Creating a Values-centric Organization with Susan Acker-Walsh at CREO

Company values are the culture’s operating system. Having a values-centric organization means you are operationalizing your values. Today’s guest is Susan Acker-Walsh, CEO & Co-founder at CREO. Inc Magazine ranked his company #1593 on the 2021 Inc 5000 list. CREO’s management consulting and advisory services empower life science, healthcare, and technology companies to solve growth challenges. Susan opens up about her understanding of creating a values-centric organization. Discover new ways to leverage your values with daily practices.

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Susan Acker-Walsh: The Transcript

About: Energized by growth and change, Susan has served as a “Jill of All Trades,” holding the titles of Chairwoman, CEO, Chief Executive, COO, President, SVP, and VP at various points in her career. In all of these diverse roles, she has consistently delivered results, spearheading business turnarounds, imposing order in chaotic situations, identifying business opportunities and conceiving business ideas, and operationalizing and executing those ideas flawlessly. Before launching CREO in 2015, Susan served as President and COO at SciMetrika, a population health research organization, where she led initiatives focused on planned growth and business execution. Before joining SciMetrika, she spent 13 years with SRA International as VP and Director of Health & Civilian Government. She joined SRA via acquisition where she played an instrumental part in the complex integration of Constella Group into SRA’s new Global Health Sector. She was retained to help lead this effort after serving integral roles on Constella Group’s Executive Leadership Team as SVP of Corporate, Organization and People Development and as the Corporate Compliance Officer. As head of Constella’s Corporate Development function, she initiated and led an acquisition strategy that brought Constella into new global markets, doubled the company’s size overnight, and set EBITDA on track for ninefold growth to $18M. Previously, Susan led her own environmental health and safety start-up company.

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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.

Susan Acker-Walsh: [00:00:00] Values for us are at the source of everything we do. It was the first thing we did when we were founding CREO Mike Townley and I got together and talked about why we were doing what we were doing, the why behind it. And the foundational values that we really felt were important at this point in our lives and in our careers. And that those values would be the, at the source of everything we did. And that’s how. We built a value-centric 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, of the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments. Of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett: Every growing business takes a lot of things working right, working well together, and alignment around it. People, sales, marketing customers, customer service, customer satisfaction. I could go on and on, but one of the things I see over and over and over with successful companies, [00:01:00] really creating the kind of culture that drives growth is being a values-centric organization. So today’s conversation. We’re going to unpack. Our guest is Susan Acker-Walsh. , she is the co-founder of CREO and Susan. And I talk about, you know, how they actually form their values and what were the key aspects of that. But we’d really dive into the living the values or institutionalizing them, whichever you prefer. And Susan and I talk about all of the details that go into that and the different places in which they use and leverage the values across the organization at different times and cycles. And why it’s so important to the bottom line. So make sure you check out this full episode on a values-centric organization. If you have any thought in your mind that you could be a better leader, if you know, in your heart that you could perform at a higher level, be more effective, create more connections, be a better communicator, have more confidence.

Be more decisive, whatever it is in your gaps. As a leader, I’d love to talk to you about that because what you don’t know is probably [00:02:00] getting in the way of you growing your company. So all you have to do is go to and schedule your call inside that conversation. I’m going to walk you through a process where we unpack what’s going on in your company. Where are your blindspots? And what’s truly getting in the way. If you being a powerful leader and you creating a sense of ownership across this and developing more leaders, all you have to do is go to and schedule your call, or here’s the interview with Susan

Gene Hammett: Hi Susan, how are you?

Susan Acker-Walsh: I’m well, how are you today?

Gene Hammett: We’re going to have a good time here. I’ve already let our audience know a little bit about you, but I’d love for you to tell us about the company that has landed on the Inc list and a really growing fast. , tell us about CREO.

Susan Acker-Walsh: Yeah, I’d love to. So CREO is a management consulting firm focused in on life sciences and healthcare organizations. We’re based in Durham, North Carolina company is was founded in 2015 and the word CREO is the Latin word that means to create or to make grow. And in Spanish, yo Crail means I believe. And when you put those two things together, CREO is a mission-focused [00:03:00] organization were focused and dedicated to making good companies better so that they can create a better world. And we’re just a rapid growth organization trying to do our best work.

Gene Hammett: You know, you, you mentioned mission-driven and mission-focused. Why have you chosen this market?

Susan Acker-Walsh: You know, I grew up in this market. I’m 35 years in the career that I have has been largely focused around health research life sciences global health drug development. So it’s been a career in this market space and Mike Townly, the co-founder of CREO. And I felt like there was an underserved niche in this market for rapid-growth companies. Many of whom are private equity-backed and who would benefit from the support of practitioners who have been in this space and who really understand the market. And so, as a, as a growth market, the intersection of life sciences and healthcare, and in many cases, technology is a really important space where there’s a lot of energy and. It was just a great [00:04:00] place for us to leverage decades of our own work and bring additional value to the market.

Gene Hammett: Beautiful. I am excited to have this conversation with you. We caught up a little bit before we could on the recorder. I have seen so many founders and CEOs that have a real interest in how values work and how they, and it goes beyond interest. It’s almost in the session, our research and your company has said that you guys have a value-centric organization. So what is value-centric means to you guys?

Susan Acker-Walsh: Yeah. You know, values for us are at the source of everything we do. It was the first thing we did when we were founding CREO Mike Townley and I got together and talked about why we were doing what we were doing, the why behind it. And the foundational values that we really felt were important. At this point in our lives and in our careers and that those values would be the, at the source of everything we did. And that’s how we, built a value-centric culture.

Gene Hammett: I want to go from that beginning because this is the best place to start right at the beginning. [00:05:00] Susan, you had a co-founder. Did you have employees at the time when you were doing these values or was it just the two of you? ,

Susan Acker-Walsh: it was the two of us to start. , but I’ll tell you a little bit about the process that we’ve used around value. So my co-founder and I sat down early on in a public library, as we listened to Simon Sinek’s. Golden circle and people buy don’t buy what you do. They buy, why you do it. I’m in big, we’re both big Simon Sinek fans. And really started to use that as a point of leverage for unpacking our own why. And what we found was that much of what we were about. You know, third plus decade of our career was doing meaningful purpose-driven work. And that the way to ensure that was to be really clear about what we stood for, what we valued, and how we would design those values. Initially. was you know, talking about what mattered most. And I think it was initially two things that really showed up for us. One was listening, really listening to understand, [00:06:00] and to learn, to seek, to understand before really feeling the need to be understood and that we would bring that value to our, to our team, to our people.

As we hired staff into the company and also to our clients, really listening for understanding about what was important and where could we add value to our customers and that the second value early on for us was the value of telling the truth, telling the truth with positive intent and in service to our customers. And I think that really sort of emanated from being, having a lot of experience, having many decades of experience and, you know, in, in other company cultures, sometimes getting your hand slapped for saying what you do or what was so, and rather than that, being a boundary, making that at the source of who we are and who, and what we do. And so that was sort of how we started the process. But over time that value, this set of values has grown and we’ve integrated them into and institutionalized them into the ways that we operate.

Gene Hammett: I want to get into that for sure. I want to stay with this moment [00:07:00] of creating because I think a lot of people realize they probably need to refresh them. Which is a different process than maybe creating them for the first time you did you come up with just the two values or did you have more in the beginning?

Susan Acker-Walsh: Yeah, we started with, we started with probably more than two, but what we did early on we, we ended up within about four months of starting the company. We had about four people in the business. And what we did was we, we got off-site for, for a day or two and we started to talk about what the, what the team really valued. , how could we use the gig economy to drive our business? How could we create sort of a social contract, if you will, with people who wanted to work at CREO? You know, we, weren’t just looking for standard employees, but people who might have been. You know, sojourners or in between jobs or folks who could add their skill, their subject matter expertise, either on a project basis or overtime as full-time employees, when you’re young and just starting out, you’re looking for [00:08:00] all the ways to stitch things together.

And so we were. very inclusive with the team members that we had early in the company to help get their thoughts about what would it take to attract and engage people who wanted to be a part of something special. And so we, we enrolled others in this idea of engagement, this idea that people want to be a part of something special, their work matters, and the time that they spend at work matters and that they could have impact creating impact is, is something also that we felt it was really important to our colleagues. And when you spend as much time as we do as professionals working, you want to, you want to do things that matter. And so we started to add to that collection of values until we got to about seven values that we felt like really were reflective of who we were. And then we would read, we would meet every 90 days. And we still do that. And we review the values. We would continue to tweak that wording every 90 days until we got to [00:09:00] a place where we all looked at one another and said, that’s us, that’s, that’s who we are. Those are the things we value.

Gene Hammett: Quick question on this one. A lot of people get caught up in this are the values, a reflection of who we are at our core, or are they aspirational? How did you guys wrestle with that?

Susan Acker-Walsh: Yeah, I think it’s both. And I don’t think it’s either or right. I did not take a shortcut here, but I think, you know, there are some. this values that really, you know, listening for me is not aspirational. We need to be listening and that’s, that’s core to what would attract us to, you know, people in the company and to the way we operate with our customers, we aspire to create impact. And there are some projects where we can create more impact than others, but yes, I think we’re both of those things, right? Some of that we’re living every day and other places where we’re stretching and living into it.

Commentary: hold on for a second, Susan was talking about values. I asked her a key question. Her response was both ends. And now what this really means is you want to make sure your values are who you are today and have some aspirational quality to it. You [00:10:00] may figure out the breakdown is 50 50, or maybe it’s 80, 20, whichever way you think is best. But I really want you to think about this. It does take both. But you want to probably weigh a little heavier on who you are now because you don’t have to aspire to these things. These are the things that really will align the right people, the right clients to you. Just think about that as you go about the process of refreshing or selecting your values for your organization. Back to Susan.

Gene Hammett: I want to move into the next part of this, which is the operationalizing, this really living the values, whichever word you choose where did you get this idea that it shouldn’t be to just an ex you know, something we did, but something that we actually do on a day to day, week to week basis,

Susan Acker-Walsh: I had the good fortune to work with an organization in my career that really lived their values. And I don’t know that I ever really believed prior to that, that values were really lived in organizations and that it made a huge difference. And in this particular company, we had two values that we used in [00:11:00] everything we did, we hired. Rewarded we terminated. We, you know, advanced people’s careers, it was just, it was in the fabric of everything. And that was, you know, 13 years of my career watching that. And it just got clear for me that, that not only was it possible, but it was necessary to build an extraordinary culture. , and culture, from my perspective is that magic fairy dust that, you know, connects people into something that you’re all doing. And so, yeah, I think. It’s a, it’s a powerful example for me.

Gene Hammett: I want to get into the day-to-day aspects. I found that some of the best stories are how people use them inside of meetings or recognition or rewards. And really this is open to anything. What are some of the areas? Your values are being leveraged.

Susan Acker-Walsh: Our values are leveraged every day. We hire any of the talents we’re hiring. , we are evaluating them through the lens of our values. So if [00:12:00] people are coming into the business, we want to know, do they share our core values that they come with those, right? We’re not teaching them the values that come with them. And then we can, we can live the values together. There once they’re a part of the CREO team. So we’re hiring on the values. We’re talking about the values in the hiring process. , once folks are in the company one of the things that we do as an organization, as we have an all-hands meeting, and we’ve done this from our very early days, and that’s a monthly meeting and we start the meeting by reading the core values. So we will go around the virtual room now and Individuals to read out the core values one at a time. And then we share stories about how those values are coming to life. And so folks in the room will raise their hand and say, listen, I want to, I want to highlight Jonathan. He was living the value of creating impact at this client.

Here’s what he did. Here’s how that looks in practice. , we have a core value around be kind around kindness. And so how does kindness show up? , we had one example not too long ago [00:13:00] about someone whose a child was in scouting and they needed someone else who had been in scouting to help out with something completely off the beaten path of what we do every day for our customers, but certainly within the social fabric of our CREO community.

And that was an important way to show kindness. And of course, folks in the team were more than happy to help out. And so we’re living that, bringing those we have annual That we, utilize where folks can win you know, being, being nominated and then rewarded publicly for their living the values. And they, they, they get an award for that. It’s also something that we talk about when people are being promoted. Do they exemplify those values? , is this, you know, are they a model of the values in the organization? And if you’re not living the values. , in the company would certainly you would certainly be made aware of that. And if it was in a, you know, an egregious situation, it would be, it would be a way for us to make a determination about your fit within the company and the culture.

Commentary: Now, Susan has just been talking about sharing these stories inside of their [00:14:00] monthly, all-hands meetings. I’m going to give you a little step further. I think you can actually use these in the smaller means. The ones that are just the executive teams, the ones that are just the marketing or sales team, because you can actually have a moment where you’re sharing stories and recognition of people living the values. This will keep things alive. This will allow you to recognize other people. It’s absolutely free. I call these shout-outs and I’d recommend this inside of all of the meetings. And I’ll give you a story. One of my clients he uses this. And he did it, at the executive level. Well, the executive people liked it so much. They actually did it within their own internal teams. And it started filtering throughout the company. This company had over 300 employees and they were doing it on a regular basis. Just having a little moment to recognize what our values are, who’s living them, and have a moment together, form a connection. Think about that as you create your value-centric, organization. Back to the interview with Susan.

Gene Hammett: I’d love for you to just look, get a little personal with this. What is your favorite way to live the values? Is there something that stands out for you? ,

Susan Acker-Walsh: I love, I really love the all-hands meeting and the [00:15:00] way that those stories come up, I literally have to like shut it down because it could take up to 60 minutes. Right. People are just like, you know, raising their hands and jumping in on it. And for me you know, when you’re bringing new people in, when you, when you’re growing a company rapidly, especially during the pandemic, right. We’ve had to find ways to connect the team members safely and have them understand the culture and being a part of those stories and hearing what our colleagues are doing with one another and for our clients, it’s just really it’s just extraordinary. I love, I love hearing those stories.

Gene Hammett: I, I know the importance of values. I’ve talked about it. I shared with you, that my next book is going to be around how to all the leverage points of values. And what you mentioned are really good examples. What do you feel like the audience really needs to understand about, you know, having a value-centric organization or culture?

Susan Acker-Walsh: Yeah. It’s, it’s way more than putting something up on the wall. It needs to be at the source of your strategy, right? So values are foundational to everything else. [00:16:00] And then when you take your values and you add them to your mission and vision, right? And you are really answering kind of the, why you do what you do, the, what you do, the, how you do it and where you want to go in time and space. That to me, when I look at organizations where we’re doing strategy work, it’s the first question I ask, right? What are your values? What is the vision? What is the mission of your organization? Because the companies who have those are clear about their values, who really understand their, why are able to really.

connect with their people with their team members, they’re able to connect with their customers and they’re really able to connect with impact. Right? So if those values are crafted in a way that really resonates with the team and are sort of, I would say remarkable in that it helps you attract new talent because they want to be a part of this kind of a community. It helps you really identify the kind of clients you want to work with. It it’s just it’s at the source. It’s like The cellular level, if you’ve got this right, it becomes a building block, a critical building block for the [00:17:00] rest of the business and for the strategy of the business where you’re going, why you’re going, how you’re going

Gene Hammett: In short, Susan would just say that values are like air

Susan Acker-Walsh: values are a lot like air. I mean, they’re really critical, and the companies that are not doing that, and we get to see that in the kind of work we’re doing, sometimes the value, the companies that are not doing that I think are missing a critical component. So yeah, I would say. It’s a, it’s a critical life source for businesses for sure.

Gene Hammett: Way to pull it in your market with my analogy. I want to just give you just a moment here. How does this create growth inside of organizations? I know my opinion on this, but you’re actually living it. What would you say that your value-centric approach has made an impact to the bottom line?

Susan Acker-Walsh: Yeah, I think that certainly a CREO and also see this. With other clients that connecting the values to the business growth engine, again, it’s sort of fuel for that engine when you have internal alignment when you are the, where you’ve headed aspirationally from a [00:18:00] vision standpoint is connected all the way through. And we hear this all the time. From our employees, that CREO is one of the few companies, or the only company they’ve worked at that literally lives its values. And there’s sort of no fuzz on it for people, right. They know what is expected. They know how to be thriving in the culture. They know that living with the values. are a way to create success with customers and for themselves.

And, and those values around engagement and impact allow us the opportunity to go out and find the best team members and those team members, especially in the kind of business we are in a consulting business. Are the, you know, the team that are delivering extraordinary services and, you know, our business can only grow fast as we can find talented people who want to be in a special environment. And they have agency in creating the way we operate. So it’s, it’s a really sort of a self [00:19:00] fulfilling prophecy when you’re committed to living those values. And you understand what they’re about.

Gene Hammett: Great place, to wrap up today’s conversation. Susan, thank you for being here and sharing your perspective on leadership and people through a value-centric organization.

Susan Acker-Walsh: Thank you so much for having me. Gene has been a real pleasure to be with you, and I really appreciate it.

Gene Hammett: This is the part where I get to reflect. on what Susan just said, and she gets to hear my thoughts. I get to have a lot of interviews with founders that are really good communicators, or they’re really good at technology and strategy, but the ones I’m most impressed with are the ones that start from the beginning and say, you know, what, who are we, why are we here? And they build the team and the business on those foundational elements that you can go back and rebuild them. But what Susan’s talking about here is really the importance of you slowing down a little bit and really getting clear about these things, because it really does matter. And all of the ways they use them and living the values, the meetings is the easiest thing to do.

Actually it costs you no money and you actually get a lot of benefit out of this. You’re recognizing people for doing the thing. [00:20:00] You want them to do what it, whatever it may be. And that’s a great place to use values and start there. So I really appreciate Susan being here. I want to encourage you. If you want to level up as a leader, if you really want to be powerful and inspire a sense of ownership, foster culture, let’s have a chat about what’s getting in the way.

It might be something other than values. I don’t know what it is for you, but I know these conversations do matter. I’d love to offer you a chance to have those with me. Just reach out to. GeneHammett.Com schedule your call. We’ll chat. I won’t sell you anything I promise. And all of this is about serving you to be the best leader you can be for your team.

When you think of leadership and you think of growth, think of Growth Think Tank. As always lead with courage. We’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.




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