Today’s guest is Bill Higgs, author of Culture Code Champions, an outstanding book about the importance of creating championship cultures and the steps that leaders of companies and organizations can take to create and sustain their own unique team cultures. Bill is a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger who founded an engineering company called Mustang, which he described in his first book, Mustang: The Story, From Zero to $1 billion, Leadership Habits to Create a Win-win Culture. I’m so excited to talk with him today about how leaders create and support a company’s culture.
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Bill, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about leadership and team building in culture. You’re the author of Culture Code Champions, so I’d love to hear a little bit more about why you wrote that book.
Well, it’s sort of interesting. I didn’t know all the culture and leadership development that I was getting growing up through scouting and then playing sports… ended up going to West Point, which is like a leadership college. Then was, you know, Airborne Ranger in the army got out and started a company in the engineering in the oil patch, just engineering, offshore oil platforms. And when I got out of the Army, just nothing was gung ho in the civilian world. So when we started the company. I said, Man, I wonder if some of that stuff we did in the Rangers, in the military, things we did at West Point, in a boy scouts… I wonder if people would eat that or not. So we started the company and it hits a huge downturn, it makes us look almost like nothing. It was so bad in Houston. And there were foreclosures on every street, people were selling the family car, you had to move out of state to get a job. Just top-notch people that never should have been let go. We’re sitting at the house. And so we got three of us, started it, within a week or so we had about six people. And it was like hold hands, we’re gonna try and get through this together. So sort of like the way things are nowadays. And it turned out that people were really wanting to join and get to know each other and feel top to bottom like we’re all on the same team… like in the Rangers you don’t even wear insignia, you just sort of know who’s in charge of what.
And so that’s what we did with the company, started with three guys, three months in we thought we had hit the downturn. When we started, we thought we hit the bottom; we were still three years away from the bottom. Three months in, there was no work on offshore oil platforms. So normally, you just lay off… we were like 28 people, you’d lay off down to about 10. But instead, we scrambled and we found work for the Houston Metro bus company, for Uncle Ben’s rice, we were doing compressor stations… It was like whatever it would take to keep the team together. And it was probably in our third year that we realized that the culture that we were creating was changing people’s lives and differentiating us.
As a company and I’ll give you an example, at a Christmas party a spouse came up to me and I got my attention because I’m always talking to everybody running around… They said, ‘Bill, listen to me, my husband has changed since coming to Mustang. He gets up in the morning, gung ho ready to go to work, comes home, still has energy to engage with the kids and myself. He’s even talking about going to church on Sundays. So I don’t know what you’re doing in a tech company, but keep it up.’
And for the three guys that started it… when I told them that story, it just sent chills up our spines because the industry was so miserable and so down and when we started, it was like how can we improve people’s lives through an engineering firm. And we were actually doing it!
So writing this book. We learned how to do it and we did it in 12 different industries, we did it in 15 different international offices. And we learned what steps it took wherever we were, whatever industry… and I mean, we went into some industries and the people that had been in there for 10 or 15 years said ‘No way. Your Mustang hype stuff, that’s not gonna work in our industry. It’s that’s blood and guts, it’s been survival the fittest.’ And within eight months, we would be getting contracts the way we wanted them, we would be team-building with the clients. And the people that had been in that industry are just flabbergasted. So, the book shows people how to do it. Here’s the seven steps. You got to turn them into habits you got to keep doing it. I call it champions because we found anything that we did in a company to try and change behaviors, normally had a half-life of about six weeks. Unless we put a champion on it… or it was part of their job to keep it going. And so that’s why I call it culture code champions. And so these seven steps, are the steps that we use repeatedly, we went from zero to a billion dollars while I was there. The young guns, the second, third, fourth-generation leadership that we had trained in that culture, took it around the world. It’s now like $15 billion. So it continued to grow, and the culture continued to grow way after we left.
Wow, that’s, that’s fantastic. And it’s really interesting to hear again, I hear the same a lot that you know, just how important it is to take care of the people in your company and to create that culture where people feel energized and motivated to come to work. Do you feel like companies need like a chief culture champion officer, or do you feel like that’s something that all the leaders should be championing?
Well, we wanted to do and it’s sort of a West Point thing. I guess you’ve got a Navy background, right?
I do. I didn’t go to the Naval Academy, but I still feel compelled… You know, every time you say you from West Point, I still feel compelled to say go Navy, Beat Army because my dad went to the Academy so I did Navy ROTC.
For some reason I say it the other way. One of the things I taught people to do there was to create leaders of character, top to bottom in your organization, wherever it was. And so I’m not sure that you need a culture champion, but you need people at every level in your organization that are helping to perpetuate it. When we hit a billion dollars, we were about 6,000 people. And when the company got to be about $4 billion, the CEO at that time, Michelle McNichol, and I had helped train her so it’s fun to watch her grow from project engineer to CEO of a multi billion-dollar company. But what she did when we got that big and we’re all around the world, then she set up a small four person team that was focused on culture, and would travel around the world and keep it going. And in 2016, they put out a video so all the original owners left, and they put out a video where they went to the different offices around the world and asked the people, what does it mean to be a Mustanger?
And that’s a key thing for your listeners, name yourself, find a way to name yourself that makes you a team. So we were Mustang, but all our people were Mustangers, it sort of rolled off the tongue. Well, in this video that people in the different offices, in their own language would say what it meant to be a Mustanger. And in the English subscripts at the bottom, it was the same words and phrases that we had been using in year four. So 25 years earlier, things that we had created is now coming out of people in their own language in their own culture. But they totally believed it. But it sounded like talking to Michelle, when you get up around 10 or 12,000, you may need to have that separate function. But I think below 10,000 it can be part of the leadership as long as it’s in your goals, and you’re working at it top to bottom in your organization. I’m not sure that you’d need that specific person.
Got it. Well, that’s amazing impact. People many years later are still resonating with those themes and the culture that you created in multiple languages. Wow. So I was wondering, when you were growing up, what was the first time that you recall, you were able to influence someone to take action? And I always love asking this question, because I think that’s the first time that you think, Wow, maybe as a kid, you don’t think of yourself as a leader. But when you are able to influence somebody, I do think those are the seeds of leadership. So I’d love to hear about from your childhood when you first realized that.
That’s an interesting question. My parents divorced when I was about eight. And I just noticed that all grown-ups seemed grumpy. Maybe it was more in my family, but it’s like when you’d walk down the street or in the neighborhood or wherever when I would say grownups, it’s like they were frowning and they were busy. And It’s sort of corny as an eight-year old, but I just said I would start smiling at everybody when I walked past them. And I’d say hello. And it’s like, what adult is going to ignore an eight-year-old boy who smiles and says hello to him. So they would smile and say hello back. And in the evening, I would think back on that and so, and I’d say to myself, hey, for that 12 seconds, I made that adult smile. And they said something nice, and maybe I made their day a little bit better. And it was just a very simple thing. But like you say, I was actually influencing, I thought, their action.
Probably the next time that I really felt that I was influencing others was when I was about 12 or 13. That’s in the Boy Scouts. I love Boy Scouts. I’m a distinguished Eagle Scout. Basically I’ve been involved with Boy Scouts forever. But I became a patrol leader when I was just a second class scout. So you go tenderfoot, second class, first class, but it was a young troop. So as a second class scout, I became a patrol leader. And I worked really hard in all areas. So as making sure that we were camping as making sure that we were advancing, making sure that we were having fun. And I’ll never forget, a kid came and handed me a note, I still have this note. And he said, I really want to get in your patrol because you’re having so much fun, and you’re advancing faster than anybody else. To me, it’s like, well, somebody noticed what I was trying to do. There wasn’t even in, you know, my little group of seven boys that I was working with. And it was sort of cool cuz I said, Wow, I created the patrol. Then other people want to join. And I think I always became that way.
So like at Mustang when we started, I wanted to be the company that everybody was clamoring to join. Because then you get the best people. But anyway, those are two things when I was younger, I started to see that just by paying some attention and some focus and working on it, it would be noticed and you could influence.
Wow, I love hearing that you still have that note as well, that you kept it.
Tune in to the episode to hear the rest of my truly enlightening interview with Bill Higgs.