Study after study cites culture as a real competitive advantage.
Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, famously said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” But where does culture come from? How does an organization find and build its culture?
Does a company inherit the genes of its founder? Do the personality traits – charisma, punctuality, passion, je ne sais quoi – of a CEO trickle down into company culture?
Essentially, how much does a company look like its founder?
We recognized the importance of culture as a competitive and strategic differentiator, so we wanted to know where ours came from and if it was trickling down from Henry or elsewhere.
Culture is critically important to a company’s success. It affects how much effort employees are willing to give, their longevity at the company, and ultimately how much joy and satisfaction they can find, 8 hours of every day.
We take culture seriously. When we surveyed our staff, we asked them to describe Henry Schuck, CEO and co-founder. We then asked them about the company – and then we compared the results. (And yes, in true DiscoverOrg style, we had some fun along the way: What would happen if Henry Schuck, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates walked into a bar?)
So we asked our employees to describe Henry and describe our culture to see if there were any similarities.
So DOES a company inherit the characteristics of its founder?
The short answer is yes. Well, mostly.
But read on, because the long answer is a lot more interesting.
3 words to describe the boss
We asked 60 DiscoverOrg employees a rather dangerous question: Describe the boss. The answers were varied.
“Henry Schuck is very ___.”
A few themes came through; namely, direct, dedicated, and real. (Of course, there were a few other interesting answers, too: creative, methodical, nice, kind-hearted, handsome. But let’s stick with the themes.)
“I don’t worry or think about being direct, or the emotional impact on other people when I’m giving them honest feedback,” Schuck says, so he wasn’t surprised that direct and real came up frequently. “I’m not going to filter. I don’t hold back from my family, and I don’t hold back from employees. It comes from bootstrapping the company. We’ve always operated in a space where there’s just no room for anything less than honesty.”
Let’s have a little fun with that – and see if employees would return the favor.
“If Henry were stranded on a desert island, he would _”
DiscoverOrg Mad Libs question #2:
“If Henry were stranded on a desert island, he could escape if he had enough coconuts, because he is ___.”
- keenly aware that coconuts migrate.
- savvy with tree nuts, having spent time as a Buckeye at Ohio State where DiscoverOrg began.
- would start a new company that made rafts.
We think there’s some truth in all of these answers. Henry is definitely resourceful, innovative, and a salesman at heart.
But how about DiscoverOrg, the company?
“DiscoverOrg culture is ___.”
In his book Lost and Founder, Moz founder Rand Fishkin says: Startups carry their founders’ baggage:
It’s probably no big surprise to hear that a company inherits its founder’s attributes – whether they be good or bad. Install a misogynist as CEO, and you’ll find the company has misogynistic practices. … Amazon inherited Jeff Bezos’s passion for logistics just as surely as his thriftiness with company pay and benefits. … Slack has Stewart Butterfield’s focus on visual design, user experience, and delightful Easter eggs baked into numerous features.
Is this true? If it is, what attributes has DiscoverOrg inherited? We embarked on this exercise because we thought it was fun, but we also wanted to test Fishkin’s theory.
Here are the top 4 responses to the question: “DiscoverOrg culture is ___”:
Employees describe both Henry and his company in many of the same terms.
Hardworking – check. Yep, we all work hard: Working here isn’t about clocking in and clocking out. It’s about setting goals we’re not sure we can hit, knocking it out of the park, and setting the next bar even higher.
A culture of hard work like that can be intense, yes.
When you add compensation tied in part to a sales quota, a little healthy competition comes with the territory.
No surprises there.
No one described Henry as “fun” (although we’re sure he is). That’s a prominent quality, but it didn’t come from the founder and CEO.
So where did it come from?
“If DiscoverOrg was an animal, it would be a ___ because ___.”
- The Energizer Bunny – We don’t stop
- Honey Badger – We don’t back down
- Cheetah – We are fast growing
- Lion – We are the king of the jungle
- Oyster – We filter out the crap and turn it into pearls
- Raven – We’re smart, independent, and tend to flock
- Killer whale – We’re fast and dominant
Spiders, eagles, giraffes, elephants, border collies, goats, and unicorns also made the cut. Schuck liked the analogy of the Energizer Bunny.
Let’s look at the last question of our Mad Libs survey:
“Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Henry Schuck walk into a bar. What happens next?”
- “Henry walks out of the bar and owns Facebook, and Instagram.”
- “Henry licenses data from Mark and sells it to Bill. They have a drink and sign a contract Henry wrote on a cocktail napkin.”
- “Henry tries to sell them DiscoverOrg.”
- “They finally invent the flying car.”
We don’t have a prototype for the flying car, but we have almost as good: HUSTLE. Our employees took every opportunity to have fun with this question, but the theme was the same.
Henry is always hustling. DiscoverOrg is fun, but we never stop hustling, either. That’s a quality we’re proud to own. (Want to join us? We’re hiring!)
Founders influence culture – but they don’t own it
Like many other companies – perhaps all of them – DiscoverOrg was created in the image of the founder and evolved into something more.
What does this mean for companies who are trying to develop culture, or change it?
For us, the answer is communication of values.
Henry Schuck wasn’t surprised that direct and real came up frequently, but he was surprised to learn that employees counted on him to be real. “I didn’t realize that people expected that of me.” Turns out, they do:
“I can always count on Henry to give it to me straight.”
“… to tell me the truth.”
“… to not take any crap.”
“… to give me an honest answer.”
Knowing that people count on him for his zero-B.S. answers, Schuck says, “I’m going to make a point of doing that.”
Ask the leadership team what the company’s values are. Ask individual contributors what they think. Identify the values of the founder that are beneficial to the company. Look for alignment of business-positive values, and find ways to incorporate that into your company story, particularly hiring and onboarding materials, and in employee recognition.
The personality of the founder may act as a seed; it sets the tone and tenor as the company grows and like-minded people are hired.
The resulting cultural ecosystem of DiscoverOrg has developed that is larger, deeper, and more complex than a single CEO.
DiscoverOrg’s own rapid growth is proof-of-concept of the power a group of sharp, inspired, dedicated, fun people. With a grounded founder and smart, like-minded new hires, company culture is a tremendous competitive advantage.
It’s also bigger than any one person.