to the most junior role. The result is that your organization will move more quickly, be incredibly resilient in the face of adversity, innovate transformative ideas, and do so with exuberance. In the end, your odds of making that summit and many others dramatically increase.

Read the rest of the articles in the Tech Summit 2020 issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine

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