As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Marty Parker.
Marty Parker is the founder and chief executive officer of Waterstone Human Capital. Founded in 2003, Waterstone is a leading cultural talent management firm that offers retained executive search specializing in recruiting for fit, culture change and transformation services, leadership development, succession planning, and cultural and engagement measurement and advisory consulting for entrepreneurial-minded, high growth organizations across North America. Marty is also the author of The Culturepreneur: How High Performance Leaders Craft Culture as Competitive Advantage, taking you through what it means to be a culturepreneur today and how you can implement a culture operating system that drives transformation.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I went from the marketing world to the marketing agency world and professional services to becoming a professional services practitioner, and that brought me full circle to becoming an entrepreneur.
I started my career in the beer business, of all things. I was in a sales role while I was in college, and decided that marketing would be a great career for me, because marketing in beer looked like a lot of fun. But upon finishing my graduate work, I left that industry and joined Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical operations in women’s health. I did eventually find myself in marketing and very much enjoyed it. After a few years of that, I took a change and went into professional services in the marketing and communications agency world where I spent five years and truly enjoyed it — I enjoyed being around the creativity, enjoyed being around people who could articulate their thoughts in a very consistent, branded way. And then I found myself in general management roles in that professional services environment, and that’s what lead me to the search business.
When I was first approached in search, I really wasn’t interested. I didn’t think it was the right business for me. Eventually I changed my mind, and the big pivot or change for me was when I realized that my level of interest and my strength wasn’t in operating the business, it was in advising clients. So, I started to do work to learn the business, really to gain credibility in the operating role I was in, and it kind of got under my skin in a good way. It was then and only then, that I thought perhaps the leadership advisory business was a business for me.
In 2003, I started Waterstone and with the first few searches I executed, where I had very high level candidates, I would hear things like, “They don’t fit. They just don’t fit our environment, our culture, our organization.” I got a little bit frustrated by that and had to realize, “Well, what’s fit?” I realized that fit was about understanding culture, the behaviors that drove the operating rhythm and the success of that business, and if I could find out what those were, I might get around the fit problem. And that really led to what is our Recruit4Fit process today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Just a couple years after starting the business, we created the Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures program, and today we also have Canada’s Most Admired CEOs. I think the most interesting thing was that in the first few years, we were learning a lot about how to run a leadership awards program. We were meeting new organizations and marketing our business, but maybe five or six years in, I realized that we had positioned ourselves (really more by accident) at the center of this early movement of organizations that were interested in using their culture to drive results. In other words, their culture, how they did things, was driving what they did, and it was truly their competitive advantage. So just like your unique collection of behaviors make you you as a person, in an organization, that collection of behaviors either sets you apart and becomes your competitive advantage, or they become your disadvantage.
Figuring out that we were in the middle of it, and all these positive and interesting inputs were coming into us through the program, put us in a position of influence and opportunity. And I would say that we’ve been trying to continue to take advantage of that to serve our clients. It’s taken us not only down the path to a much bigger program but a bigger business, with the addition of our other services like culture and engagement measurement, and leadership development and training, and of course our culture shaping, crafting, and transformation business called the Culturepreneur Operating System.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on, I was presenting a reference report to a client — and we had a very established, large U.S. company as our client — and these were all referees that our candidate had provided us, and they were very esteemed and established people. At the end of this report our client taught me one of the great lessons I think, and it was kind of funny because he said, “You know, Marty, these references, did you ask this individual to present them?” And I said, “Of course.” They were two people he reported to, a couple people who he’d managed directly, and some professional colleagues. And the client said, “Well, that’s interesting, because earlier, some months ago when you were presenting the candidate, you talked about, he reported to this person and he worked alongside that person and may have reported to this person. You had those names, but I don’t remember if those names are on this list. Perhaps you could consider directing those names to the candidate and we could check some other references, because in directing those names, that might take out the bias.”
And maybe it’s not funny, but I realized in that moment that although my gut had always told me referencing was kind of broken, the simplicity of taking out the bias by directing the names could be incredibly powerful and enable you to really understand behavior (which is what drives culture) much better. I could’ve, I guess, taken that as a bit of embarrassment at the time, but I took it as an opportunity, and it’s really made a significant difference in terms of how we do our references.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There’s a few. I think the members of our board at Waterstone have been incredibly insightful, candid, and direct. They have always put the interests of the business first, and maybe my own personal best interest second. And they’ve been incredibly helpful on this 18-year journey. (One is now a private equity partner in our business, so that tells you how much they have helped and how strongly I view their help.) Equally, and differently, I’ve had a longstanding membership in the Young Presidents Organization, and the members of my forum group have also provided great counsel, and great insight.
I remember once I was looking at a challenge I was having in the business, more of an opportunity for the future, and I presented an overview to the board on a Monday and we had a long discussion and came to some conclusions for options — a few that stood out in their minds as one way to take things. And then three days later at a forum meeting I presented the same overview and discussion, and there was an extremely different view and interpretation. I realized then the power of seeking out advice. These were very different ways to go about things, and it wasn’t until then that I realized there was great power in the ability to look at where we are today and where we want to go. The conclusion was to take one set of circumstances and advice, but I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I hadn’t presented it to those people and trusted them with some thoughts.
The great thing with advisors is you don’t have to listen to them, but you know that they often share with you maybe some things that they wouldn’t otherwise, and they speak from experience. I think speaking from experience is something you just can’t buy. It’s incredibly valuable.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Well, first of all, diversity can be gender, it can be race, it can be just experiences and stages of life even, which is immensely valuable. I think with diversity comes so much more, so much different experience. Different experiences then allow for different points of view, and rarely does anything we contemplate or do affect only one group. It can, but it often has a bigger impact and diversity of thinking and diverse experience provides a more wholesome view of an opportunity or a problem, or just anything, really.
Oftentimes, it can also present opportunities to people whereby they say, “I might be able to get a different experience if I was working over here with this person.” I’ve been the benefactor of that, and it’s hard to do in a small organization, of course, but I think a diverse leadership group (and by extension a diverse team member group) is really important. It’s not easy to do because we do naturally attract people more like us than different than us, but it’s incredibly worthwhile.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I won’t comment for society, but for an organization I would say inclusiveness is really about creating an environment that allows people to express themselves. And not everyone will do it naturally. I mean, it’s natural not to contribute — some people are more observant, some are afraid that their lack of experience in an area makes them less credible, and some people don’t want to put themselves out there. So, I really believe that there’s a responsibility for leaders and organizations to create an environment of psychological safety, one where people trust that they can share their points of view, express themselves, take a risk, and even fail, without judgment. The responsibility that leaders have is to create that environment, and it requires a skill that leaders need to learn. It’s hard to draw people out sometimes. It’s about creating a discussion point where they will want to participate. When people feel that they can express or come up with ideas, they feel much more included and they feel that it’s an environment where they can take risks beyond just an idea.
Recognizing contribution in the sharing of ideas is really important, too. To say, “Hey, I really appreciate it. Thank you for that.” Or “Not sure I understand it, or not sure I agree with it even, but that was an interesting thought.” I find sometimes when I don’t agree, it challenges my thinking. It’s like, “Okay, what if I did agree? What if I’m wrong?” It’s a great thing sometimes to think about what if you’re wrong, and it’s hard to do if everyone’s just not speaking.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I do think now more than ever that Chief Executive Officers have to put culture first. I’ve been in that business for more than 18 years now, and I haven’t always done it, but I’ve realized the power of doing it. The values that you set as an organization and the behaviors that you and your leaders live need to translate into what you want to achieve, and in order to get there, your culture needs to be moving in that direction. Simply put, culture needs to be at the center of business strategy. The thinking is that how we behave will impact what we do and help us get there, as opposed to if we do these things, or if we get these results, our culture will be right.
It has taken a lot of us a long time to realize that you can shape and create your culture to drive results. It takes a lot of work. It does not happen overnight, and it gets tested along the way. That, I believe, is very different than it would have been some years ago, and it’s really at the center of our Culturepreneur Operating System — crafting culture to drive the results that you want. How you do things trumps what you do, and the how will help you get the what.
When I started in this, there was an acceptance that we would allow corporate culture to evolve, but there’s lots of great change stories out there, whether it’s Isadore Sharp evolving the Four Seasons culture or Jeff Bezos, just a few weeks ago, making a pretty large call out to the shareholders but also the leaders of his organization, by saying we are now going to need to treat our team members with the same kind of incredible service that we have treated our customers. It’s a big shift and a much bigger role that the chief executive and other leaders have today than they’ve ever had before.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think CEOs are looked at as the people who set strategy and help others achieve it, and who are focused on big picture items, like culture, etc. But I think what’s understated — and I see it in large organizations and I see it in small and everywhere in between — is how hands-on executives and leaders need to be. We all need more doers, not just leaders. And, partly as a result of culture’s growing importance, leaders now need to exhibit those behaviors that are truly important and that represent the values of an organization. The best way to do it is in doing the work.
The other thing I think we’re underestimating now is how much chief executives need to be teachers. They can’t teach everything because they’re not great at everything, but we do need to now look at teaching — it could be through external help, it could be teaching you something that I know how to do well. We need to be very hands-on in the practice of our work. It adds to the credibility and it sets the tone.
I think personal style matters less than it used to, and will continue to matter less and less. Your ability to unlock meaning and passion in people towards the objective of the organization — what I would call a culturepreneurial skillset — it takes enormous energy and a lot of hands on work. So, I think CEOs now more than ever are very hands-on inside the business and inside cultivating other leaders, much more so than they have been in years past.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Well, I think my job’s changed so much over the last number of years, and I’m still learning a lot myself. That’s one of the benefits of our program and our organization is we get constant inputs through our Canada’s Most Admired winners. But I think the biggest difference is that now I’m leading the execution of my own culture change. Sometimes you’re not the best person to be your own advisor. Sometimes you need to rely on others inside your organization, outside your organization, to help you, hold you to account there. And I think the biggest difference is how hard that is, because you’re still in the business, you’re still working in the business, still trying to do all the right things, and yet, you’re trying to do other things differently. It takes a real consistent focus and openness to making sure that you’re getting there, or if you’re off track, that you get back on.
It’s a balance of where we want our culture to go and how that is going to create a competitive advantage for us in terms of developing, acquiring, and growing our team while we’re trying to grow the organization. Behavior is so amorphous that it’s much easier to say, “Do this and these things will happen, I hope.” What we’re doing is somewhat different. We’re saying that if we make these things happen, we hope these things will be done. It’s a mind shift and it’s hard to keep yourself always on track. So that’s the big difference — going from advising to doing.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I wrote about this in my new book, The Culturepreneur: How High Performance Leaders Craft Culture as Competitive Advantage, and I truly believe this is the big shift. Most of us in the last 20 or more years, got to our first leadership position based on our ability to achieve results. We achieved results, got into a leadership role, and then, generally, we would get results through others. The focus was on the results.
Now, we’re seeing that leaders need to adapt their styles to their team members, and this actually means that soft skills are the new hard skills. More and more, we’re seeing leaders come in with this ability to coach, to unlock potential, and to really do that in a way that aligns to the business goals. It requires a lot of moving and shifting your style from meeting to meeting, from to person to person, from team to team. It really requires a leader, I call them culturepreneurs, who puts culture at the center of strategy and who understands their own leadership and communication style, who creates an environment of psychological safety, and who recognizes contribution and not just results. It also requires a leader who can unlock meaning and purpose in their team members that is in alignment with the purpose of the organization, and really create an environment for constant development.
That’s a lot. So, identifying the people who have that in them is not the same exercise as identifying top performers and rewarding them with a leadership role. It’s going to require talent acquisition partners that get the difference, and then the awareness of who should be a top individual contributor and who should be a leader. And it’s maybe going to require a real focus on smaller teams to lead, because it takes more energy. There may need to be more cross functional groups and teams that are fluid, similar to what you’ll see in a consulting organization or professional services organization.
I think understanding individuals and teams and then building high performance teams and cultures is going to be very different for leaders than getting results through their teams. We have results that have to be achieved, but I think people will learn over time that the results that are generated by that type of style are going too far surpass the old way of doing it. We’ve already seen it.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
I think the advice I would give is to look ahead to what you’re trying to achieve in the business and craft the culture that will help you get there. Craft the culture that is going to differentiate you and drive your results — in other words culture becomes pliable, it’s something you craft and shape and put focused energy and time into programming. It becomes an exercise in change management, in developing and training leaders, and in measuring behavior not just outcomes.
Your culture really needs to come first and be at the center of the things you do, and then, you need to be truly committed to continuous change and to focusing on it. It’s not a one-time thing, and it can’t be delegated. The leadership team has got to be into it and they’ve got to be committing their teams to it. It’s going to require a big commitment from everyone. It will drive exceptional results and it will be a far more rewarding experience, but it won’t be easy.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I would say our Canada’s Most Admired program is shining a light on high performance cultures, their impact, and some of the exceptional work and programs that our winners and nominees have. I think the small role we play in shining the light on these great organizations and helping them share their best practices with each other has an impact on Canadian competitiveness on a global stage. I’d love to say that it’s made the world a better place, but if it’s made the workplace better, and it’s made organizations more competitive, and it’s meant people have enjoyed where they are, what they do, and who they spend their time with, then I think we’ve done our part.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
First, is how rewarding it is. If I had known how rewarding it would be, I would’ve done it earlier for sure.
Second, is how much change it requires. This role requires a lot of change, a lot of growth. If I’d know that at the beginning, I might’ve done things differently earlier. You know, you get so focused as an entrepreneurial CEO on surviving. And surviving, it can be lonely — you get so focused on what it’s going to take to get to your future. It is a very future-focused role.
Third, would be the need to really work on my own personal leadership style and capacity. I really feel that I was short on that in the early days, both as a leader and as an executive. I was a keen student of a lot of different things, but I paid attention to the things I wanted to as a leader, and I think I would’ve been a far better leader if I’d spent time working on my own leadership style earlier on.
Fourth, is that you need to invest to scale. Someone told me a long time ago that as an entrepreneur you can’t treat the organization’s money like it’s your own, and that was some great advice. But I wish I had been told to make sure that you scale enough in advance — to invest in resources in advance so that it would allow you to scale. That’s a very hard thing to do as an entrepreneur. I have learned, but it has taken me time.
The last thing I would say, is listen to your customers. Really listen to your customers. Some of them don’t know what to say, but they will tell you how you’re doing if you really ask and listen closely. They will tell you about other great people in the market, in the business, and they will tell you about some of their other problems that you may be able to help with — but only if you ask.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would say turning our Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures and Canada’s Most Admired CEO program into an aspirational program — one that can help solve a societal issue (whether that’s local, national or even global). If we had corporate partnerships that put up money to help organizations solve a problem or address an issue, or to help people or groups of people solve an issue, and they could be recognized as most admired, I think would be a dream come true for me personally.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mother always said to me, “Listen, love, and learn.” That was a big influence on me. I’ve taken it as there’s a lot you can learn if you listen, and there’s a lot to listen to if you do it from a place of learning. But also, don’t do just anything. It took me too long to learn that I shouldn’t try to do everything, I should just do what I’m really passionate about and do it really well. That made everything easy.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
You know, I think one of the most interesting change leaders who is incredibly knowledgeable, and always learning, is Tony Robbins. I would absolutely think learning from and spending time with him would probably have a great impact on me.