379 | Culture Development Lessons From High-Growth Companies

Culture development is the practice of improving your culture. This means you are improving the way your people engage with their work and the way they communicate with each other. I found a peer of mine that is also curious about hypergrowth strategies. His name is Brett Putter. He is the CEO of CutlureGene. Great name. I wish I would have thought of it. Brett and I talk about culture development for those leaders that want fast-growth. Listen if you want to improve your cultural development.

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LITT379 featuring Bretton Putter

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Target Audience: Brett is the leading expert on startup and high-growth company culture. He is the founder and CEO of CultureGene a culture consultancy. He is the founder and CEO of CultureGene a culture consultancy helping prepare startup and high-growth companies for scale. Brett interviews founders and CEOs of successful high-growth start-ups to better understand how they defined, developed and implemented their company’s culture.


Culture Development Lessons: The Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Leaders in the trenches and your host today is Gene Hammett.

Gene Hammett: Hi, my name Gene Hammett. I’m the host of leaders in the trenches. My question for you today is, is your company culture an asset or a liability? What do you think about that for a second? Because if you’re not clear on the asset side, you’ve got a lot of work to do as a leader. This is my opinion, but I do so much research around the importance of culture, being intentional, creating a place where people love to go to work, creating a place where he will interact together in the right way. There’s a lot to culture. So today I bring on a special guest. His name is Bretton Putter. I think I pronounced that right, but I want to make sure you understand a little bit about why I bring this guest on. Let me give you three facts about Brett will help you understand who he is.

Gene Hammett: One, he spent 16 years in a management from where they were doing an executive search. Really trying to find the right people for the right jobs and his perspective on that is phenomenal. We talk about that inside the interview. Another fact is he’s written a book about a culture by looking at 40 experts and 40 companies are growing at rapid pace and the third fact I want to share with you is the fact that he really does love this work because I was talking to him and I could see him light up. I could see him really show this and you will also know no fourth back if you need that. He’s English, so you’ll be able to tell in that accent. Just a lovely way to hear these words roll off of all of this together. Makes a Brett a great expert today to talk about culture and they’re talking about this real creating an asset for your company.

Gene Hammett: Now you know, I talk about it all the time. As leaders want to grow their business, they want a fast growth or they want to get beat on the slow and no growth. They maybe they’re struggling with too much growth. All of those things caused problems inside the brand and so if you have those problems, you’re probably feeling a little bit of self-doubt, un-clarity about where you’re moving forward and reason you come to places like this and this podcast is so I can help you through these interviews and the videos or create help you be a better leader so that every one of your employees gets the leader they deserve. Oh, I share all this with you because I want you to really understand why I do what I do and how much it means to me to be able to share with you these interviews and all of the resources we put together to help you be a better leader. If you have any questions about that, make sure you reach out anytime you want to. [email protected]. I’d love to talk to you about what you’re going through and see if there’s a fit for some of the workshops or some of the work that we do as a company to help people become better leaders. Alright. Here’s the interview with Brett.

Gene Hammett: Hi Brett. How are you? Thanks for coming to leaders in the trenches.

Bretton Putter: Gene, Thanks very much for having. It’s great to be on board. I’m, I’m good. Thanks. It’s been a good day in London. And a great to talk to you.

Gene Hammett: Well, I’m excited to have you here because we have a lot in common. We both study high growth companies. We look at their culture, so I’ve already let our audience know a little bit about you, but I’d love for them to hear directly from you about, um, like your current work and what you’re doing there.

Bretton Putter: Thank you. Yeah. So, um, I founded culture Gene about just under two years ago and that was, that came from what I previously did, which was running an executive search firm for 17 years, which was a boutique firm working with high growth early-stage companies, helping them. So sea level candidates. And then, the light bulb moment for me happened when I was lucky enough to work with three CEOs who all had very clear understandings of their culture and they invested a lot of time in their culture and so the searchers ran smoother than, than, than traditionally just they, they, they ran more smoothly and the outcomes were better. And this got me thinking, it got me really digging into trying to understand what worked and why it worked and I realized that I was actually sourcing candidates for values fit and for skills. And that’s how I got into this whole sort of black box of, of company culture. And I, I’ve interviewed over 40 CEOs of high growth companies, blogged about it and actually started turning that into a book. And um, yeah, that’s a setup culture Gene really as, as a means to help prepare high growth companies will scale.

Gene Hammett: So it’s an interesting insight and it, it sounds so simple, but so many people lack that intention around culture. Why do you think that they, they don’t have the understanding that you mentioned those executives did in your research.

Bretton Putter: Yeah. This is, this is actually cultures kind of, as I mentioned earlier, it’s sort of black box and not many people know what’s going on inside it mainly because culture’s happened for the most part happens below the surface, so it’s subconscious, invisible, intangible for the most part and a certain CEO’s either get it or be who have worked for great food, great people in the past and they are able to apply that to their, to their businesses and you just see the difference. Um, I’ve really gone into great detail to understand the culture and what the drivers of cultural and my role really is somebody who makes the culture more tangible, more visible and more conscious in the business.

Gene Hammett: Well, let’s talk about some of those drivers because I, you know, I think our audience is probably as curious as I am, what in your research drives culture?

Bretton Putter: So the first thing I work mainly with quite a sort of early-stage tie growth and the founder or the founders, um, all the, you know, the first, first point of call the culture develops from them the way they work. But, you know, culture sort of develops over time, um, and it comes from a group of people learning what works and then that becoming the typical phrase of the way we work around here and the companies that, the leadership that really get it, we’ll invest time in defining that. So what’s our mission? What’s our vision? What are our values, what do we stand for, what’s important to us? You know, what are we gonna do about feedback? What are we going to do about making mistakes? How are we going to approach talent and recruitment, onboarding off boarding? They apply it across the organization. So it’s, it’s the IC, the three drivers is the mission, the vision and the values of our business.

Gene Hammett: Well, I can’t disagree with you that, I mean every conversation I have with a leader about culture will come back some way to values whether it be, you mentioned in the hiring process, so important to understand that so that you’re bringing in people with that, that value alignment with the company, but then also just how you live and operate. How do you make decisions? Um, is there anything that you’ve seen people you know do extremely well with values that you could share with us kind of a story or something?

Bretton Putter: Sure. So actually I’m, most companies make a serious mistake with values and the mistake they make is they go and they invest the time in defining the values and they spend weeks or months negotiating, discussing, shortlisting and eventually coming up with a list of four or five values and then they stick them up on the wall and they say, okay, let’s live with them. Now. The problem with values is, for the most part, you can’t see them. You can’t measure them and you can’t manage them. So they are open to interpretation and you meant you could have, let’s say we were running a company and the, he was teamwork and we haven’t defined what teamwork means. Teamwork could mean to you, it could be a group of people getting together, working for the same goal and achieving that in due course. But my interpretation of the word teamwork could be the team always comes first.

Bretton Putter: Now we talking about the same thing, the same value, but they’re slightly different interpretation. So if we, uh, because we are human and our values out, they overlapped as we work together, but they’re slightly different because you know, we will, we will take the same information, the same situation and possibly take a different decision because the values are not that the values are not defined enough. So when I do with my clients, I’ll say, okay, let’s define the venues and then against each venue we come with up with three or four expected behaviors. So if the value is teamwork in my company, the first expected behavior is the team always comes first and now everybody knows where we stand. There’s no gray area, there’s no open for interpretation. And the power of that is you can turn that into an interview question. So the team always comes first, becomes an interview question of when last did you take one for the team? Why, what happened, what was the outcome instead? Now you’re interviewing against your values but in a behavior-based interview question.

Gene Hammett: You know I use the same approach. I noticed the gap between, you know, creation of values to people really understanding what they were and it’s, it’s really, um, I borrowed this from, I was a keynote speech next to Brené Brown, uh, you probably know her work and what she’s doing, but she asked the audience the question of like, how many of you who have operationalized your values into behaviors and have a thousand people. There was like one company, so like 20 hands go one company at a couple other people but don’t even if they really knew what it meant. Um, but yeah, there is a missing gap there and I think you really described it well. Um, when I think about that, it aligns the people together right now just around some arbitrary word, but like what do we see? Like what can we actually see now? Values are so important and we know the mission is so important. I want to kind of not talk about the things that we talked about all the time, but I want to go into leadership like what stands in the way of leaders who want a good culture but don’t actually do the work that it takes to actually create that shift that’s necessary.

Bretton Putter: Yeah. I see this, I see this a lot. One is time. They don’t, they just don’t have the time. You know, they’re working 24 slashes seven. They are under a, under the lean, they are understaffed. They, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s difficult. The other one is just frankly and an in-depth knowledge of what, of what this is. Yeah. Um, so, and, and it’s, it’s, it’s not, it’s not easy because all of, you know, the culture of a business, for the most part, happens below the surface and it’s quite hard work and time-consuming to surface that culture. So. So for me, I think it’s time, it’s an and it’s sort of the unknown. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to do it and I don’t know how to measure it. How do I know if we’re right or wrong? Um, but, but the good, the really great leaders will go out, they’ll read books, they’ll go and speak to people, love God and do it. I, so my, my figure is just to interview 40 CEOs. I had to speak to 400 companies. So one out of 10 has done something about it, about five out of the other nine, one to do something about it. And three don’t care. And those five are the ones who, who had a little bit in [inaudible]. Not enough tangible for them.

Gene Hammett: I have seen the same numbers tier with the conversation I’m having. And even when I say I studied the inc 5,000, um, which, you know, company that’s coming out just came out with an interview I guess based on when this is recording is, you know, grew at 39,000 percent across three years. And that leaders so intent on the culture, and I’m going to, I’m going to phrase, I asked him why I want to share it with you and discuss it for a second. He said I want to create a professional environment that I never had as an employee before I became the leader of this company. This is his first entrepreneurial venture. It’s 39,000 percent growth and he wanted to create that space that just wasn’t available. Um, are you seeing that in your research as well?

Bretton Putter: Yeah, I’m seeing that too. So I interviewed a guy and I’m marking organ who founded a locker and he sold it to article 871 million and bad and um, and he said actually, that, that number could have been significantly higher because he only started working on his culture five years in and by then a lot of them, a lot of the bad habits that have already been set and it was a great, a great culture, but he’s his second business. Influitive is really gone out to, um, fix the problems that he, that he saw with, with the first business. Um, you know, there, it’s a very deliberate, deliberate culture. I find great leaders, um, mold the business strategy and the culture together. They work hand in hand. Um, I wonder if you’ve seen this, you’ve seen this as well. They, they, they, they, they culture matches their strategy. Um, and they, they, they, they’re almost working in tandem for the business.

Gene Hammett: Yeah, sure. Another thing that I’m seeing too is I asked them this one question I said if you had to pick one is an employee first customer first

Gene Hammett: and the, it’s hard, like it’s not an easy decision because we’re taught so much to put the customer first and that’s growth and that’s revenue in this customer service and all those things matter. But the leaders go, my job is to put employees first because if I put them first they can put the customers first. Um, and there’s a whole depth behind that. But, um, you mentioned bad habits. Let’s just talk about a couple of those bad habits that you know, let’s put a light on some of the things that are happening inside a culture that we need to be looking for.

Bretton Putter: So I think probably the worst, if the if there is such a thing that that is a habit, habit is, is actually the to take feedback because feedback is essentially a loop. If if you, if you take feedback and you accept it, you learned, you learned how to take feedback. So what do I do with it, what do I to, what do I not? And then you take action on that feedback. You then demonstrate to your team that you are open for feedback. They then become open for feedback and you create a feedback-heavy environment and that is the way we develop as human beings. You know, you the first time as a, as a child, I have a one-year-old daughter so I’m really aware of this now. But the first time as a child you burn your finger. That’s feedback. Try not to do it again.

Bretton Putter: And then a company that’s exactly the same thing. If you don’t have the feedback, then nobody’s. Nobody’s actually telling you what’s going on in your company and nobody’s telling you about the mistakes you’re making. So that for me is, is, is the really, really bad one. We mentioned it earlier, recruiting against functional skills and capabilities. Our only, you know, that’s uh, that’s the that’s actually where that culture comes in and that’s actually where I see leaders start to struggle. So, and, and the environment I work in, companies go from five to 28 to 50 to 152 to 50 people and from the, you know, 10 to 20 to 50 to 100. You can see the wheels started coming off if people are not recruiting and you know, with the values fit mentality,

Gene Hammett: uh, you know, another area that I don’t know if this is when your bad habits, but it’s the way you approach failure.

Bretton Putter: Yeah.

Gene Hammett: What are you seeing? And as a leader, some of those things are going on with how failures embraced inside of a culture.

Bretton Putter: The best cultures for me, um, the failures are rewarded actually. Um, so, so it’s a case of a, we failed, this is what we learned. So I’ll give you a really good example. One of my clients is a company called Hotjar and they fully distributed organization, um, across Europe and the US growing very rapidly, uh, just an incredible business and they, they have, they can call out anybody, um, on, on failure and what, what they learned as the founder that they had all a failure that they’ve seen and actually management encourage and reward the teams for their failures. And I see this, the great leaders understand that if you reward behavior, you encourage that behavior. If you measure behavior, you encouraged that behavior and they, and they think, okay, on this, on the failure side, we need people to be open about it because then once again we learn and the feedback loop fulfills itself.

Gene Hammett: When you think about leaders that want to know, make a shift in culture, what do you think the first move behind it as? I mean, I know there’s a whole lot of stuff that goes on internally, but I’m also, um, you know, one of my values is a bias for action. How do we take action on this new direction? So what did you think is that first move a leader makes when they want to change or shift culture?

Bretton Putter: The first move that I see where a change in culture works is actually really understanding what your company, what’s your current company culture is, and that’s not what you think it is. Often leaders think they have this image that their culture is x, y, zed, and the reality is their culture is ABC. And so, so the first step is, is understanding what the current culture is. Then looking at aspirational and going, okay, how do we, how far away are we from a current, a culture and our aspirational culture and what are the impediments to those? What’s getting in the way of that? Um, so it’s, it’s, uh, the best. The best leaders and leadership teams I see are incredibly open about the things that are stumbling blocks the impenitence to things that are holding them back. Um, and that once again comes through a very communication focused communication-based organization because they, they’re aware of what’s happening on the ground and they do not know they’re not, they don’t. It’s not all about yes, no. Yes, no. Yes, yes, yes ma’am.

Gene Hammett: Well, I want to give you a chance to, to talk about some of the books that you have on culture now is looking at. You have some that are already published. You have one that you’re working on. Tell us about the book that you have or uncontrolled.

Bretton Putter: Yeah, so I’ve just, I’m published culture decks decoded and I’m essentially culture. Dixie decoded is my first book, but it came out second and now this is a great story, or you’re like this. I started writing, I started writing all these blogs, interviewing CEOs above what they’ve done about developing their culture and really looking for specific examples of, of what people do, um, to drive their culture. Very, very detailed. And I took those blogs and started repurposing that for a book and I went to my wife and I said, Monica, would you read it on done? You know, I think I’m done. And she read it. She said, do you really want to know? And Oh, okay. And she said yes. She said it’s not very good. It’s absolutely, absolutely terrible.

Bretton Putter: And um, and she said, you know, it is as well, don’t tell me you don’t, he’s done. And I said, yeah, I kind of why and tell me why I’ve done a really bad job. And it was because I’d written the blogs that take me a long time. And then I wrote, I wrote the book and it just, I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. And so I decided to, to write a short ebook, which was about culture and I because I came across the Netflix culture deck which reed hastings put online in 2009. And that really inspired me and I spoke to a bunch of her people and a bunch of CEOs about culture decks and decks if they’d written. Um, and they’ve really struggled with this because there are lots of culture decks online, whether it’s valve Patrol on Netflix, Zap, etc.

Bretton Putter: Uh, but you can’t copy a culture deck because it’s unique. It’s the culture of the company. There are bits that you can take and learn from it. You’ve got to write your own. And so I decided to look at all of these culture dicks and take the best slides and write my commentary on those slides, either as a subject matter expert or as a potential employee. So culture, dick’s decoded is executive that it’s sort of demystification of writing a culture deck and I’ve broken it down into, you know, this is what linkedin, a Netflix, a HubSpot talk about when they talk about how important their culture is. This is what GoDaddy’s mission is and this is why it’s interesting. This is why this is what fell talks of up and they talk about their values and their hiring programs. So I’ve broken it down into, into different slides in different chapters and it’s kind of a handbook. um, and that’s, that’s actually being published now. Um, and then the first book, which is called the culture Gene, I’ve gone back to now because it’s kind of like writing the second book is cleared the cache. So I’m now writing that to the net, rewriting that. And that should be published a sort of in the first quarter of next year.

Gene Hammett: Well, I appreciate the conversation here. I think we have a tremendous amount of overlap, um, you know, a lot of people say we’re competitors and in some ways, we probably are because I, I really take to heart studying these hypergrowth companies. Um, and I’ll share with you my insights from my own research if you’re interested. I wanted to figure out a few clients make the inc 5,000 list and those clients we’re growing so fast. I was excited for them and I was like, you know, I’m curious about what these other companies are doing. And I worked a lot on the sales and marketing side of my coaching and consulting work and because that’s what you think about from fast growth. Like that’s where we’re measuring growth and I wanted to find the common patterns of how these companies operate. And I was like, oh, that’ll be cool.

Gene Hammett: That’ll be a cool book. And um, there was no real sales and marketing pattern to high growth. You had some niche players, you had some that were very broad. You had some that were very focused on sales. You had some that had, it just kinda happened for them. Like we’re not even real sure how sales work, it just, it happens. And so, you know, of course there’s some things in between that we learn, but there was no real core standing, but when I looked back and I was looked at my notes and this was 51 interviews at the time, there was a culture or a leadership phenomenon where people felt like owners and these fast-growth companies, they’re very entrepreneurial, but they, they want people even when they don’t have a stake in the business, they don’t have profit sharing or employee sharing or whatever it may be. Um, they felt like owners and leaders will make them feel like their work mattered and they contribute to it and they treated the projects and experiences. So that’s the basis of my work. And then it’s evolved into more culture-based work because of the power of that as, as you already know.

Bretton Putter: Yeah. By nature. I’ve got a question for you. In those companies, how many of them would, would you, would you say a micromanager, the leaders?

Gene Hammett: Very, very, very few.

Bretton Putter: Really interesting. Because what you’re saying there really resonates with me in terms of that, that ownership because they will give responsibility and autonomy. Yep. And once you have responsibility and autonomy, you own that project, you, other than the outcome of that project. So the great need is like you, as you were saying, it’s that ownership means you’re actually, there’s no micromanagement. You don’t have to micromanage your teammate getting

Gene Hammett: now you mentioned recruiting and the power of that. It was very clear to me because I was like, how do you, how does this happen? And they’re like, well, it starts with recruiting. You getting to get the right people in that to want to take ownership. You can’t force someone to take ownership in this role. And so we all know that. So as we began to look at this a Brett, I want to give you a chance to say some final words around know why culture is so important to get right. If you want a high growth company.

Bretton Putter: So culture is really critical that the, that the senior senior executive leadership understand what their culture is because essentially the values and the mission and the vision of the company are driving the business and if there is no defined culture, there is still a culture, the culture exists and that means your culture is not an asset but is it is a potential liability and your. The opportunity for great leaders is to turn that potential liability into an asset. If you think about its company, culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that the leadership control.

Gene Hammett: Yeah,

Bretton Putter: everything else is beyond their control. So if it is the one competitive advantage you control, why don’t you invest in it and really understand what it is so that you can pull that lever as much as possible. that’s me, you know, my thinking on it is, is just starting to understand it. Just work on understanding what it is, what Your values are and what the expected behaviors around those values are because that’ll help you and your team gel in the way that you need. I see. Culture is the. I often asked CEOs, what’s your greatest asset? Most of them say my people and I say, but I, you know, I’m an ex-headhunter. I could replace all of your people and you, so what? So what. So what is your greatest asset? It’s your culture because that’s the glue that keeps people together.

Gene Hammett: Well, I really appreciate you being here, Brett. You have really opened my eyes up to some new insights around your research and I’d love to help you in any way I can with my research. Thanks for being here at leaders in the trenches. If our audience wanted to get in touch with you, how can they do that?

Bretton Putter: They, um, they can contact me at a Brett. [email protected]. Um, I’m on linkedin, I’m on twitter at Bretton Putter. I’m on facebook and all the socials and Gene, it’s just been great. Um, you know, I thought leaders in the trenches is highly regarded and highly respected. It’s been an absolute privilege to talk with you. Um, I love the way, the way we are working in parallel to approaching this leadership and a culture thing almost in, in, in, at the same time. So it’s really, really been a pleasure.

Gene Hammett: Well, thanks for being here at leaders in the trenches.

Bretton Putter: Thank you.

Gene Hammett: What a fantastic interview. I really love looking at the perspective because he goes deep into this work as I did with more than 40 interviews of fast growth companies and what their culture is doing to drive the business forward is amazing. A lot of alignment between the work that I do, which is not surprising to me. Hopefully not to you either, but I bring on experts like this to learn quite a lot on their perspectives. look at it from their research and I learned a lot today from Brett and I’m really excited to be able to bring this kind of guest to you.

Gene Hammett: Hopefully you’re enjoying the content that we’re creating here and leaders in the strictures. Hopefully enjoying how we are really pouring into you as a leader and you have any questions about being a better leader. If you want to tame the fast growth or you want to activate it, either way, you want to make sure that you have clarity about where you’re going and if you want to talk to me about that, it’s the thing I do the most. We could set up an appointment to just have a conversation around who you are as a leader and where you’re going. I’d love to do that, so just reach out to me and [email protected]

All right, that’s my piece today. As always, lead with courage and I’ll see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

In this episode we’ll cover:

  • Three Drivers of Business: Mission, Vision and the Values
  • Real Core Standing
  • Approach talent and recruitment
  • Interpretation of the word teamwork
  • Ownership and Leadership
  • Micromanagement
  • Treated the projects and experiences



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