Culture = Competitive Advantage

I came across this picture from a “corporate culture” article written by MIT Sloan Management Review, a reputable source of management research.

Do you know the first thing I did when I saw it…before even reading the article? You guessed it, I counted the balance of female (3) vs. male (9) in the graphic and immediately concluded that it was not only missing the mark on gender, but diversity in general!!!! Why did I do that? Well, every CEO needs to understand what people diversity does for their business…and people power in general.

I think it’s appropriate to talk about the MOST IMPORTANT THING in business, leading with this graphic. People power is truly your biggest competitive advantage.

I was CEO of identity security company, Janrain, now the Akamai Identity Cloud, from April 2016 to February 2019….and when I would meet with prospect clients, they would always ask,

“So Jim, what’s your key differentiation compared to your peers in the identity industry?”

OMG, I loved to answer this question. I would get this big smile across my face as I paused for effect, and then say,

“Hands down, our people.”

I loved my staff.

I’ve really struggled to write this blog entry (it’s been since February, 2019 post-acquisition), because I didn’t know where to start. There’s so much to play forward for those interested in how to build true people power…true competitive differentiation with culture.

Anyone who knows me, knows that the people part of the business is what DRIVES me. I feel that I have so much to talk about…and, frankly, feel a little overwhelmed trying to summarize my playbooks in culture. Then I realized that I just needed to start…put some of my philosophy out there. So here we go…

Paint the Culture Picture

If you painted the future state of your business, what would a great culture look like? If you think you already have it, what comes to mind first?

My answer started with the level of energy in the office. The picture with a surfboard was my standing desk out in the middle of a large open area at headquarters in Portland Oregon. The surfboard is mine – it’s one of my favorites. The words written on the surfboard were our company values.

When I first walked the halls, the floors, the closed offices of Janrain back in early 2016, I saw a culture that needed to be supercharged. Moving to a new headquarters was important, but it was one of many changes we went through. You can get a feel of the energy in this corporate video.

That being said, the true painted picture for me is the extent to which employees “skip into the office”, “love who they work with”, “how much they are truly enjoying the impact they are creating”.

Here are the Glassdoor statistics as of February, 2019 (right after Akamai acquired Janrain) compared to our leading peers in the industry. This is one external measure of cultural power:

CompanyCompany Ranking (out of 5)Company ApprovalCEO Approval
Janrain4.593%95%
Ping4.380%95%
Okta4.179%96%
ForgeRock4.066%74%
Gigya/SAP3.966%85%

Give your Staff a Voice

I think our high Glassdoor ratings were fueled by this very point – give your staff a voice.

Who doesn’t want to offer their opinion on how to improve things, how to innovate, how to create positive change? And most importantly, good or bad, everyone wants to be heard.

Are you the type of person who walks into their office and closes the door, or are you one that essentially doesn’t have an office (aka open floor format)? Do you make it a point to visit with your staff?

Here are a few things I did to help put the megaphone in the hands of my staff:

  1. Monthly all-hands meetings – present employee sat and speak to the challenges
  2. Weekly anonymous feedback – see TinyPulse
  3. Skip levels every week – I met with 100 people within the first year of taking over Janrain and that was while being on the road 2 weeks out of each month (do the math).
  4. Random appreciation notes to staff – I loved putting sticky notes on people’s desks, and writing thank you cards.
  5. Company events pulling in family, friends, and candidate employees every month.
  6. Embrace an “open door” policy (that means face-to-face, cell phone, slack, etc….weekday or weekend).
  7. Act on employee issues (this requires you to literally implement one thing from each skip-level).
  8. Host manager luncheons – solicit ideas from people managers. They are on the ground day to day.
  9. HR Steering Committee – this is a monthly meeting where your VP of People hosts a senior team talk about the health of the staff.

Ok, that’s my first pass. More to come. By the way, I would have used the following graphic at the MIT Sloan Management Review.

Jim Kaskade

Jim Kaskade is a serial entrepreneur & enterprise software executive of over 35 years. He recently successfully exited a PE-backed SaaS company, Janrain, in the digital identity security space. He started his career engineering massively parallel processing datacenter applications. Prior to identity, he led a digital application business of over 7,000 people ($1B). Prior to that he led a big data & analytics business of over 1,000 ($250M). He was the CEO of a Big Data Cloud company ($50M); was an EIR at PARC (the Bell Labs of Silicon Valley) which resulted in a spinout of an AML AI company; led two separate private cloud software startups; founded of one of the most advanced digital video SaaS companies delivering online and wireless solutions to over 10,000 enterprises; and was involved with three semiconductor startups (two of which he founded, one of which he sold). Jim has an Electrical and Computer Science Engineering degree from University of California, Santa Barbara, with an emphasis in semiconductor design and computer science; and an MBA from the University of San Diego with an emphasis in entrepreneurship and finance.

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