The culture of an organization is its most unique feature. The founders may have a set of expectations going in about how to build their company, but for the most part, the company’s culture develops organically. The following excerpts offer a glimpse into how founders identified their company’s core values and the practices that help them observe these principles every day.
I realized everyone stumbles at 30. So, once you hit 30 people, some people get left out of conversations; for whatever logistical reasons, it changes everything. This last year was just about building the company; it was less about building the product or making money and more about ensuring everybody in the organization is part of the conversation. We try to ensure that people don’t feel decisions are arbitrary; they feel they have a say in how things are run.
One of the first things we did in Icertis was to set up our framework of values. We called it FORTE —Fairness, Openness, Respect, Teamwork, and Execution. But what was more important was our learning from previous experiences. Rather than picking up these values and putting them up on the wall, we asked ourselves, “Where do we fail while implementing these values in business?” It became a great exercise. Every time we have our biannual planning sessions, we do this with the whole team to see where we failed in the last six months; it is always an eye-opening experience.
Values define culture—if the values are strong,
ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS WE DID IN ICERTIS WAS TO SET UP OUR FRAMEWORK OF VALUES. WE CALLED IT FORTE—FAIRNESS, OPENNESS, RESPECT, TEAMWORK, AND EXECUTION.
— MONISH DARDA
and your hiring, onboarding, and career progression emphasizes and enhances those values, the company’s culture gets built automatically. We arrived at our values from the synthesis of our experiences as founders—but defining the culture in the Icertis way—it needs the whole village!
The word that defines the culture at SplashLearn is openness. It sounds deceptively simple, but it takes time and effort to achieve it. In the first couple of years, we used to be wary about sharing certain details with the larger team. Over time, we realized a startup journey is like a roller-coaster ride, and your team is your seat belt. On this ride, you need to ensure that your seat belt is tight and steady, and the only way that can happen is with trust.
Now, we try to be open about where we are going as a company, our numbers, and even our challenges. Once you’re willing to be open and vulnerable, you’ll notice a definite boost in the level of trust within the team.
So we lay a lot of emphasis on ensuring there’s a high level of transparency and everyone knows the big picture because team alignment is one of the most crucial ingredients needed for the success of any company. If the team doesn’t trust you, you’ll find it hard to grow as a company.
Whatever your personality, that tends to be the culture of the organization in the early days. If you come to the office every day at 11 a.m., you will see everyone coming at 11 a.m. If you are not very disciplined about your work, and you are a more creative person, then you will see that everyone will start following that. Entrepreneurs will need to understand that they inaugurate the organization’s culture when they start. People look up to them. The day you start the company, you are already on a pedestal. Everybody who is joining you is backing
TEAM ALIGNMENT IS ONE OF THE MOST CRUCIAL INGREDIENTS NEEDED FOR THE SUCCESS OF ANY COMPANY.
– ARPIT JAIN
your dream and taking a disproportionate amount of risk alongside you. So, whatever you do, people will follow you, and that defines the culture of the organization, which becomes very difficult to change later on. Obviously, you can change a lot of things as you scale with money and everything else, but the beginning trend gets deeply ingrained in the organization’s culture.
We have just collected at all points people around us who are so much better than us, period. If you get that, you are always learning. As an entrepreneur, people basically start thinking that you are somehow more important and better at doing everything than everyone else because you created the company. The day you start feeling that, you are basically on a downhill. If you are not aligning yourself in having people around you who you know are better than you in everything that you do, you are not going to build a great business—and that has been a very core belief. Hopefully, we have been successful in doing that over a period of time. We have put so much time and effort and energy into getting this world-class team around us that even if we become a $10 billion revenue company, they will be great. Just be genuine. People underestimate the power of genuine intent and belief. If you really believe in the fact that you can change the world, you truly can.
If you ask me about culture, I cannot avoid mentioning two important things. One is Hewlett Packard (HP), my first company. HP taught me how to treat employees and how to build a great culture. Let me quote an example. HP used to have a personal loan for employees and my limit was Rs 5 lakh. This was in 1997; at the time, 5 lakh was a lot of money—I guess 5 lakh is a lot of money even in 2021!. I emailed my manager, Mathiazhagan, at 11 a.m. and he approved and cc’d HR and Finance. At 3.05 or 3.10 p.m., the money was sitting in my bank account. No paperwork, no signature needed anywhere, nothing, just one email. They truly trusted their employees, and it was a fantastic experience. Ayee Goundan, who was my boss in the next company and a godfather-like figure to me, once said something similar to the effect of, “Trust is not about honesty or just being truthful; trust is like a double-sided coin. You need to have competence and character.” These kinds of core concepts I understood very deeply and internalized through the time I spent in HP and Selectica.
Now, every week at Kissflow, we have an all-hands meeting and we call that program G2G: Good to Great. We meet every single Friday from 5.30–6.30, even during these corona times, we do it using Google Meet. All employees share their experience in G2G. At Kissflow, we also built a continuous learning program for the core group of 50 middle managers. We called this program OrangeScape Leadership Program, OLP for short. Every month we meet for half a day in a five- or four-star hotel, start at 4 p.m., go through the leadership topics, spend time together, finish at eight in the evening, have drinks and dinner and then go home. And then twice a year we do an all-company outing, bonding and building relationships with the rest of the company . . . and recently we ran a program called 5 Seeds of Power which is about how internally employees can unleash their personality and how you can combine people’s personalities together and then have a great working environment.
We invest a lot in culture, in fact, we have a dedicated person with the title ‘Culture Shepherd’. He finished his Ph.D. in organizational behavior from IIT Madras. He came on board . . . and he’s been with us for the last three or four years now, and he primarily focuses on Kissflow’s culture. That is his full-time job. We take culture pretty seriously, and we have invested money, effort, and energy heavily in building the company’s culture.
Unless we can create world-class products and world-class companies here in India, we will never have world-class incomes or healthcare, or any of that. At the microeconomic level, we don’t have enough skilled workforce. This is because we keep exporting skilled people and cannot deepen the skill set; we don’t have enough people who train in those skills. Simply saying “we have colleges” is not enough because you cannot teach a person how to build an MRI machine in a college; you have to learn by doing it. There are some
THE VISION FOR ZOHO HAS ALWAYS BEEN TO FIND OUT WAYS TO TAKE THE TALENT POOL AND DO SOMETHING WORTHWHILE WITH IT.
— SRIDHAR VEMBU
core concepts, but ultimately, it has to come from the deeper process of doing it. We cannot just consume without producing anything, and we have not created enough such companies here.
We want Zoho to be that company in software and technology. The vision for Zoho has always been to find out ways to take the talent pool and do something worthwhile with it. That is why Zoho exists. If you see our product portfolio, you will see that we don’t feel bound by a particular market or a product. Rather, we ask ourselves: given our resources and financial and managerial skills, what can we do with the talent pool? If we feel that there is an opportunity in a market where we can employ our talent well and have the financial resources to compete, we do that.
The crisis is a great time for a company in terms of building culture, for it brings people together. The whole idea is to connect with folks, to actually explain to them what I am thinking right now and ask them what they are seeing in their function, in their region, in their roles and try to focus on the positivity. The only mistake founders can make is not having a survival plan and assuming that the good times will come back soon. If they come, we are all happy, but if they don’t, you have to be ready. Make sure that you have a survival plan and then focus on how you can emerge stronger when the crisis is over. Focus on leading with positivity, focus on finding those opportunities, and also talking to customers, talking to employees. It’s a great time to connect. I would say as a CEO I spent more time with my employees in two to three weeks in March (during the 2020 lockdown) than I probably did in all of 2019. So, I think it’s a great opportunity to connect. These tough times actually bring people together. There are so many employees who actually offered to me saying, we will take a pay cut, we know what you are going through and so we want to also do that. I told them, it’s not come to that yet but thank you for the offer. If we need it, I’ll come and ask you but right now we don’t have to do that. So, I think it was very gratifying to hear that from employees, and you know how people are feeling connected to the company. It’s a great opportunity to bond with people in times of crisis also.
- USE CRISIS TO BUILD AND COMMUNICATE CULTURE
- CULTURE STARTS WITH THE FOUNDER(S)/ FOUNDING TEAM