What Being A CPO Looks Like At A Small Company with CPO of Aperian

The Culture Code

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To write a great essay, you have to learn to write a great paragraph. To write a great paragraph, you have to learn to write a great sentence. A great company culture is developed the same way: You have to drive culture at each level of the organization, from departments to teams, team members, and individual actions.

An article in the MIT Management Review drives this point home by stating, “To drive a desired culture, it is not enough to try to shape attitudes or develop and communicate a set of values; leaders must ensure that incentives reinforce desired behaviors.”

That’s why after conducting more than forty interviews with chief people officers (CPOs) at mid-size and large companies, it was refreshing to discover what the CPO job looks like in a smaller organization—Aperian Global. I met with Aperian’s CPO Addie Johnsen. Johnsen knows and coaches not only every team but also each of the company’s 65 employees. By examining her approach, you can gain a strong sense of what it takes to successfully scale and sustain culture as it expands.

Aperian’s CPO Addie Johnsen
Aperian’s CPO Addie Johnsen


Aperian Global is a learning platform for growing cultural competence and inclusion.

Two New Initiatives for Sustaining a Mission-Driven Culture

Culture at Aperian is mission driven. Its mission is “to bridge boundaries through a deeper understanding of ourselves and others.” Johnsen explained this in more detail, drawing out a few key characteristics tied to this mission:

  • globally minded,
  • able to think outside of ourselves, and
  • authentic.

To uphold this culture, Johnsen recently rolled out two new initiatives:

  1. Indexing Values Team by Team: The goal of this initiative was to ensure that Aperian’s values were much more than a poster that looks good on a website or a wall. “We wanted to ensure that folks really understand our values and how they can be used as a tool to solve challenges in the workplace,” Johnsen said. To accomplish this, she had Aperian’s departments review the values team by team and perform an indexing exercise for each value. “For example, with the value ‘Stay curious and keep learning,' we asked each department to take a look at that value and assess when it’s being underdone, overdone, and done just right.” By getting into such detail and by breaking it down by department, Johnsen helped every employee bring those values to life and better understand what they look like in action. Moving forward, she also intends to embed these values in Aperian’s performance management system.
  2. Refresh Fridays: Two of Aperian’s values are trusting each other and taking ownership. “As a management team, we wanted to try something named Refresh Fridays, where we have all of our local offices close down at 1:00 p.m. on Friday afternoons. This change enables folks to start their weekends a bit early and come back more refreshed on Monday,” she explained. “That was a scary thing to do. How will that impact our productivity? How will that impact teams working across time zones? But we re-centered on our values of trust and ownership.”

Every Manager at Aperian Started as an Individual Contributor. Here’s What Johnsen Is Doing to Develop Them.

As a much smaller company, Aperian operates from a very unique position: Currently, every manager was promoted from an individual contributor role. “As they start down the management path, they already have a sense of relationship and credibility with their teams. They understand what their teams are doing because they've been in that role,” Johnsen highlighted.

As a training company itself, Aperian’s leadership development is rolled out in-house. “Since we're already helping our clients understand how to provide feedback across cultures and to build psychological safety within a global team, we ensure that our managers and internal teams access that same training and content,” Johnsen said. “Most of our learning, while it's not in a formal process per se, happens on the job in real moments and with real challenges.”

Additionally, because of Aperian’s smaller size, Johnsen and a few other in-house experts offer one-on-one coaching to each leader. They also mentor each other across cultures and locations. “Mentoring in this way can provide really important insights to our managers about managing across cultures and working with different work styles,” Johnsen added.

Johnsen’s Two Book Recommendations: Inclusive Leadership and Think Again

Johnsen recommended two books:

  1. Inclusive Leadership: Written by Aperian’s founder, Dr. Gundling, Inclusive Leadership is about how you, as an individual, contribute to a workplace, family, and community. “The book's approach is to start with the individual and explore the specific behaviors that you can change to have a larger impact. It makes inclusive leadership practical,” Johnsen emphasized.
  2. Think Again: Adam Grant’s book is all about being flexible in thinking and questioning what you think is the truth. “This is really a critical approach to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging,” Johnsen said. “What is my perception? What biases are arising? What can I relearn? What can I think about differently?”

Johnsen’s Advice for CPOs: Seek out Great External Partners

Johnsen has held her role as CPO for six plus years and has worked at Aperian for nearly 17 years. Her advice for someone stepping into a CPO role revolved around wisely choosing your external partners. “It's imperative to have good partners and good vendors to make your life easier and more productive,” she said. “It can be lonely in a CPO position, in any HR position, but you can develop wonderful, fulfilling partnerships and mentorships with vendors by being creative through your network. Think about not only the product these partners offer but also the values that guide their operations.”

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.