[Tips for Company Founders] Paging Betty Crocker: Culture is not a Cake Mix

A chuckle was the first reaction when I saw Ann Handley’s (@marketingprofs) retweet of Ted Minnini’s post – For Sale: Business Culture – on the retailing of the Zappos culture. Zappos founder and CEO Tony Hseih – whose company was recently sold to Amazon – has been offering 2 days seminars for people to learn how to replicate the Zappos (success) story.

The chuckle on the concept of retailing culture turned to dismay when I realized that this is the type of nonsense that people believe and start to apply. Not unlike a certain military foray into Iraq – based in retrospect on incredibly faulty information – where people  started down a path that ended up in a sinkhole. The same is true with assuming you can replicate a culture based on a recipe.

Culture in business (and in organizations and broader society) is the aggregation of beliefs, values, rewards, communication, disincentives, and behaviors over a period of time. Culture is an organization’s – like a business’ – way of life.

No two business cultures are precisely alike since the people who inhabit them are different. This underlying culture is what makes driving a car in Boston (think cursing, avoiding the stares of other drives, use of horns and middle fingers) different from Honolulu (eager to let other people go first, absence of horns, prevalence of politeness).

When I ran human resources for McKesson’s $13B pharmaceutical business we had 40 cultures: one particular culture at the corporate office, and different local / field flavored cultures at our 39 distribution and service sites. While there was one semblance of an overarching culture, the local cultures based on the history, people, and local narrative were markedly different: Cedar Rapids business culture was not the business culture in Sacramento.

Culture building, akin to making good red wine, takes time. And like replicating a great red wine – and perhaps the Zappos culture was great –  you will never be able to replicate it unless you have all the identical elements, including the people.

Culture building and norm affirmation is one of the most important things a CEO and an exec team can do. It’s why in my work with start-ups called Road Trip it is one of the 4 things – along with figuring out basics such as destination, deliverables, and roles that gets nailed down early. Figuring out just how you want to behave, and all that comes with it, is important, significant, valuable stuff.

Culture is part of what makes some firms winners, and some firms losers. You don’t want to screw it up because the price to pay is way too high for most early stage companies.

While you can change a culture, it takes time, work, clear intent, wisdom, smarts and discipline. Facebook at 800 employees is harder to reshape than Sensato Capital at around 15 people. For good or bad the tone set by Mark Zuckerberg and his exec team or Jonathan Howe with Ernie Chow [Disclosure: Ernie and I sit on a board of trustees together] and Meme Scherr is what informs their particular culture. And the biggest challenge is that folks who have business smarts like Mark or Jonathan think they have culture smarts as well. The likelihood is that they probably don’t. Just because – to stretch the wine metaphor – someone knows farsighted community platform buidling or investing may not mean they know how to make a great red wine – or in this case, a durable, competitive business culture.

When you’re working in the culture game it helps to have lots of gray hairs and the experience that comes with them. If you don’t have it as part of your own background, or the background of other company co-founders, than the savvy thing to do is to get it. Get people on your boards who have the time – avoid people who just want or can only do drive-bys –  and the wisdom chops to help out, or buy or cajole people like me to help out.

Just don’t think you’re going to get the secret to business culture in a recipe.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.