I’ve spent the past few years seeking out some of the world’s most awarded, recognized and coveted cultures. Trying to understand the magic behind
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Mark, as a former hardcore Eloqua user I’m delighted to catch up with you again here at Influitive. The offices are a real testimony to celebrating your people and your culture. Can you give our readers a sense of the colourful journey that brought you here?
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I’ve spent the past few years seeking out some of the world’s most awarded, recognized and coveted cultures. Trying to understand the magic behind their success and the role culture has played in that success. Ironically one of the most interesting – and enlightened – organizations was sitting right under my nose here in Toronto and I was blissfully unaware of them until I attended a HR Mashup in their offices. Influitive is the brainchild of Mark Organ who was one of the original founders of the marketing automation software platform Eloqua. I had the good fortune to sit down with Mark and Bronwyn Smith, the Chief of Staff and Head of Culture at Influitive to discuss their very purposeful views on how to build a culture within a start-up environment and why culture is almost more important than investor decks and MVP’s.
MO: I suppose you’d say I fall under the classic definition of serial entrepreneur having founded 6 companies over the course of my career. That was something I learnt early from my father who ran several businesses himself. I’ve also been a research scientist literally working in a lab and also a management consultant at Bain. All of these are milestones in my career but my passion is really about growing people and building incredible cultures. That’s what truly drives me today. That and trying to keep up with my two kids who keep me on my toes daily.
Its quite clear from the enormous posters throughout the offices that you strongly believe in recognizing your people and having a very collaborative culture. What drives that belief and that commitment?
BS: I’m also a Bain alumni like Mark but my path has been a little more linear – at least until I joined Influitive (laughs) to work with Mark. I got my start in Finance, did my MBA but like many folks who work at Bain I got bit by the entrepreneurial bug. Bain has a very strong PE focus which lead quite naturally into exploring the start-up and fast growth organizations. After time at Airbnb, I came over as Chief of Staff here at Influitive and that has expanded into responsibility for our People and Culture. I’m quite sure if you’d asked me at Bain if I’d end up in a Culture role I’d have said no way, but now I genuinely think it is one of the most exciting and important roles in any organization.
MO: I think one of the benefits of having been a serial entrepreneur – and watching my Father go through his career too – is that you bring lessons you’ve learned from previous ventures into your latest one. In my case I learned the culture lesson from my experiences at Eloqua. Specifically when we were about six years into the business and had a group of about 150 employees working hard to stay afloat and ahead building software. It struck me that there were ways we were working that was hobbling us. Behaviours and ways of doing things that were holding us back but, because we hadn’t codified the culture in an explicit fashion, it was now incredibly hard to try wind back the clock and establish better practices and better behaviours. The larger the organization and the longer you leave culture uncodified, the harder the challenge to refine it. Specifically, in the Eloqua case, we had aspects of the culture which were quite passive/aggressive – a kind of false politeness – that made it very difficult for us to communicate directly and unambiguously with each other internally. In a tough competitive environment like we were in, we absolutely needed that ability to communicate directly and our culture prevented that from happening.
I made a promise to myself to pay more attention to culture when starting my next venture. In fact, I was so convinced about the importance of culture that it became the very first thing I set about defining and codifying when we were starting Influitive.
Your culture starts forming on Day One when you open the doors and your first employees come through the door. That’s why you better have built some structure and perspective around the culture you want on Day Zero.
BS: Part of our focus and attention on culture very much comes from the shared Bain experiences – and Bain lessons – Mark and I have. There is a rigor that Bain attaches to hypothesis creation and scientific reasoning when you’re tackling a business problem. Defining and nurturing a great culture requires that type of rigor and testing. That means creating and testing frameworks for the culture you want within your organization because, heaven knows, it is not as simple as just trying to copy Apple’s culture straight into your business.
HB: Influitive is based on the premise that creating advocacy and advocates is the next frontier in marketing. Does that advocacy thinking play directly into how you think about culture here as well?
Getting your culture right is absolutely a competitive advantage because it let’s you punch above your weight class, attract and retain the very best talent and have more resilience in the tough times. As a start-up where it is a relentless pursuit of building a competitive advantage, you better believe we pay very close attention to it.
You spoke about the rigor of purposefully building a culture – particularly within a rapidly growing start-up – but can you provide more specifics about how you do that here?
MO: Absolutely. How can it not? We absolutely subscribe to the notion that employee experience is the mirror of customer experience so we place a real premium of sweating the very smallest details of our employee experience. We’re constantly challenging ourselves to refine and make every aspect of that experience as valuable and enriching as possible. I have a particular passion for making sure that we’re adding value to our employees at every step. Adding value as well as building their own inherent value in the market. I want to make joining Influitive a “risk free” proposition for talent. I want current and future employees to know that time spent here will translate into real career acceleration when or if, they leave. I’m delighted that we’ve built a decent reputation in the market for that notion of adding and building value. And that reputation also directly translates to an easier time attracting talent. It’s fantastic.
BS: Absolutely because we’ve recently come out of a massive project related directly to that.
In short culture needs to be considered just like any other strategic imperative that you have. That means being very scientific and logical about building clear defined goals, metrics and measurement capabilities into your culture efforts – just like you would with your operations or marketing or finance.
Our topline success metrics are obvious ones like talent acquisition and retention, NPS and are we hitting our business targets. Culture can’t be an abstraction from the delivery of actual business results.
The project I was referring to was because we discovered that we hadn’t armed our people with enough clarity on the overall business goals for Influitive. We thought we’d been explicit often enough but, unfortunately, some of our people were struggling to draw a clear line between the tasks they were doing and the success of the overall business. That meant struggling to prioritize tasks or doing certain things less well than the business needed. It wasn’t deliberate on their part, it was just that they lacked the clarity of how what they were doing contributed to our overall success or failure.
You’d talked about the need to establish your culture at Day Zero but isn’t that a tall order for a start-up when you’re inevitably going to go through numerous iterations and evolutions before you hit your stride?
Getting to the root cause of that misalignment or lack of clarity was absolutely critical but it was vital work to do. Now that clarity is infinitely better and, subsequently, we’re able to be a lot more focused on activities and behaviours that drive us forward as an organization.
MO: The only thing I’d add to Bronwyn’s description is we were given a stark reminder of how important it is to effectively have a change management orientation to culture. Particularly because the behavioural change is the hardest and the most nuanced piece to get right. You can implement great HR Technology systems but if people don’t understand the context, or why certain goals exist, then you’re going to struggle.
MO: That’s absolute true but we’ve seen the impact of not having the culture piece explicitly articulated early on here at Influitive when we parted ways with one of our original founders because there was a cultural misalignment. That’s a very powerful message to send to the organization but it was absolutely critical to establish what we placed extreme value on – and what we were prepared to do when there was a misalignment.
The other part we’ve learned through this journey is that your culture needs to be consistent but its also important it remains current. It certainly shouldn’t be changing frenetically but your culture should have the flex to evolve as the organization and the business evolves.
That’s a fantastic example Mark and I do adore the “discovered and created” sentiment Bronwyn raised. What are the other lessons you would give to a new entrepreneur setting out to create his organization and his new culture?
We have a very deliberate process here at the annual executive meeting where we ask the team to pick the Influitive employees that best exemplify the organization and what we aspire to be. Then we try to unpack what values and behaviours make them so exemplary. The interesting part is we look at those behaviours (from the exemplars) and ask if there are any that aren’t currently expressed in our values. That simple exercise gives us a great yardstick to determine how and where our values, our behaviours and our culture has the opportunity to evolve and get stronger.
MO: That exercise is very powerful to go through but it does highlight a strong belief we have here that culture – especially in a start-up – is as much discovered as it is created. Being rigorous is incredibly important but culture needs the opportunity to develop organically too.
MO: I can’t stress the importance enough of codifying your ideal culture early – the Day Zero sentiment I mentioned earlier – because when you inevitably get busy running your start-up you’ll have no time or no ability to retroactively reset it.
BS: I’d agree. I’m a huge believer in recruitment being a key culture tool too. The first 100 people – forget that, the first 10 people – absolutely set the tone and manner for much of the culture so getting those folks right is paramount.
MO: The ongoing, relentless rigor you attach to understanding, refining, enhancing your culture is a commitment you need to sign up for – and stick with.
We have a number of great tools and processes but, as a leader, its about constantly asking simple but tough questions about the culture. “Why did so-and-so leave?”, “What are the hallmarks of our best days? What was happening on those days?” and “Who and why are the very best among us?” – those questions forces some great introspection as CEO.
I suppose my final point is that as a start-up your attention and focus is typically drawn to prototyping products and iterating those. And, of course, agonizing over investor decks. Those are obviously incredibly important but, in our opinion, getting the culture piece is just as important as those two elements. Few start-up entrepreneurs prioritize the culture they want to build and nurture and I think that is a huge miss. Get the culture right and the talent piece becomes a lot easier. And the reality is, as Chief Executive, your people are truly the only asset and competitive advantage you have.
Your organization’s ability to ADAPT is the most critical business imperative Executives face today. People, not Pixels, are the only sustainable competitive advantage you have. I am a Toronto-based Consultant with a love for Marketing and a passion for Culture. In this Digital age, I truly believe that Culture, Leadership and Capacity either impedes or accelerates any organization’s efforts to grow.
I would love to discuss your organization’s adaptability with you and help you create a Culture that inspires and invigorates your people. Reach me at email@example.com
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