I’m slow reading What You Do is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz, and writing a series of posts to capture some key points from each major section. This post is about the chapter on Shaka Senghor who spent 20 years incarcerated and led change within that culture of violence.

Senghor’s story is long and one of the most interesting chapters in the book. He rose ranks within the Melanics gang in his jail, then challenged it’s leaders on their adherence to their principles. This helped him build the trust of new recruits and eventually the leaders themselves. He used his platform to enact changes in the principles themselves.

Some of the key lessons from Sengor apply in the context of someone coming in to change the culture of an organization. In order to do this, one needs to understand some important truths. Here are a few:

Culture changes people so it’s hard to measure by asking everyone - but the best indicator is those new to the organization. In those first few weeks and months, employees figure out what they need to do to fit in, survive and succeed. If you want to understand your company culture, ask those folks right after those first weeks.

One must live the code. This is an ideal Ben brings up in other chapters too. But in a jail environment, living the code can mean the difference between life or death; stability or chaos. One must put in cultural elements that you actually subscribe to yourself.

Culture is universal. It applies not only to how you treat employees, but also partners, vendors and everyone that your employees come into contact. Your culture travels with them and you need to be prepared to address issues in all those interactions.

Culture will also get weaponized. People will interpret your code one way, and in an incentive to impress might choose to go to an extreme. It’s difficult to predict all the ways this can happen, but important to react quickly when it does. Often that means a clarification or counterbalancing rule. In Slack’s case, their “empathy” rule was being weaponized to dull negative feedback. So, they changed it to “collaborative”, making it clear that the team outcome is more important than any individuals.

Culture might require you to change yourself. This is intentional, after all. You are trying to change behaviours of an entire group - this should also apply to you as an individual. Ben provides an example of how he himself ‘weaponized’ his value by equating the truth with simply what was legal. He changed himself and the value so that the emphasis was on the truth being received, vs. simply just the truth being told. It was a higher bar.

Culture requires constant contact. Just like many leadership activities, repetition is the name of the game. It not only creates cadence but reinforces priority.