culture code

Don’t Copy Hubspot’s Culture Code Slide Deck

The first culture code slide deck that caught my attention was the one from Netflix. I’m pretty sure it started this category. Reed Hastings, the CEO, posted it on the internet back in 2010, even though it was designed as an internal document to teach employees about the company’s culture. It has millions of views now. It had a simple design, used plain language and surprised people with some of its content. (One of my favorite lines was “adequate performance gets a generous severance package”).

A few years later, Slideshare actually put together a Culture Code campaign, trying to get companies to post their culture code slide decks. That’s the first time I saw Hubspot’s deck. It was pretty impressive; much more “designed” than the Netflix deck, though they are a marketing company, so I guess that’s to be expected. They were also clear that the deck was used for recruiting, so it was, in fact, a marketing document.

But about this time I became nervous about these decks, rather than excited by them. Now that you’re trying to sell me on your culture, I am less inclined to believe you. I remember thinking to myself at the time that the Hubspot deck sounded a bit too good to be true. It was a little too polished. Too perfect. Then earlier this year Dan Lyons wrote a book called “Disrupted” that portrays quite a tarnished culture at Hubspot, full of capricious management and ageism.

Now that you’re trying to sell me on your culture, I am less inclined to believe you.

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To be clear, I have no idea what Hubspot’s culture is like. The slide deck and Lyons’ book are simply two data points, which is not enough to draw a conclusion. But this is precisely why I think leaders should be wary of that desire to create a cool slide deck.

I get it. You believe in your culture and you think it’s great, so you want to share that with the world. More and more, actually, the world is specifically asking about culture. Companies now tell me their prospective customers ask about the culture. They want to know what it’s like to do business with you before they pull the trigger. So okay, a deck that clarifies your culture is useful, but don’t copy Hubspot’s. You need your own and it needs to be authentic. So there’s some pre-work you need to do.

A Culture Code Starts with the Truth

I know these decks are intentionally aspirational; they are statements of your ideal culture. But if you spend all your time with aspiration and none on the reality of your current culture, I guarantee your deck will end up disappointing people. If you use it to recruit new employees, they will leave once they discover the truth. The same is true for customers. And it won’t require a tell-all book from Dan Lyons to break it down. They’ll know pretty quickly.

culture code

So before you write the code, make sure you can see your own internal code. That means talking to people outside the C-suite, by the way. It means acknowledging the contradictions in your culture and making some tough calls about what’s really valued and what isn’t. That work is not done by the marketing department creating a cool deck. That work requires you to roll up your sleeves and poke around in the guts of the organization.

If you want to know if your body is healthy, you don’t send your doctor a photograph of it. You run tests. You use machines that can take amazing 3-D images of your insides. You might have to send a little camera inside your own body, or have some of your blood analyzed. You need to do equivalent work on your company’s culture to understand it.

Then Make Strategic Choices

Once you’re clear on what is really going on inside your culture, you need to make some choices about how it will be moving forward. Your Culture Code slide deck will reflect those choices. It’s the line in the sand you draw so people can be crystal clear on who you are.

When you do this, you MUST bring in strategy. Everyone always says culture eats strategy for breakfast. And while I understand the sentiment, I also wonder why your culture and your strategy aren’t joined at the hip in the first place. What you value in your culture should be tied directly to what drives the success of the enterprise. Don’t choose a cultural value like transparency or collaboration unless you can make a direct link between that value and actual results in the organization.

This part is harder than it sounds. I think many organizations are really not as clear as they think they are about what drives their success. But doing the hard work of “starting with the truth” will help. When you have that detailed and nuanced understanding of the “guts” of your organization, I’ll bet you’ll be able to make more informed decisions about how important topics like transparency or collaboration really are.

If you do these two things first, and THEN design your culture code slide deck, you’ll create something much more powerful. It will be authentic, and it will make sense internally and externally because people can see how it connects to success.

They’ll see you’re not trying to be cool. You’re trying to be awesome. There’s a huge difference.



Jamie Notter

Jamie is a founding partner at WorkXO where he helps leaders create stronger cultures and upgrade their workplaces, based on a deeper understanding of their organizational genetic code. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences, leadership, and culture change to the consulting firm he started with Maddie Grant and Charlie Judy in 2016. Author of two books (When Millennials Take Over, and Humanize), Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

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