Nonprofit Executive Leader Specializing in Organizational Change, Advocacy & Policy
How a small IT company built an incredible organizational culture
Interview with Heinan Landa – CEO of Optimal Networks
How would you describe Optimal’s culture?
Work hard, play hard, united in a common mission, values driven. We have our values posted all over the place. Our values—tell the truth, do the right thing, and everyone benefits— describe the culture we are trying to build and sustain.
Why did you decide to prioritize culture?
My view is that you don’t mandate but you discover your culture. My former partner, to his credit, spent time examining how people actually worked in the company, highlighted the best of what he saw, and helped develop our values statement. I have been thinking about culture since my days at Wharton. Our first business plan, written while I was in business school in 1991, had a whole section on culture titled “The People Edge.” It took me a good 10 years to figure out how to operationalize it.
How do you operationalize your culture?
We put into practice our values on a daily basis. We tell a lot of stories highlighting our values. We tell the story about how someone violated the value of telling the truth and lost his job. We tell stories about how someone did something incredible for another employee or for a client. Those stories, both positive and negative, become part of our culture and make it what it is.
We also spend a lot of time on our special rituals. David Campbell, our COO, 12 years ago made breakfast for everyone one Friday morning. He did it again the following Friday. The Friday after that, he didn’t make breakfast. I hinted to Dave that I was disappointed, and he told me that bringing in the griddle and all of the ingredients was a pain. So I went to Costco, and bought a griddle for $29. It turned out to be a great investment. We have breakfast every Friday in the office. People take turns making their specialties. The custom is not to talk about work during Friday breakfast. When we moved to new office space three years ago, we made sure that the kitchen was a centerpiece because it’s where culture happens.
We also have “spirit days” twice a year. It’s a major sacrifice because clients expect their IT company to be on call 24-7. It’s a conflict between two values, maintaining our internal culture and serving our customers, and we’ve had to find creative ways of working around it. We do all sorts of fun stuff on spirit day, such as rafting, sailing, and cooking competitions, but also spend time dreaming and discussing how we work. It always produces improvements in service for our customers.
Optimal hires based on our culture. We look for people who are a natural fit. We put them through a very extensive screening process first by phone and then in person. We are looking for both competence and the right cultural fit.
It’s also critical that the senior leadership fully embody the culture and walks the walk. When I recently returned from a trip, one team member said to me “Hi boss, welcome back.” Another team member saw me cringe. She knew that I didn’t want to be called “boss.” I have a role just like everyone else has a role. Someone has to be the owner and to set the strategic direction, and that’s me. But I’m just another member of the team with a particular role in the organization. I can’t act all hierarchical and expect the team to be collaborative.
How does a fun culture align with your mission?
When people have fun, it’s a stress release. Any chance people have to bond outside work helps them be a more effective team. More effective teams produce better results.
The culture internally is built around providing great service to our customers. Our employees are bought in and love what they’re doing, and that enthusiasm shows up in how they engage our clients. Our internal culture is an external asset and a key part of our brand.
But there can be conflicts as well. I have seen very few companies emphasize culture in the way we do. Some companies don’t fully appreciate our quirky ways. We recently threw one of our annual open houses for our clients with a disco theme. A few of our new clients were taken aback by the invitation. I got a call from a client saying that it was inappropriate. It backfired. But day in and day out, it’s a huge advantage, and most clients love it and see the value.
In the past few years, you have acquired two other IT companies. How did you ensure that the new employees were integrated into the existing culture and didn’t poison the well?
When you work hard to build a culture, you need to be extra sure there’s a fit with the acquired company. In one acquisition, the former owner wanted a senior role. He’s an impressive guy, but not a good cultural fit. We had to say no to him. Several of the people from his team, however, really glommed on to our culture. In another acquisition, the entire team really had trouble fitting in. There’s only one of the original eight left of that team.
One of the reasons to emphasize culture is that it makes people more invested and more effective in their jobs. The other reason is that we spend so much time at work, why not make it as fun as possible?
Follow David on Twitter! @DavidLBernstein