A big thank you to Jordan Behan who is the first person to be interviewed as part of my organizational culture interview series.
Jordan Behan is the creator of the Lean Marketing Playbook for Software as a Service — a program that helps early-stage software companies kickstart their growth with content marketing. He has worked in digital marketing for software companies of all sizes for over 16 years.
How do you define culture at the highest level?
Culture is the collective mindset of a group of people and the unseen forces that affect how people feel about things.
Would that definition change when we are talking about an organization? If so, how?
When I think about culture from an organizational perspective, it’s how the people in the organization feel about working for the company. If you look at it through a management or a human resources lens, you want to have people feel like they are a part of something important. Culture is that movement or belief that we create in people that can be won or lost.
If you could create the ideal organizational culture with no restrictions like cost what are the first three things that come to mind for you?
- Creating transparency for all team members
- Connecting employee efforts to the company’s performance
- Celebrating everyone’s wins and successes
The number one thing is creating transparency for everyone in the company around how their work affects the company’s outputs and bottom line. While revenues and sales may not seem relevant to an office manager or human resources team member organizations must find a way to connect employee’s efforts to overall company performance.
If you can connect their work to how it helps the company goals, employees will feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves and that their efforts have an impact. That’s the most important thing in my experience.
How can we help an employee whose work doesn’t directly impact the bottom line see how their work impacts the company outputs?
If you are being transparent about how an employee’s work impacts the bottom line it might not be a straight line between revenue and a team member’s performance. Perhaps an administrative employee can be striving to improve their speed of response, how their work enhances NPS, or tracking the number of positive interactions they have. We need to give employees a way to understand that their efforts and performance matters and that they can see that they are part of the greater goal.
The management problem there is: How DO you find a way to connect each and every person in your company to the mission and have them feel like they are a part of it? How much do they feel like they belong and that they matter?
When you say “culture” it’s easy to think about fancy coffee or free groceries or Zoom backgrounds but the more important piece is how much do people feel like they belong and that they matter.
A great culture enables everyone to come to work every day excited to get down to business. A lot of companies chase after “how do I get this person to perform better?” rather than “how do I make this person feel important so they can perform at their best?”
Tell me about coming into a company with strong organizational culture as a team leader/manager joining and leading an existing team.
It is a challenge as a manager to join a new team. Culture is ever-present, and when you join an organization, you take your place within it. As a leader, your job is to improve the culture and refine it. You have the challenge of planning and vision but also of getting everyone to buy into that vision.
As a new manager, one of the biggest challenges is the systems, processes, and team members that you inherit. Not only are you trying to become part of an existing culture but it’s also upon you to change it for the better, which could require making some tough decisions.
You’ve been part of great cultures and other cultures. You’ve been in big companies and little companies and now largely working as an independent consultant in a web of contractors. Each of those has distinct cultural challenges and opportunities. Reminisce about your experiences and compare those three models of organizational culture in your own experience.
When it comes to brand new companies or startups culture is almost the easy part provided you have a visionary leader who at least considers culture an important part of the company.
In companies who are more mature things can get a bit more challenging. There is a chicken and egg problem: do we invest in culture to unlock our growth or will that investment impact our ability to grow due to the expense? Competing interests among leaders on the topic of culture can really hold things up. Everyone needs to be on board.
At larger companies it has to be systemized. It has to be more than a list of values written on the wall. You have to include metrics. You have to have one on one meetings with employees to talk about their aspirations for the future and build that into your performance management but also their career growth. Without that any one person in the company can be an island unto themselves not knowing how they are connected to the organization’s goals. The bigger you get the harder this becomes. Each manager of people has to be personally responsible for each of their direct reports and bringing the grand vision to them and getting them on board with it. As a company grows the investment that is put into culture becomes more and more important. A company that’s performing at 5x better than their competitors in many cases is doing so because everyone has bought into the vision and they will exert themselves to contribute to the organization’s success.
When you work with clients how does culture fit in for you as an external consultant?
I deal a lot in branding and that’s a part of culture. I always ask, “what’s the story we are telling?” and “what do we feel strongly about?” To be honest, that’s about as far as my work goes. I ask questions like “What do you want to be known for?” that relate to company culture.
That cultural fit component never loses its prominence -it’s equally important on employee number three as employee 355. The culture evolves and changes, but fit is always a vital part of hiring.
The wrong hire could disrupt a team’s unity, undermine leadership, and derail processes. We’re speaking in extreme examples here but keep your eye on the prize and keep finding people who are keen and care about your organizational mission.
When you think of poor organizational culture what are the first three things that come to mind?
- A top-down command leadership style
- Motivating employees with fear or threats
- Exploiting people to the point of burnout
Tell us a story about being a more junior team member where you had an experience with bad culture?
I’ve been lucky in my career but I can think of one minor example. I remember when I worked at a bank. I resented that I had to wear a suit jacket 100% of the time and there was no questioning the manager’s authority. “A man not wearing a jacket is a man half dressed,” they would say.
I was not being given the opportunity to make that decision for myself even on a hot Saturday afternoon and I didn’t agree with that. There was no explanation given as to the connection between the jacket my performance. Not understanding or agreeing with the “why” made it harder for me to accept.
Tell us a story about being a more junior team member where you had your first personal experience where you know it was good culture?
My two first jobs as a marketing manager have similarities here. I was hired without a ton of experience and yet I was given the opportunity and autonomy to decide for myself what I wanted to do. I was empowered and had freedom. The license to learn for myself. To make mistakes and try new things. Both of the companies had a belief in me and it made my work much more challenging and fun.
Tell us a story about being a more senior team member where you had an experience with good culture?
In the company where I experienced arguably the best culture, I saw examples of leaders who held culture above all else. Culture was the most important thing to them and that was clear to everyone else. It was that leading by example and making people feel familiar. It was a decision that was made and an ethos that leaders lived by and led by example.
It felt like warming your hands by a flame. Nothing was contrived. We all really felt that way because leaders also felt that way. They cared deeply about our success and so we all cared deeply about our success. When it doesn’t have to be said, it just is, that’s when it’s great.
Thank you to Jordan Behan for sharing his experience and expertise with organizational culture. Learn more about Jordan’s work and his book The Lean Marketing Playbook for SaaS (Software as a Service) or connect with him on LinkedIn.