What You Do Is Who You Are

This past summer I read a proof of Ben Horowitz’s new book, What You Do Is Who You Are, and I even blogged about it here without naming the book.

What You Do is about culture, how you make it, how you keep it, and how the big decisions you make and how you explain them set the culture in your organization.

To explain this Ben tells the story of four different cultures that were set by strong leaders:

– the leader of the only successful slave revolt, Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture

– the Samurai, who ruled Japan for seven hundred years and shaped modern Japanese culture

– Genghis Khan, who built the world’s largest empire

– Shaka Senghor, a man convicted of murder who ran the most formidable prison gang in the yard and ultimately transformed prison culture.


These stories really make it clear how you set and keep your culture. You will come away from this book with a clear understanding of how your actions will set the culture in your company.

I read Ben’s interview with Connie Loizos and I like what he said here about why he wrote the book:

First, it was the thing that I had the most difficult time with as a CEO. People would say, ‘Ben, pay attention to culture, it really is the key.’ But when you were like, ‘Okay, great, how do i do that?’ it was like, ‘Um, maybe you should have a meeting about it.’ Nobody could convey: what it was, how you dealt with it, how you designed it. So I felt like I was missing a piece of my own education.
Also, when I look at the work I do now, it’s the most important thing. What I say to people at the firm is that nobody 10 or 20 or 30 years from now is going to remember what deals we’ve won or lost or what the returns were on this or that. You’re going to remember what it felt like to work here and to do business with us and what kind of imprint we put on the world. And that’s our culture. That’s our behavior. We can’t have any drift from that. And I think that’s true for every company.

So if you leading your company and you are thinking “ok, great, how do I do that?”, then go get this book and read it. I think you will come away with a much better understanding of what culture is all about.


Comments (Archived):

  1. awaldstein

    Will do–thanks.His Hard Thing About Hard Things is one of my top business books, along with the underrated Shoe Dog.

    1. Amar

      “Shoe Dog” is a keeper imho. Rare find of a book that seems to resist rewriting history and instead presents events as they happened with minimal interpretation.

      1. awaldstein

        Yup,Never did shoes, but built more than one company buying and completely subservient to asian factories. At very large volumes, an aging process on steroids.

  2. Erin

    Looks good. I think I actually read the Hard Thing About Hard Things on your blog’s suggestion.I do have a relevant quote from Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.Whatever that means. 😛 🙂

    1. JLM

      .Winning locker rooms and losing locker rooms smell different.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  3. Tommy

    “You are what you do” – honestly, the title itself might be all you need(pre-ordered 2 copies anyway)

  4. William Mougayar

    It is good to see Ben reminding us of the importance of culture and how to build it.For me (having been part of it for 14 years), the grand daddy and model for company culture is the old “HP Way” that was encapsulated many years ago in a book of the same title by Dave Packard & Bill Hewlett. https://www.hpalumni.org/hp…Today, entrepreneurial cultures are slightly different than corporate cultures, but still- many basics of human/people factors apply.The CEO entrepreneur either gets the importance of culture, or they don’t; and you see it immediately once the startup starts to reach 15-20+ employees.

    1. awaldstein

      My experience is somewhat different.Culture is born when it goes beyond the personality of the founder, and in my experience at least, this didn’t really surface till later, when layers of responsibility became more engrained in the organization.At 15 or so people it is invariably a personality cult of sorts.

      1. William Mougayar

        At 15+ the founder isn’t the only one directly managing everything and everybody. When you start having others managing people, then culture starts to take shape.I don’t see where the disagreement is, nonetheless.

        1. awaldstein

          We either use words very differently or have dramatically different experiences.Spent most of my career in companies going from a handful to a few thousand so that is my perspective.Under 20, even double that depending on the panache of the founder its strictly driven by the Founder as an individual, not a culture in my view.And of course, regardless of all above, sales almost always has its own unique culture and adherence to the sales leader not the CEO.

    2. Donna Brewington White

      One of the best compliments I heard about @aaronklein:disqus’s company (from someone I placed there) is that Riskalyze is the closest he’d ever experienced to working at HP when Dave Packard was still at the helm. Reading your comment reinforces what high praise this was.

      1. William Mougayar

        Wow. Exactly. Thanks for sharing this tidbit.

  5. Tom Labus

    Having good “culture” doesn’t mean the company will be successful but it certainly helps. It also depends on how you define what culture means.

    1. pointsnfigures

      True, helps attract and keep employees-and also helps you keep from hiring ones that won’t fit.

  6. JamesHRH

    Or, you could write down three things that you believe about how to deal with people and make sure that every manager agrees with you.And then hold them accountable to acting according to those principles.

    1. JLM

      .Haha. Agree more with you than you do with yourself. A lot of actual, practical leadership is very, very simple.I once went to an elite, hand selection, sort of secret school for generals’ aides-de-camp who the Army thought were future fast burners. When we entered, we were given the task to summarize our duties in one sentence.I wrote: “I am responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen with my unit.”When we graduated, we were given the same task to see what we had learned.I wrote: “I am still responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen with my unit.”I was the Honor Grad of the course.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

      1. sigmaalgebra

        A keeper. Thx.

    2. Donna Brewington White

      Or better yet, ask those managers to hold *you* accountable to acting according to those principles.

  7. sigmaalgebra

    A person is NOT necessarily or very much what they “ARE” at work. Instead, who they “are” includes at home, in their families, in their neighborhoods, in community organizations, in various avocations, etc.Next, for “culture” at work, I’ve seen that at Federal Civil Service, US Navy research, GE, FedEx, IBM, a lot in academics as a student, grad student, lecturer in computer science, B-school prof, consulting, etc. The main things I saw were not very commendable or inspiring and often dysfunctional or destructive: (i) Cliques, a small scale but severe and strong version of tribalism. (ii) Subordination to the point of just “sucking up”; managers that keep down the accomplishments and recognition of their subordinates. (iii) Don’t rock the boat; no new ideas are welcome, “You are not here to think, you are here to do what I tell you.”. (iv) Fit in; be a “team player”; get along by going along; (v) constantly keep a finger up to measure the direction of the political winds; (vi) CYA (cover your back side, i.e., protect yourself from others pointing fingers to eliminate competition); etc. I learned (i) – (vi) the hard way, paying “full tuition” (@JLM).E.g., in one organization, there was a lot of theft of expensive supplies; a big part of that culture was to keep quiet about the theft. In the series Band of Brothers there was Captain Sobel who (i) could not read a map and (ii) tried to reduce competition for his position by sabotaging the career of his XO Lieutenant Winters; I’ve had three, maybe four, managers close copies of Sobel. The main reason people played the politics, put up with the nonsense, and stayed is that there was a paycheck. Twice I saved FedEx from going out of business; each time nearly everyone else was PISSED OFF.One of the main features of culture in organizations is goal subordination: A person does what is in their own short term interest even if it is against the long term interest of the organization. Most organizations are awash in highly destructive goal subordination; commonly that is the main content of the culture.Yes, a CEO, or in some cases even a middle manager, can create a beneficial culture. Still, the main issue is just the money, in financial terms, both alpha and beta, that is, expectation and variance, that is, amount and reliability.For a good example of culture from a CEO, maybe we should get some insight into what Roger Penske did and how he did it?No doubt one of the biggest examples of culture, significantly strong and important for the missions and nearly all concerned, in organizations is the US military. I’m plenty eager to see how the officers there create beneficial culture!In my startup, I intend that the main culture be two main paths of communications: (1) For the main on-going work, down the organization chart. (2) For the good, new ideas crucial for rapid growth in revenue and earnings, everyone to any or everyone via, say, written documents likely followed by one hour presentations. With (2) anyone can propose anything to anyone or everyone.Then really good work on (2) gets rewarded; hopefully the company will be able to make the rewards quite significant financially.Communications via (2) have nothing to do with the organization chart. A hope is that such communications yield powerful, valuable secret sauce advantages for the company.The main path to such advantages is applied math; a secondary path is computing (I’m reluctant to acknowledge that there is anything significant to be called computer science); a third path will be just good data analysis, likely with some good if simple work in statistics.Yes, the bar for good applied math contributions may be low for good mathematicians but quite high for nearly everyone else.Part of the company culture is the idea that math is necessarily the key to much of the future of technology and the economy; this idea is not broadly accepted; part of the reason is that only a tiny fraction of the population has the required background in math.

  8. pointsnfigures

    Funny, in our diligence we always ask a lot of questions about “culture”. I do think it’s misunderstood. When I think about the culture from the trading floor that has carried over to what we do today it’s “Your word is your bond”.

  9. DJL

    Cool. I would have assumed this was filled with techno-hero stories from portfolio companies. These historical examples sound fascinating.

  10. JLM

    .I enjoy reading Horowitz’s books. They are always quite thoughtful and thought provoking. It may be a stretch to find the wisdom of the Shaka Senghor when dealing with a 7 man SaaS startup, but maybe. I’ll reserve judgment until I read the book.Culture, in a startup, starts and ends with the values of the founder. Period.Values don’t become culture until they are tested. When you never see the pricetag, everybody is driving a Ferrari. When the price tag arrives — when you have to live them — a lot of folks’ values evaporate.The culture is the company’s when it is no longer under the control of the founder. This has to do with size. @SixgillBlog:disqus noted that below and he is perfectly right.I also find that Horowitz has some real blind spots. He constantly harps about the “wartime CEO” and has had no military or combat experience.He says it with such authority, folks nod their heads, and he gets it completely wrong.The testing of a culture is quite mechanical. It is easy to do, but few people do it.I had a client who asked me to address this issue which resulted in 14 blog posts.https://themusingsofthebigr…If you want a great example of a culture that works under stress, look no further than the US Army Delta Force and the Army Rangers. These are the guys who just knocked off al-Baghdadi after flying across Syria. Typical Delta/Ranger mission.I was an Army Ranger though I never served with The Regiment, as it didn’t exist in my day. In my day, you went to the school (50% didn’t make it), you reported to your unit with your Ranger tab and jump wings, they made a space at the bar for you. You got all the tough patrols and assignments cause — you were a Ranger.I also think it is very easy to confuse reputation and culture. What @wmoug refers to in the HP history is reputation. Reputation is past. Culture is present. It is not a foul to conflate them, but they are very different.In the end we all want to be the same thing: the man our dogs think we are.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. William Mougayar

      We are talking about culture not reputation here. HP’s reputation was a result of its special culture. I was taking about the HP of previous years, prob up to the late 90’s as the company started to decline thereafter. HP’s culture was legendary and enviable for its many characteristics and I’m not talking from a textbook, but rather from having actually experienced it.

      1. JamesHRH

        Reputation is what people outside your company say about your behaviour.Culture is what people inside your culture experience because of your behaviour.Just a POV issue.You can tell a lot about a fire based on the smoke, even from miles away. Culture is the fire; reputation is the smoke.

        1. William Mougayar

          yup. I sure wasn’t confusing the 2, as JLM implied.

        2. 918kiss

          Ben Horowitz, a leading venture capitalist, modern management expert, and New York Times bestselling author combines lessons both from history and modern organisational practice with practical and often surprising advice to help us build cultures that can weather both good and bad times.seem simple to someone sitting on the docks, but the view’s a lot different from the captain’s quarters. The only thing you can count on is rough seas between here and where you’re trying to go, so you’d better assemble a crew suited for the task ahead — and the culture to ensure they’re as invested in getting to the other side as you are.On this episode we talk to someone who’s assembled many crews and formed many company cultures: Ben Horowitz, cofounder and CEO of the venture capital powerhouse Andreessen Horowitz and author of New York Times Best Seller The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers and his latest, What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture. Listen, learn, and enjoy!The times and circumstances in which people were raised often shape 918kiss them – yet a few leaders have managed to shape their times. In this follow-up to the bestselling business classic The Hard Thing About Hard Things,XE88 Ben Horowitz turns his attention to a question crucial to every organisation: How do you create and sustain the culture you want?This book is a journey through cultures ancient to modern, spotlighting models of leadership and 918kiss culture-building from the samurai to prison gangs. Along the way, it answers fundamental questions: Who are we? XE88 How do people talk about us when we’re not around? How do we treat our customers? Can we be trusted?Because who you are is not the values you list on the wall. It’s not what you say in a company-wide meeting. XE88 It’s not your marketing campaign. It’s not even what you believe. Who you are is what you do. This book will help you do the things needed to become the kind of 918kiss leader you want to be – and others want to follow.

  11. Richard

    Culture is a rule based sandwich cookie with the cream of respect in the middle.