Ben Horowitz recently wrote my favorite company culture blog post of all time. Here is the key:
In this post, when I refer to company culture, I am not referring to other important activities like company values and employee satisfaction. Specifically, I am writing about designing a way of working which will:
- Distinguish you from competitors
- Ensure that critical operating values persist such as delightingcustomers or making beautiful products
- Help you identify employees that fit with your mission
That is a big deal. It is not about yoga or massages or open layout or all-hands meetings or transparency. Great culture is about things that help you win.
When I reflected on it, I have only been a part of one company that had a culture that was meaningful in this way: Advertising.com.
Advertising.com had a culture centered on one event: The War Room.
The War Room was an all-hands meeting that happened every day at 9am. It was a 30 minute review of the previous days results. The CEO attended, the COO attended, everyone attended – almost every day.
This was a powerful, powerful message. Advertising.com was (is) a performance advertising network – we were arbitrageurs. We were squeezing pennies out of nickels, so there was a significant operational component to the business: When you make all of your money at the margins, neatness counts. The CEO and COO would call people out: What happened with this campaign yesterday? Why was performance not better? What are we doing to improve results tomorrow?
This had an interesting by-product: There was a culture of early risers at Ad.com. At 9am, someone important was going to ask you about the operational details of things that happened the prior day. The worst answer was, “I don’t know, I will look into that”. The best answer was, “The targeting was over-constrained, we have already made a change this morning and it is already looking better.”
You wanted to give the best answer, so you needed to be ready. You needed to have reviewed your campaigns prior to the all-hands. You needed to identify and resolve issues right then.
And if you think about it, the result was not just that the all-hands was better and you looked better: We made more money. Results the next day were better because you took care of business at 8am instead of 2pm. That is 6 hours of incremental profitability that goes right to the bottom line.
What made this work: This was a rare and real example of top-down commitment. The entire senior management team was in the room at 9am every morning. They called in if they were traveling. They were engaged. This isn’t about putting together some values and sending out a quarterly email. This is 30 minutes every day spent reinforcing the real, REAL values of the business: Operational excellence, attention to details, doing the little things that make the difference between losses and profits in a performance business.
The result: One of the best acquisitions of all time. Because the founders stayed after Aol acquired them and continued to reinforce the culture, even Aol was unable to screw it up for years and years.