Top CEOs on Culture and Leadership

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. We didn’t ask all our favorites — we’re saving some for our next survey — and it’s summer, so some promised to participate next round. We’re pleased this group of CEOs and founders agreed to share.

How deeply an executive thinks about culture and leadership influences my assigned probabilities for a company’s success. As a banker, a board member, on the executive team, and now a mentor to startups, there are several tells — some more reliable than others — and attention to leadership and culture is an important one.

Huge thanks to all these friends who responded to our questions. The interconnectedness of leadership & culture is noted by every one of the CEOs, as is the conclusion that culture is the manifestation of leadership — whether by tone, example or stewardship. Not everyone explicitly connected leadership and culture to performance but each did so at least implicitly. 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?

Gene Austin, CEO, Bazaarvoice

How do leadership and culture intersect?

In short, a great culture is a direct result of great leadership. A great culture means that you have an engaged workforce. They believe in the company’s mission, but they also believe in how the company operates and the values inside the business. An engaged organization is productive, has low attrition, values their leaders and believes in both the way they do business and the direction they have set. A great culture is built by leaders that understand that results are obtained by strong execution which can only take place when you have a great culture as a foundation.

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

10 years ago, I thought culture = morale and I was dead wrong. Morale is a result of the state of your culture.

My biggest learning is that culture is finding a great equilibrium between business results, social responsibility and employee needs. When you strike the right balance, the team is engaged (see above).

Heather Brunner, CEO, WP Engine

How do leadership and culture intersect?

Leadership isn’t position, it’s action; and, culture is putting values in action.

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

Board members and investors must also be aligned with an organization’s culture. We are stewards of the culture, values & vision.

Josh Jones-Dilworth, CEO, JDI and co-founder, Culturati

How do leadership and culture intersect?

I think CEOs lead a culture more than they lead a team. Team is part of culture. But team cannot exist independent of culture. Team is just people, and process. Culture is those two plus purpose. Put it together and you get performance. 4 P’s! I just made that up. Now I’m a little bit embarrassed;)

I also go back to my favorite definition of culture as that which is handed down. Culture is legacy. It is what is still there after we are gone. I think the best leaders make themselves obsolete. Of course you never really can, but going on that journey is a good sign that you are working on something bigger than yourself, and as a result something much more likely to succeed. If you hold things too tight, nothing gets passed down. Everything is lost in translation. Repeatability and reproducibility are lost.

Right now I’m obsessed with these Japanese companies that are thousands of years old — the oldest in the world. We don’t reward patience or longevity nearly enough in business these days.

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

This one is enormously simple and you have heard it before. Culture germinates well before you likely recognize it as such. There is no such thing as “too early” when it comes to culture. And, those initial conditions have a disproportionate effect on medium and long terms outcomes. I’ve never seen a culture retrofit that worked. And I seldom see a successful culture turnaround either.

Culture is not a luxury. It is not an item on your to-do list!

Dan Graham, Founder, Notley

How do leadership and culture intersect?

Leadership is responsible for banging the drum of culture to which the rest of the company marches. Leaders set the tone, the pace and the example for their team every day. If they falter, the team falters.

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

Culture is a living, breathing organism and can’t simply be dictated throughout the organization. It must adapt to the members of the team and change as the team changes.

Monica Peraza, CEO, Alegreea

How do leadership and culture intersect?

Leadership permeates into Culture as you lead by example. The leader should be the embodiment of the culture for it to be real.

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

I wish I knew that culture is the heart and soul of a business. I always consider my teams fundamental for the success of my businesses but now I am much more aware of how important it is to have a well defined culture where everyone feels appreciated and a fundamental part of the business.

Preston James, Founder & CEO, DivInc

How do leadership and culture intersect?

They are completely intertwined! The leadership creates and sets the tone for the culture of an organization. The people they attract to organization/company are a direct reflection of the leadership. From employees to clients and to partners, the culture of the business will directly impact each of these areas. Employees feed off of the leadership and the culture and environment they create. The culture is highly dependent on the leadership, but it’s certainly not exclusively dependent on the leadership. Non-leadership personnel have the ability to influence and shape culture. However, it’s essential that the leadership of an organization not only define the culture and the values of the organization, but they must also set the tone of culture by walking the walk every day in their life. It has to be genuine, such that the people of the organization are living and breathing it for everything that they do both at home and at work!

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

I wish, as a leader, I would have prioritized the creation of culture with all of the teams that I had and build my leadership brand around culture and strong performance. I would have loved to have establish my brand as a leader who has an outstanding and diverse work environment and top performing teams As I think back on it, I created good cultures but I wish I had been more deliberate and purposeful in establishing the culture, versus by osmosis. I also wish that I could have spent time learning from other leaders who were exceptional in establishing organizational culture.

Lisa Pearson, CEO, Umbel

How do leadership and culture intersect?

Leadership and culture are 100% inseparable.

Culture is rooted in the beliefs and behaviors of a company. The responsibility of leadership is to help form this belief system for a company. It’s not to dictate a belief system, but rather to shape it and then ensure the behaviors of the leadership team match the company values, leading to an influential and inviting company culture. A leader shouldn’t expect employees to embrace values leaders themselves don’t embody, therefore culture is formed through leadership by example. Employees are unconsciously wired to look to their leaders to see if they “walk the walk” of the culture. Even when leaders do succeed, culture will inevitably ebb and flow over time, but when leadership and culture are synonymous, the foundation for a company is solid.

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

Years ago I wish I had really understood how much focus needs to be put on continuing to evolve a company’s culture. It’s never one and done. If a company has a strong culture it can weather ups and downs. Employees will stick with you through the hard moments if they feel a part of the culture. When they don’t feel a part of the culture is when your company heart begins to fail. If you’re in a start up, there are typically more hard moments than easy ones, and it’s important to be clear eyed about the way the culture changes as the business grows. The values that perfectly define an early stage start up may not be the right ones as a company starts to focus on scaling. It’s important to be adaptable and communicate as values evolve.

John Robinson, President, Capitol Services, Inc.

How do leadership and culture intersect?

Leadership and culture don’t intersect. They overlay and intertwine. It is impossible to separate one from the other.

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

I don’t know what I didn’t know 10 years ago. Isn’t there a line from the old Bob Seger song “Against The Wind” that goes something like ”I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then?”

Chris Taylor, Founder & CEO, Square Root, Inc.

How do leadership & culture intersect?

A company’s culture is a direct reflection of its leadership. Establishing and maintaining a culture is hard work that takes time and dedication. To bring the company’s mission and values to life, the leadership team needs to be engaged and actively embody the company’s culture.

However, if you can establish a strong culture and use it to build an aligned team, you create a virtuous cycle where the culture reflects from the leadership to the team and back again.

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

So many things. I think, perhaps, chief among them is this: You will hit cultural breaking points in the business. The things you have in place to protect your culture when it’s a five-person company will break when you hit 10 people, and break again at a team of 50. It’s not something you put in place and can then walk away from. Every new hire and every new process impacts your culture positively or negatively. It’s an eternal work in progress that takes constant thought, care, and feeding.

Rob Taylor, Co-founder & CEO, Convey, Inc.

How do leadership & culture intersect?

Leadership and culture are inextricably linked. While culture often grows organically based on consistent hiring against a set of values, company leadership is explicitly (even if inadvertently) establishing the parameters for culture to develop. Leadership actions, practices, communication, hiring decisions all set the tone on how culture develops.

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

This may seem obvious now, but culture is absolutely driven by the CEO. I don’t care how large the organization, the CEO’s decisions, behaviors and actions (most important, leadership hiring decisions) drive the culture that will permeate the organization. Functional teams deeper down the organization may have sub cultures develop, but there is no escaping both the good and bad aspects of culture that is being driven from the top. Earlier in my career, as a member of leadership but not the CEO, I thought I could “shield” the team from certain negative cultural attributes that were driven from the top. Now as CEO, I am very careful and deliberate about my actions & behaviors, ensuring consistency with our core values.

Charles Thornburgh, Founder & CEO, Civitas Learning

How do leadership & culture intersect?

I think culture is defined and informed by the quality and style of leadership in an organization. It is the day to day manifestation of leadership in how teams operate and interact, that ultimately dictates the culture you actually have — rather than the culture you say you have, or wish you had.

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

In the last few years II have come to more fully understand the impact of leadership culture specifically on company culture. Said another way, as organizations scale, the risk of losing signal strength on culture because of inexperienced or disengaged managers seems to grow exponentially. I think each and every decision to put someone in a leadership or management position in a young organization needs to be scrutinized, and opportunities to support and scaffold early managers need to be prioritized and resourced, or the experience employees have of your culture will suffer.


Join us in Austin for the next Culturati Summit, January 28–29, 2018. Early announced speakers include: Jason Fried & Wailin Wong from Basecamp; David Simas, CEO, Obama Foundation; Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer, Netflix. More at CulturatiSummit.com. Questions to info@CulturatiSummit.com.
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