Culture is not an afterthought in this start-up

by Natasia Elishia Jerah, Growth Manager

Our team in their best element

Ask any fast growing start up what their priorities are and they will most likely say something along the lines of increasing market share, rapid top line (bottom line if you are lucky!) growth, market penetration to new regions, aggressive hiring — you get the idea. These metrics are things investors are looking at. In contrast, things like culture is typically an afterthought. I once encountered a CEO of a budding start up that considered culture as “fluff”. Something so intangible, it’s value was overlooked.

Things have somewhat shifted in recent times. So much so: Tony Hsieh of Zappos fame dedicated a whole book to work culture, Howard Schultz of Starbucks fame attributed the lowest period of Starbucks to the ‘loss of culture’. And most famously, Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook decided to adapt the company values from “Move Fast, Break Things” to “Move Fast, With Stable Infrastructure”. The once famous value of “Move Fast, Break Things” created a culture that overvalued speed, but compromised too much on quality. Was it then a surprise that my first assignment in Teleport was to define the company values? I’d say, we got our priorities right: values after all defines culture and it has the power to make or break.

That being said, we had our fair share of challenges. Teleport is an early but rapidly growing company. We were doubling in revenues and headcount year-on-year. There was also a mix of people that came from our legacy companies RedBox and RedCargo logistics — each bringing with them their own set of intrinsic values. With a mix of ‘old’ and ‘new’, we needed a unifying set of values that is relatable and also aligned with our people — regardless of where they came from.

LESSON 1: The SOONER the better

How soon is soon? Sure, set up hygiene factors — don’t think about values if you haven’t even thought about the strategy or mission of the company, or how to even execute payroll. As soon as hygiene factors are sorted, my recommendation would be to start thinking about values IMMEDIATELY. Growth just has a sneaky way of coming up on you when you are least prepared. So while the growth is controlled, e.g.: with a 10% growth rate; define your values.

Picture an adverse scenario: moving from a 10-person company, to a 100-person company in a short period of 6 months. Now imagine if the first 10 people who did the hiring had hired for different values? That is 90% of headcount with potentially poor “values-fit”. 90% of headcount that ends up creating more friction than leverage. 90% of headcount that potentially cost you precious time and money. That is a hyperbolic example but the point is — not defining values can have a large negative impact, and this is exacerbated in a rapidly growing environment. So define it early as it will be a ‘guard rail’ that can protect the company and its people from unnecessary stress.

Given all the emphasis I am putting on values, it is easy to feel it is a daunting task. The best way to approach this is to take it in a pragmatic manner — remember that it is not cast in stone. If you made a boo-boo or realised it is something you can no longer relate to, it is okay to “Zuckerberg” the values and adapt it to the situation you are currently in. It irks me every time we humans treat ‘policies’ as untouchable, bible, cast in stone — when we as humans — designed policies. Policies can be changed if it no longer supports the mission. Likewise, values can be revisited and changed as we mature as a company and evolve with the times.

LESSON 2: Acknowledge the past, but no need to be limited by it

As much as I wanted to bring in a new perspective, I could not deny that I was defining values for a company that already had a respectable team of people. They had in them an embedded way of working, and there were subcultures everywhere. Sure, forcing on them my perspective of what the company values should be would have been the easiest and fastest thing to do. But it would also be the most naive thing to do. At the end of the day, values without buy-in is as good as having no values at all. At the same time, it would also be naive had I taken a completely democratic approach to defining values. Like real life democracy, it doesn’t work if the people do not know what is the best thing for them.

Therefore, our approach to defining Teleport’s values was both a bottom-up and top-down approach. We launched a survey to get a bottom-up sense of the types of people we had within the Company. What were their personal values? What sort of culture and work environment do they value? We asked them what was the good, the bad and the ugly about our company. Once that survey was processed, we had a collection of 2–3 bottom-up values that truly reflected what we wanted to embody as a company. Top management then had another 1–2 weeks to deliberate and think of additional values to complement the bottom-up values. The Top-down approach is no rocket science. It was purely an iterative, “let us discuss” and “mull over things” approach. Simple, but it got the job done.

LESSON 3: Attention span is low, memory is weak

In the world of technology, attention span is becoming lower. Some going as far as claiming that our attention span has gone to as low as 8 seconds — Lower than the attention span of a goldfish (9 seconds). I am in no way assuming that the entire working population has goldfish-like attention span. I am sure that is not the case. That said, I do believe that we are trending towards a world with more distractions, information overload and less time. Over complicating the values of a company will just make communicating and remembering it more difficult. Without good communication and ability to recall, you pretty much lost the trigger to act on a value. That was a risk we were not willing to take.

We literally made it a rule before the design process: no more than 6 values. When the survey results came in and there were so many versions of values emerging, we made ruthless elimination decisions. That discipline was needed to ensure solid focus on a few sets of core values. The key test was the following:

  1. Are the values unique to us? E.g.: Integrity is important, but in our field of cross-border logistics, it is a minimum criteria.
  2. Are we willing to invest in the values? E.g.: Speed is critical to us. And we were willing to invest in technology to ensure every encounter reflected that — from our core work, to our recruitment practices.

By the end of it all, we were left with 6 values that met both requirements. The typical thing to do would be to obsess about how we word values. We did that, but we took it a notch further. We started obsessing about the order of the values, trying to identify a strict order that made recall easier for everyone.

Based on the creative mind of our CEO, we ‘force-fit’ the wording and order of our values to resemble our tagline A to B, Magically. We basically applied an age old memory trick — mnemonics. And coupled that with common sense thinking i.e.: the last values is the one with “End”! Thus, it became A to B C C & End.

Our 6 values and associated mnemonic:

  • Aim High
  • Team Before Self
  • Be Humble
  • Communicate Openly
  • Choose Speed, Not Siput (Snail!)
  • and End with Ta-Da!

(Originally published on the Teleport Blog on October 30, 2019.)

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