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Stories Inc.’s take on “What You Do is Who You Are” by Ben Horowitz

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Stories Inc. Book Clubbing: A Take on What You Do is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz

I like the idea of branding a year of my life.

2015, for example, was the Year of the Regrettable Haircut. 

This year it’s the Year of Learning. 

That means reading way more books, which Scott and I used to do when we started Stories Inc. We were always inspired by something and integrating what we learned into practice at Stories. 

So, you can say in 2020 I’m going back to my roots (but not the kind that’s 2015 all over again). The first book I read this year was What You Do is Who You Are: Blow Up Your Culture and More by Ben Horowitz, a Silicon Valley legend who led teams at Netscape, AOL and Loudcloud, and famously sold his enterprise software company Opsware to HP for a mere $1.6 billion in cash. He’s now a founding partner of venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz. Here is what resonated with me:

Values mean nothing, without action behind them

Horowitz uses the word “virtues” as action and proof of corporate values, especially when speaking about what leaders do to model culture and values for everyone else. The book is named after this “what you do is who you are” concept.

Stories take: This is a major premise behind the work we do at Stories Incorporated. Cultural values are empty words unless there are stories from employees that support that a company is who it says it is. Horotwitz’s book focuses on things cultural leaders did to strengthen corporate culture, and his audience is current executive leaders looking to build strong cultures.

However, focusing on culture stories from only the leadership POV is like asking a parent what their own kids think about their parenting. Leaving employee perspectives out of the research and storytelling is a mistake when examining and relaying best practices for building workplace cultures. Employees’ behavior, performance and perceptions—their stories—makes culture real. This story by Rae of Kasasa proves the company’s “Love” value is real, and not simply words on a wall.

If you want to know what your culture is, ask a brand new team member

According to Horowitz, leaders have blind spots regarding culture, and asking managers won’t help them understand what the culture really is. He suggests looking at how new team members behave for clues. 

What behaviors do [new hires] perceive will help them fit in, survive and succeed? That’s your company’s culture … Go around your managers to ask new employees these questions directly after their first week … Ask them what’s different than other places they’ve worked — not just what’s better, but what’s worse. And ask them for advice. ‘If you were me, how would you improve the culture based on your first week here?’’

Ben Horowitz

Stories take: I took Horowitz’s advice and asked Jessica, our newest team member, how she would describe the Stories Inc. culture. I think we already got to her because she used stories—actual things that happened—to define it. The stories that she shared validated what I think is our culture. But as a leader on a small team, I’ve also tightly controlled the experience so far. So, it didn’t really give me any new insights. Jessica’s opinion of our culture is still valid because that’s what she’s experienced so far, but recent tenure might not be the best criteria to use when looking for cultural insights.

Employee stories are the key to understanding what your culture is. I think asking long tenured team members to share stories about their employee experience is very telling. Learning what your company has done specifically and recently to make their personal and professional lives better or worse can give great insight into the culture you have right now. This story from Neeta of BAE Systems, Inc. shows BAE’s commitment to leadership development.

Sometimes you need to disrupt your own culture to grow

At times, Horowitz proposes, you need to intentionally disrupt a cohesive culture to achieve different business results. And not just let the culture evolve naturally: blow it up. 

For example, Horowitz hired someone who wasn’t a traditional “culture fit” as a sales leader at a critical point in his company’s growth. He shared a few stories about the sales leader’s aggressive methods, which were eventually disruptive enough that he was treated differently from everyone else. But, the sales leader achieved huge results. Horowitz is unapologetic for this.

Stories take:  If you’d like to get a bazillion likes on your LinkedIn post, talk about how you “don’t hire or tolerate brilliant jerks.” I’ve read statements like this so much lately that this is becoming a universal best practice in culture communication and recruiting, and borders on cliché. It’s something we believe in at Stories.

But, I think considering personality differences in the spirit of neurodiversity, and re-examining what “culture fit” can mean is worth the extra thought. If business results reign supreme, there’s research that shows hiring for people who think like you is incredibly valuable in a startup, but this strategy starts to lose its effectiveness the bigger a company gets. 

And there’s stories

There are a lot of other things going on in What You Do is Who You Are; I picked only a few points that I’m still thinking about weeks after reading. Horowitz uses surprising historical figures like Genghis Khan to model culture leadership, and suggests how modern day companies can implement pieces of their frameworks. There’s a lot of real stories in here, from history as well as iconic founders and leaders who created unique cultures that may inspire readers.

Reading books expands your mind, but it’s pretty lonely to read a book you can’t discuss with someone. Join the Talent, Marketing, and Leadership Book Club!