Cultivating a culture of empowerment (podcast interview)

Earlier this year, Victoria Downing and Mark Harari interviewed me for the Remodelers Advantage’s PowerTips podcast. Though PowerTips is intended specifically for owners of remodeling businesses, Vic and Mark were gracious enough to let me spend the entirety of the interview discussing leadership philosophy (one of my favorite topics).


Communication is terrible

Via Fast Company

One of Bezos’s more memorable behind-the-scenes moments came during an off-site retreat, says Risher. “People were saying that groups needed to communicate more. Jeff got up and said, ‘No, communication is terrible!’ ” The pronouncement shocked his managers. But Bezos pursued his idea of a decentralized, disentangled company where small groups can innovate and test their visions independently of everyone else. He came up with the notion of the “two-pizza team”: If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large. That limits a task force to five to seven people, depending on their appetites.


Should businesses match charitable contributions?

One of our team members recently asked,

What do you think about having our company match charitable contributions?

Here is a slightly edited version of my reply:

Thanks for raising that question. Philosophically, I think the business exists to provide people (both shareholders and employees) with the freedom and means to pursue whatever path they choose for themselves, including the support of organizations they feel merit their investment. But I am uncomfortable with our business supporting non-profits directly (except in cases where there is a direct marketing benefit or business-case to be made for how that support helps further our mission). As such, I would rather our shareholders and employees make donations individually, using the profits they’ve earned from their investments or the money they’ve earned from working here.

Having lent board-level leadership support to non-profits in the past, I have learned more than I wanted to know about how many of them operate. As a result, I’ve become extremely selective about the organizations to which I lend my family’s support. Peter Buffett correctly described the rise of what he called the Charitable Industrial Complex, and his arguments for scrutinizing the results of personal charitable investments resonate with me.

My opinion is, of course, imperfect and likely wrong. For that reason especially, I think it more appropriate that people make their own decisions about how to support their favored charities. My gut tells me that by amplifying an individual’s charitable donation preferences with other peoples’ money that we 1) inevitably use their money to support organizations that owners wouldn’t otherwise choose to support, and 2) dampen the supporters’ scrutiny of the non-profit’s actions and results.

Milton Friedman said there are four ways to spend money, and my sense is that matching contributions would fall into his fourth (and least efficient) way.


Measuring employee engagement

This year, GuildQuality was named the 5th best place to work in Atlanta among businesses with fewer than 100 employees. I was pretty pleased with that, and also glad to still have some room for improvement.

We spend a lot of energy on our culture and our work environment. To make sure we’re investing appropriately, I’m interested in measuring our progress. If we’re losing any of the things that make us a special place to work, I want to know about it before things get out of hand.

The single best way that I’ve come across to keep my finger on our pulse is a brief, anonymous survey, conducted once per quarter. We call it our “Barometer” and use Google Forms to make it happen.

Here’s our survey:

Read the rest of this entry »


Things get great when anyone can quit at any time

Peter Gray, The Play Deficit

For the last few years, I’ve been telling myself that I’d like every single person in our company to have the abilities, freedom, and opportunity to leave our company at any time, but have our company culture be so strong that no one wants to.

Lenore Skenazy and Abby Schacter recently led me to a wonderful article by Peter Gray that articulated that aspiration in a way far better than I ever could.

Some backstory: since becoming a parent, I’ve followed (and been inspired by) Gray’s articles. As my wee ones have grown to become fully-formed little people, and the wonder of the wide wide world becomes as important and influential to them as the comfort of our cozy home, my appreciation for his writings grows.

Cultivating a strong company culture is similar to cultivating a strong culture at home, but there are some notable differences. One of the biggest is that adults can generally leave a company, and children can’t really leave a home. But in children’s play anyone can withdraw at anytime.

Schacter quotes Gray:

The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit….

That’s exactly what we’re working toward with our company culture.

As grownups, we have the added challenges of creating value for our customers and making some money along the way so that we all get to keep coming back to play another day.


Policy is like a cast

Policies and procedures, hierarchy, and bureaucracy are similar to a cast, a brace, or a splint. They’re incredibly useful to immobilize a broken bone so that it will heal. They remove judgment from the equation: If you want to move beyond the limits of your hobble, you can’t. That sort of limitation is something you need if your culture is broken and you’re trying to help it heal, but it’s something you definitely don’t want if you’re healthy.

Earlier this year, Marissa Mayer recognized this when she began restricting Yahoo employees’ freedom to work remotely. Remote employees were struggling to be productive, and their results clearly showed it. That represented systemic failures across the board in hiring, onboarding new folks, leadership, and communication, and those failures had injured the organization so severely that the first step in repairing the damage was to introduce restrictions that would allow Yahoo’s bones to heal. If Yahoo does well, that healing will come via the departure of people who aren’t committed to the company’s success, through improved communication, through better leadership, through more selective hiring, and through more diligent onboarding.

For a healthy limb, broad range of movement is critical to strength. Artificial restrictions on motion weaken muscles, and the lack of use eventually causes bone brittleness. So if you are relying on a cast, splint, or brace to prevent injury from happening, you’re making yourself more susceptible to injury.

Once Yahoo has healed its bones, Mayer can (and hopefully will) strip off the cast, and focus on strengthening muscles.


Strengthening culture amidst rapid growth

We’ve doubled our full-time headcount in fifteen months, going from 9 to 18 at the start of February. Three of those hires joined on February 1. That was the first time in a long time that we’ve had more than one person start on any one day, and it got me thinking about how to systematize the onboarding process. We’re particularly interested in having all of our new additions strengthen our culture.

With a third of our team working remotely, and so many folks working heads-down on their own projects, I have some concerns about people drifting away, not contributing to the evolution of our culture, or not feeling a part of the team. Fraternities have the same sort of problem and then some–a quarter of their people are churned and replaced every year. That got me thinking, How do they help new folks get engaged?

I looked back on my days as a pledge, discarded the horrid parts, and zeroed in on what I felt was one of the best and most healthy pledging activies: a practice we called “getting sigs.” Every pledge had to meet with all 75 or so brothers at the brother’s convenience and get his signature. I liked that the onus was on the pledge to schedule the meeting, but I disliked that the brother had some power over the pledge. Brothers could withhold their signatures in exchange for silly tasks like shoe polishing. Few did this, but the possibility was always there, and it introduced an unnecessary component of power and authority into an activity that could have been solely about forging or strengthening bonds.

After discussing it with a handful of existing team members, I decided to ask our new people to meet with every employee on the team at some point during their first month, and then spend their fourth month revisiting those meetings (no signatures required). On their first day, I posted the following to our Basecamp thread under the “Culture” project, copying everyone:

Dear [names of new people]:

This will likely be one of the first basecamp posts you read once you get your email up and running! Attached is a 2012 End of Year Roster showing all of GuildQuality’s full-timers, plus the three of you.

We’ve been mulling over how to help y’all get to know the more tenured folks on the team, and help all of them get to know you as well. The goal is to lay the groundwork for good communication, and help you get the lay of the land as fast as possible. We want you to be comfortable reaching out to anyone on the team, and we want them comfortable doing the same. Here’s what we’re thinking:

In your first thirty days, please reach out to every member of the team (including the other new folks), and schedule a brief conversation (at least 15 minutes, but as long as you want). You can do it face-to-face, over lunch, or via video conference, but it has to be one-on-one and it has to be scheduled in advance. If you like, print out the attached list and check folks off as you go along. Please wrap up all these conversations by the end of February.

You’re going to be pretty fresh at GuildQuality in your first month, but I expect you’ll have a pretty good idea of how things operate three or four months from now. With that in mind, please plan to have a second round of roster conversations with everyone in your fourth full month (May).

Everyone else:
This is meant to be a conversation rather than an interview. Come to each meeting with questions of your own. Also, be thinking about what you’d like new folks to know about what you do here at GQ, and what you can do to help them get their legs underneath them.

Yesterday, I posed to all the new folks the following question: “Y’all are the first to endure this sort of exercise. Please tell me how it’s coming along. Is it weird? Helpful? Awesome? Horrible?”

They responded:

I think it’s awesome and helpful. I’m a people person so I like getting know more people! Although, I haven’t met with everyone yet- I still feel at home within my first month. So with that being said -all who have not met with me/I have not met with.. Lets! Other than that I am very happy to be here and more than satisfied with the company culture.

I agree that it is super helpful. Specifically for getting to know the individuals who don’t work in the office.  I also found it helped me better understand the development team’s day-to-day responsibilities (which there are a plethora of!). I still have 3 or 4 people that I need to meet with but up to this point the exercise has been successful!

I still have a few more to go as well but I think it has been very helpful. It feels slightly weird to ask someone to just sit down and talk but it is better than the alternative of going many months and never really talking to a majority of the team. I think it was a great idea.

All in all, I’m liking this exercise so far, I’m looking forward to seeing how the meetings in the fourth month go, and I expect we’ll refine and repeat the process with our other new hires. It’s a meaningful investment of time for the new people, and I believe it’s helping us to strengthen the ties that bind. What do you do to help new people get the lay of the land?