Put Culture First for Fast Growth with Chris Crosby at Compass Datacenters

Many leaders know the importance of people. When leaders put culture first, the people feel it. My coaching experiences with founders and CEOs of fast-growth companies give me an inside view how they over-index on culture. Today’s guest is Chris Crosby, Founder, and CEO at Compass Datacenters. Inc Magazine ranked his company #1193 on the 2021 Inc 5000 list. Compass Datacenters builds and operates modular data centers providing dedicated customer solutions where they need them. Chris talks about how to put culture first. We talk about why culture matters even more in this challenging time. When you put culture first, it creates new growth opportunities.

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Chris Crosby: The Transcript

About: Chris Crosby is a recognized visionary and leader in the data center space and has served as founder and CEO of Compass Datacenters since 2011. Previously, Chris served as a senior executive and founding member of Digital Realty Trust. Prior to the initial public offering of Digital Realty, Chris was founder and managing director of Proferian, which served as an operating platform for the private equity fund, GI Partners, and was rolled into the IPO for Digital Realty Trust. Prior to Proferian, Chris served as a consultant for CRG West, now Coresite.

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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.

Chris Crosby: Culture is a component of that core team that builds that original organization. And it’s very informal in nature. And what I learned through my experiences was the necessity of the formality of that culture really instilling that, throughout the organization and making sure that that was held, held accountable in order to keep the same style of growth. So I think that’s the most important thing is that formal culture.

Intro: Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moment of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett: Every leader knows that their people are important to the scale of their company. Growing fast requires you to have the right people in the right seats and you have to be the leader that inspires them one way to do that is by, , paying them a lot of money. But I find that that’s really short-term because people do appreciate money, but in this day and world, there’s so much more than money when it comes to work. And we want to make sure we’re creating the right experience for those employees. So the company does scale. And how do you do that? Well, I think you’ve put culture first. When you put the people in your business first, when you create a space where they’re able to do their best work, they’re able to share their full self, they’re able to come with the issues they have, whether it be personal are professional. And they’re able to create a place where they have friends at work and they have leadership that understands them, has empathy. All of that is that putting culture first. And that’s what we’re going to talk about. In this episode. We have Chris Crosby. The founder and CEO of Compass Datacenters, and they were on the Inc list number 1193 in 2021. And this is the second year, time on the list, but they’ve had an incredible run of fast growth. Well, what could we learn from that? Well, Chris talks about the power of put culture first, what that means, what are the details behind it?

What do we see inside the organization from day-to-day, and week-to-week ritual patterns, all of those things inside this episode, if you’re thinking about what does it take for your company to go to that next level? It starts with you, the leader you have to lead by example, you have to take your skills to the next level. Do you know how to lead more effectively? Think about that question for a second. Do you must have an answer to that question? If you want to continue to evolve and be the best leader you can be leading more effectively is not a shot in the dark. It’s not putting your head down and just getting the work done and it’s not just hitting your goal. It’s about you showing up as the leader that you need to be for your people to be, feel inspired and feel a sense of ownership, and to really push through the challenges in front of them. All of this is about you being the best leader you can be. Do you have questions about what’s next for you and your leadership? All you have to do is go to GeneHammett.com. You can schedule your call with me, which is not a sales conversation, but it’s a chance for you to understand yourself, understand what’s getting in your own way. If you don’t understand, what’s getting your own way. You won’t be able to address it. You won’t be able to have workarounds and have tools to overcome it.

You would just let them persist and that will eat away from the inside. Just go to GeneHammett.com. Schedule your call. I want to talk to you about your next step. As a leader, that clarity call will help you figure out what’s holding you back and give you a plan to move forward. All inside that short 30-minute call with me, just go to GeneHammett.com and schedule your call. Now here’s the interview with Chris.

Hey, Chris, how are you?

Chris Crosby: Doing great. Gene. How about yourself?

Gene Hammett: I am fantastic. Excited to have you on the show.

Chris Crosby: Very excited to be here.

Gene Hammett: I would love for you to tell us a little bit about Compass Datacenters.

Chris Crosby: So the data centers provide our customers a secure place to plug in wherever they grow. We are really focused on, what’s known as the wholesale data space data center space. We provide large facilities for some of the largest companies in the world to house their equipment.

Gene Hammett: Perfect, and you guys have grown fast and when the ink list. When you got the news that you were going to make the F list and you know, you’re what almost, 1193. Is that the exact number?

Chris Crosby: Yeah, it’s been, been crazy. It’s been like 400% over the last three years. We’ve been looking at another a hundred percent this year. So then we made it a couple of years in a row. It’s been a pretty, pretty vertical run.

Gene Hammett: What is it like to lead a team that’s growing that fast?

Chris Crosby: F the most fun thing, you know you know, I’ve, I’ve been blessed in being part of this three different times in my career. And I got to watch it once during the Nortel Northern telecom days, I got to practice it at the Digital Realty, which is a large public REIT in our space. And, and now I’m getting to learn from a lot of that, those mistakes that were made and, and try to try to do it a little differently, this go around. So very blessed to be in that position.

Gene Hammett: I know that you wouldn’t be here. If you didn’t have the employees you have, how many employees do you have? Chris?

Chris Crosby: We’re a little bit over a hundred.

Gene Hammett: Okay. So you know, pretty sizable company and you go through different changes as a company gets, you know, gets beyond that kind of handful of stage two, about 20 is a big inflection point 50 is kind of another big inflection point in a hundred courses another one. When you think about these different inflection points in your business, what did you learn in that journey?

Chris Crosby: The importance of. You know, it’s so often in high-growth companies, that culture is a component of that core team that builds that original organization. And it’s very informal in nature. And what I learned through my experiences was the necessity of the formality of that culture really instilling that, , throughout the organization and making sure that that was held, held accountable in order to keep the same style of growth. I think that’s the most important thing is that formal culture.

Gene Hammett: When you think about culture, what, what are the elements you’re looking at?

Chris Crosby: A few different things. One is we don’t think about it in terms of values. It’s not an Eagle on a wall with a pithy phrase underneath it. , we, we think of them as core convictions. So what are the behaviors that are the core attributes of our star performers and boiling those down to the essence? You know, you can’t be them all the time, but when you break them, can you call yourself up to them? And for us. We have four core convictions that are, that are essential to our business. And then we have some cultural principles that flow out of that, that help people figure out how to apply the culture day in and day out to their job.

Gene Hammett: I never heard people use the poor convictions. Where did that come from?

Chris Crosby: You know, I worked on it with my coach. I got a life coach back in 2006. And you know, what was important to us was. It not being aspiration. And so the word conviction, meaning, you know, you really feel it when you break it. That’s what we wanted for our organization. And so it’s been a very powerful change of a term from value to conviction.

Gene Hammett: I, I love that distinction and that was in 2006. So that was a long time ago. Why did it carry forward to this?

Chris Crosby: Well, so when we started the business and, and, 10 years ago in 2011, that was, , you know, we started with these convictions and that was important. To put culture first as part of it. And that was when we came up with that concept and really the first element that we had as an organization in our, and what spawns all of our convictions is there is our first one, which is our anchor of humility and pride out. And what we mean by that is, is from a CS Lewis perspective, kind of not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less, always starting with others, right. Is the essence of our culture and everything spawns from that? So obviously you can’t do that day in and day out, so you’re going to get convicted by it. So it’s not something you aspire to be, but it is something that you try to be every single day.

Gene Hammett: You said something in there that I didn’t want to make sure we don’t forget. You said put culture first. A lot of people would probably disagree with that. I’ve had many conversations on this and, but fast-growth companies think differently about people and culture. What do you mean by put culture first?

Chris Crosby: It means that you value culture better than performance. , if you really believe that you’re on a growth curve that is going to achieve to astronomical levels, you can’t sacrifice the culture for the performance of the day. Because what happens is, is you fast forward a year, two years, three years, you build out that middle management layer and it’s completely diluted it that way. And whatever you think you had as a growth platform now is completely changed. And that’s when you start to see the breakdown of the organization. So I think by putting culture first and having those behaviors be paramount inside of the organization, it’s very difficult. That means you might, we can fire an, a player who doesn’t exhibit the behavioral characteristics, that the culture demands in the company, and that is antithetical to most business. But I w I will say that from a growth perspective of really creating a sustaining legacy brand, that it’s a necessary trade-off. And you see it with a great companies that are out there.

Commentary: Hold down for a second. Chris said culture before performing a lot of people think it’s the other way around. You want to make sure that you hit your goals and hit your profitability. And those are the most important things. That’s what the investors, that’s what the board is looking for. But I want you to think about this for a second. All of those are a by-product of having the people feel like they’re in the right place. That, that culture is moving. It was a well-oiled machine and its culture is such an important piece to your leadership. You want to make sure that you put culture first. This whole episode is about that, but this is a specific example that I want you to make sure you really understand. If you continuously put performance before culture, you will make different decisions and that will drive the company in the short term, but they will make it a long-term impact that you may not be able to recover from without a lot of pain, and stress. So put the culture first. Back to, Chris

Gene Hammett: I’ve written articles about this for Inc magazine. I’ve talked about it in the podcast before, but firing an A player because they don’t live to the values is, is a challenge for many people who are trying to make a profit and try and hard to retain the right talent, attract the right. But you’ve found I’m, I’m assuming you, you mentioned this cause you’ve had to do it. What was it like after you fired that A player that wasn’t a fit?

Chris Crosby: It’s always a situation where you create the things in your mind about why it can’t get done and how come it’s going to create a problem and all of these sorts of things. And it’s. So once you rip the bandaid off, it’s like a release valve in many cases. And the amount of people that come up in the amount of people that then can blossom, because they’ve had this hero inside the business, that’s dominating things. It’s amazing to watch the growth of others. And I think that’s the best part about when you get rid of those heroes. For a little phrase, kill all the heroes. When you get rid of those heroes, you know, you can, you can really allow others to step up and find opportunities.

Gene Hammett: That’s what I’ve seen with my clients. And I’ve seen with different people that have been able to do that, but it takes a lot of courage to let go of that A player, but you’ve seen the other side of what happens to everyone else. And the impact on the mini is much better than that impact of that few. That one person has been bringing to that organization, is that fair to say?

Chris Crosby: Absolutely. Absolutely. But it to, to act like that’s not an, not a difficult choice for you, don’t take too long to make it would be a lie. Right. , you know, you’d be lying.

Gene Hammett: You know, you just said something there. And I feel like, you know, you know, this conversation is really conversational. , this interview is conversational. Then, the thing that you just said, something that was really interesting. Sometimes we take too long to make these decisions. Are you getting better that as a leader, you feeling that, that tension that’s up and you’re having the conversations before you would have had them in the past?

Chris Crosby: Absolutely. But now the next challenge for the organization with where we’re at on the growth curve is, is can my team do the same thing? And so coaching them through those things. Really, you know, you’ve gotta be able to permeate that throughout the organization. If you truly put culture at the core, you know, surround it with great talent and then adapt strategy accordingly, and you really hold that culture as the core of the business, then your, all of your talent has to, has to hold the same ideals. But that’s what we’re really trying to permeate through the organization.

Gene Hammett: Chris, again, you mentioned coaching. It’s something that I know is important inside of leadership, but a lot of people don’t value it and don’t really go after it. Did you go after any formal training or is this just something has come natural to you or something that you’ve worked on as you’ve grown as a leader.

Chris Crosby: It’s definitely, it’s part of, part of my personal growth. Have I done formal training? No. Do I like to read a lot? Do I like to get a lot of different sources from a lot of different places? Absolutely. You know, I think for me, you know, part of that, I’ll go to a principal that we have. One of our principles here is a failure on the path of success. And that we, we know that successful people fail before they get to success. They don’t just have a straight path. And I think that’s why coaching is so important, right? A coach isn’t sitting there and telling you don’t ever make a mistake, you know, coaches when correcting and helping you see where you can learn, how to, how to avoid either avoid a mistake or, Hey, you did that this time and let’s go do it next time. And I, and I think that that double-loop learning, not allowing people to go in the ditch, allowing people to fail is a really important trait. And I don’t think you can do that by being a direct task-oriented leader.

Commentary: Now hold on Chris just said, failure is on the pathway of success. Well, we all know that we have gotten to where we are today because we’ve gone through some tough times. We’ve gone through very difficult situations that have made us more resilient. Maybe made us more confident in, allowed us to understand how to move forward through these tough times. But why do we not let our employees do that? Why do we, you know, kind of protect them and keep them from failing? I’m not saying we need to fail on a mass scale, but they need to be able to take chances, make decisions, feel empowered on that journey because that’s the way they get to be a productive leader. And failure on the pathway of success is a good way to understand that because it’s true. It’s true for us. It’s true for you. It’s true for nearly everyone now I know. But I want you to really think about that. How does that play into your role as a leader of your company? When you believe that failure is on the pathway of success, what would be different inside your current leadership? Now you can think about that question, but for now, let’s get back to the interview with Chris.

Gene Hammett: I love the conversation that has developed here because you’ve been talking about some things that we have is common themes. But for you to actually say, this is what we’re inside of our company. When you say this whole concept of, I think of psychological safety, probably read about that. And the impact that, that makes on a culture, given that you’re a culture person. When you think about your job as a leader, are you spending more time now actually leading people? Are you managing work? And I can describe the difference between those.

Chris Crosby: Yeah, I, I would say I have three jobs. One is instilling the culture in our organization. The second is setting the organization kind of from a structural perspective. And the third is dealing with my, with my investors, and my board. I will tell you that probably do the worst at my third part of the job, but, , you know, my passion is definitely in the first. So it is all about people. The first two are just about people and you know, you hire great people. You can’t grow a business to the level that we want to grow a business too, by having single threads and having, you know, single empires, it just doesn’t work.

Gene Hammett: Chris, you get a smile on your face. When you talk about the people inside your organization, what have you learned about people as a leader of other leaders in this fast growth journey?

Chris Crosby: People are everything. You know, they are the, that we do, we love our diversity and I’m not just talking gender diversity or ethnicity or whatever we do disc profile everything we want. So we know we’re, we’re trying to put our teams together. We’re all the personality types. Aren’t the same. We, we use our culture as the common language. And when you take a highly diverse group of folks, different backgrounds, different experiences, different personality types, and you all put them around the same opportunity sets. You know, we don’t call them problems when it’s growth. What’s the opportunity here. , you just get so many more ideas, different ways of thinking different lenses and it’s, it’s just better. Does it take a little longer? Absolutely. But people are the engine of the business. And, you know, we spend a tremendous amount of time in our interview process, making sure that they can align with that.

Gene Hammett: Again, common themes across many of the interviews here. That’s one reason why I interview fast growth leaders like yourself. Chris, you’ve shared with us a lot of insights. I want to give you a chance to share something else that we haven’t covered as it relates to putting people first or putting culture first, what would that be?

Chris Crosby: You know, it’s interesting. We do, we do a couple of things. Every, every one of our groups in our company does in the weekly meetings that they have, right. Everybody hates weekly meetings, but, here’s our weekly meeting. We do what we call a health check and everyone in that team, whatever that team is, what’s going on in your personal life. And it’s like a kindergarten report card check, minus check, check last. How’s it going in your professional life? How’s it going with living out our culture. And do you have any short accounts? We don’t allow shorter current counts of compass. So you have to clear them up there, like bar tabs. If you’ve got an issue with somebody, you got to go address it. And that little bit of culture every single week, you know, it was just one example of, you know, we have more formal things. We have different elements, but that little cultural reset every week, it’s like, it’s like, oh, okay. Right. This is still important for us. And it’s been a great tool for us as an organization.

Gene Hammett: I wanna put some detail around that because I love this idea. Is this just with your executive team? , Or in different levels of the company?

Chris Crosby: Every group, every manager does the when they have their management meetings, they have permeated out into each of the groups and it did start with just the executive team and then they each rolled it out and then their teams even rolled it out.

Gene Hammett: So this is one of the areas I would think of is a ritual, right. Something that you guys are doing. That’s probably not like, you know, the status of the project and the KPIs and whatnot. This is a chance for you guys to truly connect and. And really talk about these things. Now, I think a lot of people would probably in their mind go, do you really talk about your personal life? Do you really bring up the problems you’re having at home or with kids? How deep do you guys go into some of these issues?

Chris Crosby: It depends upon the level of trust with a team. You know, some of them do sure. But even if you know that someone got a check minus, let’s say, that’s all they say, that’s fine. At least, you know, while they’re not having a good time at home. So maybe they’re not being a jackass to me this week. You know, these are good things for you to know in human relations. Do people share? Sure. But that’s a level of trust that each team has different levels of trust. But once again, we’re very interested in studying each other and understanding each other. You know, we use our personality testing to know that my personality type might be totally opposite from this person. And so when they talk this way, that could mean something different than what you’re interpreting. These are important things for us to understand as human beings. I mean, people run the business. People are the business, our business walks in and out every single day.

Gene Hammett: Chris. Excellent. To have you here. , putting people first and putting culture first inside your organization, I’ve loved the impact that it’s making. And I love the details you’ve shared with us today.

Chris Crosby: Thanks so much, Gene, really had a great time.

Gene Hammett: So I want to wrap up here. Chris is listening in what I’m taking away from. This is it’s exactly the, what I hear over and over again. It’s actually what I help with my clients with is, it’s not just about the performance of the company, the profits, and the KPIs. It’s about the people. And if you understand that people are important and critical to the nature of the business, then you want to make sure you’re leading those people. You’re inspiring them. You’re challenging them. You’re supporting them. You’re making them feel belong. And that really is an important place. Putting culture first is a very big thing I’ve seen. And I think a lot of people just aren’t doing it that well, they can say it, but they aren’t doing it. They aren’t having rituals like this health check.

And I want you to put that into your mind and really reflect on where you’re going as a leader and as a company. And are you leading that company the right way? We talked about coaching skills and all of those things. So here’s my offer to you. If you’re a leader of an extraordinary company or you have the potential to be extraordinary, I’d love to talk to you about what leadership is for you.

What is, what is that next step yeah, what’s missing because most people just don’t know because they’re so far in the weeds of the business and I’d love to help you figure out what it is absolutely free. It’s something I love to do to help you become the best leader. You can be the leader that your team deserves.

If you want to do that, just go to GeneHammett.com and schedule your call absolutely free for the right people.

And when you think about leadership and you think about growth, think about Growth Think Tank as always lead with courage. We will 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.




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