Today, there’s a ton of talk about culture and its important role in the success of an organization.
Start-ups began waving the culture flag as a method to attract and retain top talent in a hiring pool where often they can’t compete from a compensation perspective.
These “soft benefits” are often as hard to define as they are to measure the impact around. It seems often that culture is the business equivalent of jazz, to define it is to go against it’s very soul. The minute you write it down or nail it to a wall, you sever the veins to the heart that feeds it. You can’t dictate culture through an edict, you can’t force it upon people.
Culture also seems to have the the double-edged repercussion not only of simply failing to work when forced, but also becoming the enemy of whoever tried to force it.
Still, I find that company culture lives (and dies) at the top.
My father owned his own business. An architect and a builder who passed down many hereditary business traits. I can’t draw worth a shit, but I did pick up a few other things growing up. A perfectionist and a workaholic, he and his work were (and are still) inseparable. He lives in the details, along with a very strong aversion to asking for help. The driving force in every project, he was often involved from every area of a custom home build.
From architectural plans, to excavation, to framing, to finish work, he not only oversaw the process, but completed many tasks himself. He will tell you this was to ensure that things came in on time and under budget. But that’s a lie. I don’t think he trusts anyone else to perform some of these critical tasks. Or perhaps he, like I often find myself, was afraid that some skills might simply disappear if they weren’t exercised often enough. Whatever the underlying cause, my dad led a company by doing. It was simply his way.
Growing up, my summers and even Christmas breaks from school, involved pre-dawn wake-ups to arrive on a jobsite at sunrise and perform really exciting tasks like digging ditches, cleaning up jobsites, or if I was really lucky, maybe putting up a fence or swinging a hammer.
My father has a saying that often came out when these tasks were assigned, sometimes even precluding my complaints. With pride, he would say “I’ll never ask you to do something I wouldn’t do.”
Despite that, he was the company owner and the “boss” of literally everyone who stepped foot on those jobsites, I’ve dug a lot of ditches alongside my father. What stuck with me was not the saying itself, but the willingness to do something not only hard, but that most would have perceived to be beneath them.
A lot of criticism is aimed at today’s focus on utopian culture and the romanticism of startup environments.
I am really guilty of this. I love the concept of status because for me the startup mentality represents exactly what I grew up idolizing, leaders, doers, thinkers all working in a flat structure to produce really great results. I have no patience for hoops and no desire to jump through them. Proper process over results is simply something I will never uphold. It’s also why I’m unemployable.
But for someone who was raised with the ideal that the ditch digger could emerge from a muddy trench, mark-up an engineering plan and then execute a multi-million dollar contract, startups provide something warm that feels like home.
When I got into business I thought this is the way the world worked. Literally. What I found was, the greater divide between the employee and employer the less ‘culture’ seemed to be present. Easy problem, easy fix I thought.
And so everything seems when you start your own business.
Over a decade into my entrepreneurial journey I know that truly, nothing is as easy as it seems. And, like I’ve said before, all the clichés are true. So, lets use one here that’s more than applicable:
Success is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
I truly believe success is a sum of its parts. This means that every interaction is an opportunity to inspire, solve and, well, succeed. The more “black” and the less “red” you have at the end of the day equates to the measure of success.
I use a few questions to measure this:
“Did I deliver excellent work?”
“Did I take the time to teach during that interaction?”
“Did I uphold my promise to never give a task to someone else that, I myself, wouldn’t do?”
It makes for some hard truths sometimes, but most of the time I feel really good when I recap the day in my head on my drive home. That, for me, is success. I talk to advisors I trust and the primary point of negative feedback I always receive is that I should get out of the weeds, and that I understand. I’ve scaled back some of the more repeatable work I do, with the help of some really awesome staff.
I know that building campaigns, running engagements or even writing this post sometimes have to take a backseat to working on higher-level strategic items that scale our business 2 or 3x over. But I really do try to do both, and do them both well. I don’t want my team’s trust in me to waiver because I’m not willing to get my hands dirty.
In closing: Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty
If you’re finding your team’s trust seems to be waning, perhaps look down at those clean hands and those calluses that have begun to fade.
Sometimes the only way to see the tunnel being dug under your ivory tower is to get way down into the weeds and jump into the ditch.
Meet Justin Gray
Justin is a serial entrepreneur and the CEO and founder of LeadMD, the world’s largest revenue operations agency having implemented over half of the Marketo user base. Justin has made a career of launching successful companies and scaling them, with successful exits of over 200MM+ in the last decade. Justin’s latest endeavor launched in 2016 when he co-founded Six Bricks an online learning startup designed to combat employee and customer churn through experience-based education. Over the past 10 years, Justin has emerged as a strong voice for entrepreneurship, marketing and culture. As a recognized speaker, Justin has been published over 350 times in industry publications and holds his own column, Tribal Knowledge in Inc., while writing for Entrepreneur, Tech Crunch and others. Justin and his wife Jennifer met over marketing and three years later welcomed their son, Grayson, into the world in April of 2017.