Editor’s note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on wellbeing and human performance. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire.


 DURHAM –Last week I attended Bull City Venture Partners (BCVP)  Founders First sold out event in Durham.  Bravo to BCVP for putting on such a high quality event!

State of VC: winter of despair…

The day started with a somber opening by Michael Lee, Principal of BCVP, summing up the current state of venture capital by quoting from Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Action packed agenda: Red Sox AI to Creating Enterprise Value via Marketing

From there, the action packed agenda included the CTO of the Boston Red Sox speaking on “Unleashing Potential: Navigating Enterprise Opportunities in Age of AI,” and early and growth stage panels featuring noted national investors.

Grace Ueng

Bringing back memories of my years as a tech marketing executive, was a talk by SaaS marketing guru Shiv Narayanan on the power of marketing in driving revenue, “Creating Enterprise Value through Marketing Lessons Learned from Working with leading PE Firms and Scaling their Portfolio Companies.

Team is #1 success factor: how to unlock your team? Culture!

 The closing session struck closest to home given my current work in coaching leaders and optimizing human performance, “7 Steps to Make Culture a Strategic Advantage” led by Delisa Alexander, former Chief People Officer of Red Hat and her former colleague, L.J. Brock, now Chief People Officer at cryptocurrency exchange global leader, Coinbase.

Delisa Alexander, former Chief People Officer of Red Hat, left, and her former colleague, L.J. Brock on stage at the BCVP event.

Learnings from Red Hat and Coinbase

This proven duo, who worked together at Red Hat, making a significant impact on their culture and therefore the company’s success, with IBM attributing a key reason for purchasing Red Hat for $34B was for their uniquely created culture that they would not be able to replicate.

The earlier investor panels universally agreed that people and the team are more important than anything else, including product market fit, in a company’s success equation. And you can unlock the power of your team through your culture.

Just what is Culture?

Delisa and L.J. started out by defining culture: It is the experience you deliver as an employer.  Expectations today are high.  Employees seek a company where they can experience meaning and have the chance to do their best work, where they can have impact as well as have a sense of belonging. They want to be able to earn their success through their work. They need to see the company vision and mission in how the team carries out its work.  They are loyal to an employer who cares about whole person wellbeing.

A team sport….X factor…creating a strategic advantage

You need to demonstrate that your company is a good place to work through your culture.  You also have the opportunity to create a culture that is a strategic advantage.

Culture is a team sport.  How everyone behaves from leadership to the board of directors to influencers defines your culture. Your people systems and processes reinforce the culture you are trying to build.

Delisa and L.J. described the “X Factor” or the external environment in shaping culture. With  Red Hat, the developers in the open source community and with Coinbase, the crypto community.

Coinbase culture. (Image courtesy of Grace Ueng)

In presenting their 7 Step Framework on building a culture, it became apparent that at both Red Hat and Coinbase, the companies codified their cultures into written documents that they talk about and updated on a regular basis.

At Red Hat, Delisa talked of The Red Hat Multiplier, that Jim Whitehurst redlined by hand, adding words so that the document felt authentic to him, as he led the culture. Red Hat’s 5 Themes: Collaborate, Be Transparent, Extend Trust, Promote Inclusive Meritocracy, Connect.

At Coinbase, L.J. talked about how they put together 10 culture tenets.  His CEO, Brian Armstrong holds a biweekly townhall and chooses one of the 10 to go in depth: why he selected, how he is operating, details how he expects them to operate, how he sees the tenet playing out at Coinbase. He ascribes some as aspirational, with the goal of the team to continually get closer to this ideal.

  • Clear communication (direct, succinct, active listening)
  • Efficient execution (20% of work that will get 80% of impact)
  • Act like an owner (run through brick walls)
  • Top talent (each candidate must raise average of the team, actively coach and develop, unremarkable performance gets a generous severance package)
  • Championship team (stronger together, regularly push outside comfort zone, take rest seriously to improve productivity over long term)
  • Continuous learning (value learning over being right, see every setback as opportunity to learn, work hard to understanding the evolving crypto landscape)
  • Customer focus
  • Repeatable innovation (ship idea vs discuss, invest 10% in bets that are uncomfortably ambitious)
  • Positive energy (co-create solutions instead of choosing blame)
  • Mission first (don’t engage in social or political activism unrelated to our mission).

Delisa and L.J.’s 7 step culture framework that you can apply at your company too!

  1. Define the culture you want and need. Be authentic and unique.
  2. Assess the gap: actual versus desired. Encourage radical honesty about the current state of culture. Conduct a broad based study.  Put into place behaviors, processes….From early days, Red Hat had a very differentiated culture.
    They began to realize they were not delivering the experience they wanted. So they asked everyone around the globe – what brought you here, why do you stay? What would you change?

Red Hat learned through their audit that recognition was lacking.

In some cases, they were overusing the tenet of meritocracy and transparency resulting in arguing too much and coming across as rude.

They established overuse and underuse scenarios of each culture tenet which provided helpful guardrails so that they could spend more time in their best day behaviors.

L.J.  emphasized the importance of creating the space (1-on-1 or small group) to provide feedback safely.

  1. Be the Culture.  Hold the highest standards at the highest levels. CEO needs to be Chief Culture Officer on an ongoing basis.
  2. Create Moments that Matter. Wow moments, having fun has an outsized impact on employment experience and creates stickiness. People are what make a sticky environment. What will make them really loyal?  After new employee orientation, each employee at Red Hat receives a red fedora – they are excited for that moment and take pics to post and get tattoos!
  3. Reward People who embody your culture.  Evaluate not only what they contribute but also how they do it. At Coinbase, they recognize those who have embodied their culture the most through a quarterly award.
  4. Honor the red flag.  One person can’t make your culture, but one person can break it.  Cut that person loose and fast! Otherwise they will be a damage multiplier.
  5. Measure, Rinse, Repeat.  Revisit culture doc regularly. Never stops. Vision, mission, values.  The minute you stop curating, you are regressing.

L.J. and Delisa learned this through hindsight.  At Coinbase, they were veering 1% off course every year for many years, resulting in the need for a culture reset.

At Red Hat, it was not until they reached $1B in revenues, that they took an entire year in a process that included everyone to articulate their why/their north star, what has been there all along.  Now that they had it written down, it was much easier to make decisions on the margins.

Delisa recommended that “navel gazing should never stop.”

How would you rate your company on each of the 7 culture steps?

About Grace Ueng

Grace is a strategy consultant,  leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth. Her company offers workshops to move teams forward: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn. Transformative companies hire Grace to deliver her HappinessWorksp program to boost performance. Join her Happiness & Leadership community and learn to be a happier and better leader: click here