Successful Startup Culture is Not What You Think

The bottom line is this: a culture of performance is not necessarily a culture that seems catchy.

We’ve all read the stories about hot new startups making waves in their respective industries – and how they’re doing it while resting on colorful beanbag chairs in a once-destitute warehouse on the south side of town. These types of stories and headlines make onlookers prone to conclude that these startups are sustaining high performance because they’ve broken down the (cubicle) walls binding their ability to collaborate, innovate, and achieve full potential.

Unfortunately, myths about high performance company cultures develop from these stories. Now, to dispel a few myths that you thought you needed to succeed:


  • A ‘Cool’ Vibe

    While it may seem that a waterslide snaking through your office will promote innovation, it usually just leaves you all wet and highly unproductive. Many high performance companies do have cool vibe cultures, but their sustained performance is attributed to much more than free mocha coolatas. These cultures tend to be manifestations of their founders and leaders – entrepreneurial, risk-taking, intentionally provocative. These outward characteristics predicate high performance when they are founded in certain values: determination to succeed against all odds, an underdog mentality, and a youthful exuberance that imitators just can’t match.

    Don’t try to be something you’re not. Seek to understand what is truly valued in your organization. Then, ask yourself how those values manifest themselves daily. Are these manifestations going to help you or derail you from achieving your goals? “Cool” doesn’t necessarily mean high performing. And trying to be “cool” when you’re not certainly isn’t going to end well.

  • The Charismatic Leader

    The second common myth is that organizations need a charismatic leader at the helm in order to inspire greatness in others. In fact, recent thinking is quite the opposite. Highly successful CEOs tend to be those who shy away from the spotlight – those who are maniacally focused on the success of the business and who are never satisfied. If your charismatic CEO spends more time on the speaking circuit than in the office contributing to your organization’s success, you may be in trouble.

    As VC, Mark Suster explains in Fast Company, “When you’re not in your office on a regular basis you’re not showing leadership. You’re not setting the agenda. You’re not establishing culture, inspiring people or resolving conflicts. When you’re on the road all the time you’re not as productive. You reach diminishing marginal returns of the next person you met in relation to all that you’re sacrificing by not being in the office working . . . If you’re a startup CEO–don’t kid yourself. Get back to work.”

  • A Startup Mentality

    While all organizations must be adaptive in order to meet the changing needs of the market (an attribute often associated with quick and nimble startups), this is not a prerequisite for success. Although it may be more challenging to turn the rudder on an ocean liner than a dingy, mature organizations are absolutely able to foster innovative thinking that keeps them competitive. It’s less about a startup mentality and more about understanding your objectives and how your organization’s culture is going to help get you there.


The bottom line is this: a culture of performance is not necessarily a culture that seems catchy. The key is to clarify what you stand for and who you need to be and to execute on that vision authentically.


Chris Cancialosi, Ph.D., is Managing Partner and Founder of gothamCulture, is a recognized expert in the field of leader and organizational development with particular focus on the leader’s role in shaping high-performing culture. A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog.


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