We talk a lot about how company culture is hard. It’s hard to understand, to create, to change.
"Culture is the way things are done around here" (Deal & Kennedy, 2000).
In startup terms: it’s how we win. And it’s how we get shit done.
But what is good company culture? Is it an innovative environment where speed, grit, and creativity are a priority? A culture that isn’t afraid to break things and learn from it? Or a productive and process-oriented culture, promising clarity and predictability?
Good company culture is one that works for you. It’s a culture where you belong and feel seen by your teammates. It’s an environment you love and do your best work in. It’s an environment you feel in sync with, both in pace and principle. There’s nothing that a company does, provides, or says that makes it good. Good culture is in the eye of the beholder.
That said, company culture should be polarizing.
It should be very clear what the company stands for and what it doesn’t. Most companies don’t know how to articulate their norms and working environment. This is why cultural mismatches happen.
A founder who isn’t polarizing about their culture hasn’t thought enough about it. A company’s culture isn’t meant to appeal to everyone. It’s meant to attract people who love working in similar ways and share the same vision and vigor about the future.
Before starting Candor, I didn’t like the culture norms in startups.
A friend said to me, "when you start a company, you’re starting your very own city, with your own rules, norms, and citizens.” I knew Candor City would be a special place, but I was struggling with a few things:
I hate traditional management. I didn’t want to tell people what to do or check their work. I want to build alongside A-players who want coaching, not micromanagement. Any time I’ve felt like I needed to closely manage someone, I’ve had to let them go.
I didn’t like feeling like I was the only person responsible for Candor. I wanted to share the responsibility, accountability, the wins, and the losses with a team who was in it with me.
Candor didn’t feel like work to me and I didn’t want to bring people onto the team to “do a job”. I wanted my teammates to feel like they were working towards a life purpose. I want Candor City to be a place where people do the best work of their lives.
My coach (hi, Josh!) recommended I read Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. In the book, Laloux presented a new org structure, one that finally felt right for Candor City.
Here’s a few pages from Reinventing Organizations.
Most modern corporate organizations don't fall into the first two stages. Gangs are an example of the Impulsive stage and the Catholic church is an example of the Traditional stage.
Let’s break down the stage of most corporate cultures in the US - the Achievement stage.
The Achievement (orange) level focuses on success, achievement, and goals. Think strong OKRs, promotional ladders, and bonuses for good performance. If you ask any of my past managers, I resonated with this level early in my career. Hitting goals and making money were my top priorities. Big banks are commonly in this stage.
The next level of the framework is Pluralist (green), which focuses on values and working towards a greater good. Google might be in this category. Green never resonated with me because of its biggest downfall, consensus-based decision making. I hate moving slow and so never joined big tech to avoid this type of company.
The last stage of Laloux’s framework is the Teal or Evolutionary organization. A Teal organization hinges on autonomy and respect rather than consensus.
The three core pillars of Teal
Self Management. Teams aren’t hierarchical or bureaucratic. Instead, the team shares authority and there’s no traditional manager.
Wholeness. Teal encourages people to bring their whole self to work—no more work self vs. real self.
Evolutionary purpose. Teams sense and respond to what the organization can become. There isn’t super long term strategy-setting by management. Instead, employees feel empowered to help the org reach its full potential.
Why Teal resonated for Candor
I wanted Candor’s culture to center around two things: autonomy and respect. In my past work experiences, I lacked those two things and knew how stifling it felt. Teal emphasizes a huge unlock for high performers: if you trust people to do their jobs, they’ll do them, and much more.
It seemed like a no-brainer. We could attract high performers who wanted more autonomy and respect at work. At the same time, I’d be able to address my own concerns with company building:
I wouldn’t have to micromanage. I could hire people I trust and give them the space to do their best work.
I could share responsibility for Candor. Without traditional management, employees feel more ownership over their decisions, output, and company direction.
Candor could be a place where employees find and work towards a purpose. Without confining job titles, they are free to explore curiosities and be creative.
The ways Candor is Teal:
We don’t have managers.
Everyone works in a domain (like Engineering or Design), but roles are fluid. This also means that leaders on the team are defined socially, not by title.
We distribute decision making to teammates. Growth determines budgets for ads. Engineering assigns tasks to engineers.
We have hard conversations, often and in the open.
Our finances and investor updates are not a secret. We do public retros internally (I'll share more on how we do this soon!). When someone makes a mistake, they own it and learn from it.
We invite candidates to work with us for two weeks. We call it a mutual assessment. Candidates trial what it’ll be like to work with the team so they can understand how we work (and vice versa). We provide weekly feedback on performance. We also ask them to provide feedback on our norms and culture.
We give and receive feedback often. Everyone contributes to each other’s growth and development. We give each other feedback with candor and kindness.
We celebrate growth, purpose, and our values.
We pay for professional coaching for every member of the team. Personal development is professional development.
Values are living actions. They aren’t hollow statements on our website. We customized a set of emojis to represent our values, which we use to react to each other’s Slack messages. It’s a celebrated norm to show and recognize our values day-to-day.
We talk about our personal purpose, what we each care about, and how that lives in Candor's mission.
Candor isn’t the first or only company implementing Teal practices - here’s a list of others around the world.
There’s a few ways Candor isn’t Teal:
I’m responsible for letting people go. Today, firing is a unilateral decision by me. On a small team, it’s hard to implement the panel strategy (as Laloux proposes) without it feeling like a coup. As we get larger this may change.
I determine compensation and raises. I’m transparent about how we determine comp (Pave), but we don’t use the Teal strategy here. I think both comp and firing conversations are awkward when the team is small and better done siloed. I hope to change my mind here one day.
For my fellow founders: if you want to chat about Teal, please reach out. I love this shit.
But if Teal isn’t for you (yet!), here’s my 2 cents. If you care about your culture, a really good place to start is writing down your values. I’d recommend an exercise like this with your team. The important part is not just writing fluffy values, but actual behaviors that are celebrated and ones you don’t like. Transparency is the best place to start when it comes to culture.
For current managers who don’t like micromanaging: also reach out! I love to discuss new ways to level up your team and am happy to share our learnings from Teal and how Candor can support you.
And of course, a bit more on Candor.
Candor is the best way to share how you work with your teammates. We make it easy to create a beautiful ReadMe to share your feedback preferences, ideal working environment, and more about what makes you, you! We power thousands of remote teams around the world.