“Company culture” is often discussed as if it describes a static environment in which employees either thrive or don’t. But culture is created by everyday interactions, and is bound to change and evolve in any growing organization — for better or for worse.
Leaders can’t decree that a company’s culture should have certain characteristics and magically make it so. But they can encourage the environment they want with processes, policies, and behaviors.
At Slack’s Amazing Teams event in San Francisco earlier this year, leaders from three companies that have had huge success and growth — Pixar, Stripe, and Planet Labs — shared their thoughts on how to invest in culture truly aligned with company values, even through growth and change. Here are some of their key pieces of advice.
Define “culture” in concrete terms
Everyone thinks they know what “culture” means in the context of work, but it’s actually a pretty vague term that can easily lose its meaning. Articulating what it means to you and your company can go a long way in proactively developing it.
“Conversations are evolving from talking about culture as an entity unto itself to culture being more about community and what the community is,” says Cara Brennan Allamano, Director of People at the Earth-imaging company Planet Labs. “In our People team, we talk about replacing the word ‘culture’ with ‘community.’ It’s inclusive as well as empowering. Culture can feel bigger than each individual — community instead relays the level of impact that each individual can have.”
As part of defining culture, companies should acknowledge that it plays an important role in the smallest decisions and interactions. “There’s this tiresome meme in the valley that culture is about yoga or free drinks, but it’s about behavior and values,” says Stripe co-founder John Collison, who grew the digital payment platform from two to 400 people in five years. “Even something like the homepage — what is the process of getting that changed? Is it someone’s gut feeling? How does it align with company goals? That’s culture and values.”
“There is inherently a culture that has emerged that embodies the spirit of our films. The human experience, how people grow and learn, that’s a big part of our culture at Pixar. And a lot of that comes from the founders — a realization early on that you can’t do it all by yourself.”
Build your culture from real, supportable ideas
It’s easy to describe what a positive company culture might look like — say, “a culture of collaboration” — but you can’t conjure it out of thin air, or reverse engineer the culture you want from broad, nice-sounding phrases. There have to be real principles behind it that support and advance your business.
Pixar, for example, is well known for a culture that values creative contributions from employees in all roles at all levels. But it didn’t happen purely out of altruism — it happened because the company realized early on that what they were creating could only thrive with everyone’s ideas.
“You just can’t make these kinds of films in a back room with only a handful of people communicating,” says Jay Carina, Pixar’s Lead Technical Director. “It requires so much collaboration with so much input.”
“There is inherently a culture that has emerged that embodies the spirit of our films,” he adds. “The human experience, how people grow and learn, that’s a big part of our culture at Pixar. And a lot of that comes from the founders — a realization early on that you can’t do it all by yourself.”
It all comes down to individuals, until it can’t
Culture is the sum of individual behaviors and decisions, meaning each person in an organization can affect how it evolves. But as a company grows, it can’t rely the same way on individual actions — they have to become part of a system that empowers the team as things change.
If your company has one person with deep institutional knowledge, and a handle on every process, that is a wonderful resource. But you can’t grow that at scale.
“If people are going to one person with all their questions, clearly there’s a documentation or training problem,” says Collison. “Instead of solving these problems incrementally, we try to solve the meta problem.”
Leaders also evolve as a company scales, notes Allamano, when the relationship between individuals and the larger organization gets more complicated. “You start as a family, then you learn both the logical side and the emotional side.”
At Pixar, resilience and collective empowerment comes from transparent, active communication across teams.
“One of the biggest advantages of a collaborative environment is instant feedback, not just from leadership but from peers,” says Carina. “Peer pressure is fantastic for creative types. When you see one or two members of the team who are really doing great, it reminds everyone that we’re here to do great work. Anything you can do to encourage peer-to-peer feedback will get your team moving better than anything you as an individual can do.”
Evie Nagy is thinking, give her a minute.