Company Culture Starts at the Top: RJ Nicolosi, Partner, Inc. CEO Project and Eric Peterson, Senior Consultant, Cook Ross Inc.

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Today’s guests are RJ Nicolosi, Partner, Inc. CEO Project; and Eric Peterson, Senior Consultant, Cook Ross Inc.

The CEO plays a pivotal external role on behalf of his or her company. Today’s guests underscore how what CEOs do internally can make all the difference, especially when it comes to the need to create company culture, communicate strategy, goals and changes throughout all levels of the organization.

RJ NICOLOSI Company Culture

Nicolosi is a partner with Inc. CEO Project, working with entrepreneurs and small business CEOs with companies in the range of $15 million to $1 billion. They host diverse CEO peer groups to help grow member companies. He himself was a member of the Inc. CEO Project for six years before joining the organization as a partner. Nicolosi sees the exponential value that comes from having CEOs with diverse backgrounds in a room tackling the same issue with no ulterior motives.

Appropriate Decision at Appropriate Time

At the Inc. CEO Project, they believe heavily in the theory of constraint. “What you find after doing this year over year, is that talent, business models, effective processes and capital are all key areas of constraint,” observes Nicolosi.

Nicolosi believes the CEO is ultimately responsible for making great decisions, which usually lies in resource allocation and strategic intent, all of which can affect company culture. “We talk a lot about the velocity by which decisions get made and the quality by which decisions get made,” says Nicolosi. “Making the appropriate decision at the appropriate time is a really important feature set of the CEO.”

He employs a broader view of talent a typical company. “For a CEO, finding talent at the board level, the advisory level and then at the senior management level – those are all very important decisions that have to be made,” comments Nicolosi.

However, the CEO can never forget capital first. “There is no ability to attract and retain talent if you don’t have enough capital,” he asserts. On the flip side, “You will not get good ROI on your capital if you don’t have the right talent in place.”


Once a corporate strategy is in place, Nicolosi believes in the power of “turning that strategy into annual and quarterly goals and allowing those goals to cascade through the organization in a way that…people can identify with.” He remind us that when you are growing rapidly, people’s jobs and the processes change quite rapidly as well. CEOs need to hold the management team accountable for these changing goals as these can affect the overall feel of the company and its company culture.

5 Hats of the CEO

Nicolosi’s organization helps the CEO in “making sure that the organization is accountable around the talent not only retaining but growing segments of the business.” But, unfortunately most CEOs don’t dedicate enough time to talent management.  At Inc. CEO Project, Nicolosi says, “We believe each CEO has 5 hats: coach, architect, engineer, player, and a learner.” In the coach role, he estimates a CEO should dedicate 20-25 percent of their time on their employees.

What are You Reading?

In addition to ending each day with The Bible, Nicolosi is reading Revenue Disruption by Phil Fernandez about revenue process management.

How Can I Connect with You? Via or on LinkedIn.

ERIC PETERSON Company Culture

Peterson has spent 15 years in the diversity and inclusion space, including leading diversity initiatives for the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM). With Cook Ross, Inc., he works to ensure clients are more conscious about their decision-making and about the unconscious biases at work. “We all have biases, we all have automatic thinking and we all take mental shortcuts all the time each and every day…The answer is not to get rid of your biases, but to raise them to the level of consciousness so you can therefore make a more objective decision.”

“Only Wet Babies Like Change”

“Changing a culture is not something you do overnight,” he cautions clients looking for a quick fix. “It really takes some dedicated work and blood, sweat and tears on the part of the client.”

Peterson likes to refer to the quote, “Only wet babies like change.” The idea of change can be quite painful for certain companies and employees, and can sometimes lead to some voluntary turnover. Peterson also recognizes that the idea of “that’s the way it’s always been done” is a powerful barrier that can adversely affect company culture. Thus, he recommends three core elements to successful change:

  • Coaching new behaviors across the organization,
  • Giving people explanations of why the change is taking place, and
  • A little bit of patience.

Change-Minded CEO

CEOs that are most adept at change are open-minded, meaning they don’t need to know all the answers. Peterson feels that often MBA teachings focus on how to embrace the status quo and make things clearer for your workforce. Instead, he argues that leadership is about building a greater tolerance for ambiguity and being comfortable with not always “being the answer person” yourself.

Dissent is the Name of the Game

One of his two greatest influencers is his current boss and friend of 12 years, Howard Ross, who introduced Peterson to the diversity field. The other is his former boss, Shirley Davis of SHRM, who used to ask Peterson to be her “thought partner” in tackling challenges.

His biggest professional development challenge was that Peterson started out as a “real crusader” for diversity who stood on a moral high ground, and quickly realized that it was harder to have effective conversations with others from that place. In fact, he now listens more closely to opposing viewpoints and runs exercises with his team where he invites conflict. He finds that this helps him have more intellectually robust conversations and leads to more effective decision-making.

What are You Reading?

Peterson is currently re-reading The Differenceby Scott Page.

How Can I Connect with You? Via, on Twitter @cookross or @diversityeric, or on LinkedIn.

Tune into the show next week, and remember, do what you love….and show the world how talented you can be, today.

Air Date: February 25, 2014