Summary - What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture - Ben Horowitz
- Culture is crucial to a company’s success but not sufficient. A strong culture enhances any company but cannot overcome fundamental problems. Employees remember culture most.
- The story of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution shows how culture can be transformed against immense odds. Slavery destroys culture and prevents uprisings, yet Louverture led a successful slave revolt.
- Louverture overcame huge disadvantages. He was born into slavery on a brutal plantation. Enslaved people there faced cruelty, death, division, and distrust. Powerful empires wanted to keep control. But Louverture created a new culture that inspired soldiers, diplomacy, and governance.
- Louverture educated himself, gained status, and was freed. He worked as a coachman while developing skills to lead the revolution. Through willpower, intelligence, and belief in his destiny, he overcame obstacles to secure liberty and independence, making Haiti the first black republic.
- Culture binds organizations in good and bad times. At its best, culture empowers, motivates, and unlocks human potential. Louverture’s story shows how culture can achieve revolutionary change.
- Louverture earned his freedom, learned from colonists, and realized culture-shaped behavior. In 1791, he joined a slave revolt. He rose to lead rebels, first siding with Spain against France. He then defected to France, leading their defeat of Spain and Britain. In 1801, he became Haiti’s governor.
- Louverture said slavery made blacks “ignorant and brutish.” He argued blacks deserved to be French citizens. Europeans saw slavery shaped culture. Even the U.S. made concessions to Louverture.
- To change culture, Louverture kept and built on what worked. He used voodoo and African warriors, promoted allies, employed religion, and pushed education. His tactics made slave culture respected worldwide.
- Louverture used shocking rules, uniforms, outside leadership, counterintuitive decisions, and embodying values to transform his army's culture, enabling an independent Haiti.
- He forbade concubines, demonstrating trust and integrity. Uniforms gave an elite sense. Mulatto and French officers provided knowledge. Sparing plantations showed priorities. Living with soldiers built confidence. Louverture's example brought values to life.
- Louverture forged a new culture through shocking rules, symbols like uniforms, outside knowledge, counterintuitive priorities, and embodying values. His leadership provides a model for cultural transformation.
• Leaders shape culture through actions and decisions, not just words. Louverture and Hastings made tough calls that demonstrated their priorities and values to their organizations.
• John Podesta’s poor cybersecurity practices reflected the poor cybersecurity culture set by Hillary Clinton’s similar behavior. Despite warnings and training, Clinton never admitted fault or changed her practices. Leaders’ actions shape culture whether they intend to or not.
• It seems implausible that Delavan told Podesta the phishing email was “legitimate” and to change his password. This explanation was likely created to blame a low-level staff member rather than senior leadership. The real issue was Podesta and Clinton’s poor cybersecurity practices.
• Leaders often make mistakes, but the best response is acknowledging them, taking responsibility, and correcting course. Clinton failed to do this, blaming others for her poor cybersecurity culture. Her actions undermined the Democratic Party’s stated priority of using technology effectively.
• Words alone are not enough. Leaders must demonstrate priorities and values through decisions and behavior. “Walking the talk” is critical to an influential culture. Clinton and Podesta failed at this.
• Overall, leaders shape culture through actions, not words alone. Admitting mistakes, taking responsibility, and then correcting the course is critical. As Clinton and Podesta demonstrate, the consequences of failing at this can be severe. But with self-reflection and a commitment to integrity, leaders can build powerful cultures and turn failures into lessons.
- James White went to prison at 19 for murder and had to join a gang, the Melanics, to survive. Though the Melanics promoted uplift, their leaders exploited members.
- White challenged the corrupt leaders and took over, making the Melanics follow their code. He was inspired by Malcolm X to reform but had to balance that with surviving prison. He developed a "diplomatic approach."
- Prison life and the Melanics were unfulfilling. White envisioned a new path. Key events:
1. White joins Melanics for protection. Leaders hypocritically violate group's principles.
2. White gains support of younger members by calling out corrupt leaders. He takes over and reforms the group.
3. White reads The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He works to become a better person but still has to survive harsh prison conditions. He develops a cautious approach to conflict.
4. White starts to realize prison life and the Melanics are lacking. He begins to envision a different path forward.
- The key themes are:
Survival: White initially joins the Melanics to survive but then works to improve the group improves the group. He balances reform with surviving prison.
Growth: White is inspired by Malcolm X to grow and improve himself. Over time, he outgrows the limitations of prison life and the Melanics.
Leadership: White shows leadership by challenging the Melanics' corrupt leaders, gaining support, and taking over to implement the group's principles. But his administration is limited by the prison context.
Vision: White gains a vision for a more satisfying path beyond prison life and the Melanics. His vision suggests hope for his future.
White joins a prison gang, the Melanics, for protection. He rises to lead the team and reforms them, inspired by Malcolm X. He struggles with the harsh realities of prison life but starts envisioning something better.
- White changes his name many times, taking inspiration from African leaders. As Melanics leader, he realizes his impact and works to change the culture.
- The Melanics follow strict loyalty, retaliating as a group. Commitment is required; lack of it means lost protection.
- White focuses on respect, empowerment, and reform. He has members study Black assignments and lead by example.
- White resolves conflict with rivals by violence, showing him the Melanics became “savages.” He reexamines the culture.
- A member wanting to stab whites shows White how far they strayed. He challenges the member, promoting forgiveness and reform. He gives up leadership so others follow new principles.
- Transferred, White spreads empowerment and reform. His transformation shows change is possible.
• Culture shapes people. Leaders must consider culture’s impact, for good or ill.
• A leader’s view of culture often mismatches experience. Get input from new members before they adapt.
• Strong first impressions of culture persist and influence the navigation of power.
• Orientation is critical to clarifying culture. Its inconsistency or lack of shapes culture unintentionally.
• Cultural behaviors spread widely. Office culture is contagious.
• Leaders must live values to avoid undermining culture. Hypocrisy damages it. Consistency and “walking the talk” matter.
• Culture is organization-wide. Treat partners as you treat employees. Partner treatment spreads internally.
• Values can be misused. Re-establish proper interpretations and uses.
• Change culture by changing leadership. Culture reflects leadership; introspection and adjustment enable real change.
• Meet frequently, and reinforce messages to redirect culture. Elevate what’s essential in decisions and meetings.
• Protect culture while growing by hiring and promoting for cultural fit, evaluating new leaders/teams on cultural impact, not just results. Results without culture preservation lack sustainability.
To build an inclusive culture, companies should:
1. Develop an inclusive mindset. Leaders should see people as individuals and for their potential, not make assumptions based on their background.
2. Focus on merit and talent. Hire and promote people based on their skills and abilities, not their race, gender, or other attributes. Use fair processes accessible to all.
3. Provide opportunities. Create paths for people from all backgrounds to fulfill their potential. Support programs may be needed to help disadvantaged groups develop skills. But the ultimate goal should be integrating people based on their talents.
4. Build connections. Treat people with empathy, understanding and respect. Create a cohesive culture where people feel heard and valued. Eliminate divisions that segregate or disadvantage groups.
5. Share power and success. Empower people from all backgrounds with opportunities for growth, ownership and rewards. Spread the benefits of the organization's success, building loyalty and engagement across groups.
6. Self-aware leadership. Leaders should understand their strengths, weaknesses and biases. They should lead authentically, aligning strategy and culture and setting an example through their actions and decisions. They must determine where consistency is most important, and where customized subcultures may fit better. But the overall culture should be one of inclusion, value and cohesion.
7. Continuous improvement. Regularly evaluate your inclusive practices, and look for opportunities to expand access and opportunity. But avoid setting challenging targets, leading to "checkbox inclusion" without fundamental change. The goal is developing people and culture, not just improving numbers.
Building an inclusive organization is a journey. But with the right mindset, intentional strategies, and authentic leadership, companies can develop a culture where people are supported and empowered to contribute to their full potential, regardless of their background or attributes. The benefits of inclusion are a more just, innovative, loyal, and ultimately successful company.
• Cultural virtues should be concrete and testable to guide behavior effectively. Abstract virtues like “integrity” are too vague.
• An extreme focus on any one virtue, like customer obsession, can be counterproductive. It may cause a company to miss significant changes. The key is balancing virtues and adapting to new circumstances.
• Sometimes, violating or changing cultural rules is necessary for survival. But changes that undermine culture may have lasting consequences. Leaders must determine which rules are flexible and which are absolute.
• Signs of a broken culture include employees afraid to give feedback, complaints from poor fits, not valuable employees, broken promises, high turnover of key staff, many exceptions to values, resistance to new initiatives, slipping customer service, little discussion of culture, leadership choices that contradict values, and new hires struggling or failing.
• Object lessons, like strict punishment for wrongdoing, are the most effective way to reshape culture. They create unforgettable warnings about behavior that won’t be tolerated. For threats to survival, “unfair” lessons may be needed, like firing managers and a wrongdoer.
• Deal with “culture breakers”:
› The Heretic: Constantly criticizes but does not improve. Fire them.
› The Flake: Unreliable and high-maintenance. Warn or fire them.
› The Jerk: Demeans and abuses colleagues. Always fire them.
› The Superstar: Very valuable but toxic. Decide if the cost outweighs the benefit. Consider a request to change or leave. Firing is a last resort.
• Decision-making style influences culture. “My way or the highway” discourages input. Endless debate leads to a lack of progress. “Input then decisive action” empowers but moves forward. This is optimal.
• After a decision, managers should articulate the rationale, not say they disagreed. Focus on speed or accuracy depending on the number and impact of decisions. Too much empowerment can reduce input from leaders and integration across groups. The right level depends on the situation.
• Wartime CEOs take control; peacetime CEOs empower. Culture may need to switch between them. Usually requires changing CEOs. Trust, transparency, and reality-facing are essential virtues.
Leaders shape culture through:
1. Vision and priorities: Define what the organization stands for and the values that guide decisions. Show what is essential through words and actions.
2. Hiring and onboarding: Bring in those who share the culture and values. Use onboarding to instill the desired mindset from day one.
3. Promotion and rewards: Incentivize and reinforce the behaviors that embody the culture. Promote those who live the values.
4. Role modeling: Personally demonstrate the culture in your own words and actions. Practice the behaviors you want to see. Your authenticity and consistency are key.
5. Communication: Articulate the culture clearly and frequently. Explain the reasons behind critical decisions and policies to provide meaning. Answer "Why?"
6. Flexibility: A culture must evolve to align with the vision. Make bold changes when required and avoid clinging to the status quo. But stay true to the core principles.
7. Community building: Foster internal partnerships, trust, and a sense of shared purpose. Cocreate the culture through collaboration and consensus. Celebrate wins together.
8. Continuous learning: Build a growth mindset by encouraging feedback, diverse viewpoints, experimentation, and discomfort with the familiar. Adapt based on lessons learned.
9. Correction: Address behaviors and policies that undermine the culture. Make difficult decisions to align incentives and remove or rehabilitate misaligned elements. Be transparent about the need to course-correct.
10. Consistency: Follow through on promises and apply values uniformly at all levels of the organization. Hold everyone accountable to the same standards to build a cohesive culture.
The techniques for analyzing culture include:
Observing behaviors and patterns.
Listening for values and assumptions in stories and language.
Assessing policies and incentives.
Looking at multiple data points provides the most precise picture. The elements that shape culture are interconnected, so consider them holistically.
Work and intentional leadership can transform culture by redefining values, bringing in new champions, implementing Louverture tactics, and breaking old patterns. But significant change takes time as mindsets and behaviors evolve. Maintaining an open, collaborative environment is critical.
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