This past week, I read What You Do is Who you Are by Ben Horowitz. I loved his earlier book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, as well as a bunch of his writing on his blog, so I was eager to dive in here.

Ben's main point is that culture is incredibly hard to describe. Instead, it should be defined more by actions than values (in Samurai culture they define these as “virtues” rather than “values”).

Culture helps answer the hundreds of questions per week that people run into...

  • should I work until 5pm, or 8pm?

  • should I stay at the red roof inn, or the four seasons?

  • should I spend 30 hours deciding on the color of a button, or 5 minutes?

He argues that the actions and encoding of these actions is what guides a company's culture.

The book is sprinkled with a lot of lessons from Intel (who more or less defined the first version of silicon valley culture with casual dress, "best idea wins", equity for employees, and cubicles), Amazon, Apple, and others.

It also puts a focus on several different historical cultural initiatives, slave rebellions, samurai code, and gang prison culture.

A few lessons so far:

  • culture must be led by example... but this is not sufficient to create a good culture.

  • one way to define culture is 'shocking rules'. these are rules which run so counter to the status quo, that they immediately make you ask "why?". Amazon's original desk policy is an example of this-new employees used to have to assemble their own desks from a door from Home Depot. when asked why, Bezos responded "to keep the absolute minimum cost for our customers". Move fast and break things is another good example.

  • culture is situation/market dependent. Amazon and Apple have entirely different cultures, but both can work.

His biggest point that has me thinking right now is "culture answers the question: what do I need to do to be successful in an organization?" At the end of the day, the behavior that is rewarded and valued is what describes the rules.

My other big takeaway is that there's no "right way" to design a culture. Different cultures work for different companies, in different markets. You should try as best as possible to create a culture that works with your personality, value system, and markets. You may never get to 100% cultural coherence, but it will act as a tailwind for you. 

Similar to our manager values, the other good reminder is how much trust must be a fundamental tenet to your culture. If you don't have trust, everything else erodes underneath it.