The Road To Startup Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

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By Jennifer Welsh, Founder of CultureOps

If you’re hanging out where I am online, you’re flooded with articles featuring cool startup offices and the lavish perks employees soak up working from these places. Front and center are images of dogs and beer, food and baristas, yoga and pingpong ... all delightful and Instagram-worthy. Unlimited vacation? It looks too good to be true.

Many observe with envy. Either you want to work at an “office like that” or you’re an executive feeling pressure to add some bling to your space and toss in more perks. Are you doing enough to compete? These images conjure doubt.

But looking at these images aspirationally is like looking at someone on the cover of a magazine and comparing yourself. It’s all photoshopped, and you have no context about what’s going on behind the scenes.

Spoiler Alert: This kind of coverage about what it’s like to work at a fast growing startup is nothing more than irresponsible journalism. The flashy pictures don’t portray a true story. And nobody is ever going to reflect on their career and thank dogs and doughnuts for moving the needle.

This focus on frivolous perks over meaningful benefits is massaging the glossy surface of what employee experience really means and neglecting the most critical aspects of true company culture.

Culture is a term that gets thrown around in the startup stratosphere, and it’s commonly mischaracterized by amenities that are only skin deep.

So why do these perks keep getting so much pub? I’m not sure. But as a writer under pressure to churn out a feature on the tech scene - it must be fairly simple to compile some colorful pictures, list off extraordinary perks for the shock factor, title them “great places to work” and voila- you’ve got a tech-sposé that people will enjoy and share. Great content.

And if you’re a startup with cash, it’s also pretty simple to build that feature-worthy office. All that takes is money and a creative architect. So, in reality, you can create a pretty picture without putting any real effort toward company culture whatsoever. And your culture can look good online.

But here’s the thing - company culture isn’t something you can see in a picture at all. So let’s shift the conversations away from perks and flashy sh*t. That misguided emphasis drives well-meaning leadership teams in the wrong direction. And money down the toilet.

OF COURSE sexy offices and perks are fun and appealing from a recruiting standpoint. And yes people like ergonomic chairs. But insert logic here: you need to have your operational ducks in a row before you pimp out your office. Because your culture is in the foundation, not the fluff.

So what is company culture, really?

Company culture is the acceptable behaviors within a group or society. In the startup world, it’s the natural result you get based on how operations are managed on a daily basis.

Story Time

Once upon a time, I worked for a company that didn’t tolerate tardiness. As a rule, we wouldn’t even interview candidates who showed up late for interviews. We didn’t do this to be jerks. We did it because we knew tardiness was indicative of other traits that wouldn’t translate well in our environment. Anyone who’d be late for an interview (without appropriate reasoning and communication) wouldn’t be “one of us.” Needless to say, our standards were high.

Working for that company, people were rarely late for meetings, or anything else. Being late was considered  wasting time, and therefore money. For the same reason, people didn’t come to meetings unprepared or miss deadlines. The result of these seemingly tactical “habits” was a company culture that valued time and accountability, and we managed operations accordingly.

This simple but powerful mindset permeated into every aspect of our business, and we enjoyed a culture where people were fiercely accountable to their responsibilities. Excellence was the minimum expectation for everything we worked on. We were detail oriented about...details. Most everyone who worked there was intensely loyal and proud to be on the team. We made a lot of magic in a high-performance culture, and everyone gave 150% all the time. We were happy to do it.

180 Degrees

The next company I worked for was laid back, one could say. People strolled into meetings ten or fifteen minutes late, and leaders regularly ghosted meetings without communication or explanation. As leaders behaved that way, others followed their example. When we had company events, few people in leadership positions participated. Again, employees behaved according to what they observed. I was shell-shocked that a business could function like that.

Optically, the company appeared to be a highly functioning startup, promising. Candidates and office visitors were impressed by what the physical environment looked like. Judging by appearances only, it was a company that had their sh*t together, Instagram eye candy.

Not surprisingly, below the surface, the attitude toward punctuality and leadership engagement seeped into other aspects of the business. Excellence was not demonstrated at a high level, nor was it expected. Employee experience was not considered a valuable investment. The proverbial bar was low, and the company wasted a lot of time and money being generally disorganized. Morale suffered. There was high attrition and bad employer reviews online.

Naturally, internal problems translated directly to customer experiences. Customers received poor customer service when they had problems, and they churned a lot. They wrote scathing reviews about their experiences online. Employee and customer sentiments were on parallel paths. Leadership did not connect the dots.

Without loyalty and pride, your employees aren’t going to dazzle your customers.

Employee Experience is a term that’s gained a lot of traction recently. Young startups have looked to Google and Facebook as pinnacles of great places to work, often aiming to replicate what we’ve seen in pictures. But employee experience isn’t food and furniture. Those things are icing on the cake, for sure. But the basic cake recipe has to be good in the first place. So let’s shift the focus to baking a good cake before we make a fuss over the the icing. The icing is just covering up what’s underneath.

Employee experience is a culmination of behaviors employees observe (what kinds of things are acceptable vs. not) and how they think and feel about working for an organization. Here are some basic questions to explore to gauge employee experience:

  • Do employees believe the company mission is promoted through leadership behaviors and daily operations? Is the company talking the talk and walking the walk?

  • Do employees feel honestly engaged with their leadership team? Do they find department heads and managers approachable, capable, honest, and transparent? Or do employees take top-down information with a grain of salt and an LOL?

  • Do employees know what’s expected and how they can improve? Do they feel support from a trusted manager who has the expertise, bandwidth, and experience to guide them to success?

Making The Cake: Operations First

As we approach a new year, startups are scrambling to define how they’ll move the needle in 2019. The focus is naturally toward product, sales, and recruiting. And in that context, we have unlimited things to buy and people to hire... to be faster and to scale faster - software  and equipment of all kinds.

Q4 sales are in overdrive, and there will be plenty of temptation to invest in places that don’t move the needle nearly as much as an honest investment in company culture and operational excellence. So here’s my gentle nudge for 2019 and beyond -

  • Consider company culture and employee experience equally as vital to success as product development, customer service, and sales. Budget and behave accordingly.

  • Make organizational effectiveness your top priority, and hold people accountable.

  • Invest in solutions that enhance your culture at the highest levels and make the deepest impact: Leadership + Communication

If you invest appropriately in these buckets, and you really mean it, then employee engagement and discretionary effort will naturally support your next top priorities, and the good fortune will cascade down. That’s when the real magic happens. I know because I’ve been there.