Secret weapon

April 1, 2019

Business owners and entrepreneurs know that running a business is challenging— extraordinarily so at times. Despite knowing that there are no shortcuts to lasting success, we are sometimes guilty of looking for hacks and secret weapons. A couple of years ago, fourteen years into being a managing partner at an executive search practice, I was sure I had found one. In a moment of absolute clarity, I realized that of the hundreds of executive searches I had managed, those that ran the smoothest and had the best outcomes for the business were on behalf of CEOs who clearly understood their company culture. This insight altered the course of my business and my work, as I realized the pivotal role culture plays not just in hiring, but in every aspect of the business.

Two years, dozens of interviews with culture-driven CEOs, and hundreds upon hundreds of hours of research later, I found that I was right: culture, it turns out, is not only a huge competitive advantage for companies of all sizes and stages, but it is also the ‘only’ sustainable competitive advantage that a CEO has total control over. Everything else is subject to external forces beyond the CEO’s control, but culture—the glue that binds a team together—is a fully leverageable asset that is within every CEO’s grasp.

I set off on a journey to better understand how high-growth companies developed and embedded cultures that would become their greatest asset, but immediately hit upon a stumbling block. In attempting to talk to CEOs about their culture, I realized that nine out of ten had not paid much or any attention to their culture. I was confused: how could such a pivotal element in so many businesses be getting neglected? I doubted myself, wondering whether my insight into the importance of culture had been wrong. And then I spoke with Alicia Navarro.

Skimlinks’ secret weapon

Navarro is the founder and President of Skimlinks, a content monetization platform for online publishers. She is also the first culture-driven CEO who agreed to be interviewed by me. Navarro is a remarkable leader who has built a remarkable business, with the culture at the very centre of the thinking and strategy that drives the business. During our in-depth conversation, the first of many I would go on to have, my initial insight—that culture can be the key differentiator that sets a business apart from the competition—was cemented. She spoke about the Skimlinks culture with the kind of fluency that only comes from really knowing your subject. She told me how the team developed the company’s values, how and why the culture has changed over the years as the business has grown, and why there is a toaster in the centre of the office. (In Navarro’s words, she did this “so the smell of toast—a smell of home and safety and happiness—would infuse the office.”) After speaking to her, I realized that the 90 percent of CEOs who were not paying attention to their culture were missing a big trick. Over the next year, as I interviewed more and more culture-driven leaders, I became both increasingly hooked onto the importance of company culture and increasingly frustrated that so few CEOs paid attention to it.

competitive advantage

The one CEO in ten who does pay attention to company culture has a huge competitive advantage over everyone else. Culture infuses every aspect of a business, influencing the way everything gets done. Ask most people what company culture involves, and they usually give one of two answers. Either they say it is about things like sleep pods, ping pong tables, and pizza Fridays, describing individual features that can certainly feature in a well thought-out culture but which, on their own, are a bit gimmicky; or they might say that it has something to do with the values and maybe the mission of the company.

While a company’s values and mission are definitely important elements of company culture, there is so much more to a well-developed culture than this, as my interview with Navarro and the subsequent culture-driven leaders I spoke to demonstrated. Yes, culture is about a company’s mission and values (and in a truly culture-driven organization, these are given extremely careful consideration and are brought to life in very deliberate ways; in companies that just give a nod to culture, values are identified but not embedded, plastered on posters but not deeply lived). However, culture is also about the hiring, onboarding, and performance review processes, about how the company perceives and responds to failure, how diversity and inclusion is approached, about the kind of perks and benefits offered, and about how it creates a workplace designed to foster the growth and self-actualization of its people. To define your company’s culture is to become extremely clear about why your company exists, who your company is, how it is unique and different, and what it stands for, promotes and aims to do in the world.

culture decks decoded

However, there is a risk of losing touch with what has been defined in terms of the culture unless it is somehow codified. Many companies, therefore, create a culture deck, encoding their values and practices into a slide deck or handbook. In many cases, this is not only shared internally with employees, but is made accessible to the general public, too. The most famous example of this is the Netflix culture deck, which CEO Reed Hastings co-created and released in 2009. Sheryl Sandberg later called it the “most important document to come out of Silicon Valley,” and for good reason: not only does the mammoth 125-page document detail every aspect of the Netflix culture, but it inspired a wave of culture deck creation across a variety of industries, and, almost a decade later, a book by me, Culture Decks Decoded, in which I share some of the most effective and thoughtful culture decks on the web. Creating a culture deck is almost certainly a must for any culture-conscious CEO. As your company’s culture evolves, so too will the deck.

culture is always unique

What works at Skimlinks or Netflix will not necessarily work elsewhere. That is the point of culture-driven leadership: it is entirely unique to each company, CEO, and team. As the business grows and changes, so too will the culture. As Navarro said to me, “Our values haven’t changed but our focus has.” Culture is always unique. The way the values are translated into action will change as the culture changes, and the culture changes as the business grows.

Doing this work requires effort and takes time, but the many examples of culture-driven companies that I have come across in the last few years have shown me time and again that the RoI of doing this work is practically exponential. Things will not slow down in the future; companies and the people who work within them need to be agile and responsive. The best way to achieve this is to empower every person in your company by supporting them to be crystal clear on what the company stands for and what it values, so that when decisions are needed, people are truly empowered to make them without needing to wait for approval from the top.

The truth, of course, is that there are no secret weapons in business, but as far as I am concerned, creating a culture-driven organization is about as close as you can get. The question therefore for each CEO reading this to consider is whether you will join the one in ten, becoming part of the movement that puts culture at the heart of your business, or whether you will lag behind and in years to come, wish that you had done things differently. As the founder of a culture-driven hybrid executive search and culture consultancy, I know where I stand. Will you join me?