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Why Company Culture is Always a CEO Issue – By Jay Jesse

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Author: Jay Jesse, CEO – Intelligent Software Solutions, Inc.

As a technology company CEO, I deal with a myriad of issues on a daily basis, including finance, sales, human resources, and of course, ensuring that our technology stands at the forefront of the industry and client needs. However, it might surprise you to know that the most important thing on my plate is fostering and maintaining a positive and effective company culture.

I recently read an interesting article on this subject titled 5 Tech Companies With Great Cultures. The article opens with the statement: “When you hear someone complaining about their job, it’s common to find a lot of what they say is connected deeply to an airy concept of it “feeling bad” there.” To me, this is the essence of a bad culture – the type we don’t want any part of at ISS. While you may not always be able to define what constitutes a bad company culture, you definitely know it when you see it – and as an employee, you don’t want to spend your daylight hours at such a place.

One consistent theme from these top cultural performers is the degree of freedom and autonomy they provide to their employees. Like our company, they expect a lot and know that top performers work hard and produce a lot because of their inner drive and desire to achieve – not because their employer micromanages them. When you make it possible for employees to thrive, each of them adds their own contribution to the culture.

What Company Culture is NOT:

  • Rah-rah speeches. Unless the reality matches the rhetoric, motivational talks without action fall on deaf ears.
  • A set of values to write on a plaque or coffee cup. Technology-savvy people have experienced the companies where executives are great at developing and propagating a mission/value statement, but poor at actually living out the clever slogans.
  • A tool to be rolled-out in times of crisis. If you need to invoke the company culture simply because you are in trouble, it is usually way too late.
  • Something borrowed from industry leaders. Every company culture is unique and is not something that can be borrowed from even the likes of Google, IBM or Facebook.
  • Top-down driven. Company cultures that are imposed are seldom successful. Everyone wants to “buy” into a great culture but almost no one likes to be “sold”. This may seem like a subtle difference but the implications are profound.

What Company Culture IS:

  • Work that gives a sense of purpose and fulfillment. While we have an advantage at ISS because a lot of what we do serves vital national security interests, every technology company needs to articulate how each person’s work contributes to a larger purpose. Our teams are driven by the critical missions they support, which we keep at the forefront by fostering continuous interaction with our customers. Here at ISS, we have also expanded this sense of purpose beyond our direct jobs by partnering with worthy community service organizations like warfighter support, the Salvation Army and Care and Share.
  • Leaders who empower and enable team success. We build teams that have the autonomy to make key decisions, in concert with our customers, and hold those teams accountable for performance.  This is about trusting our employees and, as I mentioned above, it is a hallmark of top-performing technology companies. Our company operates in a fast-paced and ever-changing environment, and enabling teams to meet challenges at the project level, working directly with customers, is a must.
  • A way of conducting ourselves during working hours. Culture is best articulated by our actions, not by our statements. Leaders need to “walk the walk” and set an example of total accountability for maintaining both the letter and spirit of the common culture. Most importantly, communication has to be bi-directional, with leadership establishing an environment that encourages input from across the company.
  • An atmosphere that encourages growth.  People that work in high technology tend to be smart and curious. They need cross training and the ability to achieve their full potential. We have worked to put education opportunities in place, as well as try to smartly use our budgets for providing internal training and investing in R&D. Our company gains because we get a better educated and motivated workforce.
  • A climate of collaboration. High caliber people like to be surrounded by other talented people, with a shared commitment to success. Aligning people with efforts that best utilize their capabilities and complement the team is key, and establishing collaboration and teamwork as the norm are essential. Collaboration can be enhanced through events like our semi-annual hackathon, where teams from each of our locations compete to turn simple objects into technology-enabled products and services. It’s incredible to see the ingenuity and happiness that is spawned when our boundaries are lowered and cleverness is encouraged.

Of course, like all organizations we strive to reach these ideals even across our geographically dispersed company, where we have multiple cultures and subcultures. The question is: are you going to let this happen in an ad-hoc fashion or nurture and encourage it in an organized and effective manner?

This really comes down to a matter of leadership – not top-down decrees that are going to magically change things, but rather – understanding that on any given day, you are going to make a series of large and small decisions that impact your company.  If you understand and embrace the culture you want to foster, you will have a better context for making decisions that benefit the organization and the valuable people that work there.

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  • Chris Ryan

    Excellent article about the importance of a vibrant company culture. Worth reading by both technology and non-technology company executives.