What You Do Is Who You Are is the latest book by Ben Horowitz. His previous book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things was a tour of his experience becoming a leader and provided great advice for leaders navigating challenging times. It was also a refreshing look into the thoughts of someone who was just bumping along as a leader, really unsure of what to do. 

This new book touches specifically on culture, what it is, how to determine if you have problems in your organization’s culture, and how to build a great culture. 

Much of his advice is similar to that you’ll hear from the likes of Schein or Kotter, which is good, I suppose. There are a few things that are new, at least to me. Counterintuitive ideas that, while I’m not convinced, are universal, could be used in certain circumstances to great effect. I’ll try to point out where more comprehensive information can be found on some of the concepts in this book since I think a deeper dive than is available in this text is essential if you plan to try and change the culture of your organization.

Culture has replaced communication as the default excuse for any problem. At one time in my career, the most common refrain was “it’s a lack of communication.” This was so wishy-washy that it was impossible to solve for and usually just resulted in new processes or reports that had little if any impact on any problems of communication much less the real root cause issues. Now I hear less about communication (hey, we have Slack, what’s not to love, ahem…) and more about culture. We have to instill a culture of accountability, innovation, agility, etc. But just as in the case of communication, it’s wishy-washy.

Horowitz, using his specific experience and discussions with outside the box sources (let’s talk about how the business world resembles a prison gang shall we…) peels back the layers just enough so that one can grasp how to actually go about understanding the culture and what impact culture might have. Most importantly, Horowitz doesn’t sugarcoat the very real challenges leaders have in modeling a culture they can be proud of. And in case you were worried, let me just set the table for you right here, just as Deming did, Horowitz isn’t shy about putting the onus right at the feet of the leaders. 

There are also rap quotes just as there were in his previous book, so there’s that. 

I recall a year or so ago being in a company-mandated “managers training” where the internal training department would present some canned training on management. I’m more apt to just get through these types of training without making too many waves. Still, in this particular class, the instructor had spent so much time burnishing his credentials that I felt a need to ping him just a bit (kept describing himself as a consultant to leadership, yet I’d never heard of him). When he asked the class what culture was, I immediately responded, “the worst behavior you will accept in the organization.” I knew this wasn’t the culture but a reflection of it, as Schein would say this would reflect the basic underlying assumptions that are held, as opposed to what everyone says the culture is. 

Leaders, to their peril, often don’t take this seriously. The behavior you accept in the organization reflects on the actual culture and set of assumptions people have about the organization. This is the case even if the leaders, in fact, don’t hold these values. 

I knew I had to deal with a much deeper problem because it had taken me a year to find out that he was a compulsive liar, during which time he’d been promoted, it had become culturally okay to lie at LoudCloud. The object lesson had been learned, it did not matter that I never endorsed it, his getting away with it made it seem okay.

A leader cannot separate him/herself from the actions of subordinates. See my piece on the independent third party gambit for how this can play out. Ignorance is no defense against cultural toxicity. This is particularly important for things that are less cut and dry as lying. How those who are rising up treat others in the organization, do they shade the truth or fabricate (which is a nice way of saying lie) and get promoted anyway even if others have raised the issue. It becomes clear that no matter what leadership says, acting those ways will get you promoted. Believe me, the employees are watching extremely closely to this behavior and drawing the necessary lessons. It’s is not at all ambiguous to the average employee what is going on.  

It’s all the worse when leaders themselves are not bad people. It’s one thing to work in a firm that is full of sharks and that it’s known and understood. One can accept that environment or not, but it’s clear. It’s worse to have an organization that says one thing but accepts another. You’d almost prefer a tyrant. 

If you see something below standard and do nothing then you have set a new standard. This is also true fo culture. If you see something off-culture and ignore it, you’ve created a new culture.

Good Products beat Toxic Culture

As important as culture is for any organization, it’s important to be clear that a good product can beat a toxic culture. We see this all the time (see the issues with Away for example). I don’t think this is true over the longer term, however. With today’s expectations for high levels of customer service and the ability for any consumer to make a fuss across social media, a great product backed by a lousy culture will eventually seep into the product design, support or maintenance in ways that will degrade the customer experience enough to notice. 

Key tactics to build a culture

Horowitz outlines seven tactics to build a culture you can be proud of. Some resonated more clearly to me than others and some are more easily adopted. 

Keep what works

People don’t easily adopt new cultural norms and can’t absorb an entirely new system all at once. This is advice along the lines of Schein and it makes sense intuitively. You can’t pull up everything about a culture and change wholesale and hope to drag along all or most of the organization. Determine what works is the challenge. Although this book doesn’t cover any suggestions about this, there are good references elsewhere that will be familiar to anyone interested in organizational culture. 

Create shocking rules

In any human interaction, the required amount of communication is inversely proportional to the level of trust. 

A shocking rule is one that elicits a “type 1 experience” for those who are familiar with the OZ Principle or Liminal Thinking. An experience where the rule seems so odd but so clear about the culture. A shocking rule must be memorable, raise the question why, the cultural impact must be strait-forward and the employee must encounter it nearly daily.

On the flip side, I think leaders should be careful about creating rules that are shocking for an entirely different reason. I’ve talked before about silly rules that try to solve for a specific issue that could have been better handled by talking with the employee. Things like the common expense approval processes that make employees beg for approval for even minor things because some guy rented a Ferrari in 1983. Those rules are shocking but not in a good way.

Dress for success

Dress for the culture you want. In cultural analysis artifacts like common dress can blind one to the more deep-rooted cultural assumptions. Dressing in shorts and flip flops doesn’t make your organization a Silicon Valley startup. There is something to be said for draping your organization in a format that mimes what you want to become, however. This is the weakest tactic in my view. If you have to rely on dressing the part you are unlikely to actually change the culture. 

Incorporate outside leadership

Building a great culture means adapting it to circumstances. Outside voices can push the culture. There is a dark side of this, however. The all too common issue that internal people see a problem but are ignored. It takes an outside “expert” to say the same thing, then leadership listens. I think this is demotivating, to say the least. 

Outside ideas and voices don’t necessarily have to come from consultants, however. They can just as well come from books or interviews. The information for just about anything is out there.

Make decisions that demonstrate the cultural priorities

The more counterintuitive the leader’s decisions the stronger the impact on the culture. The reason for this is those counterintuitive decisions will bring to life the culture previously only shown in words. Organizations that have no expense approval policy, for example, are communicating very powerfully that they trust employees to act responsibly. This policy will have much more impact than a speech about how trust is important in the organization. 

Walk the talk

No culture can flourish without the enthusiastic participation of its leadership. This can be difficult since, often, the goals of a cultural transformation involve things like accountability, performance, flexibility and social issues like being a great place to work. All of these say more about leadership and how it should last than it doesn’t the employees. 

Make ethics explicit

Integrity, honesty, and decency are long term cultural investments. “Often CEOs will be exceptionally explicit about goals such as shipping product, but silent on matters such as obeying the law. This can be fatal. It’s because integrity is often at odds with other goals that it must be clearly and specifically inserted into the culture. “ If you have a goal to sell so much product it often goes without saying that breaking ethical standards to meet that goal is not acceptable. 

It wasn’t until the past few years that I fully appreciated this one. If you had asked me five years ago how much time a leader should spend making ethical behavior explicit, I’d have thought it was a given. We follow the rules here and don’t act in an unethical manner. But I’ve now understood how cultures that on the outside reflect a high level of integrity, because of the disconnect between the performance goals of the organization and the internal politics and hierarchy, lines can be crossed. It’s nothing that would end up on the nightly news, but I can see how it can slowly shift the Overton window in an organization over time.  

This shift can occur when leaders push performance measures but are not an active part of the solutioning. A leader must make it clear that the organization has aggressive goals but under no circumstances will we violate our ethical or moral responsibility to achieve those goals. If there is a problem achieving goals, we’ll work as a team to solve for that, but our ethical boundary is inviolable. 

A short cut to understanding your culture today

Similar to Schein’s cultural assessment process, which is a fairly quick (a day or so) way to understand the cultural elements in an organization Horowitz outlines a few quick tools or short cuts to determine what kind of culture you have in your organization, what is important to your organization.

These revolve around new employees. These new elements into your culture will perceive at a very detailed level what is necessary to achieve success in your organization. Observe how these new employees behave in the new culture they find themselves. What behaviors do they perceive will help them fit in and advance? What must these new employees do to survive and succeed in your organization? The new employees will not have been acclimated to the cultural taboos as of yet and so are more likely to let the truth slip, if not in word then in action. 

Connected to this short cut is the real critical idea that your onboarding process must be designed. If new employees are quick to pick up on the culture totems that you may not see, this also means that you have very little time to inculcate them into the preferred culture. 

If any part of the onboarding process is accidental, so is your culture.

Aside from observing deeply new employees and how they integrate into your culture if you want to understand if you may have problems look at who’s quitting your organization. Are the wrong people quitting? And this can be more difficult if you don’t understand who the wrong people are in this context. Are you failing at your priorities as an organization? That will indicate not necessarily that you have a bad culture but that perhaps your culture is not aligned to the goals, or that your goals are wrong. Either way, it’s something that is worthy of a great deal of time considering. And finally, if an employee does something that truly shocks you. This may be an aberration but more likely it indicates some problem you haven’t seen. Something is amiss in your culture that allows that action to take place. 

Are you proposing to tell them in such a way that what people hear is not true?

Finally, if the leadership team is in a position where they try to sugarcoat the issues to staff in such a way as to avoid dealing with difficult issues, then you have a problem. Horowitz called this telling them something in such a way that what people hear is not true. This is no different from lying frankly. If you would never consider lying to your employees, you should not construct a scenario where you lead them down a path that you know to be untrue because it’s easier than having the real conversation. It’s also a short term gambit. You may get out of that uncomfortable all-hands meeting but the employees will figure out the game soon enough, and you will have flushed your credibility as a leader.

Don’t adopt what you don’t understand

At the end of the day, organizational transformations are all the rage (haven’t they always been all the rage?). As a leader, you must be careful not to tack on cultural attributes you don’t understand because you likely you will miss the real cultural idea. Visible things like dress codes might hide a deeper meaning about the culture that simply having everyone dress in jeans won’t accomplish. These artifacts of the culture have deeper underlying assumptions. Schein would call this the difference between a cultural artifact (flip-flops and jeans) and an underlying cultural assumption (ideas are independent of hierarchy or role). 

Heisenberg uncertainty principle of management

And perhaps the best idea out of this book is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Management. The act of trying to measure your culture changes the results. This is similar advice to what Schein preaches but more colorful. Simply observing culture will have an impact on it – and perhaps not in a good way. Leaders must be aware of this. 

All in all, another excellent book by Ben Horowitz. I’d strongly caution, however, that using this book as your sole resource for cultural transformation is a dangerous gamble. You’re more likely to cause confusion frustration than anything else. Do yourself and your organization a favor and spend a great deal fo time getting deeper into the topic of culture and how to transform culture, but use this book as a good entry point into that world. It’s worth the read.