#37 Be Yourself: The Key To Deep Culture Is Sincerity

I’ve worked at 2 companies that kicked serious ass. They have something in common that I believe played a key role in their success. Let’s see if you agree.

ORACLE’s WILD MAN

The first ass-kicker I worked for was Oracle Corporation. They were founded in 1977, went public in 1986, and have a current market value of approximately $160 billion.

Their leader is Founder, Executive Chairman, and Chief Technology Officer, Larry Ellison. Ellison is all about aggression. The words brash, swashbuckling, arrogant come to mind. He’s out to win and there will be no prisoners taken alive.

His head of marketing many years ago said that as long as it’s not an outright lie it’s just good marketing. 

Competitors mocked that Oracle’s database ran best on the overhead projector. Suggesting that the software didn’t live up to the marketing hype. I experienced the effects of this exaggeration while on one of my first sales calls. I sat across from a customer that, honest to God, wanted to punch me in the face. He was livid over all the grandiose promises that past Oracle reps had failed to deliver on.

I also sat through sales meetings laced with bravado. Where reps were awarded brass balls for being ultra aggressive with clients. (If you liked the brass balls video, here is a longer version that exposes the underbelly of hard core sales).

So, while Oracle was not a good fit for me personally, I do admire the strength/depth/purity of the culture Ellison created. 

I’d had 3 or 4 jobs before joining Oracle, all with their own unique personalities. But none of them came close to matching the pervasiveness of the Oracle culture. 

The parallel that comes to mind is many years ago when our kids were in diapers. When, on Thursday nights, I’d have to drag those decaying maggot bombs - the diapers not the kids - to the curb for trash pick up. Just the thought of that scent makes me want to gag.

Well, that’s how strong the Oracle culture was when I walked into their Chicago offices back in 1990. Hat tip to Larry Ellison.

A LESS WILD MAN

My next extra-successful employer was a company you’ve probably never heard of, Powersoft Corporation. I arrived there as a salesperson in April of 1991, a few months before the release of the company's flagship product. So I spent a few months selling thin air, but eventually, within about a year, things took off. Results looked like this

1991 Revenue $5     Million
1992 Revenue $22  Million and profitable
1993 Revenue $57  Million and profitable and did an IPO
1994 Revenue $132 Million and profitable  

The company was then sold for close to a billion dollars. One of the trade magazines at the time, Network World, described the buyout this way…

“Sybase, Inc. agreed to merge with Powersoft Corp, makers of the wildly popular PowerBuilder development tool.”

A 1990's  Powerbuilder advertisement
A 1990's  Powerbuilder advertisement

To me, that phrase “wildly popular” really sticks out. This wasn’t some consumer product with gadget appeal like an iPhone. PowerBuilder was a software development tool that corporate developers used to create business applications. Not a product that would typically draw an emotional following. But this one did to an almost odd extent. I recall demonstrating the product to a group of developers in Detroit and receiving a standing ovation. And the ovation wasn’t for me, it was for the product. It got to the point that one of our competitors accused us of being a cult. 

I believe the reason the tech community embraced Powersoft was that we behaved differently than many of the software businesses of the time. While companies like Oracle led with slick, experienced sales reps that tried to ram contracts down customers throats, we took a more educational approach. Almost all of our reps had an engineering or programming background. And many had little to no sales experience. Which was fine because the job in those early days was as much about education as it was transactions. Reps had to be technical enough to demonstrate the product and field questions from technical crowds. A requirement that disqualified or scared off most industry sales veterans.

And sales was just the tip of the spear. The entire company exhibited that "less hype and more substance" approach. And the man behind it all was company President, David Litwack.

Litwack was the polar opposite of Oracle’s Ellison. Quiet, unassuming, the antithesis of brash. You always knew David would approach a challenge from a reasoned analytical perspective. Minimize the emotion and get to the best, most fair answer. And it was refreshing to observe that he seemed to enjoy the technology and the people of the company much more than the industry limelight and the Wall Street attention. 

And Litwack wasn’t the only culture driver in the company. Chairman Mitchell Kertzman, who was a former programmer himself, was instrumental. As was marketing guru and statistical mathematics major, Tom Herring. But the day in and day out vibe of the company came from Litwack.

And the strength of that vibe, just as powerful as the one I'd experienced at Oracle, hit me like a ton of bricks.

The parallel that comes to mind is arriving home on a cool November evening. Opening the door and getting hit in the face by the scent of pumpkin pies fresh from Joyce's oven. Just the thought makes me salivate.

Well, that’s how strong the Powersoft culture was when I walked into the Boston offices back in 1991. Hat tip to David Litwack!

STRONG, DEEP, PURE CULTURE

Oracle and Powersoft were the two most successful companies I’ve personally experienced.

And they, by far, had the strongest, deepest, purest cultures I’ve ever experienced. 

And I don’t believe that combination is a coincidence. I believe strong culture greatly increases the odds of business success.

So the critical question is how did these gentlemen create these cultures?

Before I answer, I need to make it clear that by the time I arrived at Oracle they were already approaching a billion dollars in sales. And I was a lowly entry level sales rep with zippo access to Ellison. At Powersoft, on the other hand, my experience was deep. I personally interfaced with Litwack on a regular basis for several years. So my answer to the “how did these guys create great culture” question is biased towards my Litwack/Powersoft experience.

With that caveat in mind, my answer to the question is simple. 

All they did was be themselves. They were authentic.

They didn’t “bend” their style to accommodate various factions. They didn’t change their management approach every time a hot new business book came out. 

Instead, they had the audacity to just be themselves. 

And that’s where the magic happens.

Being yourself means you’re operating from your core. In map terms, it means you're working from your WHY/ME/IF/CAN. This gives you a grounding and a consistency that drives your everyday behavior. And this core-driven consistency acts as a powerful model for your employees. You become a real live example of how you expect people to behave. How priorities are to be set. How fellow employees and customers are to be treated.

This consistent modeling helps employees gain trust in the underpinnings of your environment. Which minimizes the back channel bitching and whining and second guessing. It gets more people on the same page. Which means more and better quality work gets done with less effort. A freaking financial and emotional gold mine for everyone involved!

Unfortunately, this kind of culture is far from the norm.

I've worked for eight companies ranging from Fortune 500 to startups. I’ve interfaced with tons of small companies trying to get big. I’ve sat on several non profit and for profit boards. This kind of authentic, deep, pure culture is typically nowhere to be found.

Most business owners are too busy putting out fires. Or they don’t want to deal with this soft stuff. Or they’re not willing to reflect on and monitor their own preferences and behaviors. Whatever the reason, they fail to make sure that their defining personal characteristics are reflected in the culture of their company. Which is a mistake that limits the growth of their business and the quality of their life.

THE MAP

(This site is all about building a Map that will help me do work and life better. So at the end of each post I check in to see if any changes / insights come to mind.)

The part of the WORK map we’re talking about today is BE FAIR DAILY. And it's all about culture, environment, context.

And the change I want to make to the map is simple. I want to add the sub-bullet BE YOURSELF.

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Employees crave authentic consistency at the top of the org chart. And the only way I know to satisfy that craving is BE YOURSELF.

The alternative path that many business owners take is not pretty. Feeling like a referee rather than a business leader. Days that keep getting longer. Dreaming of hitting the eject button if someone would just offer up a fair price.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The path to some peace and growth is right in front of your face.

BE YOURSELF…   

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