CEO Role #2: Defining the Culture

April 5, 2011

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???

A Tour Inside the iContact Durham Offices (And Zappos and Google)

September 10, 2010

iContact will be moving to a new office building in Morrisville, North Carolina next month.

We moved to Durham from a two-room office Chapel Hill in December 2004 when we had 11 employees and were called Broadwick. We actually fit the entire office in one U-Haul truck when we moved!

Now six years on, we’ll be taking 240 employees to Morrisville and have space to grow to 550.

I took an hour today to take a few photos of our current office and put them together with a few older photos from our 2009 decoration contest to create a tour off our current office space. I hope you’ll get a bit of a sense for our fun, creative, and energetic culture as you take a look. We’re not quite Zappos or Google yet in terms of the creativity of our physical environment (see below), but we’re working on it.

For the sake of preserving a bit of our unique culture and sharing what it is like inside the iContact physical environment, here is a tour of our current iContact Space via Scribd. Enjoy!

Looking for some inspiration for the physical environment we want to create in our new space in Morrisville, I also put together a deck of pictures from Zappos office and Google’s office that I figured would be worth also sharing…

The Zappos Offices – Las Vegas, NV

Zappos Offices – Las Vegas, NV

Google Offices – Worldwide

How Do iContact Employees Describe Our Culture?

August 29, 2010

In my post Friday on the most important business lessons I’ve learned at iContact, lesson ten was:

“10. If you create a great culture (a fun work environment filled with people who are high performers and who care about their work and their impact on the world) you will be able to attract and retain better people who will be much more engaged and productive and create a much more financially successful company.”

Recently I’ve been reading four wonderful books that have helped me ‘go to school’ on the tremendous value of building company culture and the revenue growth than can be achieved when you can align profit, purpose, and meaning for your team. These are:

This post is to share a bit about what the iContact Culture is like today, in the words of our current employees. In future posts I’ll describe an effort we’re about to embark on to make the iContact Culture a core part of what differentiates our company, with the help these authors, many of which Tony Hsieh of Zappos turned me on to.

How iContact Employees Describe Our Current Culture

Last week we held our first ever Culture Committee Meeting at iContact over lunch one day. I started off by asking the group to write down words that described our culture.

The words that came up more than once from the group were:

  1. Fun
  2. Creative
  3. Community-oriented
  4. Energetic
  5. Challenging

These were pretty powerful words.

Other words mentioned by employees to describe the iContact culture were:

Dynamic Respectful Socially Responsible Diverse Casual
Optimistic Open Service-oriented Unique Sustainable
Inclusive Engaging Encouraging Ever-changing Family-like
Motivated Fast-moving Compassionate Growing Helpful
Mission-focused Intellectual Professional yet wacky Agile Thoughtful

How Would You Describe the iContact Culture In a Sentence to a Friend?

I then asked the group to write a sentence they’d use to describe iContact Culture to a friend. Recently I’ve been describing the culture as a “high energy performance based culture that cares.” The group wrote:

  • iContact is an open, supportive, and respectful place where employees can make their setting their own and have a say in influencing their own experience
  • iContact is an organization that is driving forward the deliverance of a product surrounded by a team that shares their personal excellence with the world
  • iContact is a diverse group of individuals from all walks of life that come together as a team to both achieve and help others succeed
  • iContact is a company that consciously seeks uniqueness
  • iContact is a dynamic team-centric company that effectively balances customers, employees, and the world
  • iContact has a fun atmosphere where each individuals ideas and work are recognized
  • iContact is comprised of interdependent teams working to solve problems together
  • iContact is an exciting place to work due to the energy put forth by each employee every day
  • iContact understands that individual and team growth equals company growth

What Makes the iContact Culture Unique?

I then asked the group to share some of the things they felt made iContact unique as a company. They wrote:

  • We are fast-growing while becoming open and more agile as we grow
  • We believe in what we say and we act based on that belief
  • We practice openness
  • We have a holistic approach to business in terms of our impact on all stakeholders
  • We are a socially responsible company
  • We are transparent and have lots of giving back opportunities and a comfortable dress code
  • We have unique wall murals
  • We do business differently, our employees are empowered, we work hard and play hard, and we are actively committed to helping others
  • We interview candidates to determine not if they are the best individual candidate but whether someone is going to fit in the team
  • We have a commitment to the community and the 4-1s CSR program
  • We have unique benefits like free unlimited sodas, monthly massages, annual car washes, Monday bagels, monthly lunches, monthly birthday cakes
  • We produce a monthly YouTube company news video featuring sword fights between bees and knights, dancing, rapping, chocolate grasshopper eating, Batmen superhero fights, iron chef competitions, parades, and cross-dressing
  • We have smoke machines and disco lights at monthly company meetings
  • Our CFO has dressed up like a cheerleader and Michael Jackson
  • Our CEO has shaved his head when we hit
  • We have big anniversary celebrations with hot air balloons, dunk tanks, bouncy castles, inflatable slides, fire eaters, magicians, bluegrass music, and Carolina BBQ
  • We go to the Durham Bulls baseball and Carolina Hurricanes hockey games as a company
  • We have pot luck lunches, waffle and pancake parties, 3am code deploys, lots of plants and balloons, new hire donuts in technology, and Finance/HR annual ice cream socials, and summer picnics

So it’s fair to say we have a rather unique culture at iContact already.

But iContact is about to move into a new home in Morrisville, NC on October 23rd. We can use this opportunity to do even better.

I’ll be writing more about our company culture and our journey in the coming days and months.

Videos of the iContact Culture

Here are some of the videos that have been part of defining our unique culture over time, from the iContactTV YouTube Channel


How We Do Meetings at iContact

Celebrating our 7th Anniversary at iContact

Celebrating 5th Anniversary at iContact

50,000 Customer Celebration Parade

Dressing Up as Tina Turner and Michael Jackson to Celebrate $2M in Monthly Sales

iNews Digital Short: Chocolate Covered Grasshoppers

July 2010 iContact iNews