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From Our CEO: Culture in tech: Success has to be about more than growth

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Didier Elzinga

Founder & CEO, Culture Amp


Recently we've seen several of the most ‘successful’ startups in the world disclose behavior that has really set the industry back. The most recent stories deal with gender inequality and sexual harassment. These issues are the result of a classic power imbalance. People in positions of trust have not respected their duty of care and women have been treated very differently to men. In some of the cases that have been made public, this treatment has been appalling.

Whilst the individual incidents are terrible and inexcusable, I wanted to explore the systematic issues - i.e. How much is the tech industry as a whole to blame? What are some of the system-wide problems that have created environments where frankly it’s not surprising this behaviour is occurring?

Hyper-growth has real costs

Over the last 15 years fast-growth tech companies have become the darlings of the business world. Startups are used as blueprints to determine how to build a modern and successful business.

These organizations are now achieving in three years what it would have once taken a company at least ten years to achieve. On the positive side they receive huge valuations, gain many customers, and raise a lot of money.  But on the downside, any negative behaviors are amplified. The pace of growth amplifies the issues - in a fast-growth environment nothing goes wrong in a small way.

The problem is inherently cultural, because culture is about the way we do things. But no organization sets out to design a culture that is misogynistic, sexist or abusive. They may have set out to create a different type of culture - one that’s aggressive or fast-growing. As a consequence of that aim, people have been willing to put up with other bad behaviors.

This is why you can’t look at the bad behavior in isolation - it is a consequence of the very things that were being lauded (the fast growth, the aggressive culture). It generally takes a long time for people to stop and realize that they’ve created something that isn’t acceptable or won’t work long-term.

Doing anything to win is not healthy

Fixing the problem is also not as simple as replacing one style of management with another. Everyone in the industry needs to look at the role they’ve played. Everyone who wanted these organizations to grow faster and were willing to blow up markets and win at any cost - we’re all complicit in some way.

To this point, most CEOs have thought about what they’re willing to give up to succeed. But it’s a lot rarer to find people and organizations who have thoughtfully considered what they care about more than just winning, and what they will we be willing to lose for.

The fact is that every healthy organisation must have limits on how they’re prepared to play the game. It's not that you're not going to win. You still want to win. But there are ethics and values that come first. If you don’t have this higher-level code, it’s only a matter of time until a mentality of “do whatever it takes to win” pushes the organization somewhere that most people would consider unethical.

In a culture where winning is the only thing that matters, there are examples time and time again where good people are prepared to turn a blind eye.

Success has to be about more than growth

Genghis Khan said “It is not sufficient that I succeed. Everyone else must fail”. There are a lot of people in the startup sector who have similar motivations. While this ethos will take a company a long way, there comes a point in time when you must have a bigger raison d’être than to make the most money and destroy your competition.

We’re in an era where there are so many great opportunities and smart people who are able to run a long way with their ideas. The ones that do well in the long-term are those that realize that they're trying to do more than just beat their competition - they're actually trying to solve a meaningful problem.

In the process of solving that problem they can find the substance and culture that they need to create a meaningful workplace. It’s not enough to grow fast just for the sake of it. You have to grow something with purpose to succeed in the long-term.

We all need to take accountability for what’s happened, from the highest level down. These events weren’t isolated and aren’t the result of just one individual who went off course. They occurred become something more systemic was left unchecked for too long.

The industry is in consensus

It’s never acceptable to abuse your power to someone else’s disadvantage, but for the first time people across the industry accept that this is a real problem and are taking it seriously. We’re all in agreement that we can’t allow this to continue to happen.

In Australia there’s been a real groundswell. Many VCs, startups and people in the industry issued a statement calling for an end to this type of predatory behavior. There’s been a shift from unconscious incompetence to conscious understanding.

People are now talking about the issues and accept that we need to do something about it. That’s a conversation we wouldn’t have had 10 or 20 years ago.

The first step towards fixing this problem has begun. We’re talking about it as an industry and having a conversation about what needs to change. It’s now time to decide what kind of culture we want and what kind of world we want people to live and work in.

After sexual harassment in high-profile startups hit the media, many of our customers contacted us asking what they could do to prevent sexual harassment at their workplaces. It’s a complex issue. One part of the solution is the open conversations we’re now having as an industry about the kinds of cultures we want to create. Another aspect is ensuring you have a reporting culture in your workplace, so that if something happens, people are willing to report it. With that in mind, we’re publishing a series of blogs with Nathan Luker, CEO of whistleblowing organization YourCall - who is passionate about and experienced in this area.

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