The question over on Quora was How should a new startup develop and sustain a strong company culture? I decided not to answer the essential how-to, but rather to share my experience in this area, which is more like a reality check on startup culture than anything else. The following is straight from my Quora answer.

Culture is not what you say

Culture isn’t what anybody says, it’s what the leaders do. You can write mottos and pin poster on the wall, send memos around, write mission statements and mantras, develop tag lines, and repeat seemingly meaningful phrases at meetings … but what determines the culture is what leadership values – not what it says it values, either, but what it actually values with actions, policies, decisions, priorities, rewards, praise and everything else that happens all day every day.

Leaders, as people, rarely change who they really are. They will nurture new ideas or not, listen or not, treat their people fairly or not, depending on their values, their past, and who they are. Sometimes people can change over time, but that’s rare.

Leaders frequently believe their words and ignore or fail to realize that their actions contradict their words. This is why businesses are so full of hype and spin and meaningless drivel in mission statements and the like. Have you ever seen a company that doesn’t say they believe customer service (for example) is extremely important? But how many flow that thought into actual policies and performance. Similarly, is there any business that doesn’t say it values innovation? But how many businesses actually reward people for questioning authority or trying to do things differently? These are big-company examples everybody knows, but I use them to make a point about startups.

What’s a strong culture?

And your question itself offers an implicit example in itself. You say “strong culture.” What’s that? One leader could say a strong culture is when people compete with each other constantly, spend infinite hours in the office, and value stress. The next could say strong culture is one that develops a mission to make the world a better place, treats everybody fairly, and cares about its customers. Which is strong?

What matters is who you are and what you do, not who you want to be, or what you say you believe.

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