Chris Curran: Growth Igniters Radio, Episode 39 − The CEO As Chief Cultural Officer, a Case Study.
This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement, Inc., enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of growth, on the web at www.businessadvance.com. And now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement, Inc., and with me, right across from me, is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi, Scott.
Scott Harper: Hey, Pam. As always, I am delighted to be here doing another episode of Growth Igniters Radio. If this is your first time listening, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspirations, and immediately-useful ideas for leaders to take themselves and their companies to the next level of success. So Pam, what’s up for today?
Pam Harper: A case study about the CEO as Chief Cultural Officer. Now you and I both know that top leaders of successful companies actively take ownership and shape the culture of the organization in a lot of ways.
Scott Harper: Sure.
Pam Harper: But it’s really not often that we meet a top leader who has made culture such a central part of their identity that it’s included in the title, and that’s why we’re delighted to have with us Julie Sue Auslander, President and Chief Cultural Officer of cSubs, as our guest today. CSubs is a highly successful middle market, woman-owned business that manages subscription programs for leading corporate and professional subscribers. It’s one of the few companies that Inc. magazine has named among its 5000 Fastest Growing Companies for more than 6 years in a row, beginning in 2008.
Now over the years, both cSubs and Julie have received many other honors. They are way too numerous to mention all of them, but a couple that are very interesting − one is being named to the Women’s Enterprise list of top business enterprises in the U.S., and another is receiving the 2015 ACG New Jersey Corporate Growth Award, which is where Julie and I met. I was moderating a panel and she was receiving an award.
There’s one more thing I want to mention before we bring Julie on, which is that in addition to leading cSubs, Julie sits on the advisory board of the Center for Women and Enterprise, and on the Leadership Forum for the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, an organization of more than 12,000 woman-owned companies. You can find out much more about Julie by scrolling down to her biography on the Episode 39 page of growthignitersradio.com.
Julie, I’m exhausted here − this is a long bio. Welcome to Growth Igniters Radio.
Julie Auslander: Thank you, Pam. Thank you, Scott. That was a very nice introduction.
Pam Harper: It’s really such a wealth of information, and we were so captivated by this whole issue of the Chief Cultural Officer. Before we get into that, can you tell us a little bit more about cSubs, and how you became the founder of the company?
Julie Auslander: I am what you would consider an unlikely entrepreneur. My background came from the world of education. I was a teacher for a number of years, and then I was an assistant principal of a special education unit in the South Bronx. What happened along the way was that I had the need to manage my own subscriptions, and I found it very difficult to do. I didn’t know when it was time to renew; I didn’t know how much I paid; I didn’t know whether my husband needed his subscriptions. It became a very confusing process. I came to find out that other people had that same problem, and, therefore, an earlier version of cSubs was born on my kitchen table.
Pam Harper: Wow… that’s a little messy.
Julie Auslander: Thank goodness it was clean.
Pam Harper: Anyway − so you had an earlier version of cSubs. What happened then?
Julie Auslander: I started this company and the concept alongside my job − my teaching job. I worked nights and I worked weekends on this and I worked during the summers, and it built organically by word of mouth. One friend told another friend, and then one person would come and say to me, “My husband has a law firm, I have a beauty salon,” so we started managing small businesses’ subscriptions.
All of these things happened very organically. Again, least likely expecting it − one of my smallest clients, which became a lesson for life for me, turned to me and said, “You know, my company is such a mess. They’re asking us to save money on paper clips, but meanwhile, we waste so much money on subscriptions. Why don’t you come in and talk to our purchasing officer.” I was invited in, and the name of the company was Drexel Burnham. This was back in the late ’80s. They actually mentored me. This woman named Linda Frankel mentored me on what large corporations need to manage their subscriptions. Then the real birth of cSubs happened.
Pam Harper: That’s quite a story. It’s a combination of being visionary and being in the right place at the right time. When did you start taking on employees, then?
Julie Auslander: I believe we hired our first employee in 1990.
Scott Harper: Now you have a larger organization.
Julie Auslander: Yes, with a global footprint.
Pam Harper: Right. You’re solidly middle market, so it really has expanded. Did you always know you were going to be the Chief Cultural Officer?
Julie Auslander: No.
Pam Harper: You weren’t that at the beginning?
Julie Auslander: The idea that culture and people drive an organization was always very fundamentally who I am, and that comes from the world of education. A lot of what made me who I was as a teacher could be found in the roots of why I think culture is important.
Scott Harper: As Pam mentioned earlier, many leaders that we talk to really value and nurture their cultures. As you’ve said, and is on your website, you’re not only the president of cSubs, you actually have Chief Cultural Officer as an official title. What does formally acknowledging that mean to you? Why have you done it?
Julie Auslander: I think there’s nothing more important than culture. I think most simplistically we can view culture as the boat that everybody in an organization sits in. It provides direction, it provides form, it provides safety for all the people in that boat. I think all too often, people talk a culture but they don’t live a culture. A culture starts with the head of an organization and then permeates its way through.
Scott Harper: Okay.
Julie Auslander: It’s important that each person in that boat understands what the culture is and what their contribution to the culture is.
Scott Harper: Absolutely. In fact, I remember speaking with you earlier and being very impressed with that. In order to do that, you talk about how important transparency is.
Pam Harper: Right. When I first met you and we had conversations, one of the things that really impressed me was how you spoke about this culture of transparency. That was so important. Can you share with our listeners, what does transparency mean to you?
Julie Auslander: Transparency means that a company’s mission doesn’t sit on a mission statement on a wall. It becomes part of the actions, the thought, and the process of each person within that corporation. Transparency means that each employee, each manager, each director can understand and articulate that culture and is delivering that culture on a daily basis. More importantly is that the customers and clients of that company understand and feel that culture.
Pam Harper: You’ve been very successful at that, too. We’re going to talk more about that in the second segment, and really what it takes to bring that to life. Can you give us an example of what fostering this culture that emphasizes transparency has meant for cSubs’ innovation and growth?
Julie Auslander: Part of the culture at cSubs … It’s going to be different for every company. Different companies have different missions, they have different leaders. They’re trying to accomplish different goals. At cSubs, our culture is one of client-centric and employee-focused. With that, our employees and every company’s employees are on the front line of touching their customers every single day. Having those interactions and the information garnered from those touches translated into policy, product, and design that drives the company.
Pam Harper: Okay. You have very specific ways that you can translate what transparency means so that people can actually act on it, and that’s what we want to talk about more in the second segment. We’re going to take a quick break right now, and when we come back we’ll talk more with Julie Auslander, President and Chief Cultural Officer of cSubs, about her role as Chief Cultural Officer. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: You’re listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement, Inc. − on the web at www.businessadvance.com. We enable successful companies to accelerate to their next level of innovation and growth, and if you like what you’re hearing, spread the good word. Go to www.growthignitersradio.com, select Episode 39, and use the share links for Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter at the top right of the page to tell your social media communities all about us. Use hashtag Growth Igniters. This will help us extend our reach to all of the people who can benefit from this series.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper − that’s me − and Scott Harper. Scott and I are talking today with Julie Auslander, President and Chief Cultural Officer of cSubs, about her approach to guiding the culture of her company. Julie, how can people find out more about you and about cSubs?
Julie Auslander: CSubs can be found on the web at www.csubs.com.
Pam Harper: Of course, you can access this also by visiting www.growthignitersradio.com, Episode 39. Julie, in the first segment we were talking about the fact that transparency to you has real meaning, and that you can translate it into policies and other kinds of things. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the specific actions that you took to bring it to life?
Julie Auslander: As a CEO, especially as a company scales, that CEO can’t be in every room, dictating every opinion, and making every choice to influence how a culture goes. So it’s really important that as a company grows, each employee understands what the vision and the culture of that company is, and it’s the CEO’s job to impart that. You take companies like Netflix and their “Freedom and Responsibilities” deck or you take Google and “The Ten things That We Must Know to be True” − those cultures are very clearly embedded, and it becomes part of both the employee and the customer experience.
Pam Harper: As you were building this, then, you actually were thinking what it took to build transparency into a variety of actions?
Julie Auslander: Well, more simply, I was thinking about what would a company look like that I would want to work at for a long period of time, and what is that culture − what’s important to me as a person? What’s important that as this company grows, I can share with employees, I can share with customers, and I can share with the world? Part of our culture that’s very important to me and to our employees is a culture of good and a culture of giving back, because we have received many, many, many blessings. I think that as people do that, there’s a responsibility to give back, so that is also embedded in our culture.
Scott Harper: Okay. Now in previous conversation we’ve had, you’ve stated something that I found really impressive, and that is you mentioned that everybody knows the values and the vision and the things that are really important to build the culture. They also know how each of their individual actions and jobs and functions really contributes to what cSubs is about, how you serve your customers in the community as a whole. Can you give an example of one or two of those types of people who really can translate, not just read the vision on the wall, but actually say, “This is how I contribute to that”?
Julie Auslander: I think that when you make the culture clear, everybody interprets that culture through their own lens. They express it through their own personality and being, which is great, because it’s not about having soldiers that march lockstep and all look the same, because what really makes a culture vibrant is what each person brings to it and how they breathe life into making it a real experience.
Pam Harper: That’s true. I remember, Julie, that during the conference, when we were talking, you gave an example. I think I asked you something about whether even the janitor could exemplify this, and you were talking about it. Can you share that?
Julie Auslander: There’s not a person in an organization that’s there that doesn’t have a role and importance in the culture. It’s our job as leaders to make people understand what their role is, why it’s important, and how they articulate it both to themselves and to others. There is no role − nobody, from my role down to the person that helps keep our offices clean and healthy − that doesn’t understand how they impact on what we do for our clients, what we do for each other, and how we give back.
Pam Harper: That is fabulous. Of course, one of the big questions, too, that a lot of CEOs who are listening have comes down to hiring. This has to be one of the most difficult decisions, is balancing, say, technical fit − that needle in the haystack person, with a cultural fit. What’s your philosophy then?
Julie Auslander: I think that you can teach people skills. It’s much harder to teach people how to become part of a culture. It takes work every single day, in every single way that you touch employees. It starts with just the thought of hiring an employee. What do we want? How is that person going to fit into our organization? How are we going to help that person onboard in our boat? What does that person look like? Not physically look like, but characteristically look like. Those are really important aspects. We don’t get it right all the time, but because the culture is so clear, when we sit in teams and we interview people and we write the ad for that position, it’s really clear to everybody what it is we need.
Pam Harper: The clearer you are, then, about your culture and what it means and what it looks like in real life, the more you’re able to then hire to exemplify that. You have a clear understanding of who’s going to be a fit and who isn’t.
Julie Auslander: Not only are we clear, but the applicants are clear. People walk in and they see our culture all over our office. They understand it. They see it with every person they meet. Either that’s something that makes sense to them, they look at the boat and they say, “Yep, this boat makes sense to me,” or it doesn’t. It becomes self-selecting on both sides.
Pam Harper: A good point. We’re going to take another quick break, and when we come back we’ll talk more with Julie Auslander, President and Chief Cultural Officer of cSubs, about actionable steps that you can take as your company’s own Chief Cultural Officer. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: Pam, some of our listeners may know that we speak. Can you tell why clients engage us to speak at events, conferences, and company offsites?
Pam Harper: They’re seeking new insights for dramatically accelerating company transformation and growth. They’re also seeking new leadership insights about themselves, their teams, and their organizations so they can make bold new decisions about strategy and implementation. It’s been especially rewarding to find that some of our company offsites, in fact, have resulted in breakthrough decisions that have generated as much as tenfold growth over 5 years.
Scott Harper: Contact us today at businessadvance.com to arrange for a brief call to discuss your needs and options for helping you achieve your most important goals.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last 2 segments, Scott and I have been talking with Julie Auslander, President and Chief Cultural Officer of cSubs, about her approach to guiding the culture of her company. Julie, how can people find out more about you and cSubs?
Julie Auslander: You can find out about cSubs at csubs.com, and you can Google Julie Auslander, and there’s more information out there than I care to admit.
Pam Harper: Don’t forget about that Fast Company blog. We’ll have the link to that as well on the Episode 39 page for www.growthignitersradio.com. Let’s get back to our conversation. This is the point where we ask our guests about three pieces of immediately-actionable advice about the topics. In this case, it’s about shaping a culture that continuously supports dynamic innovation, transformation, and company growth.
Julie Auslander: I think the first point that I would like to share with people is that if you don’t have a culture that is readily able to be articulated by both the CEO, the management team, and the employees, that’s the place to start. I think it’s a great-
Pam Harper: It starts at the top?
Julie Auslander: It starts at the top. I think it’s a great opportunity to start having conversations about why are we here? Why is this company important to me? I think it’s an opportunity to engage clients. Why do you do business with us? From that a culture is built.
Scott Harper: Okay. That definitely makes sense, because if you can measure it and articulate it and know what the outcomes are going to be, people can start acting against those desired outcomes in a way, as you said, that each person translates for themselves. Julie, what’s a second piece of practical advice that our listeners can use?
Julie Auslander: The other thing is that after you’ve established and everybody’s able to articulate the culture, it needs to be embedded in the three most important processes that any company partakes in. One is hiring, the second is daily decisions, and the third is ongoing vision and goals.
Pam Harper: in other words, you have to integrate it into your actual activities. It isn’t just something that you put in a manual or whatever and say, “Our culture is …” It really has to show up.
Julie Auslander: Show up, and it has to feel right. What winds up happening is that when a company truly has a culture that is transparent and that is viewed through that culture, it’s very much like putting on an itchy sweater. As soon as you go to put on the sweater and it’s not the right cultural decision, the sweater is uncomfortable. It itches, it doesn’t feel right, and you know you’re not making the right decision for this company.
Pam Harper: It’s a compass of sorts, too. We’re mixing our metaphors, but it’s that, isn’t it?
Julie Auslander: That goes back to the boat, Yes. It really is a compass. What happens is it keeps companies honest and really keeps them out of trouble and keeps them serving their clients with the intention that they started with.
Scott Harper: Julie, can you think back to a time where you were talking to somebody in the company or were in a meeting and someone said, “Wait a second, this is not in line with our culture; this is not in line with our values?” Does it come out like that?
Julie Auslander: Daily, daily. Everybody understands what this culture is, and people in our organization are empowered to remind us. We value that as a trait, and we expect it.
Pam Harper: How do you reward people for that?
Julie Auslander: We have a very interesting system in place for rewards. What we have is a company-paid vacation that employees earn points for. They earn points based on contributions they make to the company that we’ve outlined and worked together to develop, and how that works for our company, for our clients, and for our culture. As they earn these points, they get to travel with their families wherever they would like to in the world.
Pam Harper: The more points they get, the better it is and, of course, the points are tied to the culture.
Julie Auslander: That comes from recommending a new hire, having clients comment about their work and their reflection of our culture. It comes from making suggestions for innovation. It’s all the things that are important to keep our company going that we’ve outlined, that we reward, and we fully expect that people will go on vacation at least once every four years.
Scott Harper: Wow. What you’ve exemplified here is something that’s really pretty concrete and, again, measurable and doable. That’s tow tips. How about a third, one last actionable piece of advice that CEOs can do to really embed themselves as the Chief Cultural Officer?
Julie Auslander: It’s really important that employees share the same values and that we enable those employees to live the value that we have and employees to have that opportunity in selling our service, selling our value, and developing the skills, their own personal skills, that these values hold in their own lives.
Scott Harper: Couldn’t agree more, but how do you do that?
Julie Auslander: I think the most important thing is that … For me, I take this responsibility on my own and I take it very personally.
Scott Harper: Uh-huh.
Julie Auslander: I walk around the company and actually know my employees, talk about what’s important to them, talk about how work is going for them, how it’s going for our clients. I think the first thing is being able to honestly engage the people that are out there on the front lines in conversation, and that’s a very actionable step that can be done right away. You can really see whether people have the values, whether you’re exemplifying those values, and whether they’re becoming transparent for your clients.
Scott Harper: Great. Very clear.
Pam Harper: Any final thoughts as we’re wrapping up here about this whole concept of the CEO as Chief Cultural Officer?
Julie Auslander: I would like to see this title on everybody’s business cards, but more importantly, I would like to actually feel them doing this role in their companies. I think we would be a better workplace for it.
Pam Harper: Julie, thank you very much for being our guest today on Growth Igniters Radio.
Julie Auslander: Thank you for having me.
Scott Harper: Our pleasure, Julie. Thanks out there to you listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, share on social media, find out about upcoming episodes, or open a conversation with us, go to www.growthignitersradio.com and select Episode 39.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper …
Scott Harper: … and Scott Harper …
Pam Harper: … wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this question to think about:
Scott Harper: What three steps can I take in the next month to foster a culture in my company that creates maximum value for our employees, our customers, and our partners?