Question: Where do you find a one legged dog? Answer: Where you left it.
Culture is the third leg of the three legged stool for companies going somewhere (the others being idea and execution). It’s both vitally important and inherently hard to define or change. If culture were like idea or execution, you could more easily document, experiment, modify, test and measure it. You could, in short, manage it, and your life would be easier. If you’ve been in business for any length of time, then you have a company culture even if you’ve never thought much about it. Company culture reminds me of parenting — your results are determined by the sum of a whole host of small, mostly unconsidered decisions and actions you take on a daily basis. It’s a reflection of who you are, not necessarily who you want to be.
When Atomic was smaller and more homogeneous we transmitted our culture effortlessly to new employees by working in pairs on teams, ad-hoc company meetings, the snack table, lunch discussions, and Free Beer Fridays. As we grew we maintained all of these informal channels, but we also created some slightly more formal mechanisms to record and synchronize everyone’s understanding of our culture. We record some of our expectations and prior decisions in a wiki. We call this section of our wiki “guidelines” to make it clear that it’s not intended to be a definitive set of rules for the company. Using the word “guideline” reminds everyone that they need to remain engaged in thinking about what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s consistent with our culture. In addition to the guidelines wiki, we wrote a document, Values Atomica, which describes what we care about and what we expect from ourselves.
Culture pairing is our latest mechanism for acculturating new employees. We assign each new employee a culture pair on their first day in the office. The culture pair participates in the 1-2 hour orientation I do for all new employees. During orientation, culture pairs contribute things I forget and provide a different perspective from mine. Doing new employee orientation with culture pairs also provides the opportunity to describe with both people present the duty the culture pair is taking on and the relationship expectations between the culture pair and the new employee. I generally select a culture pair for a new employee from their first project team. Being co-located with your culture pair lowers the barriers to asking questions, observing and teaching.
Culture pairs are expected to help the new person learn and understand company culture at all levels. From the concrete and practical (“how do I track this time?”), to the abstract and theoretical (“what does it mean to live the value mantra of ‘give a shit’?”), the culture pair is responsible for both answering questions and actively engaging their charge in intentional discussion.
Culture pairing is more focused than mentoring in that there is no particular expectation or responsibility for career development. Similarly, the close relationship Paul Pagel describes that arises between craftsman and apprentice is different than our culture pair, but probably serves a similar role for 8th Light. We don’t expect our culture pairs to serve in a role of teaching the craft, though they may also be doing that.
We’ve been using culture pairs for about a year now. It’s an important addition to our tools for intentionally communicating and preserving our culture as we’ve grown and taken on new people.
- Atomic Ownership, Part 4: Financing employee ownership - April 4, 2019
- Atomic Ownership, Part 3: Valuation - January 2, 2019
- Atomic’s purpose: to be a company where work matters - November 5, 2018
- Elevating & distributing “glue work” flows out of our core principles - October 18, 2018
- Atomic Ownership, Part 2: How the Atomic Plan & our ESPP work - July 16, 2018