March 20, 2014 by Michelle

What We Talk About When We Talk About Culture

A few months ago, during a trip to Portland to talk to the brilliant minds at Reed College, I took some time to catch up with some old college friends over dinner. There was wine and whiskey, there was fantastic food, there was a crazy ice storm going on (Come on, PDX. Ice??! Really?), and there was a lot of catching up. I hadn’t been to Portland in years.

My host and a great friend for many years was Luke Kanies, who, after being a mostly surly and occasionally charming – and always crazy smart – college kid, grew up to be the fancy-pants founder and CEO of Puppet Labs. That sometimes still surprises me, but it’s a true story. So, with someone whose success has been so great sitting at the table with me, I couldn’t help but talk a little about a question we’ve been chewing on for a while.

What, really, is “culture” in the workplace? What’s a good one? What’s a bad one?

beerNatalie mentioned in a recent blog post about South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) that there’s a weird obsession with ping pong tables in tech companies and that the presence of one somehow means you’ve done culture right. We have one in our beloved firehouse, but it’s almost never used. Are we failing at culture?! We don’t have a company chef prepping  fresh, farm-to-table meals for our staff every day – or, really, ever. Not once in 11 years. Are we failing at culture? We are killing it with the kegerator and we have 2 office dogs and 2 office pigs. We are obviously winning at culture. Right?

When I was talking about this with Luke, he said something to the effect of “You know, when we talk about culture, we can be talking about 2 different things. Do we wear the same kind of shoes? Or do we work the same way? I don’t give a s*** about your shoes. I want to know that we can work together.”

*** Note: Luke may or may not have used expletives. He did, after all, have his twin daughters and another child within earshot. But I did mention he can be surly, right? I know him well enough to say this with certainty: He does not give a s*** about your shoes. Incidentally, in the CK ownership team’s home closets, there are, at last count, 12 pairs of Fluevogs. I’m sorry.

What is culture if it’s not about shoes?


Fluevogs one, two, and three.

I’ve been reading a few books on culture and hiring lately (and so can you!), and I’ve been deliberately seeking out books that don’t focus on tech.

When I read Natalie’s comment that she cringed when someone on a SXSWi panel said “We have music playing, so you know it’s a cool place to work,” I nodded my head and thought “That only works if we like the same music.” Sort of like “That only works if we like the same shoes.”

To be fair, some of the culture focused talks I went to at SXSWi mentioned that creating a diversity of working environments within the company space was valuable. A loud and raucous idea-sharing space. A quiet space for solitary, focused-thought work. A small conference room kind of space for teams to work together on collaborative stuff.

So there was a nod to different working styles – but creating tons of different kinds of spaces is hard to do if you’re in a small space to begin with, as a lot of smaller companies are. The folks talking had worked on the Google and Yahoo campuses, so they had plenty of space to work with.

What surprised me at SXSWi was that almost all of the talks on culture focused around environmental factors and tangible things. A lot of which, to paraphrase Luke, is more about shoes than work. Who wouldn’t want a personal chef? Who wouldn’t want to cuddle with tiny pigs on lunch breaks? Why not have a Donkey Kong console next to the kegerator?

Culture runs deeper than your kegerator


Peaches, CK Canine Cultural Ambassador

The books I’ve been reading really speak to something that rings more true for me and the rest of the CK exec team as we’re trying to really nail this culture thing: It’s more about your work ethic, your expectation of excellence and how you can best get there, whether or not you foster a service orientation, and the extent to which you want to honor people’s lives outside of work.

Gaining consensus around those points, and many others like them, is the really hard work. By comparison, making sure the kegs are flowing with tasty brews and that there are quality ping pong balls on hand is child’s play.

Building that consistency of vision and mission requires some serious reflection and introspection. It requires communication to the point that you think you’re over-communicating. It requires constant vigilance and attention.

I don’t think we’ve nailed this culture thing 100%, but we are working toward it every day. And if I ever do tell you that I think we’ve got it 100% figured out and are doing it perfectly, make sure you tell me that, in that moment, I’m failing at culture.


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