This article is part of Carrier Management’s Cultural Q&A series featured in the Nov/Dec 2018 print edition.
Q: There is a famous saying, often attributed to Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Do you agree? Do you spend more time on culture or strategy? How does your culture support your strategy and vice versa?
Allan Egbert Jr., Co-Founder, Ask Kodiak: While this Drucker quote is often quoted on Twitter or in management team meetings, it’s unclear if this phrase ever appeared in any of Drucker’s books. So, it may be more urban legend than fact. But either way, its meaning is definitely open to interpretation.
From an Ask Kodiak perspective, culture and strategy aren’t competitors, and we don’t view them as opposing forces. Historically, investing in both has led to long-term success. Our observation is that management teams typically focus most of their time on strategy, and do so at their peril.
It’s a question of basic business survival. Do we choose between water or food alone? You need both to thrive.
Q: How would you describe your company’s culture today? Has the culture changed since the early startup days? If so, what prompted the change?
Egbert: The Ask Kodiak culture revolves around themes of ownership, trust, responsibility, learning and customer focus, as defined by the company’s co-founding team, Mike Albert and I, asking, “What kind of company do we want to work for?”
Experience and observation has helped me identify two themes relating to corporate culture. First, culture has an organic element because we are a team of human beings who are diverse, distinct and sometimes unpredictable. Additionally, culture is fluid, constantly moving or evolving, but not necessarily in a single direction. In general, cultural evolution with company growth is good and healthy, but abrupt cultural changes caused by strategic, execution or tactical snafus can be (and usually are) harmful.
In previous management roles, I’ve missed subtleties (translation: made mistakes) regarding the evolving nature of culture. For example, what worked as a company of size 10 will not entirely translate (if at all) to a company of size 50. You have to live in the present with matters of culture versus trying to recreate precise cultural conditions that have worked in the past.
Q: How does the structure of your organization support the current culture?
Egbert: I attended an InsurTech event last year where a C-level executive speaker proudly defended his embrace of cultural evolution by pointing to a corporate decision to let employees wear jeans on Friday. Another panelist followed this proclamation with comments about hiring a millennial to teach him to blog as a means of connecting with staff and leaning into innovation.
Have I missed a connection between cultural harmony and Old Navy denim?
Ultimately, culture is about more than foosball tables and casual Fridays. Understanding and reacting to cultural imbalance is tough for organizations of any size, including smaller players like Ask Kodiak. But the leadership team needs to set the tone by example (fashion aside).
Every leadership decision made—from allowing employees to work remotely and bring dogs to the office to collaboration tools and opportunities—affects culture. I always refer back to our cultural themes of trust, ownership and responsibility to drive direction. Companies that embrace these themes—and believe in these themes—are less concerned with where or when people work. In fact, I don’t care where people work when I have trust that the work gets done in support of the Kodiak mission.
As a startup, we find it is less about organizational structure and more about our foundational team embracing our shared set of values.
Q: Describe your role in shaping and perpetuating the culture.
Egbert: As co-founder, my challenge going forward is staying dialed into the cultural pulse on a consistent basis. I need to be aware of who we are today and where we are organically trending. This can’t be something I check in on quarterly or even once a month. Otherwise, I will be the guy on stage talking about skinny jeans Fridays and appearing to be tone deaf to the culture at Ask Kodiak.
Q: Does the company have a chief culture officer, or are you considering adding that role to the C-suite? What other leaders help to shape the culture of your company, and how?
I generally believe that less C-level roles are needed rather than inventing more. However, I like the concept of a community manager who is the keeper of culture and has the full backing of the leadership team. It’s a grassroots role that is responsible for understanding (and helping the leadership team understand) how culture is trending. Again, you need to accept that culture is steadily changing, rather than remaining static, to buy into this approach.
In our experience, with growth, I don’t think a top-down approach to controlling culture ultimately works. Leadership teams need to define the values, set the tone and operate positively within those values. For leaders, I like words like “influencing,” “guiding” and “shaping” culture, rather than controlling it from the tower. However, someone in the role of a community manager can operate near the team community yet have the ears of the leaders, identifying and addressing the frictional forces which help build and maintain a healthy culture.