Management consultant and author Peter Drucker is known for saying culture eats strategy for breakfast. Anyone who’s run a business can attest to the power culture has over all areas of the business. Underlying cultural struggles can make collaboration, recruitment and retention, and growth difficult or even impossible. Said differently, unless your culture is in working order, no strategy – no matter how brilliant – will work.
Several years before Mark Brumfield became CEO, the HEAPY leadership team engaged Aileron to help craft a strategy to get them out of the rut they were stuck in. But quickly, HEAPY realized they wanted to prioritize culture first.
“We learned that the root of our problem wasn’t strategy at all. Before we got anywhere close to strategy, we had to look at ourselves and the energy we brought to each conversation.”
Turning culture from words into actions
It turns out what “culture” meant for HEAPY was pretty nebulous and inconsistent across the team. They set out to get clear on their culture so they could be intentional about crafting it. With the support of their Aileron coaches, the team was able to articulate a livable culture that rested on four main pillars of importance: Colleagues, Clients, Community, and Company.
A common thread across all four pillars was people, which made sense. HEAPY knew people were their most important asset – but figuring out how to live that value was another struggle entirely.
“We heard the words when we talked about our values,” said Mark. “They made sense. We knew what the definitions meant. But we realized we had to bridge the gap between saying and living the words.”
“We worked with Aileron to add three actions that support each of our values. For example, our Colleagues are important, so we want to: be aligned, show care, and be curious. We want to act in a compassionate way and challenge each other by asking questions. But we also want to find a way to move forward together.”
Relying on culture to navigate COVID uncertainties
For many companies, including HEAPY, the pandemic tested their cultural strength. Because of the investments HEAPY had already made in shifting its culture, Mark and his leadership team knew what mattered most to their colleagues.
At the onset of COVID, when uncertainty and fear were rampant across the country, HEAPY began a weekly video chat. They created space for honesty, owning what they didn’t know and providing assurance where they could. Mark said this authentic approach helped the company stay connected during what some companies experienced as a divisive time.
“If we hadn’t started the work with Aileron when we did, I honestly don’t know how we would’ve made it through COVID. Before, we couldn’t articulate what our people needed and how we could support them. The awareness of ourselves and what our colleagues needed, paired with a culture of active transparency and care, has made so much possible, even in a hard time.”
Today HEAPY continues to stay grounded in what matters most to its team by using an approach of continuous learning.
“My focus is making sure that we have the awareness to find our blind spots. What gives our people job satisfaction? What can we change? What are we missing in our understanding? My job is to find and break down those barriers.”
Especially in the uncertainty of a pandemic, it might seem counterintuitive for a CEO to profess he is more focused on barrier-breaking than bottom lines or growth metrics. But when we lead with self-awareness and humility, we realize how deeply energy, company culture, and results are tied together. Taking a step back to learn what’s not working ultimately fuels growth for ourselves, our teams, and our companies.