Daryl Holt | Crain's Orlando

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Daryl Holt

Background:  

Electronic Arts Inc. is a leading global interactive entertainment software company that delivers games, content and online services for internet-connected consoles, personal computers, mobile phones and tablets.

The Mistake:

What led to [the lesson was] rapid expansion of a business in terms of necessary headcount – and trying to find that great talent as fast as possible. In reality, great culture is just as important as great talent. And how it all fits together and building a team, especially in a creative culture, is paramount to the success.

We made hires where people had the talent and didn’t fit in culturally. And we expanded rapidly. We grew so fast that it took years, I think, to recover from that fully – from talent that could do the job but were causing other problems and causing other inefficiencies, and other cultural issues that sometimes drove other talent away or made it more difficult to bring new talent and retain it.

The recognition of the problem happens pretty quickly – probably a year or a year and a half. Because you’re so neck deep and heads down working on something, as soon as you get a chance to come up for air, you realize, wow, somehow we got through that project, but boy was it painful. Then it was: Take a step backwards and realize what's missing.

And you can’t just create culture, right? You don’t just go, “Here’s our culture – be like this,” and it’s all fixed. It is about understanding what the values are that have now changed because anytime you go from say 25 to 50, 50 to 100, 200 to 400 people, everything is going to change.

We made hires where people had the talent and didn’t fit in culturally. It took years to recover from that fully.

The Lesson:

The lesson is when you’re moving quick and you’re just plugging in great talent without thinking about culture, you might handle the short-term need but the long-term pain will last awhile.

I learned that change is constant. It’s always going to happen. And if you’re successful, change is going to happen fast. And so a key element now – and it takes a little bit longer up front but now [it’s] much more agile – is what goes into that culture, which is what I refer to as change capability. And so building a culture with change capability as a key piece means you’re transformative. You’re ready for the next change. You’re ready to adapt and improvise and overcome.

We have built a culture and made [that] culture a big part of who we are and how we interview and look at people. So they can be the greatest engineer in the world, but if they’re not going to fit within a team environment then we won’t hire them.

Now, hiring is about understanding who those cultural leaders are that are keepers of the flame, so to speak, myself included.  When I interview people I spend more time talking about the culture aspect than I do the resume.

When you do have to change you have to pivot quickly. My old inclination was, find people that can do this great work, find great talent and get them working. And you don’t want to shred their resume at the door, right? You want your talent to perform. But I think we want a culture where everyone can be great, and it’s not some type of pecking order because you’re one team in a collaborative environment.

Making that an underlying foundation means you’ve got people there who are growing with the culture, who are changing with it, and it’s multi-level. It’s not just top-down. It literally is a coalition of change – with people who have a willingness to change and an ability to influence that change.

Photo courtesy of Daryl Holt 

Follow Electronic Arts at @EA

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email nryan@crain.com

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's Orlando.