Sunday MBA provides ideas on running better businesses and succeeding in the modern workplace, this week from Anthony Tjan, chief executive of the venture capital firm Cue Ball and coauthor of "Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck.''
Great founders start businesses not to create a company but to solve a problem, serve a calling, and make a meaningful difference. But they also want their businesses to survive – and thrive – after they've moved on.
Great performance can never come without great people and culture. And when a company is in its earliest days — when there are no numbers to speak of — the key differentiators are the team, its purpose, and the culture.
After some two decades of launching, building, and operating businesses to both meaningful failure and meaningful success, I've observed some important principles for building a culture that can live beyond the founders.
Start with purpose
This is about mission, not marketing. What calling does your business serve? This should feel authentic, inspirational, and aspirational. The companies with strong purpose are the ones we tend to love best because they feel different — Chipotle, Ikea, or Apple to name a few. Whether it's trying to offer better food, or democratize great design, the cause behind the brand is clear.
Define common goals
Language, values, and standards. Great cultures need a common language that allows people to understand each other, a common set of values that are the company's guiding principles, and a common set of standards that measure how the business is upholding its principles. For example, if you have mentorship as a stated value, you must consider how you define it and how to measure it. Will it mean that you will only promote the people who develop others? Only when you have common language, common values, and common standards can you have a cohesive culture.
Lead by example
Leaders must reflect the firm's values and standards. A few examples bring this to life: Do people feel that a Richard Branson lives the Virgin way of spirited fun when he makes daredevil entrances? Do people have any doubt that John Mackey of Whole Foods approaches food with a greater consciousness about its quality and provenance? These leaders have not just incredible passion and work ethic, but also a cultural ethic that inspires others.
Embrace your front line
Your cultural ambassadors are people who love the company and its core purpose. They are your best cultural cheerleaders. They may be the folks on the shop floor trying to solve a product issue, an analyst crunching the numbers, a customer service rep empathetically talking with customers, or a midlevel manager developing talent every day. Do you know who these people are? Have you rewarded them and thanked them?
Seek, speak, act with truth
Self-awareness and truth-seeking are so important that they should be on every company's list of values. Truth-seeking and self-awareness are about having the ability to be completely honest about your own strengths, weaknesses, and biases. In an authentic and strong culture this applies not only to the leadership, but every single employee.
Attitude and skill
Be greedy with your human capital — then treat them right. In the end, it's always about people and character. When recruiting folks, spend more time screening for character than for skill. This practice, known as "hire for attitude and train for skill," was pioneered by Southwest about 40 years ago, helping to explain its track record as an admired, purpose-driven company. Be super greedy with the talent you bring in to make sure you get the A players. Compromising on talent that is good enough but not necessarily the best you think you can get, is a sure formula to short-circuit your culture and long-term performance.
If you're lucky enough to hit upon the right culture, do everything you can to preserve and scale it. If you can do that, then you can have a chance of not just growing a successful business, but of building a business that will survive long after you're gone.