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, “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?
Ilya Bodner, Founder and CEO, Bold Penguin: I agree, through and through. However, as with everything else in life and business, the key is moderation. Sure, culture is critical, but without a practical strategy to execute against, the best organizational culture in the world will struggle to succeed.
We spend the bulk of our time doing the work instead of carrying on culture vs. strategy debates. I won’t call culture a by-product of doing the right things, but to some degree, I think that’s true. Or maybe it’s better to think about culture as embedded in everything we do. We have a hiring process which identifies the right people, and we have on-boarding and training procedures which give those people the tools they need to do the job. Bold Penguin employees are continuously supported, empowered, challenged and rewarded. When a system gets good input, it almost naturally produces a good output.
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?
Bodner: I would have to say there’s something truly magical happening at Bold Penguin. We didn’t go out there and engineer this to be the best place to work. We don’t advertise it, we don’t promote it, and we don’t try to get write-ups about how cool we are.
It’s too easy to get that kind of attention, and far too often startups fall into a circular hype routine. No, for us the magic happened organically.
The bonus of growth is that over time we can afford to do the really bold things we set out to do. At the core, people want to be a part of something special, and that’s the feeling at Bold Penguin. We’re making positive changes in the industry, building cool technology, and we’re doing it as a team.
Q: How does the structure of your organization support the current culture?
Bodner: We value a fun, dynamic atmosphere that is low-key, open and forward-thinking. We have some nice perks, too, like a variety of sweet and healthy snacks available every day, free catered group lunches on Mondays, morning meetings fueled by coffee from local roasters, happy hours featuring the latest craft brews, flexibility to dress up or down as you like (no casual Fridays or Hawaiian shirt Tuesdays for us), and freedom to choose your own tech tools. So, whether you are a Mac person or a PC devotee, it’s up to you. But don’t get me wrong, we realize these things are just superficial creature comforts for the most part.
We want our people to show up every day ready and willing to do the best job possible. At an executive level, we understand that being flexible enough to accommodate different work styles and personalities is the key to culture. Treat your employees like adults, and with respect, and they will give it back in spades.
Q: Describe your role in shaping and perpetuating the culture.
Bodner: I’m technically the guy at the top of the hierarchical pyramid at Bold Penguin, but that’s not something you will find emphasized anywhere (except for the fact that I’m the one quoted in articles like this). At Bold Penguin, it’s critical for everyone to have a voice. I never want to feel or to have any of Bold Penguin’s employees feel like decisions are being forced upon them from above.
That’s not only a terrible feeling, it kills morale and productivity. Oh, and while we try to have many types of events and styles of meetings to cater to the different groups and styles, there are no “required” happy hours or company gatherings. Participate at your own pace. No forced fun.
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?
Bodner: We have people specifically focused on customer success but have thus far trusted employee success and culture to chance. However, we are growing, almost doubling in size over the past year. We are aware that the bigger the company gets, the harder it will be to hold onto the “magic” that got us here. A chief people officer is someone we’ve talked about bringing on board in the near future.