Culture Chat

And other musings on humanizing the workplace
Don't Copy Hubspot's Culture Slide Deck

Don't Copy Hubspot's Culture Slide Deck

September 26, 2016
Jamie Notter

[This post originally appeared on Switch & Shift]

The first culture 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 culture there. 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 CultureCode campaign, trying to get companies to post their culture code slide decks. That’s the first time I saw Hubspot’s deck. It was/is pretty impressive. It was 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 they were using this for recruiting, so it was, in fact, a marketing document.

But it was about this time that I started getting 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 one sounded a bit too good to be true. It was a little too polished. Too perfect. And then earlier this year, Dan Lyons wrote a book called “Disrupted” that portrays a quite tarnished culture at Hubspot, full of capricious management and ageism.

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 it. Companies are now telling me their prospective CUSTOMERS are asking 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.

Start 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 of your time on the reality of your current culture, I guarantee that your deck is going to end up disappointing people. If you use it to recruit new employees, they are quickly going to leave once they get there and discover a different culture. The same is true for customers. And it won’t require tell-all book from Dan Lyons to break things down. They’ll experience it pretty quickly.

So before you write the code, make sure you can see your own internal code. That means talking to people outside of 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 start poking 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 take some of your blood out and have it analyzed. You need to do equivalent work on your 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’s going to be moving forward. Your Culture Code slide deck is going to reflect those choices. It’s the line in the sand that 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 a lot of 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 be helpful. When you have that detailed and nuanced understanding of the “guts” of your organization, I’ll bet you’ll be able to make some more informed decisions about how important things 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 that you’re not trying to be cool. You’re trying to be awesome. There’s a huge difference.


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