Book Notes – What You Do Is Who You Are

I have been an admirer of Ben Horowitz’s writing. The previous book of his which I read a few years ago offered deep insight with examples (most books have little to no examples) into how to tackle the hard things about startups, the things no one talks about, what happens when shit is hitting the fan.

More than anything else, The Hard Things About Hard Things offered comfort knowing that it’s possible to steer a company into a favorable outcome even with all that goes wrong on a day to day basis. And like you probably guessed, we were fire fighting on a daily basis at Winkl, while trying to keep our heads above the surface.

Point is, the book (Amazon link) really helped.

Interestingly, when I picked up What You Do Is Who You Are — a book about culture building, we were at a place where we were struggling to figure out how to build the right culture at Winkl. Getting the culture right is a constant process with no end, so much so that I’d say getting on the path of right culture building is one of the hardest things you can do as a leader. And what a book it has been! I would read a chapter and go apply it the very same day at Winkl.

Below, I have summarized my takeaways from the book, while it’s not exhaustive, this can serve as a quick read for you to decide if you want to read the book or not.

Blind trust is the most important thing between a team

  • Telling the truth isn’t easy. It’s not natural. What’s natural is telling people what they want to hear.
  • Trust derives from candor, your company will fall apart if your team doesn’t trust you. If they don’t trust you, you will never know the truth, which could lead to a brewing bad situation becoming potentially company destroying.
  • State facts clearly — never sugar coat. Assign your meaning to an unpleasant fact before others get a chance to assign their own meanings.
  • If your leadership led to or contributed to a setback, own it. Period.
  • If you are taking an action like a layoff, shutting down a project etc., always communicate as to why you are doing, how doing this will contribute to the larger mission.
  • Openness to bad news — if any growing organization, there’s certainly bad news at any given moment and something somewhere has gone terribly wrong. Also, sharing bad news doesn’t align with most employee’s short term goals. Always keep asking your team, what is going terribly wrong that we need to fix together?
  • Encourage bad news — if you explode at people when they share bad news, they will never share it. Instead, you need to share bad news about the company first with everyone, for them to trust you back. Once they do, help them understand that we will all be in a much better place once we fix the issue that caused the bad news.
  • Look for bad news in the regular course of business — always appreciate people who bring up issues to the surface and want to discuss it. Getting to the root cause and working on a fix builds trust and gets more people to share what’s breaking apart. Questions such as Is there anything that is preventing you from getting your job done? or If you were me, what would you change in the company? go a long way in encouraging people to share the bad news.

Cultural checklist

  1. Cultural design — make sure your culture aligns with both your personality and your strategy, Anticipate how it might be weaponized and define it in way that is unambiguous.
  2. Cultural orientation — an employee’s first day in the organization is the day where they learn what it takes to succeed in your organization than on any other day.
  3. Shocking rules — any rule so surprising that it makes people ask “Why do we have this rule?” will reinforce key cultural elements. Think about how you can shock your organization into cultural compliance.
  4. Incorporate outside leadership — sometimes the culture you need is so far away from the culture you have that you need to get outside help. Rather than trying to move your company to a culture that you do not know well, bring in an old pro from a culture you aspire to have.
  5. Object lessons — what you say means far less than what you do. If you really want to cement a lesson, use an object lesson and make an example. It need not be a Sun-Tzu style beheading but it must be dramatic.
  6. Make ethics explicit — one of the most common and devastating mistakes leaders make it to assume people will do the right thing even when it conflicts with other objectives, don’t leave ethical principles unsaid.
  7. Give cultural tenets deep meaning — make them stand out from the norm, from the expected. If the ancient samurai had defined politeness the way we define it today, it would have had zero impact on the culture. Because they defined it as the best way to express love and respect, it still shapes Japanese culture today.
  8. Walk the talk — do as I say, never works. So do not pick cultural virtues that you do not practice yourself.
  9. Make decisions that demonstrate priorities — it was not enough for Louverture to say his culture was not about revenge. He had to demonstrate it by forgiving the slave owners who caused great harm to sales for hundreds of years.

Note: there are a few references in the above to historic events and people in the book, have linked to external pages for better context.

While no culture is perfect, your goal is to have the best possible culture for your company so it stays aimed at the target.

If you want people to treat every single company penny like it’s their own, having them stay at a Oyo sends a better signal. But if you want them to have the confidence to ask for a Rs. 10 cr order, the opposite might be true.

If you do not know what you want, there is no chance you that you will get it.

Culture begins with deciding what you value most. Then you must help everyone in your organization practice behaviors that reflect those virtues. If the virtues prove ambiguous or just plain counterproductive, you have to chance them. When your culture turns our to lack crucial elements, you have to add them. Finally pay close attention to your people’s own behavior, but even closer attention to your own. How is it affecting your culture. Are you being the person you want to be?

This is what it means to create a great culture. This is what it means to be a leader.


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