Culture As A Competitive Advantage

Culture As A Competitive Advantage

“We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
– Aristotle

I’d like to express thanks to my colleague Sarah McCasland for suggesting we do a series on what culture means at Modus Create and how we see investing in culture as strategic to internal maturity and external competitiveness. Another huge thanks goes out to our team for landing us on the Inc5000 fastest growing privately held companies for the second year in a row. Results like these truly show our culture in action.

Many of the culture articles I read are geared towards life within venture funded software product companies or large enterprises where most employees show up to an office and work in the same time zone with the majority of their peers. Because we are a professional services firm and our organizational design is the complete opposite of most early-stage software product companies, I thought it would be useful to share our experiences developing and supporting a high performing culture within a bootstrapped, globally distributed, product development and technology services team.

In this post I’ll dive into the internal and external dynamics that affect a high-growth services business like Modus Create, how we arrived at our mantra, “Be Active, Visible, and Relevant,” and how we enabled a series of learning systems to leverage our culture as a competitive advantage in the market.

You have core values whether or not you can articulate them.

Assuming your business is viable, Culture sustains its ability to stay viable. I have observed four principal areas that define the physics of how culture grows from a founder’s perspective:

  1. Who you are: your personal values
  2. Your ideals: what you aspire to be; how your personal and professional purposes overlap (if at all)
  3. Your life experiences: How you allow learning and life experiences to reinforce or change your view of self and/or ideals
  4. Your orientation to Culture: Is it an active or passive aspect of your business?

I believe Culture is implicitly formed from the organizational design structure and the attitudes of the people who create the structure. Only then can culture be reinforced by people at every layer of the structure if their jobs are designed in a way that allows them to be successful at achieving culture related goals. The core DNA of a company is the founding team. To be clear, it’s not the founders themselves, but the entire founding team. The challenge for first time founders and founding teams of growing companies is that you are learning and evolving in parallel with imagining, defining, and deploying the supporting structures for your culture. I can attest firsthand that the “good” stress that is related to growth can be more intimidating and challenging than the “manageable” stress of a difficult client or delivery concerns.

Your experiences gives voice to your values

Over the course of the last five years, I have learned a lot about myself — about business, leadership, and managing growth and change. It took me three solid years to articulate my core values. During the first few years of running Modus, I felt certain decisions, clients, and people we hired didn’t feel right and pulled our firm away from our values. The underlying Why? of those accrued scars took shape in my thinking and, during an offsite retreat with my cofounder Jay in 2013, they were given words that I shared with the team:

Founders – Shared Core Values (v1.0 – 2013)

  • Constant learning and improvement
  • Share what you know
  • Be active, visible, and relevant
  • Work hard, be outcome oriented
  • Your work speaks for itself
  • Mastering the hard skills means nothing without the soft skills
  • Set realistic expectations
  • Relationships lead, sales follow

We’ve continued to incorporate these values into an org chart that can scale as we grow, and to implement internal support structures along with the budgets to sustain investments in systems that are able to support our culture.

Modus Create is a platform for personal and professional growth

Companies are social constructs and are people driven. As the company grows and evolves, the team members must evolve as well. The trick to maintaining culture is to know what values should not change as you grow. People, systems, and tech all change, but why people love working at one company can stay true even as processes, controls, and organizational structures evolve.

The Tech Industry is in a constant state of flux and in this industry, more so than more traditional industries, people outgrow companies, and companies sometimes outgrow people. This is especially true in early stage tech companies. To stay competitive, we embrace this ebb and flow and strive to ensure that all members of our consulting team have an engaging and positive experience while working at Modus.

Our Company is a platform for personal and professional growth. We actively invest in people personally and professionally. We embrace the reality that the level of our consulting presents unique opportunities for career advancement inside and outside of our firm. Our employment model fulfils it promises to expose consultants to a wide variety of clients and challenges spanning every industry. We nurture and advance international exposure for our team members by providing support mechanisms and processes for a very active internal community of blog and book authors, meetup and conference speakers, in addition to open source project contributors, and social media involvement.

I take pride in knowing that the level of our consulting talent and the high profile projects that our teams work on, increases the likelihood they may be recruited away at some point. This strengthens our brand and position in the market. In the tech industry, openness to new ways of thinking, constant learning, and constant skills development is the only path to true job security and a fulfilling career. Modus Create is a company designed around this truism.

Culture As A Competitive Advantage

We have followed an organic path of growth that has led us to this natural point of maturity where our size, scale, scope, and stage are best served by formalizing our supports for those qualities that make Modus Create what it is today. We are bringing consciousness of Culture into our strategy, our structures, and our organizational design. We are shifting from passive existence of culture to active building of supports to ensure balance and structure through our continued growth.

As CEO, my focus is shifting from capability building, to company building. Much of the day-to-day responsibility that Jay and I hold is being actively delegated to a new tier of leaders within Modus who are bringing fresh perspectives and amazing energy to the table. As founders, Jay and I will always maintain the stewardship of our core values with a “buck stops here” approach.

In closing

I highly recommend reading recent posts from Andrew Wilkinson’s post on Lazy Leadership at MetaLab and Joel Gascoigne’s post on culture and radical transparency at Buffer. Joel and Andrew’s posts underscore the points that it doesn’t matter how great your culture is if your underlying business model is flawed and you go out of business as a result. We feel strongly that organizational design is key to culture and that a focused, collective mindset created by an engaged team is a key competitive advantage.

Early stage companies, by definition, are looking to identify a repeatable, profitable, and scalable business model. The existential problems of capability/offering development often overshadow any conscious focus on what it means to be a company. At the end of the day, Culture only matters if the underlying business model is viable.

Moving forward, we will focus on providing the budget, people, and structure necessary to design and enable the reinforcements and supports for our Culture. This momentum for growth is touching every aspect of our firm and I look forward to providing additional posts with many Modus colleagues along the way as we seek to deepen our discussion internally and gain insight from industry peers on what solutions they are finding to turn culture into a competitive advantage.

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