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A successful entrepreneur tells CXOs how to build (and rebuild) company culture

MADISON, WISC. — When Daniel Adamany left EMC in 2007 to build an IT consultancy, his list of startup priorities didn’t include building company culture. “Now it’s pretty much all I think about,” said Adamany, CEO of Ahead LLC, at Fusion 2015, a gathering of C-level executives hosted by WTN Media.

The shift in the pendulum was triggered by his own experience as the leader of his firm. In 2007, Ahead employees all knew each other. They shared the same vision and mindset, which kept the fledgling company’s business goals top of mind. But as the company grew and matured, the culture that seemed such a natural part of the business deteriorated. “It was ugly for a little while,” Adamany said, so much so that at times, even he dreaded going to work.

Initially, he tried to ignore the problem or accept the new reality, but things got worse. He realized he had to reestablish a company culture that lifted rather than dragged the business down — a leadership challenge that required patience on his part and hard work.

Today, the Ahead culture isn’t something he sets and forgets, Adamany said; it’s an ongoing project, which sometimes benefits from bringing in a hell-raiser or two, or what Adamany referred to as “aliens.”

Don’t beg, borrow or steal culture

Part of the difficulty in moving the pendulum back to a more productive environment was that Adamany was unsure where to start. “It was something I wanted to change, but I didn’t know how to change it,” Adamany said. He tried borrowing cultural strategies from other companies — like Netflix’s nine behaviors and skills — and grafting it onto Ahead, but “it didn’t work because it wasn’t us,” he said. So, rather than stew or ruminate about what caused the culture to disintegrate, he began considering the company’s strengths.

It wasn’t an exercise for the CEO alone. “We surveyed the company,” Adamany said, asking employees to list three characteristics that made Ahead special as a company. Together, he and the team landed on three traits: Ahead’s ability to collaborate, innovate and drive (aka execute).

After the surveys were tabulated and the word clouds constructed, Adamany didn’t let the idea of collaborate, innovate, drive recede into the background. “We had to get people to believe,” he said. He held a kickoff where the characteristics were discussed, and he introduced the company’s CID — collaborate, innovate, drive — awards, a peer-nominated recognition system that comes with a $50 gift card. Award winners are eligible for quarterly CID awards; and quarterly winners are eligible for the annual CID award. The recognition program took a little while for employees to warm to, but, Adamany said, it eventually picked up steam.

CID now plays such a significant role at Ahead that Adamany uses it as a guide during annual reviews or when considering potential hires. And it isn’t for internal use only. Click on the “About Us” tab on the company website, and there it is — collaborate, innovate, drive — below a block of text that reads How Ahead stays Ahead.

“It’s bigger than words,” Adamany said. “It’s a mode of operation. And it’s working.” Last year, Ahead grew 33%, which outpaced company growth for the last four years.

The appropriate use of aliens

But growing — and maintaining — a company culture isn’t all employee surveys and awards programs. Once the input is gathered and the culture is defined, it also has to be enforced. “When people go against the grain of your culture, you’ve got to do something,” Adamany said. “You cannot allow that to persist.”

It won’t be easy, but bad behavior left unchecked could have significant long-term repercussions leaders will want to avoid. That’s if the culture is working. If it isn’t, Adamany suggested introducing an alien to the mix, i.e., a strong personality who challenges the established norms. Sometimes an alien can shake things up by providing such a different view, it causes the bad culture to crack.

Not only can aliens help neutralize bad behavior, Adamany said, they can also be used to stretch the culture in good ways — by injecting fresh, creative thinking into a situation. “For instance, we’ve been building up our cloud practice, and we knew that we needed a different approach,” he said. “So we hired somebody that fit really well into our culture but thought totally differently when it came to approaching the topic.”

In other words, he told the C-level executives in the audience, figure out how to “use aliens appropriately.”