Tobin Arthur • November 29, 2019

I enjoy reading material by Ben Horowitz and his recent book “What You Do is Who You Are” is no exception. Ben takes on the task of exploring what makes for healthy company culture and articulating how one shapes said culture. This is no small task, but he takes an unorthodox approach and it worked for me.

Culture is Complicated

Horowitz explores three odd historical figures to demonstrate leaders who influenced culture. He started with Haitian slave Toussaint Louverture then moved to murderer-turned-author Shaka Senghor and finished with Genghis Khan. But he didn’t dwell on their troubled past, he focused on their personal evolution and the subsequent influence on everyone around them. 

In other words, culture is evolving just as we are evolving. The question is whether we are evolving toward something worthy. Horowitz also speaks of more modern-day cultures such as Uber, Lyft, Slack, Intel, Netflix, etc.

Culture is Deliberate

Horowitz is transparent about some of his own leadership shortcomings and what he has learned along the way. Among the key lessons was to surround himself with people who offset his weaknesses. All of us have flaws and — presumably — we don’t want to incorporate those flaws into our company culture. One of the best ways to ensure this happens is to find people to counter-balance our flaws. Horowitz points to his interest in long conversations. This can be a productivity killer if not guarded, so he surrounded himself with people who had no interest in carrying on long conversations.

I also appreciate that Horowitz does not subscribe to feel-good nonsense like “do the right thing”. He dives into this mindset by showing how one person may think X is the right thing to do based on some set of values, but another person may find a different response to be appropriate. 

Culture gains clarity with specificity and storytelling. The more examples a company can create to reinforce its aims, the better. It’s also the case that culture has to evolve just as companies evolve. The same guidelines that helped a company succeed in the very early days may become counter-productive as it matures.

Quickest Way To Shift Culture? Hiring Practices

In Chapter 8 Horowitz talks about the CEO of Slack:

He decided to orient his culture around the people he wanted to hire. 

Who you hire, defines your culture more than anything else. Horowitz follows… “in a meeting I had with Suresh Khanna (the hiring manager) at AdRoll, something he said really stuck with me…He narrowed down a hiring process with the following attributes; (S.H.H.C.) Smart, Humble, Hard-working and Collaborative.”

No matter what culture, no matter how many thousands of years ago, no matter what “business model” one is creating — actions speak louder than words. Culture is an adjective, not a noun. Actions start at the top of the Enterprise.


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