It seems obvious that for a company to succeed, it needs the right products. But many people believe the right culture is so important. Creating this culture has been the holy grail for managers since Tom Peters and Robert Waterman focused on the issue in 1982 in their book "In Search of Excellence." The idea is back in fashion today.
An excellent example is a new book called "What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Build Your Business Culture" by Ben Horowitz of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Horowitz uses some unexpected case studies – Genghis Khan, Japanese samurai, Toussaint Louverture (leader of a Haitian slave revolt) and a retired gang leader named Shaka Senghor.
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It is easy to see the fulfillment of desires in these archetypes: the Silicon Valley tycoon, armed only with a spreadsheet, seeing himself as the modern equivalent of a historical warrior. This sense is accentuated when Horowitz speaks of the contrast between "wartime" executives and "peacetime," an analogy apparently drawn from "The Godfather," a film about the mafia.
Fortunately, the book is not the chest injury orgy that these examples might suggest. Horowitz draws some thoughtful lessons from each of his examples. See Genghis Khan, best known for his quick achievements and bloody massacres. The author's leadership lesson is about Genghis's meritocratic approach; he was willing to promote people from conquered tribes and allowed religious freedom in his empire. The only condition was loyalty to his government.
Toussaint Louverture was notable for his strong ethical code and willingness to forgive his enemies; he even allowed slave owners in Haiti to keep their land as long as they agreed to reward their workers properly. Shaka Senghor also imposed a strict code of behavior on the prison gang.
The underlying principle is that culture cannot be merely a mission statement that sounds godly in the annual report. It must be expressed in the form of actions daily. The goal is to embed the culture so deeply that employees behave right when no one is looking.
Leaders set the tone. If they lie, shout or curse, others will do the same. The corollary is that if they want to encourage good behavior, they need to get involved. Companies may want a diverse team, but often, says Horowitz, they try to accomplish this by naming a "head of diversity" or hiring consultants. At Andreessen Horowitz, managers are asked to consult more broadly, asking, for example, African Americans what talent they would look for in a new candidate. The company's staff is now 55% female and 22% African American.
Some cultures have bad effects, of course. At Uber, the hitchhiker, the values were encapsulated in slogans like "champion mentality" and "always be hustlin." The effect was to create a highly competitive culture that eventually led to various scandals and the departure of Travis Kalanick, the co-founder. Horowitz argues that Uber's board should have realized that the company's aggressive culture would inevitably lead to difficulties.
The author's examples are certainly colorful, but they seem as inspired by Kalanick as a culturally sensitive chief executive. Running a business is not like conducting a war where the only goal is victory and casualties are simply considered collateral damage.
It is also worth remembering that the empire of Genghis Khan disintegrated within a generation of his death and that the Japanese economic miracle only occurred after they abandoned the rule of the samurai class. The great leaders of history were not all men of violence; some were women. Managers looking to establish the right corporate culture may want to design their models from a more diverse group.