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The Learning Curve of Culture

by Jonathan Bush, President & CEO

When most people think of company culture, they might think of dog-friendly offices and buildings littered with ping-pong tables. But culture is much more than the tangible perks. Culture is the feeling that we get when we accomplish a seemingly impossible task that furthers our mission. It’s the thing that makes you tell a friend, “This is a place you want to work.” A strong culture that spreads evenly through a company and curls into the corners of each office is a special thing: it boosts morale, sustains engagement, attracts talent, and helps a company execute against its mission.  In short, culture is a reminder of the spirit that produced a company, and it sustains—and evolves—to support the company it has produced.

With this in mind, we have raised culture ownership to the senior executive level, hiring our first Chief People Officer, Diane Holman.

With more than twenty years of experience designing and implementing innovative strategies to curate and grow a culture of talent, Di is a true leader in human resources and talent acquisition. Her roots are in New England, where she has worked with companies including General Electric, Reebok, and Raytheon as a human resources partner and head of talent development and learning. We are ecstatic to have such a talented—no pun intended—leader as our cultural champion, and I look forward to working with her to support, accentuate, and maximize the administrative, interpersonal, and structural core of athenahealth.

Di and I both know that many things--from adjustments in leadership, to growing campuses and new initiatives-- can drive change in a company’s culture. How can culture, then, continue to be aligned with something that is constantly maturing?

At athenahealth, our approach to culture falls into three tiers, a model borrowed from Edgar Schein:

  1. Underlying assumptions—unconscious beliefs about how to get ahead in the organization. These assumptions are present without anyone realizing it.
  2. Espoused values. These values should speak to the company’s behavior and organization and be instilled by the company’s management and policies.
  3. Artifacts. The physical embodiments of culture, like innovative office spaces, casual dress and cafes.

These three levels constitute a “Schein Tree” of culture, and each is reliant upon the other. The underlying assumptions are the roots of the tree, deep and expansive; the espoused values are the strong trunk; and the artifacts are the branches and their leaves, reaching upward.

But don’t let the natural imagery fool you: while culture is organic at its core, it flourishes best when it receives attention from those who become a part of it. Culture isn’t simply created and then left alone--or worse, left to chance.  It requires attention and nurture, from leaders and employees.  After all, a tree needs its soil and sunlight.

Culture nurture and renewal is among the top priorities at athena. It is the key not only to our identity, but also to our employees’ engagement and satisfaction; to retention and recruitment; and to daily performance and our long-term growth.

Di will be an exciting addition to a company already teeming with an energetic and evolving culture.  Our culture, just like everyone else’s, is unique and experiences different growing spurts and even pains. Our underlying assumptions,our values, and our artifacts all change over time.

On behalf of athenaNation, welcome to the team, Di!

Jonathan Bush is the President and CEO of athenahealth.

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