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Managing the Evolution of Your Startup's Corporate Culture

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By the time most organizations start thinking about corporate culture, they already have one. Rick Rudman, co-founder and CEO of cloud marketing software provider Vocus, is unashamedly open that he and his co-founders did not plan their culture. It emerged. But, as it emerged, they made conscious choices about what to keep and what to evolve.

Over the past six years, Vocus has acquired seven companies, and the cultures of those companies it acquired have not combined to form an entirely new culture. Rather, Vocus carefully selected organizations that fit into its already established culture. I recently spoke with Rudman and here's what he had to say about the processes behind building the Vocus corporate culture.

Why Culture Matters Today

Rudman is convinced that corporate culture is the only truly sustainable competitive advantage. But it's rarely the first advantage of a start up. Vocus' founders set out to "write incredible software." They chose to "take the business seriously, but not ourselves seriously." From the start, they worked hard and took time during the day to have some fun, like stopping by Toys 'R' Us to bring some toys back to the office. Even their first official planning session consisted of the company's eight employees working on the train on the way to an evening in Atlantic City. (Think Las Vegas meets the Jersey Shore).

That "became a culture that worked," said Rudman. People were attracted by that culture and "became a part of us."

The Building Blocks of the Vocus Culture

Now, Vocus' culture is one of their sources of pride. In terms of the components that make up the Vocus culture, let's break it down in terms of "BRAVE" (Behaviors, Relationships, Attitudes, Values and Environment):

Vocus' environment speaks volumes. They have laid out their 93,000 square foot corporate office to have the look and feel of a town (Seaside, FL to be specific). As Rudman explains, it has a main street for people to stroll on, a coffee shop for people to escape to, an oasis for food, a fitness center and a "bored" room for formal meetings. (Yes. "Bored" is spelled right.)

Their values haven't changed much. They still drive "open communication and teamwork while allowing opportunity for individual achievements," "integrity," "customer-focus," and working and playing hard.

Vocus' employees share the same attitude of taking work seriously without taking themselves too seriously.

The environment, values and attitude inform their relationships, guiding, if not defining, the way they work together.

All of this leads to a set of behaviors that make it a fun place to work, but where employees are able to make a large impact on their customers. To support the Vocus way of life, the company has several internal committees dedicated to cultivating its culture. The "It's all about you" Committee enhances employee work lives by introducing programs like on-site basketball tournaments and group yoga classes, and the "It's not all about you" Committee pushes employees out into the community to volunteer.

Sustaining and Building Culture

Rudman works very hard to sustain and improve the Vocus culture. He has chosen to acquire smaller companies and fold them into the Vocus culture. One example is iContact, which was a larger acquisition than normal. Rudman shared that folding iContact in took "a lot of proactive work," which included building a new environment for them similar to Vocus' headquarters, changing their language and acronyms and helping them become part of Vocus family.

Implications for Your Business

In many ways, culture is a shared set of "BRAVE" preferences. People joining a start up need to buy in to the founders' preferences. Of course, culture evolves -- but it rarely shifts quickly. And above all else, the right fit is what matters most.

BRAVE Leadership is at the heart of The New Leader's Playbook:

We're all new leaders all the time. So remember all the time that leadership is about inspiring and enabling others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose. With that in mind, BRAVE leaders pay attention to their Behaviors, Relationships, Attitude, Values, and Environment -- all the time.

Click here to read about each step in the playbook

Click here for YouTube videos highlighting each step

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The New Leader's Playbook includes the 10 steps that executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis uses to help new leaders and their teams get done in 100-days what would normally take six to twelve months. George Bradt is PrimeGenesis' managing director, and co-author of The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan (Wiley, 3rd edition 2011) and the freemium iPad app New Leader Smart Tools. Follow him at @georgebradt or on YouTube.