The analogies and words people use in your startup meetings define your culture

As a founder, it is important to define and constantly manage / prune your company culture. Why? It defines your growth, who you hire and how you respond to situations.

Most founders don’t understand, though, what the company’s culture really is. When you have more than a few dozen people, things change dramatically if you are not constantly pruning and hiring the right folks. Even the best leaders have a little more than 50% batting average when it comes to hiring stars, so it is no surprise that culture changes at a startup quickly if it is not nurtured.

What is then the best way to understand what your company’s culture is and how it manifests itself in your interactions?

The best way I have found you can understand your company’s culture is attend a critical kickoff meeting for a key project for every team, every so often.

Not as a contributor or a participant, but as an observer.

Sometimes folks in the room will be cautious about having the founder attend their meetings and be likely guarded in that meeting, so I’d recommend you ask to be on the conference call, not in person. Most people tend to forget folks on the conference call, and tend to be their natural self.

Then look for key words that people use to describe actions, situations, responses and milestones.

For example, at Microsoft teams use the words rhythm, cadence, muscle memory and “landing things” a lot on the sales side of the house. On the engineering side it tends to be “shipping bits”, agile, “landing things” and cadence a lot.

It is very useful to understand where those words come from and what people believe in when they are confronted with situations. They also though, define the culture of the organization.

As instrumental as these words are in understanding what people value, it is also indicative of what gets ignored.

The best way to have an understanding of the culture is to ask questions about quality, deadlines and budget.

These items will give you the best response into the psyche of the organization.

Another thing to look for is the analogies that people use to describe situations.

Most sales teams will use sports analogies (for example you will hear at Microsoft about “hail Mary” effort to secure a difficult customer effort by end of the quarter). Engineering teams tend to (at Microsoft at least) use science analogies – (for example you will hear frequency and amplitude of releases, and the signal to noise ratio of feature requests).

Some of these analogies are truly regional and defined by background, but once in a while, when you have a new leader who wants to redefine the culture they start to use different and new analogies, which stay for much longer than their tenure.

As a founder the best way to have these “grapevine” stories stick is to use analogies that folks will adopt because it creates a sense of “insider knowledge” or “tribal power”. It is also the best way to ensure that your culture has a cult following.

3 thoughts on “The analogies and words people use in your startup meetings define your culture”

  1. Thanks for this Mukund. We think a lot about the culture we’re building at The Community Roundtable, but this is a good reminder of HOW to do that thoughtfully. Keep it up!

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