June 2, 2022


Some people say that “culture” is a made up idea. Or that it's ambiguous and subjective.

I disagree.

Anyone who’s been involved with different organizations over their life knows that some environments inspire the best in them… and others less so.

I don’t pretend to be a management guru, who can tell you the 5 steps to building a successful culture at your organization.

But I do want to share three important things I’ve learned about “culture” in my over two decades building Alliance:

  1. A great company culture is one of the most powerful and enduring competitive advantages a company can have
  2. If you are the leader, you set the culture… you are not above the culture
  3. Hiring (and keeping) the right people is more important to culture than any motivation speech, employee perk or happy hour

Culture is about how people treat each other and their work.

In a company with a great culture, team members are regularly improving themselves and finding ways to improve the business. Growth is part of the mentality, and so is respect. It takes years of careful work, hiring, integrating, and retaining the right people.

To get to this point (and stay there) takes constant intentionality about maintaining the culture. Any false notes from leadership, such as treating employees disrespectfully, will have consequences.

What does it take to get the basics of hiring right? It is always tempting to hire for proven skills and immediate impact. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is a danger that the candidate with great experience won’t grow much, and won’t actively contribute to team culture.

When it comes to creating a great culture, hiring for potential and a good attitude matters more than experience. It’s much easier to teach somebody with a growth mindset how to do new things than it is to teach an experienced professional how to do things differently, or improve her mindset.

At Alliance, we are always trying to hire people who will fit. We’re actively looking for people who are in it for personal growth, and to help their colleagues grow too. We want a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, rather than transactional workers who just want to do a narrowly defined job and cash their checks.

Qualifications still matter, but there are usually plenty of candidates who meet the basic requirements. Qualifications reflect where somebody is right now. What matters more is where the candidate is likely to go in the future. What is their growth path, and do their growth goals align with the company’s?

Culture may be hard to define, but it drives real results over time. In business, it’s the difference between workers who go the extra mile and come up with creative solutions, vs those who focus on the minimum expectations.

The difference can also be seen in sports, where winners and losers are unambiguous. Why do some sports franchises spend huge sums of money to recruit the very best superstars, and still fail to win championships? Why do other teams regularly spend less money while also getting better results?

I think the answer, mostly, is culture. Organizations that are better at building team cohesion have a huge advantage. And while we have to be clear-eyed about people’s current capabilities, finding high-potential people and encouraging their growth is a better way.

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