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//True North: Does Culture Really Eat Strategy For Breakfast?

True North: Does Culture Really Eat Strategy For Breakfast?

By Linda Alexandra, Chief Culture Officer

Care Deeply – Give Freely – Think Kindly – Act Gently

Essette’s business model was built upon these values, with trust and social responsibility at its heart. Our habits and lifestyles continue to be led by these directives—purposely woven into the fabric of our culture and, at every level, into our day-to-day operations.

So, how did we get here? How did culture become a touchstone for all things Essette? How did my own job as Chief Culture Officer originate and why? To answer those questions, we should first address the (non-chocolate) moose-on-the-table: how Essette software solutions, and our people, serve the highly publicized and highly volatile healthcare industry.

Healthcare Feeding Frenzy: Too Many Jelly Beans

Today’s healthcare market has been flooded with strappy start-ups and venture-backed “unicorns,” who, through a constant churn of acquisitions and re-capitalizations, are easily consumed like a bowl of jelly beans. Industry monoliths—often in need of propping up ancient technology—attempt to remain competitive by gobbling up these new, yet often unproven, healthcare industry entrants. Those who care little about health and, instead, seek only to prop up their investment portfolios, are sometimes reminded of an early childhood lesson: too much candy can lead to indigestion.

In a parallel universe, advertising agencies and marketing gurus are joined by mommy/daddy-bloggers turned SEO experts—all of them touting their ability to optimize and capture clicks on such gold-bearing healthcare industry favorites as “interoperability,” “patient engagement” and “population health.”

Their livelihood, and to some extent, that of the newly formed healthcare behemoths (and their tiny competitors) is dependent on the ability to capitalize on the healthcare frenzy; on their knack for creating campaigns rife with buzzwords and, then, on finding ways to shout over the din of an already over-crowded digital space.

On the Menu: Breakfast Food & Corporate Neanderthals?

While the majority contemplate how healthcare will evolve, some also ponder how best to apply the long-held and often quoted business philosophy attributed to Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Few would argue against the importance of strategy but—either because of neglect, or because of a mistaken belief that culture can be controlled from the top down—some organizational leaders have learned the hard way that culture also has a direct relationship to their bottom line.

In either case, perhaps what they missed was the important business principal that says every organization has a culture—whether it has been formed by accident or, with purpose. Unfortunately, hard lessons have even harder consequences. Regardless of the reason, by not placing the correct emphasis on an organization’s culture, a long, painful process of “re-shaping” entire companies is often the result.

So why, despite research that demonstrates a clear relationship between an organization’s culture and a broad set of business outcomes—including employee attitudes, financial performance, analysts’ stock recommendations and, ultimately, its overall reputation—do companies who boast an intelligent and experienced C-suite seem hesitant to appoint an officer role that is specifically responsible for mapping, measuring, and managing corporate culture?

Clearly, many are most comfortable working with “tangible” plans and balance sheets. They confess that, instead of viewing culture similarly to other corporate resources, it has been relegated to a class considered as “intangible” or “soft stuff.”

Andy Gaudette, Essette’s CEO, supports a contrarian philosophy. “Clearly it requires a different type of vision to architect the complex and dynamic system called culture,” Andy explains. “But we firmly believe that our ability to be good stewards of our resources requires us to be just as deliberate about culture’s impact on the company’s bottom line as we are in measuring accounting functions against GAAP.”

Although Andy’s heard the argument that HR resources can be effective in promoting the wellbeing of the “rank-and-file,” he says the fact that this phrase is even used in today’s business world offers insight into some of the Neanderthal corporate attitudes that still protect vertical silos. His grin becomes more serious as he relates, “Little do they understand. The ‘soft stuff’ is really the ‘hard stuff.’ It’s much more than the day-to-day mechanics involved in whether someone has taken PTO or not. It’s a matter of having someone dedicated to carving out a company-wide vision.”

Essette’s Recipe for Success

Essette builds kick-ass software. In fact, our population health management solutions were designed to seamlessly integrate with other best-of-breed technology way before “interoperability” was even a blip on a marketer’s analytics dashboard. Although the company does place great value in marketing, we don’t rely on talking heads to deliver our message, or to carve out Essette’s cultural cornerstone.

Which is where I come in. Like a Master Chef at a five-star restaurant, as Essette’s CCO, I make sure Essette’s positive vibe is baked into everything we do. Essette relies on me, along with its self-described geeks and “code-monkeys” and all of the other great people who work alongside of us, to truly elevate its cultural ideals. As a result, we focus more on action and less on messaging.

Why? Because although success in any high-tech industry relies on a company’s ability to be agile enough to implement scalable processes and systems, we have always assigned a high value on protecting the humanity of our company. To this day, our open-door policy means leadership takes time to listen and, in the process, to continually check the pulse of Essette’s staff.

We never assumed our company’s culture would thrive if left on auto-pilot. Instead, we seek fun and meaningful ways to encourage and engage the Team, as encouraged by our CEO, Andy Gaudette, who, in a New Year’s email to the entire company, challenged us to become “the coolest company ever.”

The Secret Sauce: ‘True North’

Andy’s vision for developing Essette’s unique culture was ultimately labeled as the company’s “True North”—a phrase also associated with his love of sailing.

As the company expanded, Andy quickly realized the importance of having a teammate who could also articulate Essette’s vision and values, not only to internal audiences, but in a consistent, unified message that would support Essette’s image and brand to all our constituents.

So, in 2015, Andy and other members of Essette’s Board ventured into unchartered waters.  They approved my appointment as the company’s first Chief Culture Officer (CCO).

From the beginning, Andy’s ability to ignore naysayers and courageously pair the strengths of our team with the needs of our company has been foundational to Essette’s success. Essette and our clients have repeatedly benefited from Andy’s thought leadership.

In this instance, his decisions proved to be no exception, since Essette staff and clients continue to embrace the honesty and values we bring to the table. The result? Many consider Essette’s culture to be one of our most valuable assets.

More than Espresso Machines or Beer in the Fridge on Fridays: Andy Gaudette, CEO – Unplugged

“Although, initially—and, sometimes even now—we find we have to defend the CCO title, Linda was the obvious choice for the role. Already a key member of our executive team, she had worked tirelessly to help lay Essette’s cultural foundation. From the beginning of her career here, she has been a dedicated and respected counterpart who always finds creative ways to ensure everyone is on the same visionary page. It was a natural fit.”

“Most often, other corporate members who still embrace a more hierarchal, top-down structure are the ones who are slowest to understand the value of the CCO title and its responsibilities.”

Andy laughingly quips, “But we weren’t interested in creating a superfluous position. We’ve seen plenty of those over the years, including one created by a business associate whose staff member donned the title of, ‘Chief Get S*#t Done Officer!’.”

“I don’t get it. Titles really aren’t that important around here. In fact, it’s only been in the past couple of years that we’ve even printed titles on our business cards. But we do recognize their importance to others, so we do our best to make them meaningful.”

Essette’s Competitive Differentiator: The Proof is in the Pudding

“In contrast, you just have to walk into our offices and, BAM! It hits you: our vibrant culture is something that is extremely palpable,” Andy continues. “I mean, it’s even apparent to first time visitors—in a good way. Unlike companies who celebrate irreverent or ego-boosting titles, Essette celebrates a collective culture where team building has been key. Key to our ability to have fun, and key to our success.”

Although Andy acknowledges the fact that CCO is a relatively new title that is still sometimes questioned by other organizations employing a C-Suite, he believes the role is every bit as important as having a CFO who is required to be accountable for an organization’s financial stewardship.

“There is no doubt in my mind that there is a strong connection between employee engagement, customer loyalty and profitability. Linda is our cultural evangelist, organizer, mobilizer and visionary. She makes sure that, in addition to marketing our software, we ‘sell’ our culture.”

Andy ardently adds, “Sure. It might be difficult to explain the role sometimes, but everyone at Essette benefits and no one around here questions its validity. The team-of-team approach that Linda has envisioned is a key factor to what makes Essette stand out in the healthcare technology market. I would venture to say it would be true in any market.”

“In our case, clients and, potential clients have been quick to confirm the difference, even in the sales process. In fact, I just participated in a call with our Business Development Team who again related ways in which Essette’s unique approach to culture impacts all areas of our business model—including our ability to win sales. Which in turn, of course, greatly impacts our ‘bottom line.’  In my mind, this is one of the best endorsements we can get. Undoubtedly, Essette’s culture has become a competitive differentiator.”

He winks, “And, that, my friends, is really all the proof we need.”