Culture matters — but why, and what does it even mean?

For many organizations — large/small, traditional/techy — culture is oft defined by a list of words describing shared values. Many include words you might expect, like customer obsessed (Microsoft), empathy (Slack), results-oriented (Salesforce). Others sound more unique like draw the owl (Twilio), you can make money without doing evil (Google), servant’s heart (Southwest Airlines)

At Parsable, we believe culture serves two purposes:

  1. It allows teammates — especially as we grow — to have a shared understanding of what it means to be a good Parsable citizen. It’s our Constitution: how we should behave every day in the service of our mission.
  2. It guides us to hire folks who share in these common values and screen out folks who are bad fits. It’s our Immigration Policy.

In that light, I found the words above which are meant to describe culture lacking, because:

  1. How do I know when I close my eyes and imagine empathy that I’m imagining the same thing as my co-workers? How can we have a shared understanding of culture if it’s described by words for which we don’t have a shared understanding? We don’t want a vague Constitution.
  2. How can I screen a candidate for draw the owl or customer obsessed? What questions do I ask that candidate? What does a good answer look like? A bad answer? We don’t want a vague Immigration Policy.
  3. Where do these culture words come from in the first place? Are they a reflection of the values of the founders/execs, decided by a committee, a grab bag of words that sound good? We want guides that reflect the cultural aspirations of the company: the best selves we want to continue to become.

I was looking for a better, more authentic way to describe & implement our culture. A few months ago, Christina Kelly at First Round (FRC is one of our awesome set of investors) recommended I read Hiring for Attitude, by Mark Murphy. The book details a simple and powerful algorithm to discover, describe & enforce culture. I encourage you to read it, particularly if you’ve founded or are running a company.

Simple and powerful, but not easy: it took ~6 weeks and significant effort to discover & describe our culture. The book suggests hiring a consultancy to help, but as a founder, I thought it important to drive this journey myself.

The process looked like this:

  • I interviewed 15 team members (we were about 40 at the time) for 1–2 hours each, sampled randomly across the entire company (Engineering, Product, Design, Sales, Customer Operations, Execs) and across our three offices (San Francisco, Austin, Vancouver). I asked them the following 4 questions:
1. Please list 3-to-5 attitudes or personality traits that you think describe the most successful people at our Company. When describing each trait, describe it in a such a way where two strangers could observe the behavior.
2. Please list 3-to-5 attitudes or personality traits that you think describe the least successful people at our Company. When describing each trait, describe it in a such a way where two strangers could observe the behavior.
3. Think of someone in the organization who truly represents our culture. Could you tell me about a time he or she did something that exemplifies having the right attitude? It could be something big or small, but it should be something that made an impression on you. Also tell me why it made an impression.
4. Without naming names, think of someone who works (or worked) in the organization who did not represent our culture. Could you tell me about a time this person did something that exemplifies having the wrong attitude? It could be something big or small, but it should be something that made an impression on you. Also tell me why it made an impression.
  • I collected ~500 stories from these answers, and grouped them into themes which formed the basis of our cultural pillars (we discovered we have 7 of them). It’s important to note that my teammates did most of the work here: by generating the stories. Grouping them just involved finding similarities among the stories, both negative & positive. My dining room table looked like this for about a month.
Stories getting assembled into cultural pillars
Stories getting assembled into cultural pillars
  • The stories above were also used to generate Word Pictures for each cultural pillar. You turn stories into Word Pictures by removing names and turning them into “When ___ , I ____ .” statements. The principle is that empathy can mean different things to different people, but when teammates read “When talking to someone, I ask open-ended questions and seek to understand their perspective before adding my inputs.” it’s pretty likely they will imagine the same scene = Word → Picture. To read more about the power of behavioral specificity and Word Pictures, I encourage you to read the book. It’s really worth it.
  • Finally, the themes above were used to generate interview questions for each cultural pillar. These interview questions have a very specific format, also described in the book.
  • Interview questions without an answer guide — to discern good vs. bad answers — are not very useful. To create our Answer Guide, I surveyed the entire company with these same questions (10 of them in total) and collected hundreds of answers.
  • I mapped these answers into Positive Signals (congruence with the cultural pillar) and Warning Signs (sign of lack of congruence). These real answers serve as our Answer Guide when comparing answers given by our interview candidates to the same questions.
  • Because we love Star Wars at Parsable, we ascribed a different Star Wars character as the “patron totem” for each cultural pillar.

During this process, two things of note happened:

  1. Teammates opened up and told me amazing stories of their peers going above & beyond: coming through for a teammate in time of need, making personal sacrifices for the good of the team & company, etc. Often, these were silent heroes, so I hadn’t known of many of these feats until I performed the interviews. That alone made running this process myself worth it. We recognized these Parsable culture heroes with LEGO Star Wars characters for the specific cultural value they exemplified with their actions.
  2. Some of our answers to our own interview questions (mine too) ended up in the Warning Signs section for some cultural pillar. A team & company is a work in constant progress, and this exemplifies the aspirational nature of culture: we are not all good at all things. Rather than get demoralized, the team has rallied and seen this as an opportunity to improve. It helps validate why seeing opportunity in difficult situations is one of our cultural pillars.

Below is the presentation I gave our entire team at the culmination of that discovery process.

This is only a milestone in Parsable’s long journey. If you’re curious to live & shape our culture, consider joining us. As reward for introspective and action-oriented work, many LEGO Star Wars characters may be in your future.

Stories getting assembled into cultural pillars