When Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb, asked an investor what his single greatest piece of advice for the organization was, he was a bit taken aback. Chesky expected advice about cash flow or executing strategy. But Peter Thiel, one of his major investors, replied, “Don’t [mess up] the culture,” [but he said it in rather more colorful a manner] and then made it clear that he had invested in Airbnb largely because of the culture.
On October 21, 2013, Chesky sent a letter to the entire Airbnb team recounting Thiel’s advice and discussing the importance of culture. In his letter Chesky offered his own definition of culture as “simply a shared way of doing something with passion.” He stressed that culture was living out the core values in everything people did—from how people walked in the hallways, to how they sent emails, to how they worked together on projects. Chesky posted a copy of the letter to his blog.
It went viral.
Management guru Peter Drucker said years ago, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While strategy is something that can be spoken and presented, culture is lived, and can be done in a deliberate, or unconscious, way. It can be part of what brings in and keeps the best talent. If done well, it can be a hard to imitate and thus can be a competitive advantage. And it starts with the leaders.
During interviews and research for a project on culture, it became clear that leaders of high performing organizations devote huge proportions of their scarce executive time to growing and living the organizational culture they believe will best serve their organizations. It’s important for leaders and they spend precious time on it. Interestingly, when we’ve reflected on the discussion topics that emerge over time among members of The Gang, a high performing, highly creative group of organizational leaders, we realized that at least 60% of the discussion time finds its way to culture—how to shape it, spread it, and grow it. Bottom line: creative leaders see culture as a competitive advantage. They know the culture they want and they deliberately shape and spread it. Finally, they see culture as a dynamic part of their organizations and continue to (re) shape it, spread it, and live it.
The above excerpt comes from “LIVEculture: How creative leaders grow the cultures they want,” coming out in April. The book draws examples from many organizations, including The Gang, the same group that wrote “Wise Beyond Your Field.” The group now includes Leon Rice, Head Coach of the Boise State Men’s Basketball program and Rich Raimondi, President of Bishop Kelly, along with the previous leaders from software, advertising and law enforcement, the arts, and health information. Each group has great examples of how to build cultures that should help their organizations succeed. They understand they need to be deliberate about creating, then communicating and growing the cultures. And, they realize it takes real work and lots of time.