I watch your actions not just captions in the sh*t you post
—Rick Ross, “Big Tyme”
This month, I will be releasing a new book on culture, What You Do Is Who You Are.
Why I Wrote the Book
In the last few years, a lot of technology companies have been in the news because of their real or perceived cultural problems.
As someone whose job it is to help and guide businesses like these, I read with interest the criticisms of the companies and their CEOs. Many of the criticisms were insightful, but the proposed solutions were almost universally ridiculous. They included firing the CEO, getting technology founders to study liberal arts, and “just doing the right thing.” They were so bad that they made me freshly aware of how many entrepreneurs really want to establish a great culture, but have no idea how to go about doing it.
I know exactly how they feel because when I was the CEO of Loudcloud, I had no idea how to create a culture either. I figured that our company culture would just be a reflection of my values, behaviors, and personality. So I focused all my energy on “leading by example.” To my bewilderment and horror, that method did not scale as the company grew and diversified. Our culture became a hodgepodge of different cultures fostered under different managers, and most of these cultures were unintentional. Some managers were screamers who intimidated their people, others neglected to give any feedback, some didn’t bother returning emails—it was a big mess.
I asked myself, “Is culture dogs at work and yoga in the break room?” No, those are perks. Is it your corporate values? No, those are aspirations. Is it the personality and priorities of the CEO? That helps shape the culture, but I’d just learned that it is far from the thing itself. So what is it?
Let’s start with a simple exercise: How many of the following questions can be resolved by turning to your corporate goals or mission statement?
- Is that phone call so important I need to return it today or can it wait till tomorrow?
- Can I ask for a raise before my annual review?
- Is the quality of this document good enough or should I keep working on it?
- Do I have to be on time for that meeting?
- Should I stay at the Four Seasons or the Red Roof Inn?
- When I negotiate this contract, what’s more important: the price or the partnership?
- Should I point out what my peers do wrong or what they do right?
- Should I go home at 5 p.m. or 8 p.m.?
- How hard do I need to study the competition?
- Should we discuss the color of this new product for five minutes or 30 hours?
- If I know something is badly broken in the company, should I say something? Who should I tell?
- Is winning more important than ethics?
The answer is zero.
There aren’t any “right answers” to these questions. The right answers for your company depends on what your company is, what it does, and what it wants to be. In fact, how your employees answer these kinds of questions is your culture. Because your culture is how your company makes decisions when you’re not there. It’s the set of assumptions your employees use to resolve the problems they face every day. It’s how they behave when no one is looking. If you don’t methodically set your culture, then two-thirds of it will end up being accidental and the rest will be a mistake.
Your culture is who you are. Who you are is not the values you list on the wall. It’s not what you say at an all-hands. It’s not your marketing campaign. It’s not even what you believe.
It’s what you do. What you do is who you are. My new book aims to help you do the things you need to do so you can be who you want to be.
Where the Money is Going, and Why
I will give 100% of my proceeds from this book away to anti-recidivism (helping people who get out of jail, stay out of jail) and to making Haiti great again. These donations are basically payback, as large parts of the book were inspired by what I learned from the Haitian revolution and from Shaka Senghor’s journey through the U.S. prison system.
Prison is fertile ground for understanding culture, because people who end up in prison generally come from broken cultures. Their parents abandoned or beat them. Their friends sold them out. And they can’t rely on a common understanding of basic ideas like keeping your word. Prison provides culture’s hardest test case; to build culture there, you have to start from the very beginning, from first principles. Senghor not only mastered these principles to rise through the violent prisoner ranks and run a powerful gang, but later reflected on his culture and transformed it. By doing so, he changed countless lives, including his own.
The Haitian Revolution led by the legendary Toussaint Louverture at the turn of the nineteenth century was the only successful slave revolt in human history. There were surely uprisings by the slaves of the Han Dynasty and the Christian slaves of the Ottoman Empire, and there are numerous accounts of rebellions by some of the ten million Africans held in bondage during the transatlantic slave trade. But only one revolt succeeded. Certainly, strong motivation fueled every attempt—there is no more inspiring cause than freedom. So why only one victory?
Slavery chokes the development of culture by dehumanizing its subjects, and broken cultures don’t win wars.
As a slave, none of your work accrues to you. You have no reason to care about doing things thoughtfully and systematically when you and your family members can be sold or killed at any moment. To keep you from learning about other ways of life, communicating with other slaves, or knowing what your masters are up to, you are forbidden to learn to read and have no ready tools for accumulating and storing knowledge. You can be raped, whipped, or dismembered at your captor’s pleasure. This constellation of atrocities leads to a culture with low levels of education and trust and a short-term focus on survival—none of which help in building a cohesive fighting force.
So how did one man, born a slave, reprogram slave culture? How did Toussaint Louverture build an army of slaves into a fighting force so fearsome it defeated Spain, Britain, and France—the greatest military forces in Europe? How did this slave army inflict more casualties on Napoleon than he would suffer at Waterloo?
The book comes out October 29th.