The Power Of Culture: From Words On The Wall to Living It Every Day

“What would the world be like if every employee trusted their leaders, loved their work? What could we focus on? What problems could we solve in the world?”

China Gorman – GPTW Global CEO

360’s founder/ceo, Jason Atkins and our friend, culture mentor and investor Bruce Croxon gave a keynote at the 2014 Great Place To Work conference this morning in Toronto. Here’s a transcription of their discussion.

Bruce: With Lavalife, people always ask what the secret was to our success. That’s a bit tough to nail down. Certainly we established our brand as the go-to place for online dating.  After all, we were four guys in their 20’s, highly motivated by the subject matter. We were good at the technology – which at that time was cumbersome and a big barrier to entry. But when I look back on what we did right, it was the power of our culture. I didn’t realize it going into the business: this came out of 15 years of learning. What I know for sure is that when I veered from our core values, I paid the price very heavily.

The power of a business’ culture is the single most important element of a successful outcome.

You can put words on a wall and think and hope that people know what they’re walking into every day.  But if you want to be serious about it, and really make it effective; it’s hard work and you need a system.

Now, my capital company looks for technology companies who need growth capital.  One of my top screens is looking for people who know about culture and understand culture.  A couple of years ago, my friends at OMERs asked me to go have a look at this company 360.  For the first 40 minutes of our meeting, I didn’t even know what they did. Jason Atkins and I just sat and talked about the culture: “here’s my company, here’s our values, here’s our culture” I knew that it didn’t matter what this company did – they were going to knock it out of the park.

I wondered, “how did you arrive at the knowledge that culture has the power to move companies in the way it’s happening for you?”

(Here is the slide deck from the presentation)

JA: I spend most of my life working and when you drill it right down, life always comes down to happiness and looking for happiness.  If you go into so many workplaces, people hate Mondays, talk about hump day and so on – it’s like they’re wishing their life away. So I started to think about what happens if you make people happy at work – how does that affect customers and your business?

I really believe that if you don’t have a team that’s bought into your vision, you can’t succeed.

Bruce: I hear so many great ideas each year, but it always comes down to execution. The culture is what gets you through those inevitable dips that come along.  You can walk into any company north of 50 people and there’s the obligatory mission statement: some words on a wall.

Most companies have core values and 99% of the time you’re going to see that teamwork is one of them. Here’s how serious we were about teamwork at LavaLife.  We were fast growing, about 200 too many people actually. We’d get down to nine finalists for a position. We’d put them all in a room and run the NASA man on the moon exercise. Basically, you tell them “here are 12 survival items you’d require if you crashed on the moon.  Rank these items by priority – there IS a right answer.” We would then divide the 9 into 3 groups of 3 and do the exercise again.  In 15 years, I never saw an individual beat a team score. To the applicants, this demonstrated the importance of teamwork. For us recruiting, we got to watch how the finalists worked in groups.

I’m 53 years old now and I’m officially done working with people who can’t get by their own egos, can’t work together and can’t see other viewpoints.  You end up dealing with a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with the business.

360s well in Rwanda built with charity waterJA: We started with 3 core commitments – provide an unbelievable experience for our clients, an unbelievable workplace for our team and to make a difference in the world.  To build a happy workplace, you need to bring higher meaning to the workplace.  Your personal core values are your filters in life and the same is true for steering an organization.  It’s about working the values into every day work life. It’s about HOW you think, HOW you approach problems.

The commitment to make a difference in the world has been one that we have to keep our eye on. We’re the only ones keeping ourselves accountable for that one, but that’s the one that really, really has meaning for us.  Our work with charity:water and Samasource just attaches so much meaning to people’s day-to-day work.  People don’t leave because they can sense that they’re a part of something bigger.  

Bruce: When it gets away from you, such as when the founders are no longer doing the hiring, that’s when the health of the culture becomes real work.

It’s tough because the stuff we’re talking about here doesn’t keep the investors happy this quarter.  It doesn’t make payroll next Friday.  You need to be on top of SO much these days – at the speed that information now travels. How on earth do you find time for culture?

Zappos MetricsJA:  Look, I have to publish my financial statements to my board. But if you go to Zappos and look at how they dashboard things – they are measuring the heck out of everything. So, I started to understand how to measure the ROI of culture efforts, how to track all the metrics that relate to it.

Bruce:  At LavaLife we were able to tie culture into performance management and pay raises. As a result of our focus on culture, there was almost no voluntary exiting the company, people were lined up to work there. Actually, the “more people on a decision makes a better decision” ended up going too far and slowing us down. It’s important to find the sweet spot for that – so as to not grind things to a halt.

360 CultureBook2013 CoverFront 8 5x11JA:  It’s important to make sure the culture extends to the client side as well.  In fact, we were working on a deal that would effectively double our business. The decision maker was nervous about our small size and relative newness to the industry, but they went with us. She told me: ” when I saw how much you care about your people and how happy they are, I know you’ll do the same for my customers.” 

When something goes wrong, and something always will, our customers are so connected to us, they’ll call and say “if you were any other vendor…” We create a culture yearbook every year and we sent it out to them.  It just helps maintain that connectivity.

Bruce:  Building a culture that leads to outstanding performance doesn’t happen by accident. It takes dedication, discipline and focus. Without that commitment from the leaders, the words on the wall don’t mean anything – the don’t live.