How do you get culture right?

If you get the culture right, then most of the other stuff follows. -Tony Hsieh

Team effortI’ve been on large enterprise teams and lean, startup teams. Worked with for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations. There’s been times where everything felt right and times where everything was a challenge.

Creating great products, providing premier customer service and delivering results all start with one thing: culture.
StartupMyself and a few others recently founded a startup to change the way companies spend money, manage resources and deliver social impact. When a workforce can view their financial footprint, easily remove or repurpose what they no longer need and allocate a portion of the money saved to charity, companies become cost focused communities filled with people who care.

Our products success is still an unknown, but the team culture makes our work feel like a mission. The smart, creative people I’ve partnered with are turing an idea into a working technology. Here’s the 5 culture traits that keep us shipping, measuring, framing and building:

  1. Keeping it flat. This is a startup – no hierarchy, no titles. Startups are a team sport, everyones ideas and contributions matter. You deliver as a team or you don’t deliver. The promotions are won as a group, not as an individual.
  2. Consistent and constant feedback. Openly discussing goals, progress and setbacks are critical, at the individual and group level. This creates and controls a healthy, productive environment.
  3. Small, achievable goals and big, lofty goals. Weekly, monthly and longterm goal setting with the ability to shift when needed is critical. Along with our startup I’m passionate about long distance trail running. Running a 100 mile race requires crossing a dozen aid stations and check-ins before reaching the finish line. Same applies for shipping a new product. Doing regular check-ins while recognizing the small, measurable successes is all part of delivering a viable product.
  4. Working Out LoudWorking out loud. Sharing our work with others has allowed us to grow our network,
    crowdsource ideas and build meaningful relationships. By doing so we’ve connected with entrepreneurial thought leaders at Foundry Group, Techstars and MergeLane. The advice and benefits we’ve received are unquantifiable. I’m encouraged not just when I’m told to “keep going!” but also when someone raises a new problem to solve or presents a different approach for thought.
  5. Celebrating with one another, not over each other. Collectively, as a team we feel the ups and downs, it’s part of the startup journey. When a new plugin, design or release has gone well, we celebrate. If it was easy it’d already be done, it’s important to acknowledge the wins together.

culture of BUSY

culture of BUSYThe culture of busy; endless emails, back-to-back meetings, early starts, long hours and always connected. Brigid Shulte, author of Overwhelmed is on a
mission. She’s getting companies and people to stop using busyness as a benchmark for productivity. Too many time-crunched industries value hours worked, email overloads and number of meetings over productivity. Rewiring a culture requires leaders to lead by example. The good news is leadership is not a rank it’s a decision, we all have a choice to lead.

Dopamine Dump

Write down goals. When goals are visual and achievable we get a dose of dopamine. It’s the visible metrics and milestones that makes work meaningful. When days are filled with hectic “busy-work” vision and purpose are unknown. Define your goals and go after them.


Build a circle of trust, extend it to the outer edges of your tribe, organization or team. Trust builds a sense of pride, confidence and belonging. It allows us to focus on work that matters while eliminating the need or feeling to protect ourselves from unknown risks.

Give time, give energy

A leader sacrifices time and energy, expecting nothing in return. Witnessing small acts of kindness trigger others to do the same and lead with generosity. With generosity comes the ability to identify creative solutions and collaboratively solve complex problems.

Leaders are the ones who give us their time and energy, not money. ~ Simon Sinek

The good news

leadership Leadership is a decision, not a rank. Set achievable goals, build trust and make time for others. The culture of “busy” promotes stress and fear. Push back, follow your vision and help others achieve their goals. It’s up to us to re-engineer and design a culture that works for everyone. A culture that allows us to be creative, innovative and happy.

Hierarchy vs. Meritocracy

“We are driven by meaningful work, by others’ acknowledgement and by the amount of effort we’ve put in: the harder the task is, the prouder we are.”

My company recently distributed its annual promotion list. Ten pages of people promoted out of tens of thousands of employees. There have been years where I’ve been on “the list” and years I have not. What I’ve learned is promotion in a hierarchical organization has little to do with merit or work delivered and more about politics behind closed doors. This taught me valuable lessons on how people are motivated and engaged on projects, teams and communities.

Focus on the work, not the title

ImageRecent conversations at work have a consistent theme. I find myself reassuring people who did not make “the list” to continue focusing on the work, not the title. Even a hierarchical organization can adopt meritocracy attributes. When projects, teams and communities enable people to learn, develop marketable skills, solve complex problems and broaden networks, motivation will remain consistent.

Drive motivation

I’m a big fan of behavioral economist, Dan Ariely. Dan’s TED Talk unveils findings that contradict popular belief about pay andImage promotion as motivators. To drive motivation people need meaning, creation, challenge, ownership, identity, pride and acknowledgement connected to their work. Developing myBill, a new application and approach for managing personal consumption at work, my pay or title was not a motivational force. I was passionate about the challenge of creating new software, to change the workplace and help others. The work I delivered drove my motivation, not the hierarchy. Understanding and applying the science of motivation alters the way we engage people, lead teams and manage communities.

Adopt meritocracy

ImageAdopting a meritocracy structure for your team or community promotes transparent contributions, collaboration and enables leaders to emerge organically. When the work feels bureaucratic, political or monotonous something is wrong. Allow the playing field to be level by recognizing hard work, celebrate successes, champion contributors and foster an environment where the work matters, not a title or hierarchy.

Community, the (not-so) secret ingredients

com·mu·ni·ty: a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals

“Community” sounds soft when associating it with developing strategy, influencing behavior or creating a movement but it’s the most powerful method to build awareness and drive change.  For over 10 years I’ve engaged diverse sets of communities and played many roles. I’ve been a community member, organizer, manager, leader and builder. Whether connecting subsistence farmers to increase food and economic security, building collaboration frameworks in a large company or raising awareness and revenue for non-profits, one thing remains the same; when like-minded people connect over a shared goal in a structured environment, potential is limitless. A few years ago my company invested in our Communities of Practice program and brought in community thought leader Jono Bacon. Jono helped us develop our frameworks and stressed 3 critical attributes before building any community. The same 3 ingredients apply to anything from software engineer communities to volunteer groups.

Social Economy

If there is no belonging there is no community.

Key to Social EconomyPeople must feel their work is valued. When people feel their contribution matters they’ll give opinions, volunteer time, deliver tasks, share creative insight and go the extra mile. This ignites open communication, collaboration and a strong sense of belonging. We developed simple hashtags at work, #ThankYouThursday and my #FollowFriday to publicly recognize people and their contributions on our collaboration platform.  Public recognition fuels social economy, enables a sense of belonging and costs nothing. It works and will keep contributions coming.

Communication Channels

Open communication platforms allow for transparent conversations and stories to be easily shared.  Transparency and shared  Communication Channelsstories embed a sense of loyalty, trust and competition to contribute within the community. I recently met with a fast growing tech company interested in creating a “tribe building” program for people using their software products. In order to build active external “tribes” the smaller teams and champions from within need to first adopt an internal culture of working out loud, sharing stories and connecting dots. Since 2006 I’ve worked with Salesforce, year-after-year they achieve success. Salesforce is a prime example of adopting open communication and collaborative models internally that has grown into powerful external communities and product offerings.  When teams can and want to work out loud through an adopted communication and community framework, ideas and opportunities transform into tangible results.

Community Manager  

Community ManagerEvery community needs a leader to curate content, highlight successes, recognize contributors and keep the group moving forward in unity. The ideal community manager has personal characteristics, passion and tacit knowledge to drive contributions, connect people and promote forward progress toward the goal or next milestone. Finding the right person to manage your community is both a leap of faith and instinct that tells you “this is the right person”.  Jono notes in The Art of Community that a person who is able to build trust, listen, respect others and avoid ego will keep the audience engaged and community thriving. I make every effort to listen, value each contribution and thank members regardless of what role I or anyone else plays in the community. Engaging and valuing people at all levels allow for a surplus of learning and experiences. This will ingrain an agile structure, collaborative culture and roadmap for you and your community to achieve success.

are you social?

I recently met with a small group of graduate students at NYU to discuss social tools, building personal brands and the power of communities. A few slides triggered a great discussion around what we’re doing, what we should be doing and how it can be done better.

Start with “Why”

Where we start matters. It defines our ability to influence, have meaningful relationships and experience (repeated) success. Without purpose output doesn’t matter. Having 500+ connections or a lot of followers is just the “what”. Creating goals like challenging the status quo, becoming a thought leader or making a dent in the universe is a good “why” to actively engage socially and collaboratively.

Golden Circle

Watch Simon Sinek’s TED Talk or read his book to learn more about how people and companies innovate and deliver change by starting with “why”.

Voyeurs & Contributors

There’s an evolution. When we use social tools the journey begins as a voyeur; searching, lurking and unsure of what to do next. As we become comfortable with a technology, see others engaging or find meaning along the way we slowly become contributors. By pre-defining a goal and knowing the platform or place where the community connects our journey from voyeur to contributor moves much faster. The key is having a call to action, know your audience, build relationships, connect with communities, share relevant content and keep contributing!

Don’t be afraid

Stand out, have an opinion and be bold. No one achieved success without taking risks. Start by making it a habit to click “like”. Comment on contributions made by others and repost if don't be afraidit resonates. Recognize, reward and give regular shout-outs by “@” mentioning people. Have an opinion. We’re not robots so humanize the message. There’s passion and art in the work we produce so why not work out loud? If it’s meaningful to you, your contributions are valuable to others.

Communities create change

“Tribes are about faith – about belief in an idea and in a community. Do you believe in what you do? It turns out that belief happens to be a brilliant strategy.” ~Seth Godin

Communities are a place where like-minded people believe in the mission. They will champion your work, efforts and contributions. What are you passionate about? Don’t sit alone, find your tribe. They are in motion right now and waiting for you to join the movement.

Get started

Build your brand. Know your “why” and where the tribe lives, go there. Create and build a meaningful profile. Upload a picture, write a bio, highlight your achievements, join networks and keep being visible. The things we do matter. Have a mission, get to the start line and make your dent in the universe.

Start line