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Culture Club

In sports, dynasties like the American football Packers of the 1960s, the New Zealand All Blacks national rugby squad, and basketball’s San Antonio Spurs have demonstrated the power of culture to bind individuals together and enable a team to produce results above what could be expected by simply adding up the expected contributions of each member. The business world has tried to produce similar results; although exactly what culture is remains poorly defined, the hundreds of jobs available on LinkedIn seeking an individual to oversee a company’s culture certainly attest to its importance. I’ve been fortunate to have a front row seat at an investment firm (Harding Loevner) known for its strong culture and, more recently, at a UK football club (Plymouth Argyle) that is trying to develop a culture that will strengthen the organization behind the team on the pitch. As is frequently the case because of my dual roles, the parallels between the two industries and the two organizations are very much on my mind.

There are many similarities between cultures at football clubs and investment organizations, despite the underlying processes required by their core activities—making decisions on the pitch about how to try and score and defend or making decisions about buying and selling securities—being very different.

In both industries, the goal is for the team to be greater than the sum of its parts. On the pitch, an individual must rely on teammates, but certainly not debate or challenge them. Rather, coaches teach decision making so that, like muscle memory, it is instantaneous and requires little active thought.

At Harding Loevner, rules and processes constrain decision making to prevent it from being dominated by cognitive biases. Colleagues think for themselves but must expose their ideas to challenge. This is the core of our investment culture—what we call “collaboration without consensus.” We believe that one of the most difficult biases to overcome in conducting research is the tendency to give precedence to evidence that confirms our beliefs and to ignore evidence that challenges them. So, it is important that our ideas be continuously exposed to challenge. However, this leads to other problems. Humans, as social beings, generally don’t like disagreement; they are literally fearful of it. That’s why an important part of a culture of collaboration without consensus is that it be enabled by both transparency and the value of tolerance. We strive to sustain an environment in which colleagues do not feel threatened by disagreement and recognize that challenges—while discomfiting—are essential for good decision making.

It would be nice to be able to say that our culture at Harding Loevner emerged from a successfully executed plan, but that wasn’t really the case. Thirty-plus years ago, the few of us at the firm just wanted to be good investors and to serve clients who shared our views about what made a successful investment program. The firm’s values simply reflected the personal values of the founding generation. We all believed strongly in acting with integrity and always putting clients’ interests first. Beyond that, I don’t think you could say we particularly held the values associated today with Harding Loevner. We didn’t set out consciously to make a culture based on transparency, personal accountability, tolerance, and the importance of process. Those values only developed as we learned more about decision making, often from our mistakes.

For example, we discovered early on that sharing information with our colleagues was valuable in sharpening our views. But we soon learned that without individual accountability and very clear rules of engagement, disagreements could very easily descend into finger-pointing and personal attacks. We also came to realize that no amount of experience is a substitute for exercising judgement within the constraints of process and structure. The alternative, too often, is a culture of blame and chaos.

Left to Themselves, Even Great Cultures Die

Part of a winning culture is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, to have processes that change, and to take risks with new ways of behaving. Above all, perhaps, is the willingness to keep learning. Arie de Geus, former head of Royal Dutch Shell’s Strategic Planning group once said, “In the future, the ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” That ability must be embedded in culture no matter what other values the culture incorporates. A good example comes from the success and subsequent decline of Arsenal Football Club, which in the late 1990s broke with English football tradition by hiring a Frenchman to manage the team. Arsène Wenger’s on-the-pitch tactics and approach to nutrition and training overturned decades of English football culture and brought a level of domination rarely seen in professional sports. The Arsenal team of 2003-4 was unbeaten during an entire season, a feat that had not been accomplished since the late nineteenth century. Although the club went on to further success, other clubs gradually learned from, adopted, and refined its methods. Arsenal failed to innovate further and gradually slipped down the league table to a point where Wenger was eventually replaced.

The 2003-2004 Arsenal team earned the nickname the “Unvanquished” for becoming the first elite-level UK football club in more than 100 years to go an entire season undefeated—in large part thanks to its disruptive culture. Above, Kolo Toure, Robert Pires, and Ashley Cole celebrate the 2-2 tie with Tottenham that sealed the feat.
Source: ODD ANDERSEN / Staff via Getty Images

As we endeavor to strengthen Plymouth Argyle’s culture, my experience at Harding Loevner has been critical in giving me a clearer sense of what will work. At Harding Loevner, we were taking cautious steps in the dark, with nothing to give us confidence that we were on the right path. But we did learn, and that has been helpful as we try to make an Argyle culture that will enable us to achieve our vision. As such, we are approaching our task with an intentionality that would have felt presumptuous to my younger self. It starts with a more specific goal. English football is a multi-level pyramid in which especially good or poor performance brings promotion or relegation to the next level up or down in the hierarchy. At the end of 2019, a year after we had lost our spot in League One (the third level from the top), we said that in five years our goal was to be financially sustainable and playing two levels above where we were then.

To realize that vision, one of the key values we have espoused at Argyle, just as at Harding Loevner, is transparency. One difference is that our transparency extends to writing down our Vision & Values and posting them to our website. In this way, everyone at the club—as well as our supporters and sponsors—knows what the vision is and what the values are that we expect will underlie every decision. Another of our core organizational values is to be efficient and process oriented. Here, again, we are not exactly inventing the wheel. Increasingly the lessons those of us in finance and organizational science took to heart about the role of process in managing our cognitive biases have also found their way into successful sports cultures. The most famous example comes from baseball where the Oakland A’s, under general manager Billy Beane, incorporated objective data into their decision-making processes to come up with new ways to gain competitive advantage on a limited budget. Once it was widely revealed in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, Beane’s approach influenced most of the rest of baseball, spread to basketball, and is now beginning to have an impact on English football. At Argyle, our most immediate source of inspiration has been the outrageous success of Brentford F.C., for years a lower-league club of modest means, which, under the ownership and guidance of Matthew Benham (who made his fortune successfully managing his own cognitive biases gambling on football matches) has risen to the English Premier League, the pinnacle of the football pyramid.

I could elaborate on how these and our other values trickle down via our areas of strategic focus to Argyle’s CEO’s goals and to the goals he sets for every individual. But for my purposes here, the point is just that these values and goals are written down, enabling the board to communicate to our fans how we will behave and to our staff what we ask of them. The result has been powerful. Two years into our five-year plan, we have regained our position in League One, halfway toward our goal of climbing to within a level of the overachievers at Brentford. More importantly, everyone at Argyle now knows what we are trying to achieve, what is expected of them, and the values that should underly their everyday decisions.

We are now at that critical juncture faced by any strong culture looking to endure and thrive through generational succession.

I’ve learned from Harding Loevner the kind of culture that leads to sustained success. I’ve learned from Plymouth Argyle how impactful transparency and communication can be in cultivating that culture. Harding Loevner has reached the age where it can no longer rely on the people who made up the founding generation as its cultural torchbearers. Over a decade ago, we began laying groundwork for the transition of ownership and management of the firm from that generation to the next. We are now at that critical juncture faced by any strong culture looking to endure and thrive through generational succession. As the people in whom the culture is most embodied prepare inevitably to move on, they have no choice but to write more of it down. We early settlers will need to be more transparent (at the risk of being annoying) about what our culture has meant to us personally and to the firm’s success under our leadership—not so that it may be set in stone to be accepted immutably, but that it may be evaluated critically. Our younger colleagues may have slightly different beliefs and values. We expect them to receive the vision, turn it over in their minds and revise it so that they may carry it on as their own. It will be their responsibility to make sure that the firm’s culture enables it to serve its clients as well in future as it has since 1989.

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Out of Our Minds—From the Beginning

People who know a little about the history of our firm sometimes credit us with being ahead of our time. When we set out 30+ years ago we made an early decision that we would only invest in stocks of high-quality companies capable of growing revenues and cash flows over long periods of time, and then only when we could purchase them at reasonable prices. Mind you, this was two years before Eugene Fama and Kenneth French proposed their three-factor model incorporating value, and more than a decade before Cliff Asness’s seminal work on quality or the conflicting studies on the long-term premium provided by growth. So, we weren’t thinking of these aspects of our process as “factors,” or permanent sources of returns, in the current sense of the term. We thought they were merely sensible principles, based on our own beliefs about the markets, that would give us the best chance of achieving the above-market returns necessary to satisfy our clients and sustain our fledgling enterprise. Considering we had left well-paying jobs to stake our futures on these ideas, there were probably some people who thought us out of our minds. And, in a sense, they were right.

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Don’t Just Do Something—Stand There

Humans prefer to do something rather than nothing. We like office environments that are a “hive of activity” and commend “men of action.” When stuck in a traffic jam, we will take an alternate route just to keep moving, even if it prolongs the journey. We tend, though, to conflate activity with productivity, mistaking the people whom we see doing the most with those who are the most valuable.

We see this bias in many domains. Our political leaders tend to respond to a crisis with ill-considered policies that capture attention but often do little good and may even do harm. It would be unacceptable for them to stand by and simply do nothing. While serving as both vice chairman of Harding Loevner and as chairman of a professional soccer club that competes in the English Football League (EFL), I have been struck by the parallels between investing and sports when it comes to the biases that damage effective decision-making. Studies have looked at penalty kicks in soccer. When a penalty is awarded, the ball is placed 12 yards from the center of the goal and a kicker gets the opportunity to score with only the goalkeeper standing in the way. It turns out that because of the goalkeeper’s bias for action, the optimal place to kick the ball is directly at the center of the goal. A goalkeeper will almost always dive one way or another in anticipation. If he dives the wrong way, he’s forgiven as having simply guessed wrong, or as being sent the wrong way by the kicker’s supposed feint. If he dives the right way, he has a chance to stop the ball entering the goal. If he merely stands in the middle, however, he is the subject of much abuse for doing nothing.

Investors fall victim to similar pressures and impulses. The immediate costs of transacting are low, and the propensity to transact is high. The result is that investors transact too much, and their returns suffer. They tend to transact at the wrong time, buying after prices have risen, and selling after prices have fallen.

Underlying these behaviors is a general misunderstanding of the roles of luck and skill. In sports and in investing, short-term results are the outcome of a combination of the two. Yet, we tend both to attribute the outcome more to skill than to luck and to extrapolate a series of outcomes (good or bad) into the future. This tendency stems from our deep-seated need for explanation, and a need to feel we are in control even when we are not. This occurs particularly in those sports, like soccer, that are generally low-scoring affairs. Unlike in basketball, for example, where there will be more than a hundred points in a game, the average number of goals in a professional soccer game is roughly three. The result of a single game will largely be driven by luck—one bobble of the ball, the inches between hitting a goalpost and scoring, a poor refereeing decision. Yet the narrative in post-match interviews is seldom “we got lucky.” At least, it’s seldom the case that “we got lucky” when the interviewee’s team wins. When the team loses, the loss is the result of bad luck! How similar this is to investment narratives, where there seems to be only two kinds of investment managers: the talented, and the unlucky.

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Stock Portfolios, Football Teams, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves about Each

The world is complex and unpredictable, but humans prefer order, and cause and effect, so therefore tell stories that purport to explain what is simply random. Narratives pre-date writing. They help make events coherent and memorable, while arousing emotions in the listener. Behavioral biases, which all humans share, are in many cases essentially products of the stories we tell ourselves. The more detailed the story, the more entertaining it is and the more powerfully it can affect our emotions. We love stories. That can often be wonderful, but in decision making it can be dangerous.

In investing, there has been at least a little progress towards improving decision making by resisting the power of stories. Quantitative investors describe how they adhere to purely objective rules (rules and lines of code that, of course, they themselves have written) to govern their behavior and reduce bias. “Quantamentalists,” another breed of investor, allow some judgement to enter their decision making once they have established the framework. They do this in part in recognition that, as a rule, most humans don’t like rules. We suffer from what psychologists call “algorithm aversion,” i.e. preferring to go with our gut. That preference results from our need to remain in control, or at least to believe we are. Permitting human override of an algorithm may degrade the quality of its output, but in granting themselves the comfort of exercising some degree of control, decision makers likely improve their rate of adherence, for an overall improvement in outcomes. I fully expect self-driving cars to come with a steering wheel that will have no impact on direction of travel, but will allow the human passenger to feel more secure than if she were simply sitting back and giving herself over fully to the computer under the hood.

In his book The Success Equation, Michael Mauboussin writes extensively about the importance of a strong process and rules in activities where the immediate outcome is driven by luck and skill. He describes how it is possible to improve skill through what has become known as deliberate practice: repetitive, purposeful, and systematic repetition with immediate and specific feedback. Luck, however, can only be managed by having a strong process, with rules or standards constraining decision making and the urge to impute too much importance to our role in any one result. In activities such as investing or team sports—arenas where skill and luck both come into play—narrative is particularly seductive, making adherence to this recipe for success a constant battle.