5 lessons for building a long-lasting company culture

By Frederic Kerrest

Company culture is hard to define, but it’s woven into everything a company does. It’s the reason employees love or hate their jobs, or customers can feel valued or ignored. Like reputation, it takes years to build a good culture, but only a few missteps to mess it all up. That’s why smart founders focus on developing company culture from day one and work like mad to protect it for the duration.

In the latest episode of Zero to IPO, we talked to four leaders that know what it takes to create a culture that helps you build a team that can go the distance, and create the kind of company you can all be proud of. Here’s what they learned along the way.

1) Values build a foundation

Box has been around for almost 15 years. Since Aaron Levie cofounded the company while in college, it has taken different forms–from an idea, early iterations in a garage, to an IPO and beyond. To keep the culture alive and consistent through every growth stage, Box focuses on seven fundamental values, including “Be candid and assume good intent,” “Blow our customers’ minds,” and my personal favorite, “Make Mom proud!” Values aren’t just there to unite a company, but to guide behaviors and actions. Levie says Box’s values have been critical to its success.

As a company grows, it becomes impossible for executives to know everything that’s going on. Levie and I have both learned that no one wants to give the founder lousy news–but shielding us from reality could mean sending us in the wrong direction. To counteract that, Levie tries to create an environment focused on trust and encourages teammates to challenge him daily.

2) Employees are your megaphone

Carl Eschenbach, a current partner at Sequoia Capital, helped scale VMware from 200 to 20,000 people. And just like VMware’s products and services had to evolve as it grew, he knew it had to scale the culture as well.

This is where the concept of guardrails and guidelines comes into play. If employees understand where they fit into the bigger picture and know the boundaries, they can put their best foot forward and reflect company culture in and outside of the office. Eschenbach believes that employees act as company megaphones, so he encourages them to ask themselves: “Am I okay if this is printed on the front of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times?” Leaders know that culture starts with the individual. If individuals have a strong character and are presenting their best selves, they support the company, too.

3) Policies can make or break engagement

Values, guardrails, and guidelines are all essential to company culture, but policies play a crucial role as well–and Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix, should know. She wrote the book on company culture and created the famous Netflix culture deck. McCord eliminated arcane policies like accrual-based PTO. Goodbye punching in and out–something I did when interning in a warehouse as a 17-year-old, earning 15 minutes of paid time off for every few hours worked. Fortunately, McCord recognized that’s no way to work or live. She found that the more time people had to do the things they love, the more they could contribute to work.

Feedback and performance review structures are another component of company culture. To McCord, managers should continuously be giving feedback–and feedback shouldn’t just be a nice way of delivering constructive criticism. Instead of conducting annual performance reviews, McCord suggests having ongoing conversations about what’s going well and what needs work. It’s those kinds of conversations that let you test company culture and help you realize what will thrive.

4) Cultivating belonging should start on day one

Many people consider Salesforce.com to be an exemplary standard of company culture. Parker Harris, cofounder and CTO of Salesforce.com, agrees with CEO Marc Benioff that a company is a family. Parker, Marc, and the Salesforce.com leadership team do everything they can to perpetuate that. What started as Aloha Fridays (when everyone wears a Hawaiian shirt to the office, myself included beginning back in 2002) evolved into the concept of “Ohana,” or a family that provides for employees, customers, stakeholders, and the broader community connected to Salesforce.com. To help build a work-family from the start, every new Salesforce.com employee participates in a day of volunteering within the first week on the job. For Harris, it’s good for the community and sets employees off on the right foot.

5) Founders don’t own the culture

My cofounder Todd McKinnon and I met at Salesforce.com, so we decided to adopt our version of Hawaiian Shirt Friday– and 10 years later, I still wear a Hawaiian shirt every Friday, along with many Okta employees. Most of our early traditions live on today, which goes to show how important it is to treat culture as intentionally as the product from the beginning. Once you’re out of the garage and you have hundreds or thousands of employees, the game changes. Soon enough, you won’t be the one championing culture–employees will make it their own and show others the way.

Frederic Kerrest is the COO and cofounder of Okta. You can listen to the full episode, “Culture,” wherever you get your podcasts. Tune in to Zero to IPO every Tuesday and check back here each week to read about the discussion on each episode.


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