March Madness, the NCAA Division I men’s basketball single-elimination tournament, is one of the most anticipated and watched events in all of sports. From mid-March into April, coverage is nonstop. The appeal of the tournament is its unpredictability — high-see vs. low-seed matchups happen all the time. It's a fun and welcome source of disruption and excitement each spring.

For the past few years, March Madness takes me back to the unwelcomed disruption caused by COVID-19 in March 2020 and the onset of the pandemic. Predictability was out the window. Disruption was the name of the game. That season spurred many changes … some good, some not so good. 

One challenging and long-lasting impact has been the effect on the workforce, companies, and culture. The workforce shrank, leaving companies desperate for workers. This post-pandemic era has ushered in terms like “quiet quitting” and “rage applying,” which means putting in bare-minimum effort and pouring a lot of frenzied effort into seeking better options.

All of this workforce disruption came during a boom for our industry. With the recruiting challenges we have, and economic headwinds on the horizon, you need a lot more than a friendly office March Madness bracket pool or the ideal balance of home, flex, or hybrid work arrangements to appeal to prospective employees. You need a well-grounded business with deep roots that hold strong in a storm.

The unappreciated variable

As businesses grapple with the long-term impact of COVID on the work environment, they’re trialing ways to attract and retain talented workers. Our experience at Compass has been that protecting our long-term ability to grow and thrive has come down to the inculcation and strength of a distinct corporate culture. 

Company culture has been, for many, an unappreciated variable. While it was previously possible for a company to become successful organically, without a strong focus on culture, maintaining that success often evaporated when challenged. 

When the pandemic changed our business plans, culture went from unappreciated to imperative. Some companies fared better than others at finding the North Star and clinging on to it through the wild ride of the past few years. Likely, that North Star was authentic, established, and lived out at all levels of the organization. It’s not based on platitudes, signs, or slogans identified by a business consultant.

Culture is what drives how an organization is able to adapt to challenges, embrace success, and learn from failures. The behind-the-scenes, always-on effort to keep core values at the center of a business isn’t just a “nice to have,” it’s a “have to have.” 

Staying true to our “final four”

In a column I wrote last year, I mentioned how a company’s culture is the internal standard of measurement against which its activities must continually be compared. 

We built Compass on four convictions that we knew they would always drive our behaviors, communication, and decision-making. More than a decade in, we remain committed to those simple principles that guide every aspect of our operations:

  1. Humility in/pride out.
  2. Continuous improvement.
  3. Actions and words are one.
  4. Asking why to understand needs from wants.

Living these out day-to-day has resulted in plenty of tough decisions, lessons learned the hard way, and debates about how we navigate the future of our business and workplace. They’ve forced us to do the hard, right thing more than once. I may not have enjoyed those seasons at the time, but I have zero doubt that we are better for it. 

We’ve weathered challenges, including those that have come since March 2020 better because of this mindset that permeates our company, and I certainly appreciate the culture we’ve built more than I ever anticipated.

If you’re at a company that lacks culture, you’re playing with a low-seeded team. Don’t wait for your competitors to make a mistake that leads to an upset. Define your culture, build your team, and earn a higher seed.