• In the hour-long Roundtable discussion, business leaders from Greater Washington area discussed how their cultures influence their bottom lines.

  • Left: Sponsor Christian Resick pointed out that millennials define themselves more holistically rather than just by their careers. Middle: Holly Paul and Dev Ganesan discussed the complexities of keeping remote employees engaged with their culture, with solutions ranging from video conferencing to monthly town hall meetings. Right: Gerrie L’Heureux, president and CEO of UIC Technical Services talks about how she runs a servant organization led by its values and dedication to the Village of Barrow in Alaska.

How DC’s leaders build innovative cultures that ground their companies


Sponsored by Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business

Sponsored by Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business

Compiled by Rachel Cieri
Photography by Zach Teris

Corporate culture is the secret sauce that separates the great from the good, and the memorable from the forgettable. But shaping and maintaining the culture you want is easier said than done. That’s why we gathered a group of CEOs and executives to share ideas for turning your company’s culture into a competitive advantage, from developing a culture that engages employees across multiple generations to communicating cultural expectations in onboarding practices and more.

Roundtable panelists

Sponsor: Kris Risi, Ph.D., executive director of corporate and executive education, Drexel University LeBow College of Business
Sponsor: Alison Young, executive director of institute for strategic leadership, Drexel University LeBow College of Business
Dev Ganesan, former CEO, Aptara
Gerrie L’Heureux, president and CEO, UIC Technical Services
Sponsor: Christian Resick, Ph.D., associate professor, Drexel University LeBow College of Business
Moderator: Marissa Levin; founder and chairman, Information Experts; founder and CEO, Successful Culture
Craig Burris, CEO, SmartCEO Media
Holly Paul, SVP and chief human resources officer, Vocus
Mike McHugh, president, defense and national security division, DMI

 Click here to listen to the entire Roundtable discussion, or read highlights from the conversation below. 


How do you introduce cultural expectations to new employees with a different mindset?

Ganesan: All of you must have read Jim Collins’ Good to Great. We have embedded that into the company culture. Every employee in the company at every level gets the book when they join the company, and we have regular discussions and practices about Level Five Leadership. Good to Great’s Level Five Leadership talks about some simple things: the line “be respectful,” [and] humility, which I find is the single biggest thing we enforce in the company. If we can be a little bit humble and listen to what everybody is saying so we can achieve a common goal, it [can be] amazingly successful.

Paul: Onboarding is the perfect place to start. It is the first experience where they’re indoctrinated with that culture. We bring everybody to a central location and kick it off with an executive. We create an environment where people not only know our leaders but understand [we’re] also transparent and you can ask whatever you want. Boil it down so it’s simple enough that they understand and absorb it. It needs to be repeated over and over again … very direct. We tell them exactly what our culture is. In orientation, [we give] an overview of what the world of marketing looks like, and if they don’t have LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook accounts, we ask them right then and there to do that. That’s a big part of our culture. We want people to use the tools that we are asking our customers to begin using. The way you want people to act, you need to constantly tell them over and over again so that it’s absorbed as part of their psyche and it becomes the culture.

McHugh: We have made five acquisitions in the last 18 months, and … you can get in trouble with … having separate cultures that aren’t integrated with the principles of your main company. We developed applications for employees’ phones and let them know if we’ve won a contract, let them know about weather conditions; it’s really being able to get right to them. We have … an event called Tech Chef. It’s like an episode of Chopped, where we have five teams from different projects come to the corporate office and have a cook-off. They get to meet the other individuals, our customers come in and actually judge the cooking event, and it has been a great tool for moving culture through some of the acquired organizations. We had two teams from two newly acquired companies blend right into the rest of the organization.

L’Heureux: We’re a servant organization; my org charts are reversed. I’m here to make sure all the speed bumps are taken care of so our people can go out there to take care of our customers. When we got a new facility, I walked in talking about all our customers’ plaques we were going to put up there, and my husband said to me, “We know who we are. How about telling us who you are as an organization?” So if you walk into our offices, the first thing you see is a big mural of Alaskan native culture. If you ask any of our employees, they would say the first thing that attracted them to the organization was our values. Our values are right there on [our website]. We also have a cultural video that shows the employees who we are. [It talks about] the Village of Barrow, what they do, their hunting skills, the Alaskan Native Claims Act, which started all the Alaskan corporations. We have a leadership pledge signed by all of the leaders. We actually give them the right to say, “Hey, you are not walking that talk.” We have to say what we mean and walk what we talk. You cannot say one thing and do another.

Ganesan: Culture is not the same as having a manual, a policy or one-time onboarding. It’s how the senior management acts on a day-to-day basis, how we behave in meetings. If we are not respectful to employees in a meeting, that sets the stage. How you deal with various issues and whether you are living up to the basic cultures that you preach, defines the success of the culture. I’ve heard so many stories where employees don’t believe in the management team. It’s purely because of this issue that they don’t hold themselves accountable for what they preach.
We made seven acquisitions in ACS, and to show the employees who we acquired, we incorporated some of the good policies we saw in the smaller companies we acquired. That went a long way to show [the acquired companies] that we are fair [and] open to suggestions.

Resick: Culture is the meaning of the organization. Why do we exist, and how do we want to do business? It’s not about the values that are on the internet [or] the plaque in the elevator. It’s how we interact with each other. If humility is a core value, are we living that? What we’ve seen time and again is that’s going to trickle down to every level in the organization. Everybody is going to say, “What do I need to do to be successful here? I need to be humble, I need to treat other people with respect.” I can’t stress enough from a science and research perspective how important [onboarding] is to making your culture real, to conveying meaning to other folks, to recognizing what’s important.

Generational differences

How have you shaped your company culture to engage multiple generations of workers with different work styles or preferences?

McHugh: Our average age is low 30s. You’ve got such a different thought process from the recent grads than the older leadership. We have several re
tired general officers in the company, and it’s funny to see how they interact. We almost force that generation mix-up as we’re talking about how we engage a customer and how we build a solution. A retired general officer who comes out and says, “I know nothing about technology,” now feels that they’re becoming technology experts. The younger side is seeing how leadership plays out from how [to] engage a client.

Resick: You’re creating generationally diverse teams. In theory, that should work great because you’re bringing people with very different pieces of expertise together, and they’re going to ultimately innovate in a way that’s more user-friendly and customer-focused. But more often than not, those teams fall apart. What separates those that are successful from the ones that aren’t is the extent to which [they] share knowledge and information, break down barriers, put it all out there, argue about it, and come up with something that’s better. Culture plays a big role in creating the expectation that this is how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to do it in a respectful way.

McHugh: Look at the Edward Snowden incident. It comes down to a cultural issue and a sense of pride in doing what’s right. You can screen people all you want. If you just put people out on an island and you don’t bring them into the fold from time to time, you get incidents like Snowden. From the onboarding side all the way through the employees’ lifecycle at a company, it’s important to stay connected. Whenever I go to a customer site, I go around and talk to the employees. A lot of employees will parrot back things they heard in the onboarding process and actually give feedback about the company. Some employees are even surprised that I would show up at their desk and ask them how they’re doing. It’s an important part of the culture at DMI that we’ve got our finger on the pulse of the organization.

L’Heureux: Family and kinship is one of our core values. That’s the connection I want them to feel. It’s a little harder because you have employees at the customer site, so they are more in tune with that environment, but they know what their responsibility is and [how] their performance [is] going to affect the organization and [its] reputation. When we were growing, I always said, in federal contracting your employees go with whatever contractor is on that contract. I said it would be wonderful to have employees turn around and say, “No, I’m going to stay with this company, and I’m going to move to wherever they are going to move me because I believe in them and I want to work with them.” I’m proud to say that happens so much more now because these employees connect with the mission of the organization and what it’s for that they know they belong to a family and they want to stay with the family.

Paul: With millennials, if we don’t create … rich, interesting and challenging experiences, [it] is an absolute deal-killer. It starts with experiences that they’re interested in, where they feel as if they have some ownership in where they go. The reality is we can only promote so many people, and a lot of our star performers in their roles are not necessarily the best managers and leaders of people. Making sure that those individuals have different routes they can take … we make sure to do that in a way they can be responsible for. We’re trying to empower them to use that network of employees to understand the different types of work being done, to publicize projects and talk about interesting work so people know who to go to if they want to work on those things. [We also provide] experiences outside of their day-to-day role, experiencing something that allows them to have input into the direction or a strategy around how we’re going to execute something in all the fun ways you hear about today, like hackathons and broadening that into other areas. They want to have a seat at the table, to feel as though they’re making a difference. They want to feel as though they really can be part of a larger mission. You need people sitting in their seats and getting the day-to-day work done, but you’ve got to provide experiences and opportunities greater than that. The minute they feel stifled in any way, they walk.

Resick: As we’ve gone [through the generations], there is this dramatic decrease in commitment and intention to stay there. We’ve all seen our families go through terrible riffs with companies over the years, so it’s sort of been ingrained in people from a very early age that you own your career. It’s not about loyalty and commitment to the company, it’s about loyalty and commitment to my career. From a values perspective — from the boomer generation to the gen Xers and skyrocketing with the millennials — this notion of work-life balance is critical. Millennials don’t define themselves through their career. They define themselves much more holistically than gen Xers or folks before us have. They’re going to take jobs and leave jobs to make sure they can manage their life the way they need to. From the traditionalists to the boomers to gen X, status and material rewards [are] incredibly important. But with millennials, that’s starting to fall away. It’s about doing things you want to do and it’s interesting work inside [and outside] your job. It’s not moving up; it’s moving around.

Paul: It’s interesting to see how [work-life balance] permeates throughout the organization because our average age of our employees is actually 27; over 60 percent of our employees are millennials. To some of them, it means regular job hours so they can take advantage of great things they’re doing in their extracurricular life. We encourage that flexibility — you can come and go. You’ve got to get your job done, but we want you to do what you need to do. We have a full-service gym in our office. We offer all sorts of classes, but we … offer [them] at 10 or 11 a.m., 2 or 3 p.m., right in the middle of the day because we realize people like to take those breaks at different times. It’s amazing how something seemingly so small has an impact to reinforce that we want you to be flexible, we want you to decide, we want you to own your career, when you’re going to get it done, how you’re going to get it done.

Remote offices

How do you keep remote employees engaged with the culture?

Ganesan: We have 6,000 employees. Probably 2,000 work from very small locations, where we have maybe three or four of them. We have put in a lot of effort to make sure they are connected at all times. Each of the offices have video conference [setups] so that when I have a team meeting, when I need to look at somebody and talk to him, we use video conferencing. The most important thing is to make sure they’re not left out. A lot of discussions happen in the office when we’re not in meetings, so we make sure that we go out of the way and communicate with people who are remote.

Paul: We have a monthly town hall, and it’s all done through webcast. Even at corporate headquarters, people are receiving that through the webcast the same way remote workers are. For orientation, we bring everybody to one centralized place to get them all indoctrinated together, but then after that we switch, by department location, and go out to those locations with the executive team. I also think it’s important to take elements that you have, like we have in our headquarters, and we take those elements to our remote locations. We do the typical sorts of technology gaming rooms, and making sure that every location has that. Wellness is very important to us. We have a full-service gym at headquarters, but we have some semblance of that in every location. If you can’t get it at a location, then you have a gym pass for someplace else. We make sure that they’re not treated as the have-nots.

Our India operation is actually part of what we’re doing here in a lot of areas, whether it’s building a piece of software for a client engagement or working with our recruiting organization to help identify or screen staff. We do have a virtual environment [with] communication through email and different postings we have on news about the company. They feel engaged that they are part of the team in the communications side of it and the growth side of it. I think time zones break down within our company. If you went to our India office, they would be able to tell you what they’re doing to support the defense group in the U.S.

L’Heureux: We have our “Whale’s Tale” once a quarter, where we communicate to … everyone within the organization what’s going on within the organization as far as who’s hired, what contracts we’ve acquired, who’s having babies. One of the biggest things that we have is the Village of Barrow, and our logo is the bowhead whale. Our village hunts the bowhead whale, and it’s springtime now and they’re out there hunting. So we always want to know what’s going on as far as the hunt — if they’ve gotten a whale, how many whales they have, if they’re all safe. For employees at client sites … it’s not something that I want to force on them. I want them to know that it’s there, and I want to remind them every once in a while who they belong to and who they’re a part of. It may be secondary to what they’re doing with the government because they’re really entrenched in that. That’s really what they’re working at, and we’re just providing them with a paycheck and making sure everything else is taken care of. I’ve refused contracts because it’s hard to put employees [at a location] because it’s completely miserable to be there. We’re a very social bunch and we like to get together as much as possible. I travel a lot because I feel like I’m losing the pulse of the organization if I’m not out there with the employees.

Philanthropy in culture

How does nonprofit and service work influence your culture?

Ganesan: At Aptara, we have picked four or five major areas, and this is all coming from the employees. We worked with a homeless kitchen in the DC area. All of the employees participate once or twice a year. It brings people together, and we see a different light of employees. I am kind of surprised when I had a perception of one particular employee and then I see them in a different light. We learn a lot. We have taken these programs across different parts of the world. We have been sponsoring a blind school in New Delhi, where we have almost 2,000 employees. Many of our employees are graphic artists and designers, so they have a passion for art. We created our own online employee art gallery, [and] many of them are purchased by our customers.

Paul: Our strategy is completely employee-centric; we support everything our employees are interested in. We give grants on a regular basis. It’s process-light so it’s not a big committee — they go right up and make the request. We encourage them to use all of our communication tools; we actually have a radio station that our employees control, and they communicate it that way. And once a year we do a charity fair. Every employee who is interested in a cause can go, so they can get other employees engaged in it.

McHugh: DMI has a quarterly awards program, and one of those is community service. We recognize employees who have volunteered or done something special in the community. The other thing we do is once a month we go to Bethesda Hospital, and we take dinner to injured soldiers and families.

L’Heureux: Each site has their own pot of money they can dedicate to a charity of their choice. The employees go out and help build houses. We work with the military groups, specifically the Wounded Warriors, but most of all we have a golfing opportunity where we raise money for a scholarship for our Inupiat shareholders. We have fun while we’re raising money, and we usually send back about $20,000 every year to help the Inupiat children. CEO

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