I Struggle With Culture Every Single Day

Glen Tripp, Galileo Learning

August 10, 2015

Done right, culture gives your teammates jetpack powers. Done wrong, your culture becomes a backpack full of rocks that drags people down.

I learned my first big lesson about culture in 1994. I’d joined my brother, Alan Tripp, at the company he founded, SCORE! Educational Centers. At the retail-based tutoring centers, recent college graduates coached kids using adaptive learning software. The software took care of the basics so the tutors could focus on high-level value adds. It was a pretty neat concept. But it was a concept that failed, in large part because we lost sight of our culture.

When I joined, there were 11 employees and a strong, purpose-driven culture. We were doing something bigger than helping kids get better at reading or math; we were changing the way learning was delivered. In 1996, we hired more Stanford graduates than any other company. Harvard Business School wrote a case study about us. It was thrilling. When Kaplan wanted to buy the company—we could grow faster! They could mitigate the risks!—we decided to sell.

Over the next few years, we gained more resources and responsibilities than we ever could have dreamed of. We grew from 14 centers to 130 centers. But we lost our culture along the way. We brought in talent faster than we were able to absorb it. We invested less in our culture-building traditions. Our program got stale, and our performance faltered. Eventually, SCORE! was shut down. We had built something amazing and then watched it crumble.

When I moved on, I wanted to stay in education. It was 2001, and I was concerned that the new No Child Left Behind legislation would shift focus away from creative problem solving and innovation. To counter that tide, a team of 12 of us created a summer camp in Palo Alto where we used project-based learning to develop our campers into innovators. Through the experience of building a go-kart, for example, our campers would gain the mindset and process skills needed to turn any idea into a reality. We called it Camp Galileo.

We’re now in year 14 of profitable growth. We’ve expanded to 46 sites around California. Our staff of 1,700 served 44,000 kids in summer 2015. And we’ve never taken a single outside dollar.

But I still struggle with culture every single day.

I believe that culture is simply mission and values come to life. We established ours by starting with clarity on why we come to work every day—to develop innovators who envision and create a better world. Then we decided how we wanted to interact with one another, our work and the world at large. We rooted our values in behaviors rather than making them about vague concepts.

Armed with that clarity, we developed hiring systems that screened for mission and values fit. For example, we typically have finalist candidates collaborate together on a group project to help us see how they interact. We are willing to say no to candidates who are long on skills but short on commitment to our mission.

Once people join our organization, they find that the mission and values are not just a piece of paper on the wall. Instead, they experience rituals and practices that reinforce our mission and values at every turn, from recognition by a peer at team meeting to fun camp-like traditions to the way we design our goal-setting and reflection processes. We’ve got a set of our value substatements in our headquarters conference room. If we think we need to be particularly collaborative or determined in a meeting, we literally place that value statement—“I am collaborative” or “I am determined”—in the center of the table.

In January, we take our new camp directors on a retreat where, at midnight, in the middle of a big, dark hall, we reenact the top-secret founding mythology of Camp Galileo. (It involves a six-foot-tall chicken who spoke to Galileo himself.) And for every thousand-enrollment milestone, we’ve been known to do a line dance. Rituals and systems make culture real.

Do we always get it right? Absolutely not. We often make mistakes and have to correct, and continual recalibration is mandatory. But hopefully we all know to assume the best intentions, and we share ownership of what we are trying to create together.

Culture is not just fun and games; it’s good business. We have an extremely high customer recommendation rate and net promoter score. We’ve been named the No. 1 place to work among companies with fewer than 100 year-round employees by the San Francisco Business Times and made Inc. magazine’s list of the 50 best places to work.

It’s not impossible to grow quickly while maintaining or even strengthening your culture, but it isn’t enough just to have patient capital. To build a strong culture and Evergreen company that’ll be around (and profitable) for the long haul, you need complete alignment of your mission and values—and you also need to be willing to take action.

Glen Tripp, CEO and Founder of Galileo Learning, LLC

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