Experian North America has soared to number 31 on the Fortune 100’s Best Companies to Work For list. But North America CEO Craig Boundy doesn’t have a playbook: it’s as simple as creating a culture where people are wired to win through compassion and commitment, he believes.
By MaryLou Costa
As the California wildfires began to escalate last May near Experian North America’s Costa Mesa headquarters, CEO Craig Boundy took a call at 7am one morning from chief HR officer Justin Hastings.
“Hey, I’m out walking the dog, and there’s smoke in the air – it’s going to be a bad day,” Boundy recalls Hastings telling him. “But don’t worry – I’ve block booked 50 hotel rooms, because I know they’re going to be in demand, and we need to look after our people.”
Experian North America’s HR team then set about calling employees in the evacuation zone, including a woman with a six-month old baby and no family nearby apart from her husband.
“She said the baby was crying, the husband was screaming, the police were outside with a bullhorn, saying you have to be evacuated, with helicopters overhead – she didn’t know what to do. And our HR team rang to say, ‘We’ve got you. We’ve got a hotel room for you to go to. And the catering staff has made a three course meal for you’,” relays Boundy.
The impact of the gesture was huge, naturally, but Boundy was neither surprised nor impressed. Why? “That’s what our values tell people to do. That’s the kind of thing that goes into the heart of our culture. Our people look out for each other. When important things happen in their lives, the company’s there for them,” he says.
Matching compassion with commercial success
The pay-off, he argues, is that the level of caring and commitment goes both ways.
“I can’t imagine how tough that time was for those people. But when they get back into their homes, and we’ve cared for them, they appreciate our commitment to them and we benefit from their commitment to us.” he says.
“Their commitment, passion and belief in the company is amazing. Without our best people wanting to work here and believing this is a great place to work, we don’t win. So, it’s very completing in the way that we think about our organisational culture – it’s part of what we expect and part of what we give to our people.”
Developing such an engaging culture is what has sent Experian North America flying up to number 31 on the Fortune 100’s Best Companies to Work For list, up from number 90 last year. Throughout the pandemic, the company boosted mental health and wellbeing resources, and increased its diversity credentials, with 54% of new hires being women and 51% coming from underrepresented groups, according to its 2020 Power of You report.
Meanwhile, commercially, Experian North America punches above its weight as a critical region for the wider global organisation, which analysts have declared “a high-quality business with a bright future” – confident in its stake in the growing importance of using data for good across more industries.
So how does Boundy, a Lancaster University business alumnus who scored his first C-suite role just four years after graduating, connect his style of leadership to the company’s highly lauded culture and commercial success?
Throwing out the playbook
Through three simple principles: wire people to win. Be a good person. And throw out the playbook.
“If you’ve got a playbook, and all you’ve got to do is execute it, then I’d send my mum to work here – she’s much nicer than I am,” he quips. “You can’t by default have a playbook because every company, situation and market is different. You can try and do what they say in textbooks – ‘it’s all about influencing and stakeholder mapping and stakeholder management’ and all that sort of nonsense.
“But I don’t like the formality and management jingoism that comes with complex philosophies and business transformation programmes. I’m more straightforward about it. I say, ‘we’ve got to build great products that customers really want and do a great job of selling’. So a lot of the ethos in our business is to do whatever it takes to achieve that.
“And at the same time, you’ve got to be good people because the best folks have to want to work here. If you show smart, capable people that if you get it right, you win, they will quickly want to get on board. That’s how I’ve done it.”
Wiring people to win
We’ve seen how the “be a good person” philosophy plays out – but what does wiring people to win look like?
Crucially, a business – and therefore, its people – needs a focus. That’s a mandate Boundy has applied since he was made CEO of Experian NA in 2014, after his time as UK and Ireland managing director. It was, he recalls, a time when “competitive pressure was on top of us”.
“Like every business, it goes through periods of success and slightly less success. We’ve found ourselves coming back strongly through that, to now be performing at a level we’re really proud of – and there’s still absolutely bags of potential in front of us,” he says.
“Most of the success has been picking the right products, the right concepts, the right innovations, the right acquisitions, the right investments, the right markets to chase the best client relationships – because we have the best people.”
Without a focus, though, winning is out of reach, Boundy believes.
“Anytime we don’t have that absolute focus on what we do to win, we lose. I’m sure that’s somewhere in all these complex business textbooks,” he acknowledges.
“Part of my job is to draw focus to certain things, and I’ve learned techniques over the years on how to cause an organisation to do that. That is an incredibly important skill for a senior leader – how do you get a large, complex, sophisticated business to focus on certain things? And a lot of that just takes persistence.”
Confidence in commitment
Yet despite such a commitment to organisational focus, Boundy is against imposing targets on people. Instead, he asks for commitments, because he’s confident his people will deliver as they “hate to fail”.
“I say to them, ‘come and tell me what you’re going to do in the coming year’. Because if I set a target, you’re going to say, ‘that’s a stupid target, I can’t do it’, or ‘that’s too easy’. But if you tell me you’re going to do something, and you’re minded, like our people, to deliver, you’re going to do everything in your power to do it. Because the only alternative is you can admit that you failed,” Boundy explains.
“Commitment is a very important part of our culture. I don’t like to set timelines either. I say, ‘when can you launch that product by?’ Our people are smart enough to be challenging themselves around that. Ours is a very performance oriented culture, with a high degree of accountability – but you’re well rewarded, and you get a lot of empowerment to do your job. At the same time, it’s a supportive, engaging, friendly and helpful culture. And that really matters.”
Creating healthy internal competition
Yet the common theme remains people – and hiring the best there are, because that culture then takes care of itself, Boundy sums up. It’s even created an internally competitive talent pool heightened by the launch of Experian Boost, where consumers supply mobile phone and utility contracts to boost their credit ratings. Analysts have praised it as a “master stroke” for the new dataset it opens up.
“The team that built it is world beating. We’ve now got another new initiative underway. I get phone calls from the leaders saying, ‘You know so-and-so who was on Boost? I need them for my project. Could you move things around and send them to me?’” Boundy reveals.
“So what happens is this great tension inside the organisation where everybody wants to get the best people on their team. You don’t need that complex stakeholder mapping and engagement process. You wire people to want to win, and show them you win when you have the best people – the rest takes care of itself.”
That’s why when companies say they have separate business and people strategies, Boundy finds it hard to comprehend.
“If you want to win, it’s so blatantly obvious that you have to have the best team and the best organizational culture – there’s nothing that matters more,” he says.
“You have a strategy of what you want to do in the marketplace of how you want to win. And you can only do it if you have the right people. By the way, if you have the right people, you’ve probably got a better strategy anyway, because they help you build it and define it. So it is more than critical for winning. It’s the definition of the game.”
Hire the best to be the best
Experian NA will be re-opening its offices soon, post-pandemic, and has embraced a hybrid work environment. This follows the company’s culture of focusing on needs of its employees. Regardless of office or remote workers, Boundy’s talent strategy remains consistent: recruit and retain the best.
“The Chemistry team is pivotal to that. They’re part of our process. They help us profile, assess and understand talent. They help people when they join to learn about our culture to work effectively in our organisation. They help our teams in their development. They’re even a sounding board when it’s been a tough day,” Boundy credits.
“They’re part of our investment in attracting people to the Experian family, and for us all to be successful.”
- Experian North America has risen to number 31 on the Fortune 100 Best Places to Work 2021 list for creating a high performing, yet engaging, empathetic culture.
- North America CEO Craig Boundy sees business and people strategy as intertwined – believing the best people are key to winning in the marketplace.
- He has three simple principles: wire people to win, be a good person, and throw out the playbook.