Why Culture and People Will Always Trump Tech
THRUUE CEO Dan Forrester interviewed by Eric Letsinger
Daniel Forrester is the CEO of THRUUE, a consulting firm that helps leaders and organizations close the gap between strategy and culture. Dan has a lot to say…about everything. Dan runs fast and hard…at many things. Whenever I see Dan (never often enough), he’s always just arriving from the most interesting event of his life. He’s always wound up about it…excited…like he’s just witnessed aliens landing on the White House lawn and he needs to share it with you…right now. Whether he’s coming from a meeting with a Fortune 100 CEO, a session he delivered to a corporate boardroom, or the Valentine’s Day Party at his daughter’s fourth grade classroom, Dan is going to be fired up and ready to go! So, not surprisingly, he shows up for this conversation with sense of purpose and urgency, thanks me in advance for the moments ahead, spins a chair around to sit in it backwards, and says, “Let’s rock.” So we do…
Eric: You’re a man of many talents and accomplishments. How on Earth did this whole THRUUE adventure start for you?
Dan: I roll back to some origin moments. I’m a lifelong strategist, I am inspired by seeing and navigating the potential path forward to help leaders and organizations achieve big things. I thrive in helping companies define a purposeful vision for the future. I found that I was good at making a strong case for change and then driving the execution of that change. I cut my teeth helping global leaders navigate technology change at a renowned consulting firm that I proudly helped grow for over 13 years. But there was a moment when I realized how much I enjoyed working directly with CEOs, especially new ones. For me, those were joyful rooms to be in. I have always known I have some entrepreneurial instincts and an appetite to “lead from the front” as my mentor Colonel David Sutherland says, but it took some time for me to come up for a vision for my company. I was in my mid-forties and happy with where I was, but starting to worry about potential “life regrets”—specifically, about never starting my own company. I am glad I did start the company.
Eric: What prepared you for this?
Dan: For me, the secret sauce was having a liberal arts education. I’m a poet from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., who studied broadly before I narrowed into business and eventually got an MBA. I am a horizontal thinker—I connect a lot of dots across a lot of different sets of data coming at me. I benefit every day from a liberal education as it taught me to see the world in a wide context. I’m absurdly curious about so many things and like to dream about possibilities. It was that liberal arts education, though, that poured a strong foundation for me to dance upon.
Eric: You’ve built a powerful brand around tying culture to strategy to impact. How did you settle on culture as your impact lever?
Dan: Life is too short to be giving your labor to something that doesn’t move the world closer to goodness. And most Americans are simply disengaged from work. When I’m in the “right rooms for me,”’ I’m moved…I’m inspired to bring my A+ game. When I’m asked by CEOs of iconic organizations to help them reset their strategy and close the gaps within their cultures, it’s a hell of lot more rewarding for me than selling high-fructose corn syrup. There is something about culture that can’t be solved with technology and more and more, it is being seen as the lynchpin for why companies succeed or fail. This is what drew me to start a company that can measure and manage culture and then tie it to the strategy of a company. The gravity, at times, can be overwhelming as we are in rooms where CEOs needs to show results quickly. There tends to be an incredible awakening in companies who break away from a parochial view…towards being national and global leaders. When our clients overtly connect their own missions to national and global purpose, it’s intoxicating for everyone. For management, staff, investors, and customers…everyone feels a sense of hope and that’s when people are inspired to work. When we convert “heavy rooms” into “hopeful rooms” with new possibilities designed and old patterns questioned, it’s most exciting.
One more aspect of “why culture”? I sit with my kids a lot, William and Charlotte. They’re increasingly curious about what I’m working on. When I explain it, and clearly I’m pretty excitable about this stuff, they get it. It’s great to be wrestling with work that your own kids understand.
Eric: Your clients refer to your approach as “relentlessly never settling for adequate.” What drives you towards an innovation agenda?
Dan: Let’s begin with defining culture. In fancy-pants terms, it’s the values and behaviors that form a coherent ethos. In plain English, culture simply is “the way things are done around here”…it’s alive…it’s measurable…it’s tangible. On its worst day, culture can undermine A+ strategies. On its best days, a healthy culture can change the world. Culture forces you to come to grips with the fact that we can imagine winning by way of strategies. But if we divorce strategies from behaviors modeled from the top and we fail to take them to policies and process, your strategy will be what I like to call a moon without a planet. Culture creates the gravity that connects the moon to the planet. Culture allows us to thrive in our organizations, day in and day out.
For example, when you’re in a hotel these days, there is almost nothing that differentiates it from others…décor, parking lot, room size, food, wine, etc. The only differentiator is kindness, empathy and the intuition of a motivated staff—and it’s not an accident when it happens, it’s culture. It’s the people, via their culture, that drives differentiation in that business.
Look at Uber: fourteen core behaviors were documented and supposedly valued. But then the last CEO “weaponized them” as Ariana Huffington so rightly said. They didn’t falter because they had a bad strategy, they did so for culture reasons…”do whatever it takes,” for example. There is obviously a healthy version of that...”I’ll work hard.” But there’s always a shadow side…”don’t tell the truth” and “optimize for me, not the enterprise.”
At THRUUE, we try to get to a simple credo that works towards keeping the shadow side of a culture in check while uplifting the upsides of the credo. These become differentiators. Culture and core values are “what you stand for when everyone is looking” and “when no one is looking”…like when an accountant is working late and making decisions when the boss isn’t looking. What’s there to guide them in that moment? There is a delicate balance. When the leaders ape the shadow side only, terrible things happen. It is hard work to build a high performing culture but it’s becoming more and more critical to do so. And when you do, business results happen.
Eric: I’ve watched you build a values-based organization with intentionality and determination. Your teams have a reputation for never losing focus on driving impact for your clients. Where does this come from?
Dan: When you’re a founder of a company, as you know, what you set in motion in the first six months sets the precedence for the future. As a huge believer in power of culture, I started there and focused hard on setting our values in bedrock of granite. I spend a lot of time on Amtrak and watched for behaviors that I wanted to build upon. I chose “client centeredness” to be at the core of what we do. We will listen with two ears and one mouth. We will be curious and empathetic to the circumstances of the market that our clients find themselves in. We will put their success before ours. We will not exist to make a deliverable. We’ll exist to be a partner and trusted advisor to our clients to set the wheels in motion to have their vision become a reality. This doesn’t mean that clients are always right, but it does mean that clients trust us enough to allow us to have sometimes-hard conversations with them. Trustworthiness, another one of our values, means we keep client secrets and we know we have earned that “trustworthy” moniker. Reflective is another one of our core values. Every CEO wishes nothing more than to have more time for reflection. It’s only in times of reflection that you get the big insight and idea. Time for reflection is a gift and it’s destructive not to both give it and take it. Innovation is an overused term, so I chose “inventive” as our final core value. I want us to be seekers, on a quest to find and develop the next big thing. Inventors’ mindsets are unique, and that’s what we’re shooting for. As we move past our five-year anniversary at THRUUE, we now have a strong team of client centric, trustworthy, reflective inventors driving impact in the U.S. and far beyond.
Eric: You have a big mission. How do you stay motivated? Is it your impact on clients or is it their missions that drive you?
Dan: My juice comes from what my Dad always said to me growing up…”it all comes down to people.” I happen to like big, hairy problems and I may be in the right rooms to tackle them, but it all comes down to the people in that room. We are all only as good as the people around us, period. Those teams are only as good as the legions of people they deal with. We’re a weird species. We have the potential to be great, but we also have the potential to be our own worst enemies. We need people who can see the transcendent age we are living in and we need to avoid working with people who don’t see it. It comes down to people in these moments. The tonic for me is moving the minds and souls of the people you are with…I want to help good people who are stuck in the mud get to dry ground and running fast. I want to help them accomplish great things. I want their employees to derive meaning from their work and have a spark inside them to dream and dare. Sadly, most of the American work force dreads coming to work—we see our calling to change that.
Eric: What do you say to those younger, future leaders out there who might be considering safer career paths rather than jumping into mission service?
Dan: I’m a Gen Xer, as are you. While Gen Xers are in the C-Suite now, we’re sharing it with Boomers. To the Millennials who are flooding into the marketplace, it will take another 7-12 years for their generation to fully dominate in the workforce (i.e., occupy the C-Suite outright). I’m bullish on Millennials. I think their habits around technology, draw to social causes, and attraction to action and ambition are going to set the world on fire. Millennials will be inheriting an immoral set of problems across infrastructure, debt, education, political status, the environment, and so much more as this will be the worst hand off in history. They’ll need to avoid asking “why us?” and get right to “why not us?” If they can collaborate with entrepreneurial Gen Xers (of which there are a collection even though we are a small group compared to Millennials), they and we stand a chance to get a good jump on it and truly be the best generation of leaders in my lifetime. If they recoil, our country recoils.
Eric: What do you think have been some of the barriers to innovation adoption within your industry?
There are three things that routinely get in the way of progressing towards goodness, growth and innovation:
Leadership teams that are not comfortable talking about behaviors and the purpose of the firm. EBDTA and spread sheets are so much easier to talk about. Get comfortable talking about culture and behaviors that will move your employees and ground them in your mission.
Lack of sustained leadership to bring mission and culture alive. CEOs under communicate mission and values by an order of magnitude of 10 in my experience.
Failing to attach mission and values to what we call the 3 legs of the stool is also another miss:
Allocating decision rights. You have to get empowerment vs. centralization right.
Feeding back in real time. Annual performance evaluation models are over. It’s just too far away. You need to measure and take stock and create a muscle of permanent real-time feedback. That’s the revolution that’s happening in front of our eyes.
Rewards and recognition. Especially Millennials—they want real and open feedback and want to grow and learn fast. Get great at growing others and labelling great work when you see it.
You can take over the world if you get these three things right.
Eric: You’ve built a stable business with a strong brand, a committed team of talented superstars, and a loyal set of clients who credit your firm with putting them on a path towards greater impact. That’s a big deal…congrats! What’s next for Dan Forrester?
Dan: Measurement is the next wave in our world. Culture can be measured. Our journey is not done here…we have more work to do. If you can continue to bring cultural measurement to the C-suite, then organizations can be transformed as the case for change is quantified. CEOs want measurable progress and Boards want visibility—so they can close the gap between their strategy and their culture. Measurement mixed with engagement from the top of the organization and from the bottom up of an organization is where THRUUE will be found in years to come.