Context Partners CEO, Charlie Brown, recently gave a talk on the competitive advantage of putting as much into an organization’s culture as is commonly put into its product. Here are his notes from the talk. For the bootleg-style video, please scroll to the bottom.
A unique leadership opportunity exists for the people in this room and specifically the Tech community in Portland. This leadership opportunity was sparked at least 30 years ago when the likes of Phil Knight and Dan Wieden put intention into starting two companies that have come to define Portland as the cultural powerhouse it is today. And it was those once start-up leaders that opened up the doors for then-innovative public policies like urban growth boundaries and bike lanes. Today, I think the work that’s been put into building such an amazing culture for over 30 years is at risk. And it’s that same risk that presents a very unique leadership opportunity for the people in the Tech community to take the torch from the Dan Wiedens, from the Phil Knights, and drive Portland’s next cultural evolution.
About four years ago I started Context Partners, a new type design firm centered on communities and cultures. Before that I was in Washington D.C. leading one of the earliest global innovation crowd-sourcing platforms. As people started to find out I was leaving D.C. they began lobbing these comments at me, “Why would you leave a global giant like DC to move to provincial Portland?” And it’s safe to say they were not using provincial in a flattering way. What they failed to see were all the attributes that drew any of us here; most notable, that Portland welcomes the different and the creative with open arms.
For Context Partners, the move meant an overwhelming quantity of support. The Portland community was connecting us to everything from accountants and office space, to future clients and craftsman who built the desks we work on each day. There is a community within Portland that is actively creating the environment for successful and amazing companies. As Sean Madden of Ziba recently told me, “Portland is our competitive advantage.”
Four years later, Context Partners has grown and Portland has changed a lot. One place you can see that change most notably is within the Tech community. Bay-area companies are moving here; SalesForce, eBay, AirBnB and others. We are seeing venture capitalists mine Portland for their next investments. Portland is adding jobs faster than Seattle and San Francisco and has caught the attention of the world because of our city’s culture.
But what if we look at the same four years and in a more critical light? These Bay-area companies moving here are setting up satellite offices, does that mean they are just importing Silicon Valley culture? These large companies are absorbing area talent sorely needed in the start-up community because they’re able to offer better salaries, better benefits. And the VCs making great investments… they are often not local VCs, so they may be imposing rules and norms from the outside, influencing exactly how to keep Portland weird or worse, to make it “normal.” And all of this, among other things, has led to our once inexpensive housing prices to rise. This growth is challenging our thoughtfully-crafted growth boundaries and maybe more importantly, it’s pricing out the creatives, the musicians, the artists, the blue collar community that has long-defined Portland’s heart and soul.
What is interesting for me is when I talk about this inside of the city, in the Tech Community or anywhere else, I hear a fairly consistent refrain; something like, “Sounds like you’re talking about San Francisco, Portland doesn’t need to worry about that for ten or fifteen years.” Yet, when I take that exact comment to Matt French leading the development of Zidell Yards, Portland’s largest undeveloped piece of real estate, his mouth drops open a little bit, his eyes get wide and he says, “The decisions I am making today are already defining Portland’s tomorrow. We won’t see the results for ten or fifteen years.” And that is exactly his point; Portland’s future is being shaped today. This is possible because of the size and scarcity of this land, my point is that the Tech community, because of it’s growth and influx of revenue has an equally impactful opportunity to influence the way that culture is developed. We must be putting as much intention into designing our company cultures as we do into our products.
When I say we, I mean everybody from the Bay-area giants moving here, to the entrepreneur who is launching her next idea, to companies like Context Partners—who rely on the Tech Community to provide products and partnership. Of course, all of this means we’ve got think longer term than the twelve-month VC funding cycles or the next product launch. How do we overcome these short-term viewpoints?
At Context Partners we work with Fortune 500s and start-ups alike on employee engagement strategy and innovation programs. What we find is that the most successful companies consistently take three actions. And it’s those three actions that enable them to put culture on the same page as product.
The first is they intentionally focus on defining their purpose. When we hear the taglines “Just Do It” or “Think Different” we often relate them to marketing campaigns. But the reality is those were north stars that drove the cultures of two companies that fundamentally defined the way that we live today, let alone the cultures of Portland and Silicon Valley, respectively. By defining your organization’s purpose, it gives meaning to goals and it galvanizes teams. It also allows you to look at your organization and quickly identify leaders as well as weed out those who don’t share your organizational values. It opens an incredibly critical door, enabling employees to think and act like owners, something that every organization needs to be successful.
So, if point one is about purpose; point number two is about prioritizing people over policy. A few months ago at Context Partners, we took our full time human resources director and changed her job into a community manager. We found the creative problem-solving environment we were trying to enable was being squashed by traditional HR rules and regulations. At the same time our human resources director was hungry to participate actively in the organizations growth, instead of what she was stuck doing, policing people. As a room of people who are breaking all the rules to define the world tomorrow, we need organizations that are going to do the exact same for us. Ping-Pong tables and free beer are great; but they do not represent anything unique about our culture and they are not a competitive advantage. Our now-named community manager spends her time managing company-wide communication and facilitating employee growth plans aligned to our defined purpose. She opens the door from Context Partners into the community. You can kind of think her role as user experience, except here it is the employees’ experience. I am a big believer in results, within three months we went from struggling to find qualified candidates to fill openings to a candidate pipeline we couldn’t imagine utilizing in the short term.
So if the first one is purpose, the second one is people; the third one is about participating in the subculture. Last weekend I had friends visit who had recently left Portland for a job at Netflix. Their primary reflection on their move was, “Silicon Valley is exciting but Portland is on fire.” Over their weekend visit they had constant interactions with chefs, musicians, brand builders, tech developers and were infused more new ideas and innovations than they ever imagined. Certainly inspirations that were sorely missed in their new home in Silicon Valley. I had to pry, “What is really going on in the Valley?” I asked. And what they reflected back to me was that Portland’s diversity of skills and talents compared to Silicon Valley’s increasing focus on specialization made all the difference. And, that confirms what the science of innovation has already taught us, diverse interactions are the gateway to new ideas. As organizations we need to immerse ourselves in Portland, we need to open up those neural pathways which will lead to the next breakthroughs for our companies. It’s that same open gate that infuses our organizations’ influence right back into Portland.
So the three things that Context Partners has found great companies consistently do are; they define their purpose, they prioritize people, and they participate in the subculture. It’s those three things that I invite every organization and every individual inside of an organization to do here today. You can pick up any issue of Harvard Business Review and find case after case of the world’s greatest organizations. And the thing they have done across the board is to develop amazing cultures that enable them to consistently develop world-class products.
My feeling is that Portland’s growth is offering us an incredibly unique opportunity. That opportunity is to take the torch from the Phil Knights and Dan Wiedens to drive Portland’s cultural evolution. My call is to do it through defining purpose, prioritizing people and participating in our subculture; allowing us to build great organizations and most importantly to maintain Portland as our competitive advantage.