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A Disrupter’s Guide to Building Culture

Nov 02, 2016

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SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Merkle has 500 data scientists, big-name clients and decades of experience as a customer relationship marketing agency. But CEO David Williams cited something else as his firm’s greatest asset during the fifth annual Smith School Business Summit in Washington, D.C. “Culture is our competitive advantage,” the keynote speaker told an audience of more than 300 faculty, staff, students and working professionals gathered Oct. 28, 2016, at the event organized by the Office of Career Services at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Williams said culture starts with the CEO, who must think like a disrupter to stay ahead of change in turbulent times. Since acquiring Merkle in 1988, he has led four pivots into unknown territory and already is making plans for a fifth course adjustment. Williams shared three keys to building a culture that allows such tolerance for risk.

1. Be polarizing

Companies need diversity and inclusion, but they also need shared beliefs that tie the organization together. Certain values will appeal to some people more than others, so leaders can't worry about satisfying everybody all the time. Williams prefers to see one of two reactions when candidates apply to work at Merkle: “I can’t wait to get out of here” or “I love this place.” What he doesn’t want to see is anything in the middle. “I don’t want a neutral culture,” he said. “I want a polarizing culture.”

2. Obey principles, not rules

Some companies love to multiply rules. They have dress and grooming codes, attendance policies, workstation food restrictions and paperwork requirements that emphasize process over results. They might even post signs in restrooms and breakrooms about sanitation protocols. Williams said many of these rules pander to low performers. Rather than assuming that team members are unmotivated or unskilled, he prefers giving them the benefit of the doubt.

“The 99.9 percent of people who work for Merkle are genuinely going  to make good decisions,” he said. “And for the 0.1 percent of people who are going to screw it up, we’re not going to make it harder for everyone else. We’re going to treat people like adults, and we’re going to let them do their thing.”

Williams said rules should be saved for important stuff. “I want to create a set of rules that are guardrails that are going to save the company from killing itself, versus speedbumps that are meant to slow us down,” he said.

3. Disrespect history

A strong culture drives growth, so it makes sense that companies with winning personalities would try to preserve what they’ve got. Williams said this mindset can backfire if leaders try too hard to respect the belief systems of their predecessors. He cited the example of HP, which resisted change after the departure of founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.

“Every new CEO actually has a massive influence on the culture,” Williams said. “You can’t help as the CEO other than to inject your belief system into that organization. And the second you do that, you’re changing the culture.”

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty masters, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.