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By trueU | Jun. 28, 2016

The role culture plays in growing a company that defies the odds.

This guest blog is by Tiffany Sauder, President, Element Three ( and trueU Member on the importance of growing your people and your business through authentic values.

I recently gave a presentation at Resolve, on this same topic. It was refreshing to spend a day with leaders who care deeply about building people-passionate companies.  Here is our story.

So you can better understand how unlikely the success story has been at Element Three, I feel compelled to create a more vivid picture for you of what ‘defies the odds’ really means.

Element Three circa 2005 looked something like this:

E3 Early Days Office Space

We had one of those office spaces – where if a client said they wanted to have a meeting at your office, you prayed to the good lord all night long, that by some miracle the thing would just burn down.

I’ve never so much as been class President, yet at the age of 24, I was given a job I was completely unqualified for. And every day I’ve been leading this amazing company – I’ve rolled out of bed having never run a company of that size before.

So how do you take these unlikely ingredients in a difficult-to-scale business model and actually build something special?

Caring about culture is a relatively new thing for me. I used to see it as a massive waste of time, a soft business function that couldn’t be monetized. In my college classes, I consciously remember thinking. “I will seriously never use this”. It’s now the thing I think about, obsess over and handle with more care than any other aspect of business.

I see my role at E3 in a similar way as I see my role as a parent. It’s my job to grow great people in both places. To hatch these amazing, talented, gifted, special people – and to help connect them to the opportunities and challenges in the world that will help them find new levels of themselves. To help them find confidence, learn vulnerability and to not run away when things are hard. To teach them to fly on their own! Wow.

So since I didn’t learn anything about this topic in college – the place I really had to look closely at how to do this effectively was growing up at home.

Tiffany Sauders family

I asked myself: How did I know what right and wrong was? How did I know what was ok? How did I learn to make decisions on my own? How did I learn confidence? How did I start to know ‘What mom would do?’ How did I start to dream? How did I start to fly?

I started to realize – my parents are really the ones who modeled culture to me first.

My family’s culture can be summed up this way:

As I started looking more closely at this list – I realized; “aren’t these really our family values?”

I thought it would be a great idea to look up on the internet – how are values and culture connected? Oh geez, I read a bunch of academic jazz that made no sense to me – and then I ran across this gem.

“Values, therefore, affect culture through:

– by Dr. Holger Siemons

My parents taught me how to navigate an infinite number of scenarios in my future by teaching me principles and values and how to make decisions – so that when I was on my own – I’d know what to do – and I’d know what it looked like to make the right decision. Isn’t that what we’re trying to help our employees do? Navigate an infinite number of scenarios by applying a set of clear principles – and making the right decision?

So what do we need to think about to do this successfully?

1: Don’t delegate culture.

Defining the culture is a leadership and visionary function. If you’re the President or CEO, don’t shirk your responsibility to actively be involved in informing and defining your company’s culture. Others may help you carry it out and hold others accountable to living the values – but it’s your job to create a clear compass for all to follow.

I made the mistake early in my career of delegating this important task to the loudest (and most experienced) voice. It was tragically misaligned with my own values set. Which brings me to my next point…

2: Don’t wear someone else’s clothes.

I recently had coffee with a young marketer who, at the directive of her CEO, was being tasked with turning the company into an ’employee obsessed’ culture. After she was done sharing with me the journey – I asked her a simple question “so, how’s it going?”  And she turned bright red and said “not very well.”

After a bit more diagnosis – I realized what was happening. The largest company in their market was being celebrated at every turn – and their culture was all about ’employee obsession’. And this position was very authentic to their leader, but not to hers. As a result, it was coming off very forced and the employees were not buying it.

Why? Because being ’employee obsessed’ was not a position her leader could authentically claim – he was putting on someone else’s clothes – so to speak – and they didn’t fit very well.

3: There are no exceptions.

No one is too valuable to be exempt from complying with your values. There are no exceptions.

Be honest with yourself on this one. If you have someone on your team who does not comply with the values, yet still works for you because they represent a lot of revenue or a strategic client relationship – what you’re really saying to the rest of the organization is that you value money more than your values. Which might be true – but don’t hide behind the values if you’re not willing to make the tough decisions.

Isn’t the most infinite resource we can give the world ‘people who know how to be, to think, to grow things and to lead; people who are confident and clear in their intent, direction and talents’.

How many of us are subconsciously holding ourselves back because we lack self-confidence? Because we fear we will fail? Or fear that others will judge what we’re doing or saying? What if we could stop being afraid? I contend that well defined cultures allow such clarity in what is and is not acceptable – that people can step into challenges with more confidence than they otherwise would be able to.

I believe, one of the most important things we can do as human beings is unlock the potential of another human being.

Clear cultures build confident people.

To help lead them to an envisioned future that that can’t see alone. That some way, some how, you can show them a version of themselves that only you can see.

Each of us has the opportunity to do this – through parenting, aunts, uncles, grandparents, mentors, managers – and for me the role is very evident – as the President of a company and mom to 3 daughters.

Is the culture you live within an authentic reflection of your true values?