Confessions of a Culture Geek

Amy Pooser joined Jonathan Bush and Todd Park as the 8th employee of athenahealth, where she served as Vice President of People and Process. During her ten years with Athena, Amy led all human capital functions, including scaling the company and culture from those initial 8 employees up to 580 at the time of athena’s IPO in 2007. She successfully developed the post-IPO culture strategy to mitigate against brain drain and cultural incoherence. Amy is a certified executive coach, strategist, board member, search professional; the founder of New Fashioned, a board member of ProductLab, and a Principal at Oxeon. I left Amherst convinced that I would either become a lawyer or a professor. Little did I know what fate would have in store for me. I consider myself fortunate that I never became a lawyer and even more fortunate that I was able to interact with some great professors when it comes to company leadership, culture and organizational development. As I sit today, a leader inside of Oxeon Partners, I continue to see many of those lessons as worth sharing, which I will do, from time to time, in the pages of FWIW.

My second job out of college was as the 8th employee of athenahealth. Still a practice management company, we owned and operated practices and delivered better care and better prices, often to underserved populations. I was in heaven, sometimes hearing the cries of newborn babies as I sat in the office, revising the policy manual or typing up employment agreements.

I’ll never forget the day that I called into the office from vacation and was told that we were now a software company. I cut my European tour short and appeared in our Waltham office where our CEO, Jonathan Bush, uttered his infamous “great news” as soon as he saw me. “Great news! We have to build a software and service company, and I want you to be my head of HR.” “Great news?” My face twisted into an arrogant and immature sneer, and I uttered words that I will forever laugh at: “HR? I studied political science and Buddhist philosophy at Amherst. I read Foucault for entertainment. Are you kidding me?” After further conversation and a mandate to become VP of People and Process, and overwhelmed by exhaustion, opportunity, the appeal of a path, Jonathan’s incredible vision, and the glimmer of truth that I could make something really important, I assented. It’s not the way most people make career decisions, but I’ve always been a believer in serendipity.

Soon, I was working 15-hour days and every weekend. I screened thousands of resumes each week and spent each weekend writing performance reviews. I appraised everyone in the company in order to take the weight off managers; ever the perfectionist and driven by the desire to deliver real insight (foreshadowing my passion for executive coaching), each review was like a thesis to me. Every day, I came up against more of my own weaknesses than I could count. I referred to athena as my “crucible of self improvement”. So many mistakes, big and small.

Hiring mistakes cost us, including the unrelenting quest for “healthcare experience.” Early on, we were so scared of what we didn’t know that we searched for those who would save us from our own ignorance. Some painful lessons taught us that healthcare experience cuts both ways, as did our search for experience more broadly. On the one hand, in certain situations, experience was like manna from heaven. But it was when we looked outside of healthcare that we identified executives who often changed the game for us. I remember a particular executive who had incredible experience in high-volume transactions processing. He created a level of service rigor and discipline that was essential to our scalability. In that case, experience - non-healthcare - saved us as we struggled to keep pace with our extraordinary growth.

As an employee, consultant, executive recruiter and Board member, I have been fortunate to work with a number of CEOs at companies including athena, Ora, CodeRyte, ABILITYNetwork, PropellerHealth, Recondo, Iora, Product Lab and Oxeon. Along the way, I have learned and am continuing to learn many professional and personal lessons – some of the most important learning in my life. Professionally, I continue to receive the equivalent of a doctorate-level education in vision, strategy, culture, and leadership. I’m not sure I would pass my defense, but through a lot of hard work, some real success, and no small amount of failure, I have learned a thing or two, and am working on a third and a fourth. What follows is my shot at distilling some of my learning – focusing today on a few lessons on vision, strategy and culture as a source of competitive advantage – into a few paragraphs. A caveat: All of these thoughts and recollections are my own, may have been ravaged by the vagaries of memory and individual perception, and have neither been reviewed nor endorsed.

STAY WITH YOUR VISION AND STRATEGY – At an off-site on Cape Cod in 1999, when the company had less than 20 people, athena’s executive team (ok, Jonathan) laid out a vision that the company continues to adhere to, today. Through growth and challenges, the athena team has made adjustments, but the strategy is still largely the same as it was 15 years ago. That takes real commitment, focus, and courage. It takes the willingness to listen to customers and clients and an unfaltering belief that what both groups want and need are not always the same thing. At athena, we fondly and often quoted Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, ‘A faster horse.’”

Not all leaders have the commitment to their own vision to stay the course. It’s hard to say no when fundraising or a crucial client relationship hangs in the balance. At Oxeon, we turn away three out of every four searches that are offered to the firm; we could triple our revenue immediately but the team is committed to doing a select number of elite recruiting assignments for companies and CEOs that we believe in, only in cases where we know we can deliver exceptional results. I’m fairly new to Oxeon, but it is clear that despite being a young company facing brass tacks financial reality, Trevor and team remain committed to the core vision of their culture and people. At both athena and Oxeon, though we adjusted tactics, altered process and scaled operations, the strategy — when and where to fight — remained largely the same.

CULTURE IS A SOURCE OF COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE – At a number of the companies I’ve been affiliated with, there was an underlying assumption that the culture was the most valuable strategic asset. There’s a lot of academic theory (the resource-based view) behind this statement, but essentially, culture is a differentiator because it’s not replicable. It is the sum total of all of the people, process, policy. Created intentionally, with a view toward the organization’s mission/vision and real business goals, it can result in true greatness, as measured by financial returns, among other things. Untended, quite the opposite can happen because every organization has a culture, it is a matter of whether it is intentionally cultivated to support business outcomes.

In a number of cases, I’ve been hired to fortify or remake an organizational culture. In 2008, Andy Kapit, CodeRyte’s CEO, hired me to help his executive team come together, get clear on their cultural values, and create more interpersonal alignment. We did this work during an action-packed few days in the Shenandoah National Forest. There were silly ice-breakers (two truths and a lie), good food, a bonfire, deep debate, sub-par accomodations - which we justified as getting us out of our comfort zone and creating the necessary psychic distance for true innovation to occur. Through the honest commitment of all involved parties, we left more clear and committed than when we started. That cultural clarity and leadership alignment was the foundation for important work that the team did then and beyond.

Off-sites often seem to be inflection points for a culture. At one of athena’s earlier executive team retreats on the island of Northaven in Maine, we were hunkered down in the living room, slogging through an early morning culture diagnostic, and we were grappling with some senior team turnover, trying to unearth its significance for our culture: which underlying assumptions did we need to kill? Which did we need to create? We looked at the flip chart, which said things like, “Innovation is king,” and we realized that our culture was missing the executional orientation that we needed. A look at the Myers-Briggs type chart for our entire leadership team showed what we already knew: we were all conceptualizing extroverts. And, if you had attended any executive team meeting between 1997 and 2005, you would have seen ample evidence of this orientation. We loved broad and deep thought. At best, the intellectual alchemy resulted in some great decision-making, and at worst, navel-gazing. Jonathan looked at that type chart and bottom-lined it brilliantly: “This company needs more freakin ‘I and S.” He meant that we needed more introverted, executional mavens. I led the effort to turn that intellectual insight into a new cultural reality. We made a push to re-orient hiring for a number of positions to favor execution excellence. Jim MacDonald arrived a few months later as COO, and the executive team’s orientation changed dramatically. Yes, “big think” was still valued, and we continued to revere innovation. At the same time, Jim grounded us in a level of brass tacks operational execution that helped us to scale and be ready for IPO in 2007.

Flash forward, ten years later to this summer’s Oxeon off-site. I delighted watching the passion, intelligence and commitment of my fellow team-members as they dug into the reasons for their success, the definition of the company’s value proposition and their goals for the future: collective and individual. Not a single person at the offsite had a long career in retained search, but all of them knew that they were doing something rare. It wasn’t lost on me that Oxeon was special indeed. It is a small and seemingly silly example, but considered on a deeper level, reveals the courage, commitment, authenticity and no small measure of fun that is central to Oxeon’s culture. After a big company dinner involving a bit of wine (of course, just for the purposes of toasting), we broke out an iPod and headphones for everyone in the company and played “Silent Karaoke.” For the uninitiated: you listen to music on your headphones, but sing the song out loud, with no musical accompaniment. There is no hiding in Silent Karaoke. Our CEO modeled the way, singing “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. Though different than athena or CodeRyte, Oxeon has its own business-outcome-enabling culture. Like athena, the energy when you walk into our offices in Chelsea is palpable. And though there is not a scientific way of measuring it, it is a source of competitive advantage and does accrue to the bottom line.

At this point, I need to make a confession, though it must be completely obvious by now: I am a culture geek. To this day, I remember where I was the first time I read Edgar Schein’s seminal work on organizational culture and leadership. Despite tremendous energy, passion, good intention, and a bit of brains, I haven’t always nailed it. These high growth companies have caused me to bump up against my own weaknesses. As a defensive perfectionist with missionary zeal, I have sometimes had a hard time listening to alternate views. I have been dogmatic now and again. Still, I would rather be someone who works at it and sometimes stumbles, than takes it for granted. I have abiding respect for the leaders and organizations that push past their foibles, struggle to get it right, and as the result, most often do.

LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP – Leadership is a hearts and minds campaign. I have spent many a wee hour, gloaming, and late night thinking about good leadership. I agree that the qualities of humility and fierce resolve described in Jim Collins’s “Level 5 Leadership” are essential, as is a vision, clearly articulated strategy, and the will to stick to it. I’ve been lucky to collaborate with some amazing leaders who have demonstrated humility, fierce resolve and more. In talking with some alumnae of various organizations of which I’ve been a part, we all agreed that great companies and leaders were differentiated by soul. There is a living, breathing quality to these organizations. I’ve never encountered a single visitor to either athena or Oxeon who failed to comment on their energy and vitality. I don’t think that buzz is exclusively generated from having the best and brightest people, the most brilliant strategy, or high-flying stock, though all those things are true and are related.

The differentiator is that these types of companies are rife with humanity. They have heart. The most compelling leaders model a rare kind of vulnerability that creates safety and permission, I have seen this over and over again. It invites teams to be their authentic selves and contribute in meaningful ways. When vulnerability is allowed and authenticity is encouraged, alchemy happens and resonance builds. People work harder and do better, and a virtuous circle begins to swirl. This is the true key for creating organizational greatness. Really good organizations are often perfect in their imperfection – and believe me, I have seen plenty of that. But when I think about athena, Oxeon, CodeRyte, APS, Product Lab and others of which I’ve been a part, I am reminded of a Kerouac quote that a client recently sent to me:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

I believe that unique passion is the key: the secret ingredient that unlocks and multiplies the power of great vision, strong strategy, intentional organizational culture and strong leadership to create true organizational greatness.