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Culture Requires a Leader

By Patrick Lencioni - May 2017

That word ‘culture’ gets used so loosely that it’s easy to see why it can be seen as soft or intangible. For Bobby Herrera, founder and CEO of Populus Group, culture is not only a tangible reality, but a competitive advantage. It’s also his primary responsibility.

The Populus Group culture was actually born when Bobby was in high school, playing on the basketball team with his little brother. One of 13 kids in a poor family living near the southern border of New Mexico, Bobby and his brother were sitting on the team bus while their teammates were going into a restaurant for dinner. One of the team parents came onto the bus and asked the two remaining players to come into the restaurant. When Bobby explained that they didn’t have money for the meal, the man told him he would gladly pay for their dinner, on one condition: that they would do the same for someone else when they had the chance later in life.

That moment sparked in Bobby a desire to help others find the opportunity to improve themselves, which is a big part of who Populus Group is and what it does. Helping companies navigate the complexities of employment law across national and state boundaries, the company provides employment solutions for customers and helps job seekers shape their career paths. More importantly, everything that Populus Group does for its employees is a tangible reflection of what Bobby took away from that experience on the bus.

For far too many CEOs during the past few decades, culture has been a project to delegate to someone in human resources. Inevitably, it came to be seen by employees as something cosmetic and artificial, having little to do with how customers were treated and employees went about their day-to-day jobs. Bobby never bought into that kind of culture, knowing that if he personally doesn’t live, breathe and lead the culture, it won’t stick. As one of his employees told us, “He truly holds culture above all else.”

Bobby’s influence on culture starts with hiring, and at Populus Group, technical skills take a back seat to behavior. Bobby describes the interview process this way. “I turn the candidate’s resume over so that I have a clean sheet of paper and can really get to know who they are, what they’re proud of, and why they act the way they do.” An employee we spoke to described his interview experience. “They weren’t reading from my resume or an interview script. They wanted to know about all aspects of my life, with a few questions about my professional experience sprinkled in. It didn’t feel at all like an interview.”

But don’t mistake this for something nebulous or touchy-feely. The hiring process is a rigorous and lengthy one, involving multiple candidates being interviewed by multiple employees in a repetitive fashion, always with the company’s values in mind. And it has been shaped by mistakes. For the first five years of his firm’s history, Bobby stayed actively involved in hiring. Then he stepped back for a while and learned a painful lesson. “I took my eye off the ball, and we brought some people into the company who didn’t fit. I won’t do that again.” Bobby admitted that during that time, the company suffered and the experience of working there diminished for a few years.

Once a person is hired, the next step becomes even more important. They are taken through a week-long orientation process, one that has nothing to do with the operations of the business, and everything to do with the culture and the people and the stories. Bobby is big on stories. He recorded a lengthy, authentic and cherished video in which he takes people through the company story, including his experience on that bus in New Mexico. New hires are then introduced to other “climbers” (Bobby’s word for Populus Group employees), so they can share with them their own stories and build relationships. By the time a new climber begins work, they are enmeshed in the company’s culture, have a network of supporters, and a context under which to work.

What about that word, ‘climbers?’ When I first heard it, I was skeptical. Too many companies have catchphrases and gimmicks designed to market the company as innovative or progressive when, in reality, it has nothing to do with the actual culture. At Populus Group, the climber methodology, like the culture itself, has nothing to do with PR. It comes from that experience on the busand the idea that all people want to improve. And I couldn’t find the word on the company’s website or in its external literature. And that orientation video? It’s password protected and viewable to climbers only. Bobby smiles when he explains why. “It’s a competitive advantage.” He means it.

Bobby adopted the climber terminology because he sees his people as wanting to be constantly ascending, working hard to improve and make their lives better. A climber himself, he also understands the interdependency that climbing entails. As a result, Bobby and his fellow climbers are completely intolerant of complacency, self-centeredness and ego. Always affable and even gentle in his demeanor, Bobby explains what happens when someone can’t adapt to the climber culture. “Sometimes we just have to decide to make them available to the marketplace.”

To a cynic, all of this talk about culture might seem superfluous. That’s why it helps to talk to people who actually work at Populus Group, and who do business with them. One employee we contacted described it this way. “Early in my climb, I could feel what our culture was, but I couldn’t necessarily describe it for someone else. Then Bobby led us to be intentional about building our culture and protecting what makes us special. Things like our Culture Code guide our behavior, and our Playbook/Rallying Cry keeps us all going in the same direction. It’s allowed us to be more focused, find the right people and stay true to who we are.”

What is the impact of this emphasis on culture on the outside world? One customer said this: “Populus is the only vendor I work with whom I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone. There is a commitment in the company unlike any other that I have found. There is a love and respect among people who work for Populus, the way they treat each other, and it trickles down to the way they treat us as clients.”

Beyond the anecdotal praise of people outside of Populus Group, the most tangible evidence that something special is happening at the company can be found in one specific statistic: 15 consecutive years of growth. But Bobby is quick to point out that growth is an outcome of doing things right, and keeping the culture real. And that is his number one job.

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