A conversation with Bretton Putter, Founder and CEO of CultureGene; Author of ‘’Culture Decks Decoded’, ‘Own Your Culture’Company culture pre and post COVID A conversation with Bretton Putter, Founder and CEO of CultureGene; Author of ‘’Culture Decks Decoded’, ‘Own Your Culture’

The sixth episode of Health Tech for Businesses is a conversation between Bretton Putter, Founder and CEO of CultureGene and Gopika Sampat, DocHQ Marketing and Operations Lead, about the importance of company culture and how company leaders can develop it effectively.

An edited transcript of the podcast follows. For more such conversations, subscribe to the series on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Gopika Sampat : Hello to everyone from DocHQ. I’m Gopika and welcome to our podcast, ‘Health Tech For Businesses’. Here we will be talking to experts about several interesting topics, from AI and data privacy to health equity and digital health solutions for businesses. In our sixth episode today, we will be discussing company culture. We will be focusing on the relevance of company culture during COVID and the one thing that people have a love hate relationship with today – remote working. And so to discuss with us today, we have with us Bretton Putter. He is the founder and CEO of CultureGene, a culture development platform that helps companies to transition effectively to remote work. And he has worked with founders and CEOs of several successful high growth startups and companies to understand and advise them about their company culture. He published a book called ‘Culture Decks Decoded’ last year and is soon launching his new book called ‘Own Your Culture’. Brett also has had extensive experience as the managing partner of an executive search firm, where he successfully completed VP Director and senior management level searches for companies in the UK, US and across EMEA. So you may be wondering how we are going to spend the next 25 to 30 minutes talking about company culture, well Brett here is clearly the startup and high growth company culture guru. And he’s here to tell us how there is a lot to company culture that companies don’t necessarily see. So it’s my absolute pleasure to have you here, Brett, and thank you for joining us today. How are you doing?

Bretton Putter : Gopika, really great to join you. Thanks for having me on the podcast. I’m doing well, thanks. It’s a busy period now, with the book launch coming up, but I’m not complaining.

Gopika Sampat : Great. So first off Brett, I absolutely love the idea and the concept behind CultureGene, but so that our listeners can understand more about the company, can you briefly tell us what is it about and what was the vision behind starting CultureGene?

Bretton Putter : Yeah, so as you mentioned, I ran an executive search firm for 16 years. And actually, towards the end of that period, I was lucky enough to work with three companies that had a very clear understanding of their culture. And they asked me specifically to find candidates who had the right skills, the right experience, and the right match with their values. That made the search harder because finding people is hard enough. Now finding a values match was difficult. But once we overcame that challenge, we realized that actually, the outcomes were so much better, both in terms of the process in terms of the interviews, and then the results ongoing from that. And this is where the penny dropped for me because these leaders had a very good understanding of their culture, which made the difference. And that was the genesis of me wanting to understand more about company culture. So I then started interviewing CEOs, I started researching the landscape of company culture, and formed CultureGene as a means to fulfill my vision, which is to help millions of people have better lives through working at companies that have great cultures and strong cultures. And so my vision is to change the culture of business globally. So it’s not a small vision, but I’m going to be doing it for the rest of my life. And essentially, what CultureGene does is work with high growth companies and startup early stage companies to help define, embed and manage their culture. So we’ve got a program that we run with these companies to help these companies end up with a strong functional, manageable culture.

Gopika Sampat : Right, but Brett, tell me something, what is company culture really? I’m sure many people ask you the same question, but we all want to know how would you define it? And what did you think was so important about it that companies didn’t necessarily understand?

Bretton Putter : That is a great question. When I was interviewing, looking for interviews for my blog, I found that only one in 10 companies had invested in their culture. So in order to speak to 50 plus leaders, I actually had to find these 50 companies that had strong functional cultures and eventually ended up speaking to 500 companies to find 50 which took a long time and it was a quite a challenge. My definition of company culture is – the way we do things around here. And so company culture is largely invisible, subconscious and intangible. It happens below the surface. And the leader’s job is to bring it above the surface, to make it visible, conscious and tangible. And to be able to get a grip on what it is about behaviors, the norms, habits, rituals, processes, procedures and policies, communication styles, vision, mission and values, all of these things, what is it that we do around here? And what is it that we’re going to reward and recognize, what are we going to measure and control about our culture. So part of the process of what I take companies through is defining what it means to be at the company, what the vision is, what the mission is, what the values are, and what the behaviors are that we expect in this company.

Gopika Sampat : And speaking of behavioral changes and changes within the company, right, like within COVID itself, it has obviously brought a lot of changes within the way companies work, and also the way CEOs operate. For example, you know, many companies are exploring remote working models and hybrid working models. And you’ve also covered these in your book, ‘Own Your Culture’. How do you implement these effectively within a company, especially those companies that necessarily didn’t have a remote working culture? And how can you still ensure productivity, for example, is one model better than the other?

Bretton Putter : Yes and no. Actually, at the moment, I think we’re in a in a phase of ‘false productivity’, this COVID pandemic is not allowing us to travel, to visit our friends, family, to have a good time to exercise. So we’re actually under a form of anxiety and stress. And having a job is actually a privilege at the moment. And being able to work the hours that you would normally be doing other things means that we are being super productive. And I think this is a false sense of productivity, frankly. And eventually, when the environment opens up, or when people burn out, start to experience mental health issues that can happen when working too much under the strain. So I don’t think there is a better between the two because there’s a reality – if you enjoy remote working, and all of the people in your business are comfortable with remote working, then I think remote is absolutely the best case scenario but if you’re going to go hybrid, you have to still utilize remote first principles of work. And the reason for that is you will always have people who are working remotely. And those people need to be able to work in a seamless, remote fashion. And there are many, many challenges that come up with hybrid work – that people outside the office working remotely are not included in the communication, don’t experience the culture in the same way, don’t experience work, they don’t have the banter, they don’t have the chat, they don’t have the synchronous communication. And often the remote people can feel like second class citizens, because they’re not included. And that wasn’t that much of an issue in the past, because there weren’t that many remote companies to go and join. But actually now more people realize that they want to work remotely. And there are now a lot more fully remote companies being built. If your team is feeling like second class citizens, they’re going to end up joining a fully remote organization because that’s where they want to be. They’d rather not feel this dislocation with the team that have a much better cultural experience. So my recommendation is, if you are going to be remote, then build the remote first practices. And if you’re going to be hybrid, build on remote first practices. And I’ve done some research on this, in terms of what you can do around this. But that’s really the answer to this. I believe that you have to build a remote first capability in both cases.

Gopika Sampat : But is there a best practice or a way to sort of build this? Or is it easier said than done?

Bretton Putter : It’s a challenge, it’s not easy. If you look at companies like Buffer, they’ve been doing it for five years, they still have issues with communication and collaboration, with loneliness, with people feeling stressed, but a new way of working for the majority of companies. And the new challenges are still going to come down the road, such as loneliness, collaboration, etc. Social connection is breaking down. We’re currently running our businesses on the culture we built pre COVID. And that culture was either deliberate or not by default. But that culture is actually slowly but surely weakening the glue and the bonds between the people are weakening. And the glue weakened significantly when you start employing new people who don’t understand the culture and who don’t know the culture because it hasn’t been defined and documented. So I think this is an area that requires a lot of work. There are nine best practices that my research has found. Companies like GitLab and Buffer focus very very hard on processising the business, documentation, communication. And these words are all words that you may say no, but we did that in our office, we did that. But actually, that’s not the case, they go to a whole new level of deliberate focus and intent around all these nine remote work best practices that I’ve found.

Gopika Sampat : Right, sort of built in the very fabric of the company itself.

Bretton Putter : It has to be, because as leaders, unfortunately most of us were lazy, in the past. We actually could rely on our office, the actual four walls to build, maintain and drive our culture. We didn’t have to do too much, because it kind of just happened. And now we’re in a situation where that’s completely obliterated. And people are working from home, and they’re experiencing culture differently. And the culture is slowly but surely being whittled away. So we now have to be much more intentional around building a remote or a hybrid culture.

Gopika Sampat : Moving on to CEOs, I know that you’ve done a lot of research on CEOs and the different approaches that they take when it comes to company culture. How are you seeing this play out in the context of COVID? Can we say that companies that successfully dealt with the crisis had a particular type of CEO?

Bretton Putter : I don’t think they had a particular type of CEO, because success is still in the making or failure is still in the making, we’re still in the learning to walk phase, we’re not sure if we can run yet. And we’re learning to deal with this process. I can tell you the one CEO that is really, really struggling right now and has a high probability of failure. And that is the control freak CEO, the micromanaging CEO. They find this very, very difficult because they can’t see their people and they can’t control them as much as they thought they could. And that means that they over communicate, they want to know, they want people to be available synchronously. They want more, and then their people work harder to try and demonstrate to their CEO and that then ends up in burnout, and mental health issues and all sorts of things that are coming down the line. So the one CEO that is almost guaranteed to failure is the one that doesn’t transition from a micromanagement mindset to, okay, I trust my people to deliver outcomes. They are all adults, some of them may need a little bit more mentoring and a little bit support, but I trust them to deliver on outcomes. And the other CEOs who are more flexible, and actually the CEOs who invested in culture previously, are having a much easier transition. I actually had a conversation with one of the leaders that I’ve interviewed for my book, a guy named Petty Morgan from my area. And he was saying to me, it’s not been easy. But he believes that his culture, those foundations have been the bedrock of this transition. And they are mimicking elements of their culture that they were experiencing previously in an office-based environment, they are mimicking a lot of them in this remote environment, but they’re also adapting.

Gopika Sampat : Given all this, do you think in this time, company’s culture is one of the most powerful sources of its competitive advantage? And can you give us some examples of companies that you’ve seen during your research, you know, startups and big corporates that leveraged this well?

Bretton Putter : Yeah, so David Cummings, who’s going to be joining me at my book launch on the 30th of September, the reason why I asked him to join me, as one of the panelists with Darren Murph from GitLab is because David actually coined the phrase ‘company culture is the one sustainable competitive advantage that an entrepreneur has complete control over’. And so your company culture was a competitive advantage if you used it pre COVID, but now it is a massive, massive competitive advantage. And actually, a really good example of this on the large scale on the sort of tanker size company scale is Microsoft. Satya Nadella has done an incredible job since he was made CEO of transitioning the culture. And you can see that they are using their culture really effectively in this COVID environment. You know, they’re being very circumspect. They are not making too many decisions too quickly, they are waiting to see how the land lies. But you can see the communication around this is very much in line with the culture communication pre COVID. Another great example – I was catching up with Bernhard Niesner of busuu. They are in the fortunate position to be in you know, education and digital learning. Edtech has exploded and he has said, this is the busiest time they’ve ever had. The work that they did on their culture previously has been really helpful in keeping the team together, keeping the team close and having that focus on the mission, having the focus on the vision and having the values to fall back on. ‘Are we living the values? How are we doing on these values?’ Those are two great examples of companies that pre COVID were working, investing heavily on their culture. And it’s paying dividends now.

Gopika Sampat : And a bit of a controversial question, maybe – do you have any examples of companies that could have possibly done better?

Bretton Putter : Uhmm most? 🙂 Yes, I think that technology companies generally will do better than other sectors. Because technology companies are agile, especially startups are used to chaos. So I think they have a potential to come out of this better than other companies in other sectors that weren’t technology driven, and weren’t as agile. But I would say that, you know, we’re all struggling, and all leaders are struggling, some more than others. And I think that some more than others are more from that command and control environment, where, you know, middle managers have to learn to become coaches and mentors, and facilitators, rather than telling people what to do, because you can’t. So I think there aren’t particular companies that I would highlight, because it’s more general than that.

Gopika Sampat : And it should be more of a collaborative approach as well, at the end of the day.

Bretton Putter : Exactly.

Gopika Sampat : So Brett to close this discussion, do you think COVID-19 has now changed the definition of company culture? Are we going to be looking at this very differently from now on?

Bretton Putter : I don’t think this pandemic has changed the definition of culture. But I do think this pandemic has highlighted the importance of culture. Actually, I was speaking to one of my clients, I was speaking to the COO, a couple of weeks ago. And she said to me, her CEO, thought culture was important pre COVID. But it was probably in his top seven. And it would move in and out of that top seven, depending on various levels of chaos, and firefighting, and, etc, etc, that happens in a high growth startup that’s raised 20 plus million, and needs to hire a lot of people. And she said to me, it’s now in his top three, all the time. It’s really his focus. And I think this is what’s happening across the board, because culture is the glue, if you aren’t communicating effectively, you’re not driving your business. If you aren’t documenting effectively, you’re not you know, and all of these changes of culture, changes of the way we do things around here are happening so rapidly, that you really just have to get your handle on your company culture.

Gopika Sampat : That is a fitting end Brett, thank you so much for joining us today. And for showing how much a company’s culture can contribute to the success of the company. This is something that usually people draft on paper, and just leave it at that. But there is so much more to it. And it’s great to see the work that you are doing and CultureGene is doing in that respect. So do you have any ending comments that you would like to add?

Bretton Putter : No, I think it’s really been great joining you on the podcast today. And I’m looking forward to working with you and your team later on in the year. If people want to find me, they can find me on https://www.culturegene.ai/ and my email is brett@culturegene.ai. And yeah, thanks very much for having me and stay safe.

Gopika Sampat :You too, thank you so much.