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Book Review: "What You Do Is Who You Are" by Ben Horowitz

If you want to teach your kids behave in a particular way, behave in this way yourself. If you want to make your students interested in the topic you teach, become interested in it yourself. If you want your employees stick to a particular corporate culture, stick to it yourself. That's it, the whole summary of the latest book by Ben Horowitz "What You Do Is Who You Are". Just kidding!:)

The book tells you historical examples of a particular "corporate culture", then provides more modern examples from corporate America, and then summarises these stories into lessons on how to establish corporate culture in a company.

For me, there are three major ideas, highlighted by the book. First, you should "walk the talk" yourself. If you set a certain rule for your employees, kids, students, you should not be exempt from it. Second, corporate culture should be aligned with your own personality, with the goals of your company, and external circumstances. And finally, each statement in your corporate culture should be actionable.


Walk The Talk

If you decided to set up a corporate culture in your company or team, you should be the embodiment of the rules you are trying to set. If you encourage horizontal organisational structure, in which everyone is seen as equal, despite the rank and position, you should position yourself as equal to your subordinates. You can work together with them in the same open-space, you can have lunches together with them in the same kitchen, you can wear clothes that don't scream "Look who's rich here!", you can encourage everyone to call you by your name, and for sure you shouldn't ask for special treatment.

For sure, you have noticed how people tend to change, when they join new companies. Especially you can see this happening at college, when your classmates finish summer internships in investment banking and suddenly start wearing white or blue T-shirts even if it's hot outside. Or you can see this, when junior analysts join large corporations (Citibank, Big4, McKinsey, etc.) and suddenly start dreaming of the same watch as the one belonging to the Managing Director. Sounds stupid, yes. But This is what happens: they see their managers' behaviour everyday and their brain starts believing that to be this successful means behaving in the same way, wearing similar clothes, and joking the same corporate jokes.

The same tendency you can notice, while communicating with kids. They are replicating what they see at adults, because they believe that particular "adult" actions make them more mature, credible, and grown up. It's easy to notice that in a magical way, kids often grow up very similar to their parents. This happens partially because they tend to replicate behaviour of the adults surrounding them. And often these adults happen to be their parents. So, if you want to make your kids eat healthy foods and do sports, the easiest way would be to stop eating hamburgers and French fries in front of them and do some sports on a regular basis.

So, in building corporate culture, and probably any culture, you should walk the talk. And even better - you should not even talk the walk that you cannot walk:))


Don't talk the walk that you cannot walk

Sometimes, you may see that some actors are perfect in playing depressed characters, while the others are more successful in playing wise secondary characters (say, Morgan Freeman). This is not a pure coincidence. Most probably it means that these actors have particular features of character that correspond to such roles. For instance, the person playing depressed characters, might be melancholic, which allows her to enter the state of sadness easily. The same rule seems to hold in management and corporate culture.

A person cannot be someone she is not. For example, if you like coming to the office at 11am and leaving at 9pm, because these are the most productive hours for you, setting up your corporate culture around early office hours will make no sense at all. Because it will be hard for you to comply with it. And even if you overcome yourself and start coming to work at 8am, you won't be productive until 11am, period. Ever wondered why it is so common in some companies to come to the office at 9am and spending 2 hours drinking coffee/smoking/chatting with colleagues? Most probably because these people aren't early birds, but for some reason are forced to come to the office early.

Also, corporate culture is highly determined by your goals and external circumstances. If you are competing on an overcrowded market with large competitors, you would probably need to be quite aggressive and competitive yourself, as you will need to fight for your competitors' current users or compete for the same users with existing giants. This means that you should hire competitive and result-oriented people to your sales team. So, what if you say in your corporate guideline that you "enjoy the process and value mutual support among your employees"? You'd destroy the competitive narrative and set up corporate values that do not correspond your final goal and external circumstances.


No-BS Corporate Culture

Corporate values are often laughed at. And there is a reason for it. Usually, corporate culture is a couple of paragraphs on "integrity, loyalty, and diversity" that no one reads and no one actually understands. People don't understand things that they cannot imagine, because they're too abstract and don't associate with something concrete. To make corporate values the core of your organisation and an actual guide for your employees, you need to make them actionable and unambiguous.

To formulate your values in an actionable way, first of all you need to put on paper everything you want your employees to do and every way, in which you want them to behave. Then, you should understand, with which values you can comply personally as a manager/CEO. And finally, you need rewrite these actions in a more formal way, but without making them abstract.

Say, you want your employees to be honest about problems in your business and be independent in decision making process. So, in the end these two values should sound in the following way:

  • We value openness and honesty about bad news. Whenever our employee identifies a problem in our business, product, or other processes, she should escalate it to the management or her colleagues, and make reasonable efforts to suggest a feasible solution.
  • We encourage our employees to be independent decision makers in issues relevant to their roles in the company. In decision making, each employee should rely on her common sense and, when in doubt, discuss possible solutions with her direct management.
Yes, sentences above are not perfect. But in fact, no corporate culture is perfect. Just like in any business, you can test these corporate values and amend them if they don't work correctly.

Some cool quotes & phrases from Ben Horowitz to put them on slides in the future

1. "Integrity, honesty, and decency are long-term cultural investments."
    2. "Cultures are shaped by more by the invisible than the visible. They are willed" - this quote belongs to Michael Ovitz3. Wizard of Oz problem - when someone lacks either courage, or brain, or heart to be successful by herself.
    4. "When you are a leader, even your accidental actions set the culture."
    5. "Meditating on your company's downfall will enable you to build your culture the right way."
      "Being “founder friendly” implies that you take the founder’s side even when he is mistaken. This kind of “virtue” helps nobody. In fact, it creates a culture of lies. Any time you decide one group is inherently good or bad regardless of their behaviour, you program dishonesty into your organisation."6. "The first rule is if you see a snake, don’t call committees, don’t call your buddies, don’t form a team, don’t get a meeting together, just kill the snake. The second rule is don’t go back and play with dead snakes. Too many people waste too much time on decisions that have already been made. And the third rule of snakes is: all opportunities start out looking like snakes." - belongs to Jim Barksdale, Netscape
      7. "A leader must believe in his own code."
      8. "Culture is not a set of beliefs, but a set of actions."
      9. "The bite only has impact if it comes from a big dog."
      10. "People don't leave the companies, they leave managers."

      Disclaimer: The opinion above belongs to the Senior Investment Analyst of Genesis Investments, Elena Mazhuha, and by no means expresses the official opinion of Genesis Investments, its management, or Genesis Tech. and its founders as well as its management.