A TALE OF TWO CULTURES
I’ve worked in some truly inspiring company cultures with phenomenal people. Together, we’ve accomplished amazing things. I’ve also suffered through painful work environments that drained the life out of you. Daily. Most likely, you have too.
There’s a huge difference between a company culture that’s emotionally connected and one that’s not. When culture is in sync, employees are emotionally engaged in their work and committed to the larger team’s — or their company’s — success. Communication is more positive, and the collective energy, work effort, and results far exceed expectations. Employees are uplifted by their work and by the team’s accomplishments.
When not in sync, company culture is like a weight around your heart. Everything feels heavy — a burdensome chore. Purpose is a distant memory. The goal is getting through the day versus taking the company to a higher level.
I’ve experienced this tale of two cultures many times in my career, perhaps most memorably in the story to follow.
I had just joined a high-flying tech company. I’d come from a much larger competitor — one that had let me go (and many other talented people) after politics had overtaken their culture. It was a highly stressful experience where employees were regularly berated by a senior executive, while department heads with under-performing fiefdoms worked harder to protect their turf than improve the company. The result: The company barely mustered single digit growth, while its main (much smaller) competitor — the one I joined — was growing 40% and gobbling up market share.
When I joined the smaller competitor, I was shocked to learn that 70% of the company’s business was international, yet they had only one or two employees outside the US. Instead, they relied on online sales and about two dozen amazing, multi-lingual salespeople on the phone in New York City. No 600-person sales team. No offices outside the US. No sales calls in local markets. No marketing in foreign language. Just an energized culture, a team that was challenged, pushed, and coached to believe they could do anything. And one that was rewarded for team success almost as much as individual success.
In my two and a half years at this smaller competitor, here’s what I did and saw. I created the company’s first Team Subscription products. They launched in 3 weeks — not 3 months, or 3 quarters — and quickly became top revenue producers for Inside Sales. I built the business plan and strategy for a new premium content website, one that took direct aim at the flagship asset of our larger competitor. I built the strategy to scale the Enterprise Sales business and was then asked to help run it. I built an account management/sales operations/content research team from 3 people to 36 in a year and a half.
Enterprise Sales grew 100% year over year, twice. The company grew 40% each year. The company went public after my first year, and the stock went from $17 to $103 in about 16 months. The company more than doubled in size in two years.
It was a magical, exhilarating, emotional high where hundreds of people committed to a higher purpose — to be the best in the industry at serving our customers. They also committed to each other — pushing their coworkers to reach higher, stretch farther, and go beyond what any of them would have thought possible individually.
We laughed, learned, complained, debated, created, complemented, supported, and loved each other. And we decimated our largest competitor who shrank to almost half its size under a mountain of debt during the same period.
Happy ending, right? Not exactly.
A magical culture can be a fleeting thing. Whether it was the pressure of being a public company or perhaps some people putting themselves above the team, the culture started to change just before I left. A lot of great people, including most of the senior executive team, left within 6 months around the time their stock became fully vested. Huge swaths of engineering and creative talent left for other companies. The stock dropped to $29 within a year. The company is still growing, but now at a much slower pace.
What happened to that larger competitor? With new leadership at the top, they’ve turned themselves around. Their content is great again, and their fortunes feel like they’re on an upswing.
An emotionally connected culture is a precious thing. It’s the soul of the company. It must be nurtured, coached, practiced, respected, and protected.
It’s really hard to fix other areas such as product innovation or marketing if your people are not emotionally committed to the mission. It’s even harder if they’re leaving for other companies. You’re constantly recruiting and on-boarding new people — not as additional help but as replacements for talented people who’ve left. That’s why there is nothing more important that investing in your culture first.
You owe it to your company, to your employees, to their families, and yours, to do that.
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Brand Aura is a marketing research, publishing, and strategy company that helps business leaders to improve employee retention, customer acquisition, and customer retention to achieve sustained growth. Our most recent research study, Employee Retention, Motivation & Culture: The Intelligence to Build and Lead an Emotionally Connected Team, is available at BrandAura.com. Brand Aura also offers custom research and strategy engagements to assist clients.