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How we applied "What you do is who you are" at Alan


The most robust, sustainable cultures are those based on action, not words. In his fantastic book, What you do is Who you are, Ben Horowitz explains very clearly how to build a culture that lasts. The concepts are doubled with great examples.

In this article, we share our key learnings from the book that we have shared internally with our team.

We strongly advise you to purchase the book and read it to see those concepts explained.

Key concepts

Ben Horowitz differentiates “Values” from “Virtues” in his book “What you do is who you are”: values are what you believe, virtues are what you do. Horowitz shows through extreme examples (e.g set of virtues defined in samuraï’s bushido) that culture rooted in virtues holds stronger and longer.

Horowitz introduces 2 key concepts in his book aiming at transforming “Values” into “Vertues”:

  1. The concept of the “shocking rule”, rituals and practices that are memorable, that people inside the organization “encounter almost daily” and that people unfamiliar with organization and who hear about them wonder why they are necessary.

  2. The concept of the “object lesson” where leaders embody the virtues they want to inspire through highly visible/dramatic actions

Finally Horowitz explains that the set of virtues applied to an organization needs to be tightly designed. If the overzealous application of a virtue is not counterbalanced then it faces “weaponization” through which the virtue breaks down and becomes counterproductive.

You can use those concepts into a table for your company (we did, see below an example):

Alan Value - Key cultural elements we truly believe in that enable us to deliver the best product to our users, improve healthcare experience and be fast and effective.Shocking rule - How the key cultural element is reinforced through the way we work.Object Lesson - How leadership “walks the talk” and cements the cultural element through its actions.Weaponization - How the cultural element can breakdown and become counterproductive.
Fearless Ambition"Every objective set should be "uncomfortably exciting"Never give up storiesUnrealistic goal setting hurting credibility
Distributed ownership “Every week starts on wednesdays and ends on Tuesday with an HPFO where each Alaner sets his/her own weekly objectives”Founders' OKR's discussed in issuesSlow decision-making where everyone has a say
Radical transparency“All employees have open access to all company critical information” & “All the discussion leading to a decision should be written”Fundraising updates, Departures documents, Board meeting notes/reports, Transparent discussion between leadershipEmployees not accepting “partial” transparency (e.g departures)
Personal and community growth“Every Alaner has a coach for continuous feedback and self-development who is not necessary directly working with the coachee”Direct feedback Coaching being prescriptive, “Obnoxious aggression”

Some other key learnings

How to do a cultural orientation?

Make clear the culture you want and how you intend to get it.

  1. What behaviors will be rewarded?

  2. Which ones will be discouraged or severely punished?

What 4 questions to ask to new employees?
  • What's different than other places you've worked?

  • What's better?

  • What's worse?

  • If you were me, how would you improve the culture based on your first week here?

What happens if you let things slip?

It does not matter if you never endorse a behavior: if someone is getting away with it, it made the behavior seem okay.

How to create shocking rules?

1. It must be memorable If people forget the rule, they forget the culture.

2. It must raise the question "Why?" Your rule should be so bizarre and shocking that everyboy who hears it is compelled to ask "Are you serious?"

3. Its cultural impact must be straightforward The answer to the "Why?" must clearly explain the cultural concept.

4. People must encounter the rule almost daily If your incredibly memorable rule applies only to situations people face once a year, it's irrelevant.

Example of shocking rule

How Reed Hastings made a hard decision to demonstrate his priorities towards streaming? He kicked all the executives who ran the DVD business out of his weekly management meeting.

"That was one of the most painful moments in building the company".

How to build a great culture as you scale to new segments?

Building a great culture means adapting it to circumstances.

And that often means bringing in outside leadership from the culture you need to penetrate or master

Integrity & Ethics

Integrity, honesty and decency are long-term investments. Their purpose is not to make the quarter, beat a competitor, or attract a new employee. It is to create a better place to work.

It has a cost

Integrity, honesty, and decency don't come for free. In the short run, it may cost you deals, people, and investors.

How to make ethics work?

It will never work without giving detailed instructions on what the behavior looks like and how to pursue it.

How to be sure not to have cultural breaches?

Spelling out what your organization must never do.

How to define frugality?

Accomplish more with less.

Constraints breed resource-fulness, self-sufficiency, and invention.

There are no extra points for growing head count, budget size of fixed expenses.

How to encourage bad news to be shared?

When you hear about a problem, try to be ecstatic.

“Isn’t it great that we found out about this before it killed us?” or “this is going to make the company so much stronger once we solve it.”

What are the four C's of Sales?

  1. the competence

expert knowledge of the product and the process to demonstrate it

  1. the confidence to state your point of view

  2. the courage to have

  3. the conviction not to be sold by the customer on why she wasn't going to buy your product

What did we do with that knowledge?

We re-built our culture documentation within Alan to give a better perspective to the team on how our values translate into our actions.

Those Alan Leadership Principles are structured in a multi-fold document: This document is multi-fold.

First, our five values.

Everyone at Alan should know them, they are the foundations that define how we work and interact together.

For each of those values, we can go a level deeper, to our leadership principles.

For each of those leadership principles, we can go a level deeper to understand their details and how they translate into Alan methodology with concrete examples:

  • How we apply it in the way we work are the equivalent of shocking rules, i.e. rituals and practices that are memorable, that people inside the organization “encounter almost daily” and that people who hear about them wonder why they are necessary

  • Examples are object lessons where leaders embody the virtues they want to inspire through highly visible/dramatic actions.

  • Examples of bad use: through which a cultural element can become counterproductive.

We will share more about the details of our Alan Leadership Principles in the future.

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Updated on 10/05/2023

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