A few weeks ago, one of the organizations I work with started its board meeting with the icebreaker, “tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know”. Someone shared that he had carried the torch in an Olympic relay. Then, even more surprisingly, he showed us the actual Olympic torch.
This created quite a stir. The Olympic torch? What was he doing with it? Wasn’t the Olympic torch a one-of-a-kind item passed hand-to-hand, for thousands of miles, from Greece to the site of the Olympics?
“Wait, wait, wait,” he blurted out after noticing our confusion. “You don’t pass the torch. You pass the flame”.
That certainly explained a lot. But once my confusion subsided, his story continued to resonate because I’ve been thinking a lot about corporate culture. And that phrase - don’t pass the torch, pass the flame - manages to capture in seven words exactly how I think about corporate culture.
Too many people think that corporate culture is something you design. That first you do a product plan, then you put together your marketing plan, and finally, you sit down and write out what you want your culture to be. Then you do a PowerPoint, create some break room posters, put them on your HR materials and you’re done.
But as anyone who has children understands, shaping behavior has very little to do with what you say and almost everything to do with how you act.
Companies are no different. Cultures aren’t aspirational. They are observational. Your culture springs from the behavior of the founders; how they act, how they treat each other, and how they treat their employees, vendors, and customers. Those things you write down, put into your culture deck, and carve into the cornerstone of your building? They are all just torches - and torches by themselves have no meaning.
It doesn’t matter how loudly you proclaim that your company only hires “A” players, or doesn’t tolerate assholes, or encourages innovation so long as you continue to promote “B” and “C” players, don’t fire your brilliant jerks, or reward your star salespeople rather than your innovators.
Behavior is everything – and no behavior communicates a company’s culture more clearly than who it promotes, who it fires, and who it rewards.
When a company is small, this cultural imprinting happens naturally, since it usually is one of the founders who is doing the promoting, firing, and rewarding, and the company is small enough that everyone sees what is happening and knows why.
Where things get challenging is when your company starts to get bigger. Your promotions, firing, and recognition grow increasingly distant, impersonal, and opaque.
Employees gain new titles with little notice and no mention of why those particular skills were valued. Companywide meetings grow unwieldy, and the weekly “recognition and rewards” segment gets moved to monthly, then quarterly, then to not-at-all. And firing someone? A process that was always cloaked in secrecy becomes virtually invisible. If it happens at all.
Since culture is observational, the best way to pass the flame is to let other people see it. The answer is transparency.
Promotions - and the skills and experiences that merited being tapped for greater responsibility - need to be made explicitly visible. Take every opportunity to talk about a promotion – shamelessly embarrass them if necessary. This is not a retention tactic for a prized employee - it’s signaling to everyone else what skills, experiences, and characteristics you think are important. Especially when a position is coveted or competitive, let people know who got it - and why.
Conversely, when (as will inevitably happen) you need to let someone go, don’t obfuscate your reasons, or - even worse - participate in face-saving falsehoods. Gather the full company together and be clear and honest. Lay it all out there; what did the person do wrong? What skill or trait did they lack? Nothing will send a stronger signal of what you DO find important.
And when an employee at any level displays a trait that represents what you truly value, recognize it. Don’t be the leader who endlessly bloviates about how highly they value “innovation”, but then ignores their innovators in favor of showering awards on a drone who beat a sales target. Don’t only make recognition public, prominent and persistent - make sure it is consistent with the things that are truly important.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not opposed to writing your culture down. Culture decks are great tools for helping potential employees know what they might expect. But their purpose is to reflect a culture that already exists – not to create it or transmit it.
Imprinting your values on a company is just about the only thing you can do that will survive you. I left Netflix more than 15 years ago, but I still see elements that make it clear it still carries my DNA. The company may not look like me, but it definitely has my nose.
When it comes down to it, your words, your manifestos, and yes, your culture deck are all just the torch. What counts is how you act. What counts is how you behave. What counts is who you promote, who you fire, and who you reward.
Ultimately, all that counts is that flame.