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How I Stopped Hating Corporate Culture and Learned to Love It

Hi! My name is Max, I run Admitad Startups — a factory that builds online businesses. I want to share with you today some thoughts that I’ve been ruminating on for quite a long time before transforming them into a written form. It’s a complex topic, after all. Even the Internet folklore places it somewhere between ’damned nonsense’ and ’the essentials a business can’t grow without.

To be honest, this text is not about the corporate culture at Admitad Projects but the evolution of my relationship with the concept of corporate culture. It went from hate to acceptance and love.

However, my goal is not to describe in bullet points what we have in our company. I’m not planning to be like, “Take my advice, apply it to your business, and live happily ever after!” — I just want to share my experience and tell you what you can pay attention to.

How come?

My first exposure to corporate culture was while studying when I was investigating the practices of major corporations. The chapters devoted to it were the most boring ones and contained little to no information with practical value. Neither second nor third exposure changed my mind. Most importantly, my communication with employees of large companies didn’t influence it either.

Those working in major corporations tend to treat their culture with a fair amount of cynicism. Sure, top managers hand it down as if it were a fundamental truth. Nonetheless, the higher an employee’s position, the stronger their disregard for all these rules and values.

Of course, there are exceptions passed on by word of mouth like some sort of urban legend. There might even be ’corporate samurai’ — managers who completely disappeared into their companies…

When harsh realities of practice began to test my theoretical knowledge, my conviction of the artificiality of corporate culture wasn’t even trying to change. Now I clearly understand why.

Our first businesses were communities of people united by common interests and competencies. Simply put, an IT click with all the relevant attributes including introversion, which hadn’t yet become a millennial trend. Our businesses had little contact with the outside world. We relied on ad systems that brought in customers. Nevertheless, we were accumulating the experience of interacting with people. Our savviness increased too: we saw how other companies organized their work — not just due to external observation, but we had a chance to work for these companies as well.

What was the turning point? About 5 years ago, the focus of our main activity shifted to venture business. The number of our contacts multiplied, as well as the experience accumulated through observation. About a year and a half ago, we launched and started developing our startup studio called Admitad Projects. Eventually, it became clear to us that the management process fully conforms to this expression by Peter Drucker:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

We became acutely aware of why it is necessary. The reason for propagating a healthy corporate culture is very simple: it prevents companies from spiraling into a sad pile of shit. A lack of corporate culture considerably reduces the mobility and survival capabilities of any business. Without corporate culture, money becomes a panacea for all problems, which leads to skyrocketing HR expenses for hiring and retaining professionals.

People don’t want to work in companies with no corporate culture. On the other hand, changing already-established rules of conduct is a 99-level challenge that only a few lucky ones can cope with.

And here I’ll interrupt myself to give voice to two of my comrades-in-arms. They are most directly related to the development of corporate culture within our company.

Why businesses need corporate culture at all

That’s a great question, correct and logical. The earlier the company representatives start to ask themselves, the better it characterizes the quality of their management.

While a business is at the startup stage, its team works as a close-knitted collective and shares common values. Everyone understands why they are doing specific tasks. But then, the business begins to grow and develop — and it might transform into a toxic corporation.

To back up this theory, I’d like to share the evolution of responses that a friend of mine sent to his employees who tried to ask him some questions. It’s important to note that his business was growing throughout that whole period.

  • “At first, when someone texted me, I answered them informally and in simple terms, genuinely trying to help.
  • A year later, I started answering these emails bearing in mind that the screenshot with my reply could be copied and sent somewhere further to the management.
  • One more year later, I began to forward requests to colleagues who specialized in that particular subject.
  • Now, I most often answer simply, “You should ask this question to someone else.”

This case shows: that as the company grows, its employees begin to shy away from responsibility or shift it, trying to cover their asses. The management starts punishing the staff for wrongdoing. It’s good when an efficient decision-maker plugs these holes. But what if there are no such decision-makers? Then, you shouldn’t wonder why the strategy remains just a collection of slides on your Mac, even though it was drafted in suffering on numerous meetings and rendered so beautifully.

In such a culture, all questions or requests lose their specifics and become vague to remain safe and help you imitate frenzied activity. It’s easier to forward even the tiniest of challenges to your boss because dealing with them on your own is scary. In this case, a rotten corporate culture has ruined strategy.

What you should do about corporate culture

It’s better to know what you should avoid doing. Avoid giving up all your current tasks for the sake of formulating the principles of corporate culture in agony. Avoid both copying from industry leaders and making something out of thin air. Only your reflection skills will help you understand what works well in your company right now. This is the only thing that enables you to see why some tasks are done smoothly while others are not. Also, you should ask yourself how open you are. And not in speaking your mind, but in your desire to listen when someone is trying to tell you something.

You shouldn’t try to stick to any specific direction, such as carrots or sticks. In real life, there are no clearly defined approaches — or rather, they might only exist in businesses where all staff members walk-in line. However, such companies can’t be full-fledged and successful structures. At the same time, communes with unlimited freedom typically remain social clubs or creative artels with no growth prospects.

When writing down rules of corporate culture, you shouldn’t discard those that seem to be trivial or worded primitively. As I was preparing this article, I formulated the basic principles of our corporate culture. Remember: they first got shaped and took root (and this process was authentic and unforced); we only recorded them.

I was surprised by how much these principles are based on common sense. Nonetheless, they are functional and allow us to work in comfort. The simpler and clearer the ideas you highlight as your work principles, the better. It will be easier for people to accept them without getting into ambivalent interpretations. Moreover, these principles will be spared from cumbersome, pretentious constructions of populist agenda.

Here are the principles of our corporate culture:

  • Openness and predictability.
  • All decisions are based on adequacy and common sense.
  • Never treat your employees the way you don’t want them to treat you.
  • We’re focused on the result of the work. The processes that lead to it should be humane.
  • Keep it fun! We’re not taking others and ourselves too seriously.
  • If an employee states something, the company believes them. However, the person takes full responsibility for what they said.

Although the main thing is not the content of the list but how these principles are implemented in your company. And I think that Admitad Projects seems to live up to it!

But here’s a thing. I said that companies don’t need to invent anything or copy anyone’s business practices forcibly. So a natural question arises: what’s the primary takeaway? My point is that I want a startup that has read this text to assess the principles that underlie its business.

Corporate culture is not something that is written in thick books that newcomers have to read as they join a corporation. This is the foundation and social contract on which healthy non-toxic companies are built. Culture is always present. If you asked me to compare it to any metric, I would think of computer games that have a meter of your army’s morale. It can accelerate your company and make you more competitive. Or it can break all your plans at the stage of execution.

The only question is whether you’re aware of what’s happening to your company. Are you ready to control it — or are you just facing the results, letting your business success depend on luck?

It took me so many years to realize this and completely revise my stance. You can do it faster.

Max Volokhov
maxv.tech
Please contact me: mv@admitad.com

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