Written by Tal Lee Anderman, Head of PeopleFirst at Alpine Investors
“It’s really easy to teach private equity. It’s really hard to teach culture and values.” – Graham Weaver, Alpine Founder and Managing Partner
Unleashing heroes. What does it mean, and how do you do it in a way that builds a culture and set of values that lasts? Those are the questions we ask ourselves in Alpine’s PeopleFirst Operating Philosophy.
Everyone has a hero story, and we believe that with the right support and opportunities, everyone can realize their full potential as they journey along their story arc, from achieving audacious goals to celebrating learnings, to sharing those teachings with others.We approach our vision of making every person a hero in three ways:
- Recruiting. We literally hire people first. We believe great people and teams create exceptional outcomes, and so we are invested in finding the right people and then finding the right companies for them to lead.
- PeopleFirst Leadership Program. We create cultures with very high engagement, in part because each person is deeply aligned with the company’s vision, mission and core values, and clear on how they personally contribute each day to realizing those desired outcomes for the business, and for themselves.
- Impact. Alpine strives to be a force for good in the world, and our programs—from the PeopleFirst Leadership Program, to our recruiting practices, to our ESG initiatives—are a major vehicle for supporting that goal.
Being a force for good (and inspiring others to follow our lead)
We are proving that the best way to create exceptional returns is by putting people first. Part of our mission is to show how the private equity industry’s current approach is backwards, and that to create exceptional business outcomes we must create exceptional businesses. That starts and ends with investing in people.
To us, being a force for good means creating exceptional work environments where every employee can live a more purpose-driven life, and realize their full potential. We’re dedicated to creating a work environment where everyone feels engaged and aligned with the company’s mission. And while private equity has not been known for strong cultures historically, Alpine has been working to change that narrative from our start in 2001. You can read more in our Force For Good report.
So what does it mean to unleash heroes? It means helping each person find their purpose, then connecting that purpose to their work. There’s a lot of research that shows that once you understand your purpose (and how to pursue it), your life is much more meaningful. You also take less sick days, perform better, and are less likely to switch jobs (learn more here). And the impact ripples beyond your work. We know that people who like their jobs are happier at work, and also happier at home. They’re better spouses, better friends, and better parents, and they contribute to their communities in a positive way.
Hiring for Attributes Over Experience
We recruit PeopleFirst leaders based on the values they hold, and their mindset and approach to work and life. Unlike traditional private equity firms, we believe it’s people with the right internal attributes, rather than external experience, who will be successful. And we know that great CEOs come from a range of backgrounds—that’s what makes them great.
For example, we hire our CITs right out of business school, and many have never held such senior leadership positions before. But we see potential and we screen for attributes like a high adversity quotient (AQ), emotional intelligence (EQ), humility, and a willingness to be in service as a leader. Since 2015, Over 30 of the CITs we’ve hired have been promoted to a CEO position. Similarly, our investment analysts join Alpine as interns or right out of undergrad, even if they didn’t study finance or intern at an investment bank.
But hiring is just one part of the puzzle. To truly support our emerging leaders, we spend time helping them identify their purpose, then helping them carve a path to reach their “genie goal” or high-level life aspiration. This includes skills and professional development as well as leadership and personal development. At Alpine we’ve supported accountants who want to switch to marketing, a partner who wanted to return to operate as a portfolio company CEO, and even a promising finance controller who left Alpine to become a CFO at another financial firm. Within our portfolio, we have helped realize a marketing leader’s dream to become CRO, a finance manager who wanted to learn operations and eventually became a COO, and a HR leader who stepped up to run their company as CEO.
We listen thoughtfully to each individuals’ goals and needs, and then provide a community of support and customized development to help them realize their dreams. We create work around someone’s life, rather than the other way around. And the five pillars of PeopleFirst leadership help us bring this philosophy to life.
Bringing Our Approach to Life
When we buy a new business and place our talent in leadership positions, each operator is matched with a consultant from the PeopleFirst team—a group of coaches and facilitators highly skilled in organizational development, leadership development and culture. The consultant and CEO partner together to create a PeopleFirst business, including:
- Passion & Purpose: We want leaders to operate from a deep sense of purpose and to be highly engaged at work. To do that, we need to connect work back to who they are at their best, and what matters most to them. That’s everything from childhood experiences, to peak moments in life, to the core values formed through these experiences. Through a PeopleFirst workshop, we distill all of these experiences into a clear passion and purpose statement, which we then share at the beginning of company meetings and retreats and then frame for our desks to constantly bring us back to our best selves.
- Building high-performing teams: We believe that strong leadership teams are a necessary first step in creating exceptional cultures and making lasting change in any business. We invest in building A Player executive teams that are aligned and engaged, including through group coaching and communication workshops, as well as topgrading talent. We also work with everyone from executives to managers to individual contributors to provide leadership development, manager training and 1:1 executive coaching. We ensure we have the right person in every seat, and that they’re set up for success from day one.
- Defining our vision: Bill Gates is famously quoted saying “most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.” We agree, and have found that setting—and pursuing—a few big, hairy, audacious goals (we call them BHAGs) is a more likely path to success than pursuing a series of smaller goals. To ensure our leaders are dreaming big, we take executives through exercises that help them define a shared rallying cry for their company’s vision and mission. For example, at ProfitSword, a business analytics software company, it’s “good, better data” At Apex Service Partners, it’s “elevating the essentials.” Our goal is to get to the root of why these companies exist, what they stand for, and what is better in the world if they have succeeded in realizing their vision.
Once we’ve defined this sense of purpose for the company and individuals, team members gain a clear sense of meaning in their day to day lives.
- Setting strategy: Once your heart and biggest company aspirations are connected, we examine what action looks like—how do we bring these dreams to life (strategy), and how do we know when we’ve succeeded (key performance indicators)?
- PeopleFirst Operating Rhythm: Once a company is grounded in its vision, strategy, and core values, we build a foundation for continuous improvement. Through our Renewal and Opportunity for Improvement (OFI) process, we build on strengths, identify weaknesses, and focus our energy for the term ahead.
- Renewals: Renewals are quarterly, company-wide offsites. They are a full day where you step away to work on the business, instead of in the business. And they’re a chance to renew your commitment to yourself (your passion and purpose), to your relationships at the company (your team and cross-functionally), and to the vision and strategy of the business.
- Opportunities for Improvement (OFIs): OFIs are a way to move the business forward exponentially, instead of linearly. Once we have a big challenge in mind, we nominate an OFI leader who gathers a swat team to solve this hairy problem over the upcoming quarter. Most of Alpine’s differentiating factors came out of OFIs, including the CEO-in-Training program, PeopleFirst, and our add-on strategy.
- One Page Plans (OPPs): The one page plan is quite literally an entire strategic plan—including vision and values, long term strategy and KPIs, and annual and quarterly goals—on one page. We update the One Page Plan every quarter through the Renewal process, and use it to track performance of both individuals and the business as well as to thoughtfully set and reach audacious goals.
PeopleFirst Strategy in Action
Apex Service Partners: Aligning around a shared language and culture
Apex Service Partners is a residential plumbing and HVAC business.. The company has completed more than 40 add ons to-date, all supported by the PeopleFirst team.
Apex now employs thousands of people in collections of small businesses. Through PeopleFirst, employees at each company are able to feel connected to a single, unifying mission, and to speak the same language. Each quarter teams gather for an offsite where they reconnect with each other, their teams, and the broader business. Apex CEO AJ Brown explained the impact of our PeopleFirst approach this way:
“PeopleFirst is an operational cadence and a way to align employees from the bottom of the company to the top, and then get them onto the productive rhythm to drive business results.”
“Language is culture, and PeopleFirst creates a shared language and a shared direction, which allows everybody to get onto the same rhythm. Our culture is driven by the language of our One Page Plan.”
There’s so much more we can do to develop individuals. Right now, we’re focused on culture and strategy, and we facilitate individual goal setting and development through the One Page Plans and renewals. We want to keep developing new leaders beyond executive teams. As the CEO-in-Training program expands, we’re thinking about what else we can do to deliver on our promise of unleashing heroes. We’ll be successful when we reach a place where every employee’s functional abilities are improving, they feel connected to their personal purpose, and they have new ways to manage and lead. We want people to want to come to work at Alpine because they know they will improve—as professionals and as people.
Ultimately, we believe that by sharing our PeopleFirst approach—of investing in and developing employees—we will set a new gold standard that truly improves the way we live and work.
Tal Lee heads Alpine’s PeopleFirst strategy, including the PeopleFirst Leadership Program and CEO-in-Training experience. Tal Lee loves building Alpine cultures where people and business both thrive, and where each person leads from a deep awareness of their purpose. Tal Lee’s own purpose is to coach and champion individuals to realize their full potential, and to build communities where each person’s whole self can thrive. In her free time, you can find Tal Lee connecting her head to her toes as a yoga and meditation instructor and Argentine tango dancer,.