From cuddling to caring and other disasters

The late summer is a fun time, summits all around – cyber security, Fortune 5000 companies, global defense, coding, women empowerment, investing, you name it – you got it! And now, finally – culture!

The only conference focused on startups and building organizational culture took part, in San Francisco, so no surprises there. The Culture Summit is organized for a third time in a row by Hung Pham and Vanessa Shaw and growing every year. It is true that in the last years culture is becoming a bigger deal, or let`s say more companies realize its importance and that it requires not only attention but deliberate focused action. Or let me share what Monica Adractas, Director at Workplace by Facebook, mentioned in that direction – culture and work environment innovation are to be seen as the competitive advantage that companies need nowadays to move forward and differentiate themselves, as well as to keep their true talent.


And though it is also true that the biggest benefit of every conference is actually the so-discussed networking time and the chance to meet new people, potential customers and allies, there were a few points that deserved attention from all the keynotes. There were speakers from facebook, LinkedIn, Pandora,, Shopify, airbnb and others, less famous ones like Culture Amp, SnackNation, The Go Game who turned out to be as great examples. Here is a brief of a few take-aways and what triggered my mind, for an afternoon coffee read.

It was fun to find out the innovation behind the names of some people`s roles, take this one – Chief Heart Officer, Chief People Officer or Human Connections. Or I met a wonderful woman called Lindsey and she was ‘a real people person’, or Courtney, she is a People Scientist. So not only new roles emerge but companies are also embracing the idea of having a dedicated person or even a team that will be bringing value through creating their unique culture. In fact a lot of these are self-created by the person who takes the role. Someone with a people focus who has realized that their company needs a different approach in that sphere. So Marta Riggins, a Global Marketing Director at LinkedIn Talent Solutions had a wonderful talk about making the business case for culture initiatives. (You know that this applies to anything you would like to see changing in your organization, right?) You define what it is, what the benefits of it are, what problem it solves or prevents, you do your pitch deck and go pitch in front of your founders or board of directors.

From cuddling to caring

Claude Silver, a Chief People Officer from Vaynermedia had a great point that many startups struggle with. Since in the beginning a lot of the companies are formed mainly by friends and they attract acquaintances, the culture that is being automatically created is a family type one. When the company starts growing and starts hiring talent from outside networks, things need to change. Behaviors need to change, attitudes need to change. And that is a difficult task as all of the interactions until that point happen unconsciously and effortlessly in a way. In that family type of culture we usually cuddle with out peers, mistakes are being forgiven and the approach to people who need to improve in an area is quite mild and usually very sparing of words.



So how do you go from cuddling to caring was a question from the audience to which Claude had an awesome response:

With lots of feedback and lots of tough love.

Feedback is a process. What some people do not understand is that it is not a critique, it goes both ways – for positives and negatives. When feedback is provided for behaviors that need to be rewarded and acknowledged people understand that they are not being chased for mistakes, but their work is actually being noticed, their effort is praised and they feel an important part of the company. That is one of the biggest reasons why they will stay with you anyway. Positive feedback also prepares for when constructive feedback needs to be given, it is accepted openly as that person already respects and trusts the provider of the comments. And of course it is more likely that the behavior that needs to change will get better. Now, I do mention behavior a few times – that is right. A huge challenge for everyone when giving feedback is the way words are being framed. We often address the people, not their actions. That way whoever the receiver is, takes it personally and unconsciously creates barriers. It is a self-defence technique that we, as humans use. It also makes that person feel less confident and less important. So the best way to go about this is to practice the way we speak. Instead of saying “When you do this…”, try “When this action is being done” and avoid all the “you`s”. It will have a massively different effect, I promise. Plus if you try to go with a formula 2:1 – praise twice as much as you provide constructive feedback. As long as you praise actions and they are meaningful comments, you will be surprised how well people will accept your words. They will start looking for feedback and will have results immediately.

Who is responsible?

So mentioning names and new roles, let me point out what Dan Spaulding, Chief People Officer at Zillow Group mentioned that is also very true. Culture is not being formed by one person. That is not the Culture Director who maintains and creates whatever perfect culture they feel the company should have. Culture is being carried by and in fact controlled by every single person in the company. The way they come across, they show up or not at work every day. Sometimes we tend to forget this and just like in accounting or another specialized department we say – that`s not part of my job anyway, it is the culture team (if any). So Dan was pointing out that what works well in Zillow Group is the accountability within – everyone holds everyone else accountable for the actions and culture that people want to have and build. So there is no specific time really to focus on culture, it starts happening from day one, or even before that when the idea of building something with a specific goal and with/for others arises.


A great point in that sense made Sarah Nahm, the CEO of, she said that they do not believe in culture fit. As we are all representatives of culture, they believe in culture composition and contribution. So to them the fit is not what they seek for, but actually that diversity that all who seem to not fit in the beginning can contribute to. That brings so much more to the table – different views and ideas, different approaches and ways of thinking. When someone is being hired the question goes from “does that person fit in our frame” to “what can that person add to the team skills and thinking”. I do agree, however, it still needs to pass the value test. If the core values are not in place then no actions can be taken, no teams can be formed and no work accomplished. And again, Sarah`s point was very spot-on – sometimes we are limiting our talent massively while trying to look for the perfect fit. When we don`t even realize that this fit has already put lids and boundaries and does not lead to innovation and growth. It does not even lead to opportunities for the talent we already have in place to reach their potential. You don`t hire for an absence of a specific weakness or skill, you hire for the strengths of people – so the same approach applies to cultures.


Speaking of values

Dan from Zillow Group had a great point. They invested time and resources and completed a qualitative and quantitative research to figure out the company`s main principles. These, that the management team need to know and show through their behaviors. And they figured them out. However, the job is not done there. The leading team cannot just outsource everything. The dialogue between them and the employees need to be present and these principles need to be expressed loudly through all that`s being done . Yes, it can be facilitated by the culture champions, but it is something that the management team can do and shall be prepared for. And that might not be easy, but as Sean Kelly, the CEO at Snack Nation said – you cannot control all business outcomes, but what you can control is the outcomes of your behavior towards people and therefore your impact.


Well, we all make decisions and we all decide what kind of an impact we can have on others through our actions. But whether you are an employee or a founder in a startup, the culture you want to build depends on you. Because it is you who gets people excited about working with you. You, who gets people to trust and follow your ideas. It starts with you and once you get others on board, then culture has been formed already.

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