Takeaways: What You Do is Who You Are

Author: Ben Horowitz

“Your culture is how your company makes decisions when you’re not there.”

Ben Horowitz is the best kind of “weird guy.” His father, David Horowitz, is a well-known conservative writer. Ben, meanwhile, opens chapters and essays with rap lyrics. A Berkeley kid , steeped in Silicon Valley, Ben fled to New York City for college. His first company, LoudCloud, formed in 1999, burst with the first dotcom bubble. From LoudCloud’s tattered remnants, Horowitz built Opsware, a network software company, which he sold to HP for $1.65 billion in 2007. Then he joined Marc Andreessen to start a venture capital firm that’s become one of the best in the business.

What You Do Is Who You Are is a how-to guide for defining the culture of an organization. Horowitz draws not only from his own business successes, but also cultural examples from prison gangs, samurai, professional militaries, and rebel slaves.

“The best way to understand your culture,” Horowitz says, “is not through what managers tell you, but through how new employees behave. What behaviors do they perceive will help them fit in, survive, and succeed? That’s your company’s culture.”

Four historical sketches form the book’s core:

  • Ghenghis Khan, the Mongol leader who built the largest empire on Earth spanning Europe to China. 
  • Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian slave who led the only successful slave revolt in human history, defeating both the Spanish and French militaries.
  • Shaka Senghor, who became the leader of a violent prison gang then reprogrammed their culture toward peace.
  • The Bushido Code of the Samurai. Driven by personal virtues rather than societal values, the Bushido Code successfully guided Samurai’s behavior for hundreds of years.

These cultural studies inform Horowitz’s 6 rules for creating a strong, intentional culture. Keep what works, create shocking rules, incorporate outside leadership, make decisions that demonstrate cultural priorities, and make ethics explicit. 

Keep What Works

  • Louverture integrated pre-existing cultural strengths to improve his slave army. For example, slave culture included voodoo songs that traveled with slaves across plantation lines. Louverture turned these songs into advanced technology: long-distance encrypted communication.
  • Steve Jobs returned to Apple 12 years after his ouster to find an unfocused organization. So he focused them on their greatest strength: building integrated hardware + software products.. Though obvious in hindsight, it seemed risky as Microsoft dominated operating system software and hardware was quickly commoditizing. 

Create Shocking Rules

For a rule to be shocking, it must be memorable. It must beg, “why?” Its cultural impact must be straightforward. People must encounter the rule almost daily. Horowitz highlights some truly shocking rules: 

  • Louverture forbade concubines among married officers. Why? “Because in this army, nothing is more important than your word. If we can’t trust you to keep your word to your wife, we definitely can’t trust you to keep your word to us.”
  • Diane Greene, cofounder of VMware decreed, “Partnerships should be 49/51, with VMware getting the 49.” Why? Because, in a business dependent on partnerships,  one-sided deals are bound for failure. This is more explicit than simply saying partnerships  should be “win-win.”
  • Mary Barra, as CEO of General Motors in 2014, removed 10 pages of dress code policy and replaced them with “Dress appropriately.” The new code “empowered—and required—managers to manage.”

Incorporate Outside Leadership

Horowitz praises leaders who, “…transform a culture by bringing in leadership from a culture whose ways she wants to adapt.”

  • Louverture often left vanquished leaders in place, “so that they could govern the region using their superior understanding of the local culture.” And despite a history of oppression rooted in skin color, in his army he incorporated, “mulattoes … and … deserting French royalist officers … to organize an efficient staff and train his army in the orthodox military arts.”
  • At LoudCloud, Horowitz hired Mark Cranney to run sales. At first glance, Cranney, a brash east coast mormon republican, seemed to clash with LoudCloud’s Silicon Valley culture. This “clashing,” though, was exactly what LoudCloud needed to develop a successful enterprise sales culture. 
  • Ghenghis Khan’s integrated Chinese scholars to administer his empire. It worked so well that, “every time he captured a city he would have its scholars brought in for interrogation — essentially interviewing them for open job postings.” He captured the knowledge from foreign engineers, “to build the most technically advanced fighting force ever assembled; in this way he adopted such weapons as the trebuchet and the catapult.”

Make Decisions that Demonstrate Cultural Priorities

  • Louverture allowed plantation owners to keep both their lives and their land. He knew losing their institutional knowledge of farming would be ruinous to the island economy.. In this way, he demonstrated that the new nation’s success was the highest priority.
  • Reed Hastings, Netflix’s founder, transitioned the business from mail-order to online streaming, despite the DVD-by-mail service delivering all of the company’s revenue and profit. To demonstrate his commitment to the nascent streaming business, he “kicked all the executives who ran the DVD business out of his weekly management meeting.”
  • NationBuilder struggled to collect payment from clients. Its CEO, Lea Endres, turned to Horowitz for advice. “If you have a crisis situation and you need the team to execute, meet with them every day and even twice a day if necessary. That will show them this is a top priority. At the beginning of each meeting you say, “Where’s my money?” — It worked. The team grew to love hearing her say “Where’s my money?!?!” and collected even more than the original target.”
  • The “Silicon Valley” we often think of: open floor plans, casual dress codes and employee ownership, is owed mostly to Robert Noyce, founder of Intel. Prior to Intel, Noyce ran the California-based Fairchild Semiconductor, jettisoning its strict, almost feudal hierarchy in favor of an egalitarian culture of empowerment. He took this approach a step further with Intel.  No offices for executives. Everyone worked in one big room. Instead of relying on VPs and Execs, he bestowed enormous decision-making power on middle managers. And, “crucially,” Noyce gave engineers and office workers “substantial stock options. He believed that in a business driven by research and products, the engineers would behave more like owners if they actually owned the company.”

Make Ethics Explicit

Telling people to “do the right thing” sounds nice, but offers little guidance when values conflict. “[T]he people who created the [Samurai] code understood that doing right is harder in some circumstances than others, so they provided case studies.”

  • A famous samurai story demonstrates the value of sacrifice. An attendant of Lord Soma ran into a burning house to retrieve the family tree. When he couldn’t escape, he cut himself open and put the scroll inside to protect it from the fire. The servant led a mediocre life, but by carving a hole in himself to save the scroll he became immortal.
  • Uber CEO Travis Kalanick carefully planned the culture. The culture he crafted emphasised winning. Some interpreted this as, “if the choice is integrity or winning, at Uber we do whatever we have to do to win.” This drove early market success, but also consumer backlash when the media started reporting on Uber’s “toxic” culture.
  • Slack founder Stewart Butterfield preached empathy. It backfired when some employees proposed outlawing critical feedback that hurt their feelings. “So, he began to shift the emphasis away from empathy and toward one of the core attributes he wanted to build into the culture: being collaborative.”

Reading Horowitz’s book reminds me of a personal anecdote: I once asked a religious leader to reconcile his actions with his teachings. He replied, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Needless to say, I no longer look to him for advice. That is the lesson I take from What You Do is Who You Are: those who look to our leadership  do as we do, regardless of what we say.

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