Company culture must be formed intentionally — and it starts at the top - Technical.ly

Company Culture

Oct. 5, 2020 3:16 pm

Company culture must be formed intentionally — and it starts at the top

Founders and people ops leaders from First Round Capital, Duolingo, Relay Network and Seer Interactive on the evolution of company culture, how to exemplify culture as the head of an organization, and what bad culture looks like.
Seer Interactive founder Wil Reynolds speaks at PTW16.

Seer Interactive founder Wil Reynolds speaks at PTW16.

(Photo by Resolution Rentals for Technical.ly)

While culture can be one of the most critical parts of how companies operate these days, identifying “good” culture isn’t a one-size-fits-all system.

The best culture is created by the people within an organization. It’s there in the great moments, like in celebrating wins or bringing on new team members, said Duolingo Chief People Officer Christine Rogers-Raetsch. But it’s also there in the not-great times.

“I think the culture you set is defined by the worst behavior that you’ll tolerate,” Pittsburgh-based Rogers-Raetsch said during a panel on company culture and leadership at Philly Tech Week 2020 presented by Comcast’s Introduced by Technical.ly conference. “Things will happen outside of bounds, and it’s how you treat those people” that matters most.

Rogers-Raetsch said she’s moved away from the term of “human resources” because in its past, that title has been all about compliance, which doesn’t necessarily add value to companies anymore. People operations and culture roles instead focus on engagement and behavior.

Often culture is built as a company grows, the panelists said. Seer Interactive founder and VP of Innovation Wil Reynolds said like many other founders he knows, he started Seer because he had an idea — and because a former boss didn’t allow him to go out and spend his lunch hour volunteering. He wanted the freedom and ability to act on his idea on his terms, but he didn’t know he’d be leading a hundred people someday.

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In Reynolds’ case, that means operating with a lot of transparency, communication and acknowledgement about what he is and isn’t good at. It also means meeting with every new person (and intern!) who starts at Seer.

“I talk to them about why I started the company so they can hear it from my mouth and not from someone else,” he said. “And culture to me is accessibility to the leaders. If I can talk to an intern in their first week at Seer, then hopefully they can feel that much more comfortable in their time here.”

Two-time founder Matt Gillin agreed that startup founders are usually so focused on getting the idea off the ground that they’re not considering culture. It happened with his first company, he said.

“You wake up one day and you’ve got borderline chaos going on in your organization because you weren’t thinking about the culture,” he said. “We woke up and realized there was a culture and we didn’t have anything to do with it.”

With his second company, Relay Network, his leadership team was much more intentional, Gillin said. The best culture is authentically coming from the people within the org and it shows up in times of difficulty. It’s a key ingredient in building, and especially in retaining good people, the CEO said.

Sense of culture often originates with the founder because they’re the first person in the company, First Round Capital Managing Director Josh Kopelman said, but if there’s a shared sense of that culture, it allows employees a sense of agency. Great culture to him includes transparency and people operating as credit givers, rather than credit takers.

“I think also culture is not what you put on paper, but how you live and operate,” Kopelman said. “I’ve seen many ‘work hard play hard’ cultures that are really just work hard. It’s far more driven by action and by boundary testing, what happens when someone goes outside the bounds and how does the organization respond.”

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