Everybody On Board (Why Culture Matters Most)

“…I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it…”

As a business owner, this is something I never want to hear from anybody on my team…

Perhaps by now you’ve seen this resignation from Greg Smith, Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

In it, Smith discusses the deteriorating corporate culture of the firm, and is poignant in saying, “I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work”. 

Culture matters. It matters a lot. It may even matter more than experience. Whether you’re a lean startup or a Fortunate 500 company, the culture of your company, and the makeup of your team, cannot be overlooked.

The life cycle of a business is an interesting one – some to which I can speak from experience having started, ran, and grown a business over the past couple years. And some of which I can clearly see through my conversations with others, and resignations like Greg Smith’s.

When you start a company, there’s a lot of “figuring things out” that has to be done. You learn more about yourself, the people you work with, and the clients you serve, than you could imagine. Culture matters, because more often than not, you’ve started this business because you want your work to feel less like work. You want it to make you happy, to excite you, and inspire you – and you never want to lose sight of that.

But once you get into the woods a bit, you realize that culture isn’t everything, that money does, unfortunately, matter (if you’re not making any money doing what you do, you’ve got yourself a hobby, not a job). Your company grows, you take on more clients, and eventually, maybe without even knowing it, you hit a crossroad.

A crossroad that forces you to rethink why you started the business. One that begs the question, “Does culture really matter”? 

I can answer that, based on my professional experience in both big agency life and now as a startup entrepreneur, with a resounding “Yes”. 

Cultivating a positive culture with your company should be a top priority. That requires bringing the “right” people on board. “Right” may not always mean the most talented. The perfect candidate may not have graduated magna cum laude. They may quite simply be the best to work with. It may be the person you can see yourself grabbing a beer with every Friday afternoon. They may not be the most tenured, but they’re committed to the team’s success, willing to learn, and hungry to grow.

Getting those people on board is the first step. Then it’s up to you, as a business owner, or even as a team member of that company sitting at the bottom of the totem pole, to make sure the culture is nurtured. To never forget the values of your company. It requires effort. It may not always come naturally. But you do it by focusing on the “we”, through your interaction with other team members, the work you do for your clients and customers, the products you create, and your commitment to doing great work.

Greg Smith closes his resignation with these poignant words of advice to his former employer:

“I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. Make the client the focal point of your business again. Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons. People who care only about making money will not sustain this firm – or the trust of its clients – for very much longer.”

Don’t forget where you came from. Remember the values that you started with. Bring the right people on board. Weed the wrong people, the toxic one’s – or as Smith calls them – the “morally bankrupt people” out.

Everybody needs to be on board. Including you. 

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