Your Company Culture Should Keep You Up at Night

September 21, 2017 Chris Barbin

“What keeps you up at night?” This is the number one question employees ask me. It’s a great question and my answer has been the same since the early days of Appirio – our culture. It’s not growth. It’s not our competition. It’s not customer loyalty. It’s not money (although to be honest that did keep me up a few nights early on). It’s culture.

As Peter Drucker once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  That’s because culture is the underlying DNA of any company. It influences every decision and shapes nearly every behavior, from who you hire, to how employees treat your customers, to how the company handles the the inevitable challenges it will face. Uber and Google are living examples of how culture can shape a company’s brand and fortunes – for good and bad.

On the plus side, there is Google. A company known for celebrating its employees, giving back to its community and fostering innovation at nearly every turn. Appirio has been a Google partner for more than a decade and it has been impressive to see first hand how this company lives its values. Then on the negative side, there is Uber. This company’s “machismo-fueled workplace” and its “win at all costs” culture has turned it from being a respected, poster-child for the digital economy into a cringe-worthy soap opera featuring everything from sexual harassment and executive misconduct to fraud and lawsuits.

There is no arguing that culture helped propel Uber’s growth in the first place. However it has and will cost the company dearly in the long run. It’s not the hard charging culture that I see as the problem. It’s the fact that Uber and its executive team put ego, profits and winning ahead of doing the right thing. I’m all for winning, but not when it’s at the expense of customers and employees.

Uber didn’t exist when my co-founders and I started Appirio 11 years ago, but we already knew we wanted to be deliberate about creating our culture. My co-founder, Narinder Singh and I had worked at great companies that invested in employees and saw huge growth as a result. We had also been part of companies that kept employees in the dark, stifled innovation or just took too long to get things done. Appirio’s two other co-founders, Glenn Weinstein and Mike O’Brien, had attended the US Naval Academy and been in the Navy (ironically one manning submarines and one manning the aircrafts designed to attack submarines). They knew what could be accomplished through great leadership and teamwork.  

So when we sat down to craft our business plan, we laid out our company values as well. With our collective background, it’s no surprise that two of Appirio’s three core values (customers, team and fun) are centered on employees. We’ve hired against those values. We invested in creating a culture that centered on those values, and created an environment along the way where employees were excited to come to work. We even won awards for it.

After a few years, when we reached what I call our awkward, adolescent stage. It was less about building, and more about scaling the culture we had created. How do we hold true to our values while introducing the oversight, processes and (dare I say) layers that come when you raise funding? When you hire hundreds of people a quarter and expand into different countries.

We certainly had our ups and down, and there’s a lot we didn’t do right…just ask many of the long-time Appirio employees that are still around or have boomeranged back after leaving. But we always made culture a priority. We even instituted a “Fun Factor Survey”, a pulse survey distributed to a group of employees each month to track how they are feeling and where Appirio can improve. We still track that metric in every leadership meeting.

Now, nearly a year after being acquired by Wipro, Appirio has entered its next phase. What keeps me up at night these days is figuring out how we maintain and evolve our identity now that we’re Appirio, a Wipro company. Thankfully, as I blogged about when we announced the acquisition, the Wipro and Appirio cultures are complementary. “Culture fit” is a big focus in any M&A discussion, and it was a huge criteria for us as we evaluated partners. I don’t believe any company’s culture will be an exact match with another, their values have to align and both companies need to embrace aspects of each other’s culture.

It’s like a marriage. There has to be a give and take. The Appirio team is learning from being a part of Wipro. The customer focus they instill in employees. The global nature of the company’s thinking and how connected it is with the community. The Spirit of Wipro Run, a global event Wipro puts on to reinforce the core values of the organization which drew 83,000 participants last year is a great example of this. On the flip side, I believe they are learning from us as well. The importance of moving fast and giving employees the best tools and flexibility they need to do amazing things for our customers.

I still stay up at night pondering things like how we make an impact in a 250,000 person global company, or how we mesh our unique customs and infrastructure into a 70 year old, well oiled, public company. But these are the things that get me out of bed too.

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