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Book Notes: What you do is who you are (Horowitz)

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I have to admit that I wasn’t always a big ‘culture’ guy. The word always sounded like a fluffy HR term that didn’t really mean much. Now with a bit more grey hair and a few thousand people spread across the globe – I realize that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Particularly in the remote team environment – developing culture is much much harder. You have all the variables that work against you – not seeing each other very often, language barriers, various countries, various cultural norms, different holidays, various religions, etc etc etc. If you’re not ABSOLUTELY intentional in defining your company culture – your outcome is literally a random number generator.

Ben Horowitz signing away…

This book by Ben Horowitz hit home for me. The book is written from a perspective of a CEO/Founder (unlike other books in this category written by HR). I could respect it – and I could hear his pains along the way as he learned what really mattered.

One line I loved was ‘Culture is the decisions your people make when you’re not there’. CEOs/Founders forget that, at scale, most of the decisions made in your company are without you there. And how you ensure those decisions are aligned is where culture comes in.

My 3 takeaways from this book

  1. Be intentional about defining your culture – but ensure you also consider how it can be weaponized (Uber example)
  2. The definition of culture is really ‘what does it take to succeed in your company’ – and don’t ask execs or managers to define it
  3. Your culture needs to be who you really are – don’t try to make some pretty descriptions of what you think a company should be. It’s all about what you wakeup and do everyday – that’s your culture and what you’re company culture will be.

Ben’s Checklist

  • Cultural design – aligns w both personality and strategy. Be sure to think how it can be weaponized. 
  • Day 1 orientation – people learn more about what it takes to succeed in org that day than any other. 
  • Shocking rules – so surprising that people ask why it’s here – will reinforce key cultural elements 
  • Outside leadership – sometimes the culture you need is best brought in from an outside pro with a culture you want 
  • Object lesson – public display of importance 
  • Make ethics explicit – don’t leave unsaid 
  • Cultural to make deep meaning – what do they really mean
  • Walk the talk – refrain from choosing what you don’t practice yourself 
  • Make decisions that emphasize priorities 

Here are some super raw notes

  • Culture is the decisions your people make when you’re not there
  • Saying in the military – If you see something below standard and you don’t say anything – then you set a new standard
  • Culture changes over time as market and company changes 
  • Andy Grove – You don’t take the ball and run w it – you deflate it, put it in your pocket, grab another ball and run into the end zone, then inflate the other ball and score 12 points. (Innovative thinking outside the box)
  • Innovative ideas fail more often to succeed. And they are controversial and hard to gain momentum. So cultures typically kill those ideas as ‘dumb’ – particularly in large companies with many layers to kill it. 
  • Virtues are what you do, values are what you believe 
  • Who are we?  ‘Who you are’ is not what you list on the wall – it’s what you do. 
  • Make ethics explicit 
  • Michael Dell famously stated (when Apple was down to 3% MSS) – that he would shut it down and give money back to shareholders. (Before Jobs came back).  Back then – every PC maker was horizontal and the belief was that innovation on supply chain was the future (like Dell)
  • Amazon – frugal culture ‘do more with less’ (door desks, etc). Also written culture – not PPT (only written docs for meetings)
  • Facebook – Move fast and break things (but replaced w Move fast w stable infrastructure)
  • Yahoo – Work hours must be in office (no working from home). 
  • Uber:
    • TK actually designed Uber’s culture carefully – and it worked exactly as designed – but had design flaws
    • Values: Celebrate cities, Meritocracy and toe stepping, Principled confrontation, Winning – champions mindset, Let builders build, Make big bold bets, Always be hustling, Customer obsession, Make magic, Be an owner not a renter, Be yourself, Optimistic leadership, Best idea wins
    • Elevated 1 mindset above all – competitiveness. Do whatever it takes to win. 
    • No evidence that Travis ordered all the unethical actions – but the culture to win at all costs took over. 
    • Culture, like code, can have bugs 
    • And if ethics are the bugs – then many bad things happen
  • Samurai culture
    • I will never fall behind others in the way of the warrior, always ready to serve my lord, honor my parents, serve compassionately in the benefit of others
    • Extent of ones courage (or cowardice) cannot be measured in ordinary times – all is revealed when something happens
    • Awareness of mortality was a big driver – and die at any moment. Ready for death and accept worst outcome. Enables you to be fully live. 
    • 8 virtues:  justice, courage, honor, loyalty, benevolence, politeness, self control, voracity/sincerity 
      • Honor:  immortal part of themselves. Individual name matters throughout time 
      • Politeness:  Most profound way to express love and respect for  others (still works this way in Japan)
    • ‘Samurai word is harder than steel’
  • Bill Campbell – you’re doing it for your team, don’t let them down
  • How to know if your culture is working – ask yourself what it takes for the employees to succeed and get ahead. Don’t ask exec team or managers – you’ll get back what you want to hear. 
  • Design the culture. And be you 
  • Disagree w Drucker quote – strategy and culture work together 
  • Growth question in interview – what’s one thing you could have done better in your current job?
  • Wartime vs Peacetime CEOs – typically people that like to work for one type doesn’t like working for the other
  • Trust – tell the truth even if people don’t want to hear it (state facts clearly, what was cause, what is meaning and end result of action)
  • Kimchi problems – the more you bury them the hotter they get
  • Be okay with bad news – embrace it publicly and encourage it to be aired 
  • People don’t leave companies – they leave managers. Take genuine interest. 

In a remote world – we have to work that much harder to develop a unified company culture. Don’t neglect defining it – and don’t neglect reinforcing it on a daily basis…

If anyone has additional notes from the book or ideas on remote company culture in general – love to hear them! You can reach me on Twitter – @andytryba

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Andy Tryba
Andy is a technology optimist and the founder & CEO of Think3, Founder & CEO of Crossover, co-founder & CEO of RideAustin and the CEO of a variety of technology companies including Engine Yard, DNN Corp, Kayako, Bizness Apps, FogBugz, School Loop, Agemni, SLI Systems, and Sococo. Andy runs each of these companies with 100% remote talent – across all functions.

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