Thoughts on "What You do Is Who You Are"17 March 2020
Photo: Ben Horowitz
Earlier in the year, I wrote some thoughts on company and team cultures. The brain dump can be found here. At the end of that post, I explained the subject had been floating around the grey matter as I had picked up a copy of “What You Do Is Who You Are” by Ben Horowitz. Having completed the book I wanted to share my thoughts about the book.
The book is not a standard walk through on how to implement culture within your company. Instead, it takes a long trek through three specific historical characters and samurai history. While the samurai don’t stand out, the three historical characters do. Toussaint Louverture, Shaka Senghor and Genghis Khan. None of these figures I knew much, if anything in Senghor’s case, about. But, having followed Ben’s writing for some time I did know the man knows a lot about three things: Rap music, Business and History.
After asking the obvious question “What is culture” Ben spends a couple of chapters on Toussaint Louverture. Louverture was the leader of the Haitian slave uprising in the 18th century who understood that the culture of slavery was shaping the salves behaviour. He could see an opportunity to change that culture to enable a successful uprising and Ben outlines how he did it. Tactics used include “Keep what works”, “Create shocking rules” and “Walk the talk”. Some of this is obvious, although “Keep what works” is the result of constant cultural development. “Create shocking rules” might not relate as you would think. Here Ben summarises them as memorable, easy to explain and encountered daily. Amazon’s meeting process, Facebook’s early “Move Fast and Break Things” mantra and partnerships that are always 49/51 against the company are used as examples. He provides context against each point backing them all with a solid reason.
The book then flows into the success of the samurai’s and the code they lived by, the samurai bushido. This section really focuses on the difference between values and virtues. These are well documented and Ben shares examples of virtues he’s instilled at companies. One example is that the company “… tell the truth even if it hurts … we do not withhold material information or tell half truths. Even if the truth will be difficult to hear or to say, we err on the side of truth in the face of difficult consequences”. This is obviously, taken from Andreessen Horowitz but he also provides examples from the Netscape days such as “If you see a snake, don’t call committees, don’t call your buddies, don’t form a team, don’t get a meeting together, just kill the snake”.
The book then moves on to Shaka Sengor who in 1991 was convicted of murder. During his time in prison, he became the leader of The Melanics who he transformed so that “when we went back to the community, we could help fix it for other kids.” He clearly transformed himself by his desire to move away from where he grew up and discovered on his journey that culture is not a “set it and forget it” task. A leader has to subscribe to the cultural elements he prescribes or else there is not culture.
The last character that Ben use’s to highlight strong culture is Genghis Khan, not usually high up the business idol worship list. Khan has gone down in history as perhaps the greatest warrior but Ben focuses on inclusion within his army and how he communicated new practices. The element around inclusiveness and diversity is really interesting and Ben is clear to state that getting it right doesn’t fall to a sole “Head of Diversity”. He argues that teams should hire from different background and different talent pools. He uses Khan’s ability to assimilate his enemies armies upon defeat to his advantage as an example.
The book winds up stating that the main virtues you need in modern business are Trust, Openness to bad news and Loyalty. These are not the only ones as you should decide what is important to you and your team but they are core ones that if not adopted can have dire consequences. He is clear that defining questions which have answers that define who you are will help you to define your culture. “Can this phone call wait til tomorrow?” “Should I go home at 5pm or 8pm?”, “Is winning more important than ethics?”.
The book was a really enjoyable read. I love the mix of history and examples and found a few “aha” moments. Does it help you go and set a culture for a team or an entire company? No. Instead, it makes you think about culture at a much deeper level. You may take nothing actionable away from this book but it makes you think hard about how to get your culture right.