CEO Role #2: Defining the Culture

April 5, 2011 · Print This Article

Here’s an early excerpt from the article “The CEO Job Description.” It’s an early “unfinished” version that I’m just getting out there because I can’t stand writing sitting on a computer doing nothing :-) . Enjoy!

On the topic of building culture, take a look at this News & Observer article on iContact’s office space if you haven’t seen it yet…


Excerpt from “The CEO Job Description” by Ryan Allis

CEO Role #2: Defining Your Culture

One key role of the CEO is to set the tone for the culture of the organization. Fish rot from the head down. How you act and the words you use will have a big impact on your ability to recruit the best and brightest and create an unforgettably wonderful work environment to retain your superstars. So will how your senior team acts and the words they use.

So, what the heck is culture anyway?

A culture is the set of unique activities that a group of individuals do that differentiate them from another group of people. These groups could be called tribes. So what it is that your tribe does that differentiates them from your competitor’s tribe? What are your unique tribal traits (UTTs)?

Culture (n.) - the set of unique activities that a group of individuals do that differentiate them from another group of people.

Defining your company culture clearly can attract the type of people to your tribe that you want, in turn creating a more passionate team who then create wow products and provide wow service to your customers, ending the cycle in creating a base of loyal customer evangelizers.

Culture is something that must be authentic. It can’t be faked. But it can be guided over time by hiring people that align with the values you hold dear and holding them accountable to living these values.

There is a three step process to begin to define your culture as CEO:

  1. Define your unique tribal traits
  2. Define your values
  3. Define the actions you take to support your tribal traits and values

Step1 in Building Culture: Define Your Unique Tribal Traits (UTTs)

Step one in defining your culture is defining the words that you want to describe your culture that are inherent in your team DNA. In August 2010 we went through an exercise during a monthly Culture Committee Meeting at iContact. We asked a cross-section of our employee base to write down the five words that they would use to describe our culture. The five words that came up the most frequently in the group of employees were:

  • Fun
  • Creative
  • Energetic
  • Challenging
  • Community-oriented

Great. Now we knew how team members described our company culture. At least according to our tribe, we were MORE fun, creative, energetic, challenging, and community-oriented than most other companies. These were our Unique Tribal Traits, our cultural DNA. This process gave us critical knowledge about our culture and how to invest in it.

What are your company’s UTTs?

Step 2 in Building Culture: Define Your Values

Step two in defining your culture is defining the values you and your company holds dear.

Values – Your company’s values are the unique precious behaviors you want your team members to hold dear and go above and beyond in bringing to life. For a value to be a company value you must be willing to fire someone if they didn’t display that behavior. You should have no more than five values so they can be remembered. Ideally you’d have an acronym that can be pronounced to correspond with your values. Avoid generic values that everyone uses that don’t actually differentiate (honesty, integrity) and ensure your values start with verbs and not nouns. Most people think values are things. Values aren’t things they are behaviors.

iContact’s Five Values (WOWME):

  • Wow the Customer
  • Operate With Urgency
  • Work Without Mediocrity
  • Make a Positive Wake
  • Engage as an Owner

Step 3 in Building Culture: Define The Actions You Take to Support Your Tribal Traits & Values

Step three in building your culture is defining the actions that you take as a company that support your cultural descriptors and values.

We’ve learned a lot about consciously building culture as the company has grown from awesome companies like Zappos and Google.

Here are some of the things iContact does to help us live up to our tribal traits:

Fun, creative, & energetic:

  • We have Cool benefits like monthly massages for employees, free drinks, monthly lunches, annual car washes (along with the standard health, 401(k) matching, and options)
  • We hold a quarterly high-energy team kick-off with costumes to share, align, and celebrate
  • We hold new employee graduations in full regalia with pomp and circumstance
  • We have a 17′ slide that goes from the game room to the product and marketing area
  • We divided our two floors into the northern and southern hemispheres (with the slide between them). The continents of Africa and South America are on floor two and Europe and North America are on floor three. Each continent has four region. Each region has a team leader. Each regional area has designed their space and conference rooms to be representative of their region of the world including turning cubes into African huts in the Serengeti and mounting taxidermied moose in Eastern Canada.


  • To work at iContact you must be passionate about serving the customer and working hard. We are a high-growth internet company and recruit the best and brightest. We very much are a performance-based meritocracy and those who perform well stay and grow.


  • We are a purpose-driven company and B Corporation
  • We have a 4-1s Corporate Social Responsibility Program. We give 1% of equity, 1% of product, 1% of payroll, and 1% of time back to the community.
  • We give each employee an added 2.5 days off every year to volunteer in the community, tracked via a tool called VolunteerForce

Define The Actions That Support Your Values

In our annual performance review process and in every coaching conversation we refer to our values and give each employee a 1-4 ranking on how they are doing in living up to the value. (1=red, 2=yellow, 3=green, 4=supergreen).

Noting that some of these are aspirational and still being perfected, other actions that we work on taking at iContact to support our WOWME values are:

Supporting Actions to Wow the Customer

  • We work to create an unforgettable overall customer experience.
  • We take complicated things and make them simple through design and UI.
  • We make the product experience unforgettable.
  • We make the service experience unforgettable.
  • We work to highlight the customer’s success in everything that we do.

Supporting Actions to: Operate with Urgency

  • We use the agile development methodology on a ten week release cycle so we can get new features to market quickly.

Supporting Actions to Work Without Mediocrity

  • We put out quality work that is engineered for scale.
  • We put every new team member through company training and product training to share with them our values.
  • Every year all new managers go through our Managerial and Leadership Training (MALT) Program.
  • We don’t accept mediocrity as leaders and managers.
  • We move people out of the organization that are not performing well.

Supporting Actions to Make a Positive Wake (similar to actions to making us community-oriented)

  • We ensure team members build people up
  • We are a purpose-driven company and B Corporation
  • We give back through the 4-1s and VolunteerForce
  • Our employees receive an extra 2.5 days of PTO for volunteering each year
  • Our internal and external communications are fun, creative, and energetic
  • We have a slide in the office and decorate the office like our sixteen geographic regions to further creative thinking

Supporting Actions to: Engage as an owner

  • Every employee receives options to be able to become a shareholder
  • We act like owners because we are owners.

So what actions will you take to ensure you and your team members live your values?

In Summary

So, in review, the three step process to begin to define your company culture as CEO is:

  1. Define your unique tribal traits (UTTs)
  2. Define your values (precious unique behaviors)
  3. Define the actions you take to support your tribal traits and values.

What is your company culture like? What are your unique tribal traits? What are your values? And what actions will you be taking to define and build your company culture as you grow???


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