The Secret Sauce: BTS Culture

An Interview with Henrik Ekelund, Founder & CEO, BTS
By Kevin Bronk & Sue Warnke

On a sunny San Francisco morning in March, we hopped on a call with Henrik Ekelund in still-wintry Switzerland.

Both experienced hires, relatively new to BTS, we were fascinated by BTS’s thriving, energized culture and wanted to pick Henrik’s brain to better understand the secrets behind the company culture. What makes it work consistently around the globe as we work with our large corporate clients to make their strategies more personal for their employees and develop the business acumen, leadership, and sales capabilities they need to be successful? How will it evolve as BTS continues to grow?

Read on to uncover what BTS's Founder & CEO thinks about culture, leadership, and having a great time at work.

KEVIN BRONK: Thanks for taking the time, Henrik. I’ll start with what may seem like a simple question. Why does culture matter?

HENRIK EKELUND: I’m convinced culture makes all the difference − for an organization, for a community, for a country, and even for a family. Culture isn’t fluffy; it’s very concrete. It’s the beliefs, values, and behaviors that characterize a group of people. If these beliefs, values, and behaviors are a certain way, that’s going to create success, happiness, and harmony. But the opposite is also true. Without the right culture, you won’t be successful as a business and you will not have happy and engaged people.

I'm convinced culture makes all the difference - for an organization, for a country, for a family."

KB: How does BTS’s culture impact our relationship with our clients?

HE: Our culture has a tremendous impact on our clients. Culture is, in any business – especially for a professional services organization − absolutely critical to the client experience. We consistently get incredibly positive feedback from our clients on our people, particularly when we do global deliveries. They say, “How do you find all these great people in different countries and they’re all so amazing to deal with?” So it impacts the clients buying from us and impacts the participant experience greatly.

SUE WARNKE: You know, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you today. I’ve noticed in deliveries, clients always ask me about our people. “What’s your secret?” they want to know. But I notice that all of our leaders from our offices around the world have such different styles. I’m curious how you think we can maintain a consistent culture with diverse leadership.

HE: I believe that to be an effective leader, you need to be yourself. So if we ask all our leaders to be the same, that’s just not effective or realistic. And the cultures are not exactly the same in BTS Korea or BTS USA or BTS Africa. There are cultural differences; however there are culture commonalities that outweigh the differences. We don’t need exactly the same culture – that would be the wrong thing to search for. Leaders need to be different. National cultures are also different. But we want enough commonality and compatibility for our global organization to work.

SW: So how do you build that culture?

HE: Well, the leaders set the tone. How do they lead? What type of behaviors do they reward? What type of behaviors do they follow up on in a constructive way? What do they talk about? How do they spend their time? Where do they allocate resources? Which problems do they see as important and act upon?

The culture is very much a reflection of the values and behaviors of our leaders – at different levels. What you need to do is try to be yourself and be consistent with the culture you want to build. Hire people who fit into that culture. If you acquire businesses, acquire ones that are a cultural fit. And when there are behaviors that are counter to the culture, you need to address that…and ultimately separate from people – and sometimes even clients − who simply aren’t compatible.

Two important cornerstones in our culture are freedom and responsibility. It’s important to summarize the values we have, but it’s also important to know the difference between corporate BS and corporate values. BS is what we only say...real values are what we are. We state what our values are – which becomes our true north – but it really comes down to how we lead, how we are and how we bring these to life every day.

BTS Values Pyramid

BTS Value Pyramid Graphic

KB: When you first started BTS, how did you approach building this culture?

HE: I had reflected for some time having met organizations that were very performance oriented, but at the same time had sharp elbows. Others were nice and pleasant, but there was kind of a sloppiness. I thought to myself, there has to be a possibility to have a high performance organization which is very focused on quality, and at the same time is very humanistic, kind and collaborative and also has that fun element. We wanted to combine those.

I also saw a lot of political organizations, which I didn’t like. I like meritocracy, I like results-based – not political. I never liked when people base decisions purely on power. You can’t only make decisions because you have the position. Decisions have to be based on merit and values. And that’s something I thought a lot about when I started BTS.

When we were very small, I also had to think about how can we get much bigger? I came to the conclusion that I had to hire great people. I asked myself, “How can I attract them and retain them?” One conclusion was, for example, great people will never like micromanagement. They want more freedom. Those thoughts and beliefs had a big impact.

I never like when people make decisions purely based on power. Decisions have to be based on merit and values. And that's something I thought a lot about when I started BTS."

When I thought about how much of our lives we spend at our jobs, I knew work shouldn’t be a place where we have a bad time…or an okay time. We should have a great time. We should really enjoy ourselves from several dimensions - from the work we do but also from the social dimension. People should be happy at work – because it’s such a big part of our life.

Finally, I have always believed in the market economy and that businesses can contribute to the progress of the society. I wanted to build a company with a focus on long-term and lasting value for customers, employees, and share-holders – contributing positively to the development of our society.

All of those beliefs impacted how we led the organization and who we hired. That gradually shaped the culture. But we’ve also made mistakes that we’ve had to learn from to really shape the culture to something we can be proud of.

SW: Can you give an example of some of those mistakes?

HE: I’m convinced that we’ve had situations when people have joined BTS and we’ve tried and tried and tried and tried and they didn’t fit in…they weren’t good for culture or had a negative impact on culture. And we kept those people in the organization for too long.

From those mistakes, we’ve learned that we really need to look at culture when we’re hiring. We also need to be prepared to ask people to find another opportunity if they don’t fit into the culture.

BTS Core Values

Positive Spirit and Fun

We believe that a "can do" attitude and humor enhance a successful business. We believe in looking at problems openly, and view them as opportunities. We strive to maintain a good spirit.

Honesty and Integrity.

We believe in being loyal to those who are not present. We believe in giving and receiving feedback constructively. We believe in treating people as equals and in respecting others' differences.

Opportunities Based on Merits

We reward and provide people with opportunities based on results and competencies. We make decisions and evaluate ideas based on their facts and merits. We achieve success through hard and effective work.

Putting the Team First

We believe that BTS's success depends on teamwork and if the team needs support we do our very best to provide it. We believe in putting the team first in individual decisions and in thinking of the individual in team decisions.

Lasting Value for Clients and People

We strive to build long-term relationships with our clients to create a legacy for the client and their organization. We focus on driving results forward - in learning, improved behavior and business performance. We encourage the learning, development and rewarding of BTS and its staff. We create our growth through our clients’ success and our active business generation.

Excellence through Professionalism

We strive to deliver top quality solutions and services, within deadlines, to exceed client expectations. We balance client and BTS competencies, best practices and methods to achieve optimal results.

KB: How were the BTS “PEOPLE” values defined?

HE: During the ‘90s, we had a hugely important dialogue over six months with all BTSers, which was great. This resulted in the “PEOPLE” values. Then I took this class in 2002 in San Francisco about authentic leadership, which I really enjoyed. When I came back to the office and Dan Parisi said, “What did you learn?” I told him that during the class, I wrote down my values: freedom, responsibility, achievement, adventure, fun, and excellence. Dan built on my little five minute debrief and created the BTS Values Pyramid.

It’s really interesting to get to the values of an organization. There was this collective exercise with all BTSers and then this “who are you” introspective process for me that led to the pyramid. I think both of those have been important in articulating our values – which is key. We must continue to articulate our values.

SW: What are some examples of BTS values in action that really resonated with you?

HE: Well on the whole, we’re very collaborative across offices. I see people being kind and positive to each other…caring for each other. I see the BTS teams – because top quality for clients is so important for us – giving everything. It’s just fantastic ambition I see in how we deliver to clients.

In tougher times, when we have a unit that isn’t doing so well, or another problem, it’s very easy for organizations to get into the blame game or negative spiral. “It wasn’t my responsibility,” or “it was his fault” and all that. I see little of that here. I see people taking accountability and not blaming each other or being political. I see us solving the problems and working together and staying positive, even in those tough times. People are open and honest.

We also certainly try really hard to make decisions based on merits and facts, not based on politics and influence.

In general, I see lots of people who are happy here – maybe overworked at times – but in general, I see a lot of people are happy. I see that as really important. You work at BTS and it contributes to your personal happiness so you don’t go home and moan to your spouse about your boss or colleagues, but rather you come home energized and can add more to your family.

I see BTSers learning and progressing a lot and learning new capabilities, innovating, doing better things. I see a lot of powerful achievement at BTS.

SW: How can we avoid getting sucked into those politics?

HE: The best way to avoid organizational politics, is to stay on top of it. We need to lead by example all the time. We need to encourage the behavior that works and if there is something political going on, we need to address it – discuss it, learn from it, and get on the right track. If we’re consistent with that, we’ll get more team-focused behavior and you will root out the politically focused. Of course every organization has a percentage of politics, which is why it’s so important to be consistent and not reward that behavior.

An organization is like a very intelligent organism that reads the leaders. People read the leaders and see what behaviors will be rewarding and not rewarding. The organism will target its behavior and time to what leaders reward. That’s why you, as a leader, need to encourage the good culture and help develop the bad culture into the good.

KB: What sort of advice do you have for people new to BTS?

HE: My best advice for people thinking about joining BTS is that they should carefully assess if BTS is a place where they will thrive before they take the job. Just like we try to culturally assess our new hires, they should ask “Is this for me?” Once you’ve joined an organization, and you want to stay, then you need to figure out how to fit in as well as you can and what it will take to grow and thrive in your career. You’re one person and the organization is many more. Try to understand what the culture is and accept it in a constructive way. Enjoy all the benefits. We’re not going to change the culture, because we love our culture and everything we stand for. Surely it will evolve, but folks need to enjoy the things they love and constructively deal with the things they don’t.

KB: Keeping that long term success in mind, how do you think BTS’s culture might evolve as we grow and the market changes?

HE: With size and maturity, we will implement new systems and processes to reflect our global scale. We have our Global Operations Development Unit, for example. That didn’t exist three and a half years ago. Since the unit started, all our systems have become better. When we’re 1,000 people instead of 500 and we have more services and practices, we undoubtedly need to add new systems and processes to better support all that we do. But as we do that, we will not violate the values of freedom and responsibility.

We love our culture and everything we stand for."

KB: What kind of advice would you have for leaders starting their own companies?

HE: Be yourself as a leader in a consistent way. Just as you will spend time writing your business plan, write a bit about the culture you want to have so you’re clear about that. The culture is a key to success in the same way as your value proposition to the marketplace. Then you need to hire people that fit that culture and live it. That’s the simple recipe.

SW: Maybe it is that simple. Start strong and efficiently correct problems as they arise.

HE: Exactly. Look at the countries with very little natural resources which are successful. Right, I’m in Switzerland right now, a hugely successful country with comparatively limited natural resources. I’m convinced that the reason for this is the Swiss culture, which has an amazing work ethic and strong cooperation and long-term thinking.

SW: So it’s not just about the money or resources you have. It’s about building that strong culture and then the rest comes.

HE: It’s much more sustainable that way. If a country, for example, has tremendous natural resources, you can get rich fast. But that wealth can be very exposed to drops in commodity prices. And the day you deplete those resources, run out of oil for example, you will be very weak. But if you have that strong culture, one that you preserve, you can be successful forever.

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