I’ve always believed that the care and maintenance of a tech company culture is one of the most important factors confronting executive management in a growing tech company. I’ve both written about and produced a video on this topic in the past. If you buy into the premise that your corporate culture is important, your radar should be particularly sensitive to it in the high growth phase of your software or hardware company. That’s because this is usually a period of extensive – and often fast – hiring of new employees. This period can make or break what may be your “well-designed” company culture. Because regardless of your best efforts, at the end of the day your culture will be largely defined by the employees you hire.
Tech company culture comes in different flavors
Let’s start by taking a quick look at some of the most common types of tech company cultures:
Team-oriented – This type of culture hires for fit first; skills and experience second. I would argue (as I do below) that this may ALWAYS be the right way to hire. Team-oriented cultures are characterized by a lot of social activities at work to build rapport among team members, as well as group-oriented projects. As long as it’s not taken to the extreme, a strong team orientation in your culture is generally a major strength.
Elite Athletes – I believe this type of culture is the “highest risk, highest return” of the bunch. It is characterized by hiring the best and brightest in the highest quantity possible. This approach has obvious potential advantages, since the amount of brainpower and talent collected can lead to great innovation and high company performance. The downside to this type of culture is the danger of excessive ego, entitlement, interpersonal clashes and a lack of cooperation due to the inevitable glut of type A/driver personality types. The Oracle sales force is often considered as a classic example of this culture. It’s the law of the jungle: the survival of the fittest.
Flat/Horizontal – Titles don’t mean much in a horizontal culture; everyone does a little bit of everything. I find this to be very typical of a healthy technology startup company culture. There tends to not be excessive process and the working environment is usually very casual. The strengths of this type of culture is the flexibility it offers to address nearly any type of curveball the business may be confronted with.
Traditional/Conventional – This tech company culture type likely needs little explanation. It’s typically hierarchical and not super flexible. But the strength is that roles are well-understood and accepted, which can limit friction due to the confusion and uncertainty that a less well-defined culture might suffer from.
Of course it’s highly unlikely that your company closely fits any one of this corporate culture models. Tech company cultures are complex and tend to be unique, so it’s likely that the culture at your company is a mix of one or more of these. Or maybe it doesn’t fit closely with any of these broad categories at all; there are many different additional possible categories. It really doesn’t matter; the important thing is that you make an effort to identify the positive and negative aspects of your culture and adapt your hiring practices to accentuate the positive.
A good corporate culture doesn’t imply uniformity in all areas
Sometimes people believe that to protect their tech company culture they need to hire with total, “stepford-wife” like uniformity. Any deviation from the norm might damage that fragile and important corporate culture, so no employee “outliers” are allowed. In reality, few cultures are that uniform. If you find one that is, there is a high likelihood that it’s not a very effective culture at all. If everyone is that same, that often leads to a highly uniform “group-think” mentality, which can be very limiting when there are hiccups in the business. It’s when there are important issues (or great opportunities) that creative thinking is most important. If there isn’t adequate diversity of thought, background and experience in a tech company, it’s very possible that not all of the possible solutions to issues confronting the company will be considered, often leading to a sub-optimal result.
Although I have praised the HP corporate culture of the 80s and 90s in many of my articles of the past, this was one of the weaknesses of that culture. In aggregate is was just a bit too uniform in some ways. One of those was that it really wasn’t kosher in that culture to be perceived as “throwing a fuss” about an action that you didn’t agree with. And the bar for this perception was pretty low. In fact, any kind of passionate or emotional response was looked down on. In general, calmness and lack of conflict is healthy in a company culture; but in this case it was taken to an extreme. If you didn’t fit the perfect, even-keeled HP profile you were often labeled a malcontent or problem child. In my opinion, a passionate dissent can serve an important purpose in business problem-solving, as long as it isn’t taken to an extreme. So while it’s important to hire folks that “fit in”, it’s also important to remember that diversity can also play an important, positive role in the continued growth of any company.
“Fitting In” trumps skills & experience-but most don’t hire that way
While a tech company shouldn’t strive for total uniformity, it is very important to hire people that will “fit-in”. Again, by this I don’t mean that everyone thinks, looks and acts the same, but that they have a personality and style that will be accepted by their peers. Not everyone needs to be best friends or hang together outside of work, but it’s important that the ability to give and gain respect is nearly universal. In my opinion, this is the important thing that those hiring should strive for with respect to uniformity. What this means can be very different in individual situations, depending upon the type of culture. In a flat/horizontal culture, this may mean that everyone is willing to “pitch in” or do things not in their core competency, without complaint. In a team oriented culture, it likely means that every team member is highly adept at and open to collaboration. In an “Elite Athlete” culture, it may mean the ability to conduct their work at a high level independently, without requiring the assistance of peers or managers. And so on for each unique culture. Again, What’s important is not that everyone looks and acts the same, but that new hires have the ability to rise to the appropriate level of performance with respect to the KEY CRITERIA that defines that company’s unique culture.
Corporate culture is one of the few long term strategic advantages
The most critical takeaway from this article is that your tech company culture represents one of the few opportunities to create a truly sustainable strategic advantage. If you have a software or SaaS company with a killer product, unfortunately that code won’t be state-of-the-art forever. If you have a hardware company, you may have built a market-leading manufacturing facility which provides a temporary cost advantage. But the machines will age and break down and some competitor will eventually build an even more efficient factory. Or maybe your company has a great patent portfolio, but even that advantage expires after a number of years. The point is that in a tech company the employees are really the only truly long term sustainable advantage. And culture is the structure which makes the best employees want to join your company and stick around for the long haul. So regardless of how you define your tech company culture, make sure you pay close attention to hiring in a manner that will sustain it.
I believe strongly that hiring to properly fit your tech company culture is a critical factor to long term success. Do you agree or disagree? Let us know your opinion – and why you feel that way – with a comment below.
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