Nov 012012

Job 1

Job 1

The first “new” post in my series of posts about Return Path’s 14 Core Values is, fittingly,

Job 1:  We are all responsible for championing and extending our unique culture as a competitive advantage.

The single most frequently asked question I have gotten internally over the last few years since we grew quickly from 100 employees to 350 has been some variant of “Are you worried about our ability to scale our culture as we hire in so many new people?”  This value is the answer to that question, though the short answer is “no.”

I am not solely responsible for our culture at Return Path. I’m not sure I ever was, even when we were small.  Neither is Angela, our SVP of People.  That said, it was certainly true that I was the main architect and driver of our culture in the really early years of the company’s life.  And I’d add that even up to an employee base of about 100 people, I and a small group of senior or tenured people really shouldered most of the burden of defining and driving and enforcing our culture and values.

But as the business has grown, the amount of responsibility that I and those few others have for the culture has shrunk as a percentage of the total.  It had to, by definition.  And that’s the place where cultures either scale or fall apart.  Companies who are completely dependent on their founder or a small group of old-timers to drive their cultures can’t possibly scale their cultures as their businesses grow.  Five people can be hands on with 100.  Five people can’t be hands on with 500.  The way we’ve been able to scale is that everyone at the company has taken up the mantle of protecting, defending, championing, and extending the culture.  Now we all train new employees in “The RP Way.”  We all call each other out when we fail to live up to our values.  And the result is that we have done a great job of scaling our culture with our business.

I’d also note that there are elements of our culture which have changed or evolved over the last few years as we’ve grown.  That isn’t a bad thing, as I tell old-timers all the time.  If our products stayed the same, we’d be dead in the market.  If our messaging stayed the same, we’d never sell to a new cohort of clients.  If our values stayed the same, we’d be out of step with our own reality.

Finally, this value also folds in another important concept, which is Culture as Competitive Advantage.  In an intellectual capital business like ours (or any on the internet), your business is only as good as your people.  We believe that a great culture brings in the best people, fosters an environment where they can work at the top of their games even as they grow and broaden their skills, increases the productivity and creativity of the organization’s output through high levels of collaboration, and therefore drives the best performance on a sustained basis.  This doesn’t have to be Return Path’s culture or mean that you have to live by our values.  This could be your culture and your values.  You just have to believe that those things drive your success.

Not a believer yet?  Last year, we had voluntary turnover of less than 1%.  We promoted or gave new assignments to 15% of our employees.  And almost 50% of our new hires were referred by existing employees.  Those are some very, very healthy employee metrics that lead directly to competitive advantage.  As does our really exciting announcement last week of being #11 in the mid-sized company on Fortune Magazine’s list of the best companies to work for.

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