A Start-Up Culture? Really?

A Start-Up Culture? Really?

In the last few months, I have had the unique and fabulous opportunity to visit a number of different workplaces [retail, direct selling, tech, restaurant, wholesale, etc.] to meet and have dialogs with various CEO’s, COO’s, and CMO’s around their vision, values, and workplace cultures. In this period of time, I have learned invaluable lessons on leadership, strategy, and galvanizing communication. I have captured great thoughts on how to stay ahead of the evolution present in most industries. Adopted ideas on how to make initiatives and adaptations sticky and meaningful for the people in the organization. It’s really been an exciting and energizing three months.

Conversely, there is a disturbing trend happening in a lot of workplaces that lack leadership direction…and that is that they have started describing themselves as a “start up culture”. In one case the company was over 100 years old. It wasn’t a start-up culture. It was a chaotic, confused, ambivalent, and weak culture. It was a culture with an exceedingly impotent executive and senior leadership presence. It was a culture where hope was the ONLY strategy employed. It was a culture where they describe themselves as – essentially – adopting and abandoning most initiatives, their values, their vision, their culture adaptations because of frequently “shifting priorities”.  They are lousy with excuses as to why their brand is static.

Having worked with two start-ups in the last three years I can attest to the fact that start-ups have a pathological focus and consistent optics on their vision and the organizational values and health. They know what they want to accomplish and are profoundly passionate about hiring and inviting the right talent into the organization to support their goals. There are certain growing pains with start-ups [unforeseen obstacles] but the talent inside the organization is proactive and aggressive when it comes to overcoming challenges and delivering on the strategy and vision.

Established companies that use this comparison are – let’s face it – complacent and inferior to their productive and successful counterparts. It is a excuse borne out of the inability to maintain a course of action or leadership that lacks the chutzpah to make decisions and their inability to ensure that others were aligned with the purpose and customer experience of the organization. Plain and simple.

Signs of Lousy Workplaces & Leadership

They Do Not See Onboarding As Important: Executives and senior leaders that lack personality and creativity think onboarding new people into their company is a waste of resources or simply unimportant. It is extremely telling about the executive leadership when they don’t invest in welcoming and assimilating new people into the organization and making them feel special and valued from day one. This is absolutely a sign that the executives and senior leadership don’t see people as important investments or assets to the company. Great leadership knows that their people are their GREATEST and most valuable asset and invest in recognizing that connection especially at the beginning of the working relationship. Fabulous companies follow through on all aspects of career journey: succession planning, career path planning, job leveling, etc. to ensure that they have the right people in the right roles and that everyone has their best chance to be great each day.

There Is An Obvious Bias AGAINST Action: One of the most telling qualities all of companies and executives that lack backbone is that they love to have meetings. Lots of them. Instead of using common tools of communication and collaborative platforms so readily available today to boost productivity and results. They bury themselves in meetings lacking discernible objectives. They invite the wrong people. They don’t share meaning and purpose – hence the ‘shifting priorities’ excuse. They just stay “busy” through a farrago of meetings and opinions. Timelines are outside of reasonable expectations and anything substantive is rarely discussed. Leaders that use meetings to confuse the culture and then assign blame for lack of results are master prevaricators. The greatest, most effective leaders display a fierce bias toward action. They assemble the decision makers to ensure the course of action is aligned and then they set out to communicate and support action towards the strategic objectives.

They Are Super Secretive: “We can’t tell them about this. They don’t need to know this.” is something I hear terrible leaders say very frequently. They defend these insane positions with the argument that people [the people they hired and pay to support the company] will be distracted, confused, or even unable to comprehend what is occurring in the business. If you treat employees like helpless children, they will – generally – behave that way…which means big trouble for any company. If you treat them like smart, driven, interested, and invested adults, they may just respond that way. There are very few nuggets of business information that I have encountered that require strict confidentiality.  Strong, savvy leaders can identify those easily. The secretive leader has trouble being honest and is afraid of letting colleagues have the information they need to challenge them. This person would rather defend his agenda than advance the purpose of the organization. Lack of transparency make companies political, anxious, and lack credibility.

They Embrace Policy & Procedure: Weak leadership make policy and procedure their bailiwick. They excuse their lack of innovation and – oftentimes – humanity through moldy, outdated processes and pablum. Their love of procedure, titles, and “this is how we’ve always done it” often masks a fatal inability to prioritize or function in today’s fast-moving business world. They are a class of recalcitrant, old-school managers who are incapable of functioning with the dexterity needed to deliver excellence in today’s business climate. Strong leaders understand that innovation and creativity is fluid and allow latitude for people to explore various solutions. They are available and accessible partners to their people, not gatekeepers.

They Have A Preference For Terrible Talent: Terrible managers want to surround themselves with ‘yes’ people and people who are not threatening to their position. However, great leaders know that we have the ability to hire people who are smarter than us. Great leaders seek to invite talent into the business where we aren’t the strongest [and learn from them]. Fabulous leaders understand that promoting and supporting their people is a testament to their leadership commitment and they are thrilled when their people are in the spotlight and they will frequently place them there! The other piece of this that is very telling are when “leaders” aren’t able to attract former colleagues into their current business. Great leaders know who can deliver on business strategy. AND great people want to work with their favorite leaders. It says a lot about a leader who is unable to attract any candidates or partners from past employers. Every great leader has alumni that would be eager to join their team again. If they can’t surface any names or deliver any talent…it’s a HUGE [and telling] issue.

They Expect Long Hours From Their People: This occurs in some industries more than others. Ineffective managers tend to work very long hours. They see this as a brand of heroism and commitment but it is actually the huge indication of incompetence. To work effectively, solid leadership prioritizes, delegates, communicates, and knows how to manage their time extremely well. The manager who boasts of late nights, early mornings and working ALL the time cannot manage themselves let alone anyone else.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | beth@excellencein-retail.com [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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