Lessons from Startup Culture Meetup

The great thing about startups and their leaders is a restless drive for improvement. I rarely meet people who see possibility and want to realize it with their energy or persistence.

Ongoing invention was the theme of Startup Culture Meetup last night by sponsored by KulturEnvy and Swissnex. I felt a profound hopefulness for organizations and leadership in general listening to Greg Kunkel, SVP & Co-founder at NextJump, James Psota, CTO & Co-founder at Panjiva, and Jason Henrichs, COO & Co-founder at PerkStreet Financial.Grow your own culture

‘Evolutionary pressure’ is good

Here’s an example of that restlessness. In conversation with Greg Kunkel, he described how startup and growing companies never free like they have enough people. What that means when someone leaves is that the team’s first thought is to replace that guy. But Kunkel asks, “Are you sure? You have the chance to change the way you do things, find efficiencies, maybe automate some part of the work, or pare back on what’s not critical. Be really sure there isn’t a better way to organize. Then we’ll find a replacement.”

You could choose to hear that as, “We’re not supporting team leaders. Do more with less.” But what he was communicating was his company’s way of thinking: don’t assume anything, take a close look at how conditions have changed and take advantage of them, adapt to thrive. Maybe he should call it the evolutionary pressure of small.

Invest in culture early

Henrichs summed up the lesson of the evening: “When you start, you don’t have time or money. Looking back, I wish we’d invested in culture more earlier.” Most of the advice that the three offered describe habits and initiatives that were cheap, too.

Psoto and Henrichs both talked about their decision to define mission, vision, and values – the seeds of culture – as part of their strategic plan. They spend time with every employee to communicate it. They take regular retreats. They also talked about how, over time, simplifying that vision and the expression of those values helped everyone clarify what’s important and recognize ways to bring them to life.

In fact, Kunkel talked about how they borrowed a method from an outstanding Manhattan preschool. NextJump now holds a twice monthly reflection time that asks, “What did we do? What will to do more of? What do we want to try in the next two weeks to make that work better?” That’s reflective practice. This bunch is well on their way to the goal of self leadership: to notice yourself in action, rather than afterward, and modify as you go: reflection in action.

Other ideas for action

Recruiting and selection: Psoto aptly said that the challenge of startups is primarily an emotional challenge, so be sure to interview for emotional intelligence and people’s ability to manage themselves under pressure. As a corallary, there are few processes and too few people. So much of the work is about making something new, under great uncertainty, all while under pressure. That requires people who can do the work, take responsibility, and create ad hoc process that fits the situation and toss them when facing a novel situation.

Performance: Kunkel and NextJump incorporated contribution to culture into the performance evaluation and review process as a measure comparable to contribution to revenue. He said, “That got people’s attention.” It’s not about being nice to each other, “it’s about everybody taking responsibility for creating the culture.”

Foster independent operators: Henrichs said, “We overinvest in communication and depend on peer to peer leadership.” He also described the way he communicates responsibility: leadership by staring. When people ask him whether they should do something, he just stares. He should have gotten a bigger laugh here. “What people come to understand,” he said, “Is that you don’t need my permission. What I’m not saying is, ‘Just go do it.'”

Maybe the most important factor of fostering independent operators is the effort these leader put into creating the mental models and principles for action. They place a premium on transparency, err on the side of distributing responsibility, are open to reviewing what’s not working and getting feedback themselves, and they engage in candid discussion about how well this deal or that feature conformed to company values. Taken together, these experience create ways of thinking that allow people to act in alignment with the vision and with those who share it. That takes real generosity in leaders. In fact, Henrichs describe how he didn’t even know that the team had rolled out a mobile app. And he was thrilled.

Kunkel said that when I comes to managing, “You can’t get people to do what you want.” Brilliant and true. “So how can I get them to do what they want that’s also what we want.” Given their commitment to creating culture that allows people to thrive and make a difference, these leaders recognize that you need an organization that can free them for a bigger, meaningful, creative act every day.

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