Robert Glazer | The Hard Truth About Company Culture

Robert Glazer, founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners, has a recipe for business success: invest in your people. Help them grow… and watch your business grow. 

Part of that process is creating a company culture that supports this process… and finding people who fit in that culture.

But Robert says creating culture doesn’t mean putting in a foosball table in the breakroom, and it’s not a mission statement sent around in a memo or on a poster. It’s a set of guiding principles that inform everything you and your employees do.

We talk about the hard work that should go into this process, as well as…

  • The most dangerous myths about company culture 
  • Tips for hiring best-fit employees (and having those that don’t fit “self-select” out)
  • How company culture fits into your management style
  • The biggest mistakes in setting core values
  • And more

Listen now…

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Transcript

Steve Gordon: Welcome to the Unstoppable CEO Podcast. I’m your host, Steve Gordon, and I’ve got a really fantastic interview for you today. I am really excited to be talking with Robert Glazer. He’s the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners. They are a global partner marketing agency. They’ve been the recipient of numerous industry awards and awards around company culture, including Glassdoor’s Employee Choice Awards two years in a row, and that’s a big deal. He’s the author of the inspirational newsletter, Friday Forward which has several hundred thousand subscribers to it. He’s author of The Wall Street Journal USA Today bestseller, Elevate. And he is a speaker and has a podcast called the Elevate Podcast. And I’m just excited that he’s chosen to come and invest a little bit of time with all of us today. So, Robert Glazer, welcome to the Unstoppable CEO.

Robert Glazer: Thanks for having me, Steve.

Steve: So you’ve done an awful lot of things. You’ve built a very successful company. I’d love to just get a glimpse of, beyond the bio, what got you to the stage of your career?

How Robert Got to Where He is Today

Robert: That’s good question. Probably a lot of luck and good timing. And I think sort of focusing on some core principles. So sort of an accident I got involved in our industry of affiliate and partner marketing. I really liked it because it was about people doing well together. And we started to really build that business and realize there are a lot of people in the industry but not a lot looking to do it at sort of the high-end level and that became sort of a real opportunity for us. But we always had like, there was always like, what we did and then how we did it. And I’ve been more interested in sort of how we did it and trying to build a company that had a unique and differentiated culture and that focused on investing in people and having that be the foundation of growth rather than, like I always like to say that there are growth companies just the mandate is to grow at any cost and they swapped out a lot of people and burn through a lot of people. I think we’ve been a growth company that said, hey, let’s invest in people who want to grow and have that be, that help, they help us grow the business. And so we’ve grown, we’ve been able to grow with those people, which I think is a little different from the kind of nice growth clip but different from the sort of venture-backed kind of growth curve.

Steve: Yeah, and I know you put a lot of emphasis on building a culture that will support that growth. When you think about culture, I mean, it’s talked about a lot these days. I mean, there are a lot of people talking about culture, but when you think about it, what’s unique about the way that you guys approach culture?

Robert: Yes, I think I think there’s some things that we think that are universal about companies with good culture that I would agree with. If people are paid well and treated well, and, you know, there’s benefits, and I think way too much culture has gotten confused with like ping pong and foosball tables and baristas. And that’s actually not culture and oftentimes that stuff is designed to mask a poor culture. But beyond that, to me, like it’s a little like colleges. Like, I think a culture represents a really differentiated point of view that should appeal to like-minded people. So, you know, you think about there’s a lot of people who like their university or college, but there’s, you know, small ones in the woods and big ones in cities and the person that the small one that woods probably would not like the big one in the city. So I actually think a great culture is just having a differentiated point of view and being consistent between what it is that you think that you say and that you do. And culture is really the operating system. We believe these things. This is what we talked about and this is what we do and that’s aligned. It does not mean that it’s for everyone. In fact, you know, we have people that come into our company, and they, you know, we’re good on feedback. And they say, hey, well, I want to change this, or we should open offices, or we should do this. And we say, you know, thank you very much but we hear that, but that’s not what 99% of the people want. That’s not our business model and that’s not really what we stand for. So if that’s something that you really want, then this may not be the right place for you. So I actually think that’s the thing with culture too is to really identify like, again, who is it a fit for? Who is it not? And not try to be everything to anyone. But the cultures, every company has a culture. It has one by design or by default. The ones that really frustrate people having talked to a lot of employees that come in are the ones that say one thing and do another. If you don’t talk about it at all, I can interview your employees and find out what your culture is. You might not have had words on the wall or whatever, but I can tell you what it is based on the behaviors and stuff that you reward. But what frustrates people is when, you know, what on the wall is just not at all how people behave on a day to day basis.

Steve: I love that thought that every company has a culture, whether you know it or not. What are some of the ways that, you know, as you maybe are talking to other business leaders, that you can kind of guide them in being a bit more intentional about building a culture?

Self-Awareness and Intentionality in Company Culture

Robert: So the first thing is they have to be self-aware. They have to understand their core values. They have to understand their personal culture because that’s gonna resonate with a business. Like one of the things I like to say like, if you’re a competitive a-hole, and that’s how you want to run your business, you want, you know, the top 90%, you were, you know, an athlete, you want the top 90% of bonuses to go to 10% of the people, all that stuff like, that’s fine. You’ll find plenty of people like that. But don’t go out there and say we have a company of teamwork, whatever. You should say we’re about winning. You know, this is what we believe in, and you will get people that want to play that game. So it starts with the owner being self-aware, clear on their values. And then being willing to say, this is the company I’m creating, this is what we stand for. These are our real core values. People get hired, they get fired, we made the decisions based on these core values. This is the type of business you want to run. And if you want to, if you’re excited by that vision and mission and you want to come join us and what we’re trying to do, great. If that’s not interesting to you at all, then you actually want to root that out in the interview process because that person’s not going to do well there. But I think there’s so many people out there that don’t know what they want and they’re confused and they’re presenting conflicts in the world and they’re saying stuff and they’re putting the stuff on the wall that they just don’t even believe in. And people like a differentiated mission. They like people, I’d much prefer the term authenticity to integrity because I think people have different definitions of integrity. But we understand authenticity. It’s just, I am what I say, I do what I say. Like, there’s alignment. I always say like, I hope that if people come to our company and it’s not a fit, they say, look, I just, I signed up for the wrong cause. I thought I wanted to city school and I actually want to country school. Or, you know, I’m a running back, I signed up for a passing offense but like, we were consistent with what we said what we did, they just realized it was not the right fit for them. Not that they came in and felt that they were sold a bag of goods.

Steve: Yeah, and I would imagine getting to that point requires a lot of conscious thought on the part of the leadership of the company, you know? There’s some intentionality that needs to happen there. As you guys were building that out in Acceleration Partners, what were some of the conversations you went through to sort of codify the culture?

Robert: I think we were clear about what we wanted. And as we grew, it got a little murky at four or five million in revenue. That was actually when we cut our core values from six to three. So to me, I have a unique vision, not vision, unique definition of core values like or my opinion on them. It’s not unique but the perspective is shared by some and not others. I don’t think they’re marketing slogans, I think they’re the DNA of what makes someone at your company successful. And when you have six, and people don’t know what they are, and they’re five out of six, once we got down to three, which everyone that our company knows, which is own it, embrace relationships and excel and improve, and people hear it all the time and there are awards and call outs, and it’s very aligned, you know, to that, you couldn’t, two out of three is a failing grade. So someone who’s going to be successful really needs to have all three of those qualities and demonstrate them regularly. And that was a key pivot point because when we got down to three and we really operationalize them around all sides of the business, it just becomes really clear when someone is not a fit or is not aligned to them. And often they will opt out before we even have the discussion. They’ll realize, you know what, they’re serious about this own it thing. Like, I’m, it’s not my thing or our definition of a relation, embrace relationships is really not about individual achievement and working with other people on the team. And so, you know, someone who really is a rugged individualist and, you know, doesn’t want to share what they know and all that stuff will be like, you know what, there’s actually, this isn’t the right environment for me. So I, a lot of people, and, you know, we also before this, we were one of the largest remote companies in the US. Probably in the top 100. And even probably globally, and, you know, a lot of people would say, how do you make this work, you know, in that environment? And I always say, we’re very intentional with the type of people and qualities. Like, our, the client service team, which is about the bulk of our positions. It’s about a 2% application to hire rate. So it’s not that everyone worked in our environment, that we have spent a lot of time and energy figuring out who works and who doesn’t.

Steve: And, you know, it’s, that ratio, that 2%, you know, two out of every hundred are hired. And when I think about that, you know, that, to me is one of the great benefits of creating this reputation of being, you know, having a great culture and being a great place to work. You guys have the awards to kind of back that out. But it allows you to attract a volume of talent that is probably difficult for other companies who aren’t in that position to attract. It’s almost as though the culture becomes sort of this flywheel whereas you get it going and it gets momentum that just keeps, you know, kind of continuing that momentum. Is that how you guys experience it inside the company?

A Perpetual Push to Achieve

Robert: Yeah, and the volume is important, right? But I think more than volume, we’re looking for to attract people who are attracted to the, you know, ideals and actually won’t want to live under that. So as an example, we are a growth-oriented culture. It’s fast. Like that’s what people like. So we, on occasion, when people come in, and they’re, it’s not a great place for a middle lane person or someone who’s in the middle lane of their career and just wants kind of like consistency. So you’ll hear that in the feedback. So they’ll come in and they’ll say, Well, I need more time. I need fewer clients, I need, and it’s just not, everything that they don’t like, is this stuff that other people like. So you’ll actually even see in a lot of our Glassdoor comments, our employees who are writing favorable reviews going out of their way to scare away the wrong type of people to company. Look, you see all these awards and all this stuff, but make no mistake, like we’re a company that supports our people on the leadership team great. But like, we also want to be number one in our field. We are fast-growing, it’s high pace, we don’t tolerate mistakes. Like, those things are also true. It’s not, and my favorite review, as someone said, this is the hardest and best job I’ve ever had. We’re about growth and pushing people and accomplishing great things. A lot of people don’t want to be pushed like that. And that’s fine. We’re just, we’re not the right place for them. And we have to identify that and they have to identify that. I think so many people would be better off. I have this notion of like, fly your flag. If companies can be really honest, like kinda like schools, like, Hey, here’s what we stand for, like, here’s who we are, here’s what we stand for, people would make the right decisions and more people would get in the place that is the right for them because there’s probably a company that is the opposite of us. They are also nice, they’re also supportive, but they are not high growth. They are about stability, you know, they are about loyalty, they are about, and we’re about good work and outcomes and performance. And, you know, you’re not rewarded for being there for 10 years, you’re rewarded because you were there for 10 years and you’re a superstar. I just, if every company could fly their flag a little more honestly, I think everyone would find the right place for them.

Steve: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. And I would imagine that because you’ve got such an intentional culture that it probably aids in the management of the company. I mean, what I’ve noticed in some of the businesses we work with where they’ve really got culture dialed in is that it sort of forces self-selection. And the people in the company that are really plugged into the culture almost tend to, and not in a negative way but they sort of tend to call out the people who aren’t. And the people who don’t fit, you know, they see it themselves and

Robert: They feel it. We had two or three times in the last two years when someone was about to go have a discussion with someone and they gave their notice the day before. Like, it, they feel it because again, we’re pretty consistent about that stuff. It’s like it’s just like knowing you’re in the wrong system.

Steve: Well, and I don’t think that’s a, you know, a negative thing at all. I mean, a lot of people may hear that, and they think, wow, that’s terrible that, you know, the person didn’t feel like they were welcome or something, but I don’t think that’s it.

Robert: Well, yeah. It’s not that they’re not welcome and it’s not that their group thing, but I go back to my college example where I don’t know that sometimes that person knows what they want, right? And so they go to a small liberal arts school and they’re like, Oh, I really want a city. You know, it’s not, there’s nothing wrong with that school, there’s nothing wrong with a person, it’s just not the right place for them.

Steve: Yeah, I always believe that, you know, there’s a place for everyone. And as business leaders, part of our role is to help people figure out where that place is to the extent that we can. And sometimes it’s not here. You know, sometimes it’s here and it’s in a particular role and part of our job is to help them get there because that, you know, serves a purpose of the business and the individual. But at the same time, there are people who ought to be someplace else. And it’s better for them if they get there because they can get somewhere where they can thrive.

Clear, Concise and Honest Communication With Employees

Robert: And those people need self-awareness too. So we have a very open, I did a TEDx Talk on this. We have a very open transition program. Like, we don’t, we try to avoid two weeks notice. Like, if it’s not working out with someone, we will start a discussion and let them engage in a long term, often multi-month transition and help them find a new job. Like, we want them to do well, whether it’s here or otherwise. So we’ve tried to eliminate two weeks notice. We’ve tried to open up and say look, you’re free to have a discussion and you will not be walked through the door and say, I don’t like Bob, I don’t like this company. I want to work somewhere else. And we’ll be like great. Better that we know that like, let’s, you can start interviewing and it will be a reference. And I really believe that we have like about a safe of as the thing as you could to do that. So what we say is part of that program is we’ll come to you, you know, if we see this and it’s something we want to talk about that we think the long term issue and come to us. Like, as soon as you know you don’t want to work here, come to us, start a dialogue and we can make the transition work better for everyone because, and look, we’re gonna see this now. I’ve been saying this for years, but leaving in two weeks notice kind of saying you were happy and then kind of leaving in a lurch is not a great way to leave a job. You can undo a lot of the stuff we’ve done. And people are really going to need these relationships now. A lot of people have job hopped and burn a lot of bridges because it was a 12-year record run and the market sort of valued that. And now when they have no one that they can call, you know, for a reference or that everyone remembers that person left with five days notice, it’s not gonna be really great for them. But I was talking with someone about this the other day, and this goes to sort of personal self-awareness too, even though we have this sort of safety, when we go to people and we say, look, the manager goes this is this just doesn’t seem to be the right job for you. It’s been a struggle. And I just If something’s a struggle, training is great and training can fix some things around the edges, but if something is a struggle, it is not likely to work out, right? If you love it and you’re good at it, you’re going to get better at it. And we’ll have managers go to people and say, Look, all of our data says this isn’t working. You came in, in a class of people that was seven people, you’ve been struggling the whole time. This just doesn’t seem like the right thing. Can we help you find a new job? Can we help you do something different? Or do you really want to go on a performance plan and all this stuff? They will choose the ladder a lot of the times, even though we’re telling them it’s probably not gonna work out, we think it’s a mistake. I just, because I don’t think that they, again, they have the awareness to say, look, this is not the right job for me. It’s not the right role for me. It’s not the right something for me. Like, I just want to keep struggling in it rather than finding the thing that I’m good at and move to a different environment.

Steve: Yeah. Well, I can see a lot of people who really haven’t gotten to a point in life where they have become that self-aware and feel like they need to do that. So yeah, that makes complete sense. So I want to kind of bring this down and make it really practical for folks who are listening. So, you know, if somebody’s listening to this and maybe they haven’t been all that intentional with culture, they’ve got a, you know, a smaller company. Rome wasn’t built in a day, I’m sure. I mean, you guys didn’t, you didn’t have today’s culture, you know, when the day you started. So what would be the first few things? Like, if you were in a position of somebody who’s got a small team, and they’re, you know, they’re growing and they want to do it the right way, what are some of the things they should do first?

Robert: Yeah, I mean, if you don’t have core values, I would really spend some time and figure out clear core values for you personally and for the business. And I would start orienting your business around that and making decisions, key business decisions and people decisions around those values. I think that is the number one thing that you do to set a culture. There’s an exercise that a lot of people use for that called Mission to Mars. You can Google it. I think it’s all over the internet. But one thing about business core values is that they cannot be aspirational. They cannot be things that you want to be. They have to be things that, better to do this when you have at least five or 10 employees, where if you were literally picking the best DNA characteristics among all your top people, you would say, this is what they all have in common. This is what I really value. It has to be something you are. It can’t be something that you want to be. And they also can’t be pay to play. Like I really just I think things like integrity and innovation and these things, they’re not core values. Like, it should be more than one word. As I said before, like ours are own it, embrace relationships, and excel and improve. So each of those, you know, is very explicit and then together, they’re a very specific type of viewpoint, on what we value. When I see these companies and they’re like, respect integrity honesty, like, honestly, that’s just a bunch of BS. That’s not core values. That’s just something that they’re putting on a wall. Those are sort of pay for play variables. Like pay, for that those are table stakes. Would you not hire someone? Would you hire someone that was disrespectful? Would you hire someone who’s dishonest? No, no one, in theory, would like people, you know, like that. So that’s not actually talking about what makes your company different. Like, we value winning. Like, that’s a pretty, that’s a specific differentiated point of view, right? And wouldn’t be my core value, but I like, I’d give Bravo to someone who is willing to actually, you know, say that and the people who are team players go, that’s not the type of environment I want to be in. But I, so many people, the first thing they do is they grab a thing, a Dilbert thing, they say we value, you know, honesty, integrity, respect, teamwork. Like, that will do nothing for your business.

Steve: Yeah. You know, some of those things are just so overdone. I mean, they, to the point that they’re meaningless, I think at this stage. And they don’t give you, I mean, I look at all of these sorts of things, you know, if you’re going to take the time to lay out some of these core values, they really should guide you in describing kind of who you are and describe who you are to both the current team, and they should recognize that I would imagine, because it ought to be reflective of who they are. But also to the people coming in. I mean, it needs to be very clear and descriptive of this is how, you know, we are here. This is how to be.

You Likely Don’t Want Groupthink in Your Company

Robert: Yeah, it should be accurate, right? It should be like, this is what it’s gonna look like and feel like. So, like, our standard of own it is high. When you make a mistake, you’re asked to write a report and share it with everyone about how we can all learn from that mistake. Like, if that makes you uncomfortable, that sort of level of accountability, like, don’t, you won’t like working here. That’s why as I was saying, like, people read off these awards on the intro, and I always like to say, like, Look, we’re a great place to work. I truly believe that, for a specific set of people. And it’s not groupthink, it’s really not. We’re all looking for our tribe. People who we, we don’t want to spend a lot of time with people who, we want different perspectives and opinions and whatever. But we all don’t want to spend a lot of time with people who don’t share our values, right? That is sort of antithetical to our human nature. But we all have different values.

Steve: Yeah, and I was just gonna say it creates too much friction, you know? I mean, you don’t want to show up to work or really anywhere else in your life where you’re constantly kind of grating against the people around you and the way that they see the world.

Robert: You don’t want groupthink. You do not want people who don’t challenge each other and ideals and all this stuff and so I think inclusion is really important. But I do think sometimes on inclusion stuff, people will take it a little too far, saying, talking about culture and stuff and saying it’s groupthink. I mean, as my example is like, if you and your friends want to start a Bible group because you want to talk about that thing, you do not want an atheist who is, you know, against the Bible in your group. Like, and you have the right to do that, right? I mean, that’s not what you were looking, you know, that’s not what you were looking for. You could all have different perspectives and stuff, but I think we’ve like, gone a little too far and sometimes saying like, I think the tribalness, finding your tribe, people that share your values, like, I don’t think that precludes discrimination or groupthink. It just depends on how you do it. I think if you’re just looking for everyone to be an echo chamber, that’s one thing, but I think we do best in life when we live in communities or we, you know, find partners or do things that align with people who share our fundamental values.

Steve: Yeah, well, I couldn’t agree more. Well, so, Robert, where can people find out more about you? You’ve got a fantastic newsletter, you’ve got a podcast, you’ve got a book. Of course, Acceleration Partners does great stuff. So where would be the best place for people to connect with you?

Robert: It’s all at robertglazer.com. And there’s even a landing page slash connect if you want to find everything all in one place. But there you can find podcasts, sign up for Friday Forward. You can, the book Elevate’s on there. I also have a new book which is actually also called Friday Forward, which is coming out in September.

Steve: Oh, fantastic. Well, congratulations on book number two. I know that’s, there’s a lot of work that goes into putting a book out, so that’s awesome. Share a little bit, if you would, about Acceleration Partners and what you guys do, just so everybody’s got some context.

Robert: Yeah, so we manage large scale affiliate programs and partner programs for brands. And so rather than buying like a click or an impression online, what we do is we help kind of create digital partnerships where people promote the products and services. We track that through to the retailer or the service website. And then when there’s a conversion or a sale or subscription, that partner is paid. So it’s a type of marketing where it’s 100% on an outcome and a performance basis, which is why people really like it. And we’re seeing even a gravitation to that more of that now, as people really have limited budgets and want to align performance with their budget.

Steve: Yeah. And it’s a fantastic approach. When we talk about in a different context, all the time, one of the best ways, I think, to grow a business is through building those sorts of relationships with the people who’ve already aggregated your customer base and, yeah. So that’s awesome. Well, thanks for investing a little bit of time with me today and for sharing your wisdom with all of our audience. And, folks, go check out everything that Robert’s got. Just fantastic information. And we’ll catch you next week.

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