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Why Executive Teams Shouldn't Write “Culture Decks”

Boston is teeming with entrepreneurship. The “startup renaissance” that followed the financial crisis of 2009 has led to as many acquisitions as it has public companies.

By Cheryl Morris, via HBR Blog.

Boston is teeming with entrepreneurship. The "startup renaissance" that followed the financial crisis of 2009 has led to as many acquisitions as it has public companies.

For the founders and CEOs of many startups, the recent influx of additional tech giants to Boston like Amazon, eBay, and Twitter means that hiring—especially when it comes to engineers—will become even more challenging. With far deeper pockets than early- and mid-stage startups, these tech giants will be vying for the same talent our startup ecosystem has been fostering.

How can young startups continue to attract and retain great talent? One of the keys may lie in culture.

Companies are creating "culture decks" to answer the question, "why should I work here?" In Boston and beyond, companies large and small are publishing more and more of these. Some are impressive, clearly well thought out, and critical to recruiting strategies. However, many end up sounding strangely similar—mentioning something about vacation policies, a beer fridge, and how the company is structured. More often than not, these culture decks come across as pre-canned.

Culture decks are becoming as mundane as missions statements. Upon reflection in recently creating our culture deck here at Nanigans, the reason for this seems rooted in two core points:

1.How companies define culture
2.Who is behind the creation of these culture decks

Culture is a rich term, used historically to describe civilizations and people, but in the business context it's often reduced to "org structure," "mission statements," and "employee incentives." Defining culture in this way in the workplace—mapping it to corporate goals—is much behind the reason why many culture decks feel forced.

Perhaps they also come across this way because most are created by founders, CEOs or select members of executive teams. By definition they are much less in tune with what happens on a daily basis on the ground than employees themselves. A company's founders and executives know what they're on a mission to accomplish. They're in tune with corporate goals and how the company should ideally be projected to evoke success to investors and customers alike. However, this also contributes to the elements of culture being focused on mission statements, organizational structure, and top-line incentives.

Yet authentic culture is not dictated from the top down. Authentic culture emanates from people—a natural expression of who they are, and arises out of shared experiences together inside and outside the office.

Do founders and executive teams affect culture? Absolutely. Top-down created culture decks aren't necessarily wrong or bad; however, more often than not, they're simply not in tune with reality.

In witnessing and being a part of an incredibly vibrant startup culture, from a 15-person early stage startup 2 years ago with no venture funding to our now 100+ person company, I know the real elements of company culture aren't reflected in the traditional definition nor the top-down approach to culture decks.

When we decided to create a culture deck at Nanigans, we took a different approach. In fact, we didn't even set out to create such a deck. Instead, it was the product of a branding exercise.

We held one-on-one, hour-long conversations with almost all of our employees about company pillars like industry, product, customers, and culture. We asked each thirty-five different questions, such as the following:

  • What defines a successful company?
  • What transitions us from provider to strategic partner?
  • What words best describe our product?
  • Why do our customers need us?
  • What about Nanigans scares competing firms?
  • What's most critical for us to do now to continue to grow, fast?
  • What trends and commonalities unite our employees?

As our project was coming to an end and pitch decks and new positioning were created, we kept finding ourselves back to the consistency and passion with which people spoke when discussing our culture—it came through when we talked about our product, industry and customers as much as it came through when we talked specifically about culture.

Despite this, I struggled while putting together our "culture deck." It felt wrong to package up our authentic culture into a set of slides. In my mind, imposing words and images devalued how special and organic our culture truly was.

Then an executive who'd come to Nanigans from a place replete with a top-down culture deck reacted to my hesitancy by saying, "This is exactly why an executive should never create a culture deck." Instead of interpreting other employees' answers to our questions, I began using the real words and imagery they'd used in those conversations. The culture deck came together seamlessly thereafter. The result is a presentation created by every single employee at Nanigans. And upon showing it to executives, their only feedback was, "Keep it exactly as it is."

There is no cookie-cutter framework or five-step process to creating a meaningful culture deck, just like there is no simple formula for creating great company culture.

Genuine culture is organic, not imposed. It's why our executive team didn't write our culture deck, and it's why we fear not the looming hiring challenges that Boston tech companies face. Culture is what keeps people at Nanigans—not our mission statement or how our teams are structured.

About the Author

Cheryl Morris is Director of Marking at Nanigans. Prior to Nanigans, Cheryl was part of the early team that built BostInnovation. She has also worked as a management consultant and at the Federal Reserve.


Cheryl Morris

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