Top CEOs on Leadership and Culture, Part 2

Editor’s Note: Eugene Sepulveda, CEO, Entrepreneurs Foundation and Founder, Culturati, asked several favorite CEOs in Austin to share their answers to two questions about culture and leadership. This is Part 2 and we’re pleased this group of CEOs and founders agreed to share.

Culturati members returned to In Practice’s August issue on Leadership and Culture so often, thought we’d ask a few more friends.

These leaders are even more emphatic about the dominance of leadership in the development of an organization’s culture. I love the repeated, explicit connection to values and mission. As Heather Brunner likes to say, “culture is values in action.” She also says “leadership isn’t a position, it’s action.” I think there’s a simultaneous equation here.

Huge thanks to all these friends who responded to our questions. It’s not lost on us that this issue includes only one female CEO. We promise, we asked several more, and it’s just a really busy time. We’ll add more as they come in. Culture powers performance.

The two questions:

  1. How do leadership and culture intersect?
  2. What do you know about culture today that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

David Booth, CEO, Dimensional Fund Advisors

How do leadership and culture intersect?

My instinct is that their connection goes both ways. Culture influences leadership and leadership influences culture.

What do you know about culture today that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

If a business were a person, culture is “who you are.” I think that we all adapt over time. Looking back 10 years, I don’t think we know more about who we are, but I think we get better at dealing with issues. One difference for us as a business is that we have grown a lot in the last 10 years, which makes it more difficult for everyone in the firm to understand and buy into who we are. The old-timers like the culture the way it was, but when we have 4 times the number of people, the culture has to adapt while keeping the same core values.

S. Claiborne “Clay” Johnston, MD, PhD. Dean and Vice President for Medical Affairs, Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin

How do leadership and culture intersect?

The number one priority for leaders should be in establishing culture. This means creating the example but also building the structures and practices that establish and maintain an effective culture.

What do you know about culture today that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

It is now clear to me how important it is to call out behavior or processes that don’t align with culture as soon as they are recognized. One unaligned employee can have a tremendous impact on the culture of an organization, and every day that person’s behavior is tolerated as like leaving a growing cancer untreated. I might also note: Culture is best reinforced by a leader through face time. You can’t just write the stuff out and expect people to believe it.

Blake Garrett, Founder and CEO, Aceable

How do leadership and culture intersect?

I believe leadership is 100% intertwined in a great culture. Leadership is not limited to the C-Suite, it’s needed at every level of an organization. As Ray Dalio says, if is a group’s “values and principles are clear, their ways of being (e.g. their culture) will permeate everything they do.” So it starts with strong leaders communicating and reinforcing those values and principles. Now at the next level “everything they do” consists setting goals, encountering problems, diagnosing problems, designing and implementing solutions. Leadership, values, and principles are imperative at each one of those steps and those.

What do you know about culture today that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

10 years ago I was just beginning my career in consulting. I was afforded the opportunity to examine different cultures of the highest performing companies in the world. I clearly remember appreciating some cultures more than others. However, I really wish I was more thorough in capturing notes on what worked well and what didn’t. I missed a tremendous opportunity for an in-depth case study (while I was being paid for another job).

Autumn Rich, Founder & CEO, Autumn Rich & Co.

How do leadership and culture intersect?

Culture in a small company evolves organically as a reflection of all its members. The CEO is definitely the captain of the ship who must monitor the barometer while the culture develops.

What do you know about culture today that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

That culture drives the soul of a company! Culture can change dramatically as leadership changes and companies grow. You must make culture a priority during growth stages and the CEO and leadership must continue to be involved in an integral way to preserve a great culture.

Earl Maxwell, CEO, St. David’s Foundation

How do leadership and culture intersect?

When culture and leadership intersect, the results can be amazing. However, when leadership is not aligned with the organization’s culture, the results can be disastrous. Even worse is when leadership does not understand the organization’s culture, but still insists on plowing ahead. The failure of leadership and culture connecting is why so many mergers and acquisitions are difficult, or fail. Many leaders attempt to impose their idea of culture on the acquired organization, and do not recognize that organizational culture is present when new leadership arrives, and it will be there long after leadership leaves. Once embedded in an organization, culture is very difficult to change.

What do you know about culture today that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

Ten years ago, I focused on looking for vision, mission and core values when visiting an organization. Now I’ve added organizational culture to the list of things to understand about an organization. If I became the leader of an organization, I’d look for vision, mission and core values on the website. Then, I would ask the employees to write one or two words that describe the current culture of their organization. After compiling the responses, I’d determine if there is consensus among the group. If so, the organization probably has a strong culture. If not, then we have some difficult work ahead of us.

Ben Lamm, CEO, Conversable

How do leadership and culture intersect?

There’s a chicken and egg question here about whether culture affects leadership, or leadership affects culture. People argue about it a lot, but it’s kind of a moot point. As the CEO of a company, you are writ large the biggest driver and proponent of company culture, and it is ultimately your responsibility. The entire purpose of leadership is to create a culture and support it to thrive.

What do you know about culture today that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

That you can’t spell culture without cult. In today’s business world, culture is everything, and building a successful one in your company is the secret sauce for success we’ve all been talking about, and only half performing. This means not only building your team around values, but getting complete buy-off on those values. It means focusing on mission-driven incentives, and not goal-oriented milestones. It means cultivating collective responsibility and outcomes. If it sounds bullish, it is. I truly believe that culture cannot be spelled — or built — without cult.

Leo Ramirez, Jr., Chairman and CEO, Encast

How do leadership and culture intersect?
Leaders manifest a company’s values: creating a workplace motivated by more than just profits. Teams perform optimally with inspiration and motivation. Purposeful engagement, inclusive of societal value, is motivational and inspires.

What do you know about culture today that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

Culture has become a competitive advantage. Economic viability of a business is inextricably tied to workplace culture. Furthermore, employees want meaning and value beyond their daily responsibilities. As such, community impact around common causes extend culture externally and drive deeper engagement. Had I learned this ten years earlier, I would’ve focused on developing companies where culture was foundational to their existence. Companies without strong culture have no future.

John Lowe, Chief Executive Officer, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams

How do leadership and culture intersect?

Leadership and culture don’t intersect. They completely overlap. The type of leader you are determines the type of culture you have. The type of leaders you hire determines the type of culture you grow.

What do you know about culture today that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

Hiring people who are comfortable in their own skin — who are willing to speak truth to power — may be the single most difficult trait to assess in interviews and also the single most beneficial characteristic to seed throughout a large organization.

Editor’s note — It’s not lost on us that this issue includes only one female CEO. We promise, we asked several more, and it’s just a really busy time. We’ll add more as they come in.