How to Build A Great Culture From Scratch — And What To Do When Your Culture Is Broken w/ Mark McClain

As Jim Collins says, a large part of a CEO's job is getting the right people in the right seats on the bus.

One of the best ways to get the right people is to define a company culture that attracts the best people, but knowing to create one from the beginning is rare, and managing a great culture through the twists and turns of growth isn’t easy. On the latest episode of What Culture Could Be, Mark McClain, CEO and Founder of SailPoint Technologies, shares his perspective on where to start when creating a culture, how to keep it on the rails and thriving when growth is coming at you fast, and why starting with values when things are broken is critical.  

Technology matters, but people are critical:

The people side of a business has far more to do with its long term success than its technology. As tech-focused companies we often get enamored with the latest, greatest, and coolest technologies. In this digital era, it is important to have a focus on innovative or disruptive technology.

You can have an amazing tech breakthrough, but if you get the people stuff wrong, your company will still implode. To be successful, we need to innovate through people, build connections and an environment that fosters collaboration, open communication, an energy that keeps people going. And all this starts with building a great culture. A great product or technology is a small part of what it takes to build a sustainable, winning team.


A great culture starts and ends with your core values.

Mark starts by describing culture in simple terms: how we treat each other at work.  As you become more involved with customers and partners, these expectations - your values - are a guiding framework for how to serve the customer, how to treat partners, and what to do in times of uncertainty. And the way those values are substantiated is through your actions as the CEO - how you measure and reward success, how you deal with less than good behavior, and how decisions are made to part ways with people who aren’t aligned to the culture.

Despite what some may think, company values aren’t words to out on the website to recruit better (although they help!), but they are the framework through which all key decisions around people are made. There is no authority or playbook for leading people well, but values can be a tool used to remove uncertainty and ambiguity for everyone and guide behavior, thoughts, and practices together.  Even if we know this, though, the hard part for CEOs is to make sure they are living them out in a way people see, believe, and can also model. Try a simple gut check: how did you talk about, live out, and reinforce the company values last week/last month?

If the answer isn’t what you’d like, be open and vulnerable enough to be held accountable. For me, when things got busy or hard, it was easy to let . the actions fall to the wayside re: living out our core values, actively recognizing employees who were setting the example, and guess what? We built a culture of transparency and accountability. People let me know, and I was able to adjust my behavior.

Just like your business plan, great cultures require being deliberate from the start.

It’s easy to think you “do culture” later, when you have time, when you can hire someone to do this for the company, maybe when you have a problem. I admire how real Mark is about his experience with good (and bad) cultures, which helped him start with this first, knowing it would be a huge differentiator for the company he was building. Asking the questions, “who do we want to be?”, “what behaviors will drive our success”, and “what values will stand the test of time with customers” are some of the ways he and his partners shaped their culture and values from the start.

You may think you have time to figure this stuff out later, or believe that HR is owning this so you can focus on other things. The long and short of it is this: you will deal with it sooner or later. By showing intentionality from the beginning, you are driving the outcome. By not defining it, you are dealing with it in negative ways, when people aren’t aligned to the mission, when you find that you’ve hired people who just “don’t fit”, or maybe when you have extreme turnover across your sales team causing you to miss targets quarter over quarter. You're going to have to do the work at some point, either by defining your culture at the beginning or changing it later.


And what if  things are broken? Where to start?

Thinking about the investment in culture like the investment we make into our own health:  The healthier you are, the more you can withstand issues. When things go sideways, and they always do, investing in culture along the way is like insurance against this, so it’s fair to say you need to have a long-term investment view, as a leader, when investing in people and culture. Healthier companies and cultures can withstand a downturn, a change in the competitive landscape, a major service delivery issue with customers, and the list goes on and on.  

If you know there is an issue, start with a diagnostic. Where are you and the business feeling the issue the most?

  • Crazy turnover across the board or in one department in particular?

  • People leaving right at the point they become fully productive?

  • Getting turned down a lot when you make offers to top talent? On this note, does your recruiting timeline take forever?

  • Just bad energy when you walk the halls, seeing clearly that people “mail it in” more than anything?

  • Missed goals? Poor service to the customer?  

All of these are symptoms of misaligned or ill-defined culture and employee experience. There is always a people element to consider in addition to whatever operational issue is playing out. So, assess the issue, discuss the root cause, and develop a strategic and tactical plan of attack. Don’t tell HR to fix it though. This isn’t an HR problem. If you take anything from my conversation with Mark, the CEO owns this one, with a lot of help with HR and the leadership team, but ultimately he is owning culture.   

This episode of What Culture Could Be is brought to you by Kazoo - the only all-in-one people management platform. To learn more about Kazoo, visit This post is based on a What Culture Could Be podcast with Mark McClain. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to the podcast here.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen here.

Autumn Manning