How do you translate startup culture into a corporate organisation?

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A little while ago Aniel Bhaga from Nova invited me to speak on some of the issues around building a rich culture in a startup team, and about translating startup culture into corporate organisations.

Q: Leading in this digital age you can face a wide variety of obstacles… Everyone has different adoption levels of technology, new fresh graduates jump in with technological know-how but are not aware of how to match this with business goals. Employees and/or middle managers who know how to use the technology but do not know how to effectively lead. Some are great leaders but resist the use of technology. As a leader how do you deal with all of this at once?

A: Back in the mid- 1990s I was a refugee from a corporate career because I just didn’t fit in. The biggest area of growth for BlueChilli in the past three years has been helping corporate and public organisations learn from (and participate in) early-stage startup ventures. In early-stage startups there’s typically a monoculture of digital-native team members with a hearty appetite for risk (my natural environment). Bridging that culture with slower-moving, siloed, risk-averse corporate or government cultures has been tough but we’re making great progress and our partners are delighted with the results so far.

Q: How important do you see company culture in this digital age and what does this mean for leaders today?

A: Digital environments blur the border between what and who is ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the company. Some of the biggest wins come from making your external stakeholders feel like they’re ‘inside’ your culture, and by motivating your employees to reach out and engage with outside communities such as mavens and enthusiasts in their voice and manner. It’s hard to do that unless everybody’s clear on the cultural values you express internally and externally.

For many of the fastest-growing digital businesses, there’s no geographical centre to the business, sometimes no HQ at all (eg Buffer). Cultural standards of behaviour, practice and vocabulary are essential for these companies. Cultural cues have to be restated and reinforced repeatedly and new employees carefully inducted to get it right.

Q: Does company culture need to come from the top?

A: No, it needs to come from the centre. In a pragmatic organisation, employees understand the CEO’s first responsibility is to the board and shareholders, and that responsibility will only sometimes align with the culture and needs of employees. But in any organisation there is a cultural centre. At BlueChilli, new cultural behaviour usually begins in our development team and percolates outwards. At Yahoo! it came from our team of ‘web surfer’ directory editors. At HomeScreen it came from our movie reviewers. Usually (but not exclusively) the true cultural source in an organisation is whichever group or team is most closely embedded with the customer.