Scaling Culture, with Ambrosia Vertesi
Numerous organizations face a common dilemma: how to maintain their foundational culture and values while experiencing tremendous growth.
Ambrosia shares many of the lessons she learned during her time at Hootsuite and Duo Security and gives us insight on how to support managers during big company changes.
Later in the episode, Molly Graham, Co-Founder of &Then, invites us to dive deeper into what it actually means to “give away legos”, and the vital role that humility plays during fast growth.
Lastly, we get to hear from Chloe Sesta Jacobs. Chloe is Head of People and Culture at Deputy, a scheduling software company that is experiencing tremendous growth.
As a gift to our podcast listeners, we are offering our Culture Crunch Report, a comprehensive collection of trends in employee engagement, organizational design, company culture, leadership and management, and their differences across varying company maturation phases.
DAMON KLOTZ: Hey everyone. It’s Damon here, host of the Culture First podcast. Before we get started, I wanted to let you know about a great resource that we’re offering to listeners of Culture First. Culture Amp has now worked with over 2,600 companies across so many different industries, which has given us this unique view on things like employee engagement, performance development, company culture, leadership and management to name a few. Now, these trends that we can analyze, this actually change depending on the size and level of growth than an organization is currently experiencing. If you want to take a deeper dive on some of these trends, we’re offering our listeners our culture count report.
DAMON KLOTZ: This report actually allows you to compare your company to companies who are experiencing different levels of growth, different levels of company size, and different levels of company funding. It’s one of the most unique reports that we’ve created during my time here at Culture Amp and I know you’re going to get a lot of value from it. If you want to read this report and see how you compare, head to culturefirstpodcast.com/scaling. All right, let’s get started.
DAMON KLOTZ: What is the role that communication plays to bring people on the journey with you?
A. VERTESI: There is no journey without communication.
A. VERTESI: (singing)
DAMON KLOTZ: I’m Damon Klotz, and this is Culture First. What happens to a company culture during a period of fast growth, constant change and scale? That’s the topic that we’re going to be talking about in episode two of the Culture First podcast. But before we do, I thought we should start the episode talking about the Culture First organization and why this is such an important strategy to scale.
DAMON KLOTZ: At the heart of Culture First is a commitment to amplifying what people are capable of being and achieving at work. Culture is the way that we relate to one another. It sets the context for the work that we do. A Culture First organization is built on an ethos of being foundational, relational, and alive. When I think about what makes a company culture successful, I think a lot about mission, values and behaviors which show up as the foundations of an organization’s culture. If you’ve set the foundations, then the next piece in being Culture First is an understanding that it’s relational. No matter what your role is, you have the power to shape culture through how you relate with others.
DAMON KLOTZ: And then finally a Culture First company is alive. It’s a level of consciousness that helps us understand that culture comes alive when we become aware that how we work is just as important as what we’re working on.
DAMON KLOTZ: A big dilemma that organizations face is the question of how to maintain the culture and values that they want founded on while experiencing tremendous growth. The systems and processes that you’ve spent all this time building are out of date faster than you can keep up with. You’re trying to retain the knowledge of all of your key employees while still getting them to execute every single day. This is incredibly tough as well. And with this change brings uncertainty and uncertainty can put pressure on the teams, the norms and the values that you’ve spent all this time creating. So how can we scale while staying true to the values that sit at the core of our culture or rather how do we scale culture?
DAMON KLOTZ: In today’s episode of Culture First, we’re going to try and answer that question through three core concepts. The first is what does it take from the organizational level to effectively scale culture? The second is what should you be aware of if you’re thinking of joining a company that is scaling right now? And then finally, what does it feel like to work in an organization that’s scaling?
DAMON KLOTZ: To help us understand this topic, we’re going to hear from three people who have directly helped companies scale their culture successfully. We’ll hear from Molly Graham, co-founder of &Then and the former VP of Operations at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as well as former senior positions at companies like Quip, Google and Facebook. And we’re going to speak to Molly about how things are often always messy and the value of just chucking the Lego at people’s faces. That’ll make more sense soon. We’ll also hear from Chloe Sesta Jacobs, Head of People and Culture at Deputy about the role of humility and fast growth. And our main guest today is Ambrosia Vertesi.
DAMON KLOTZ: Ambrosia is the co-founder of HR Open Source and the former Vice President of People at Duo Security. Before that she was the Vice President of Talent at Hootsuite where she oversaw a team that went from 20 to 1,000 employees. Ambrosia has a track record of being able to scale fast growth organizations from startup to scale up and from scale up to acquisition. Ambrosia will also share what she learned about business and people management during her years as a wrestler.
DAMON KLOTZ: Thank you so much for having this conversation with me.
A. VERTESI: Thanks for having me.
DAMON KLOTZ: You’ve entered the people operations sort of space, actually from operations originally.
A. VERTESI: Yeah.
DAMON KLOTZ: And I think how people find a way into a people function is really fascinating. I myself studied it, went into it, left it, then kind of came back in a way. What sort of drew you to go from operations into the people side of business?
A. VERTESI: That’s a good question. I actually went to school to be a teacher and there weren’t any jobs open. I grew up in Canada. There weren’t any jobs open at the time and so I found myself really needing a career change and I moved to the UK. I went into private education there and I just found myself drawn to not just trying to help people grow and develop, but looking at the mechanics of it all.
DAMON KLOTZ: Well, one of the biggest levers that we have inside organizations are our managers.
A. VERTESI: Yeah.
DAMON KLOTZ: Your role at Hootsuite, one is like I think one of the most famous culture stories out there. You did a lot of work on telling that culture story externally to audiences and I think it was probably one of the first reasons that you and I connected was obviously attracted to learn more about what was happening at Hootsuite and you were running the show there. So you joined as a really early employee, scaled it up to a quite large organization. How did you think about the role that managers were playing throughout that growth and what were some of the ways that you tried to support them?
A. VERTESI: Yeah. I started as employee 20 something and I shared an office with the founder CEO, which was the only office there was at that point, and then eventually it was completely open floor. So I really learned intuitively what he was looking for as we scaled and we scaled to over a thousand people in 10 countries in a few years. And there was no way that my team or the executive team was ever going to beat the numbers of how many people leaders we were going to have. They were absolutely fundamental to the success of the business, but also we were headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, so we needed a people plan that talked about growth and development of leaders because we were highly likely going to be spending a significant amount of time nurturing the talent that we were looking for.
A. VERTESI: And so that conversation was weekly. It was what does being a manager mean here first? I think there are many definitions of that. A lot of them are jargon to be perfectly honest, but if you can as either a people leader or manager or CEO, whoever you are really think about what does success look like for the managers for the next 24 months because it changes and some people don’t think it changes. But if you’re a manager in a 100 person organization, you have a team of three to five and then two years later you’re a manager in a thousand person organization and you have a team of 20, your job just completely changed.
DAMON KLOTZ: So this kind of growth that Ambrosia is talking about, what does it look like? For some boots on the ground perspective, on scaling culture, we reached out to an organization that is currently experiencing a lot of growth to see how it’s going.
CHLOE S. JACOBS: I’m Chloe Sesta Jacobs, and I’m the Head of People and Culture in APAC for Deputy.
DAMON KLOTZ: Deputy is a workforce management software that enables business owners and their teams to do their best work through the automation and digitization of tasks such as scheduling, rostering, payroll and compliance.
CHLOE S. JACOBS: So some of the issues that we had to deal with while trying to scale culture I think the most obvious one being is that the constant growth where we’re constantly changing who we are and you get some people that say, “The culture’s not what it used to be”. And of course it’s not because we’re at completely different size, we’re facing different issues that we were now that we have just over 340 people compared to when we had 100 people. And that’s something that I really try and communicate that with people in that it might not be the environment for you. You might want to work for a smaller company where you can be more in touch with everyone around you. And a few people that have left have come and said, “Just that they’re looking for a company that is a bit smaller and that Deputy is grown in way different”.
CHLOE S. JACOBS: So I think just constantly reminding people that there are advantages to scaling and that scaling is very different to growing. And I think that presents a really great challenge for people. And a challenge that most people do want to be a part of. Growing is not scaling. How can we be as efficient as possible as we have more people come on board? How can we make our processes easier? And it’s one of the biggest challenges with scaling is that mindset. I think that people are feeling vulnerable, things are changing and it’s really important to be humble and to have humility. And humility is one of our values because what you were doing last week might not be what you were doing this week.
CHLOE S. JACOBS: As I mentioned earlier, we’ve grown about 60 people in the Sydney office since I started in May. So people are having to constantly think about how they can be more efficient but also realize that with extra people means that you might have to sometimes let things go and there’s just no time to be precious around that. And I think that while that’s easily said, we are all humans and we do all have an intense feeling of ownership of what we do. So it’s about finding that right balance between being true owners and wanting to contribute to the success of Deputy.
DAMON KLOTZ: Okay. So I think it’s becoming clear that scaling and growing clearly aren’t the same thing. A company experiencing growth is often trying to add revenue at a similar pace to their resources. Where a company trying to scale is looking to add revenue at a much faster pace than the cost and resources. Fast growth isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. But if you are going for a job at a fast growth company, humility and adaptability are going to be vital skills for you to have. So next I asked Chloe about a practical way to foster this sense of humility in the culture.
CHLOE S. JACOBS: One of the things we use in our induction process is the article about sharing Legos. In order for deputy to be successful, we do have to share our Legos and we do have to focus on the team rather than just ourselves.
DAMON KLOTZ: What Chloe is referring to about sharing Legos is an article by Molly Graham entitled Give Away Your Legos and Other Commandments for Scaling Startups, which was published by First Round Review. It’s fair to say that this article has taken on a life of its own and created numerous metaphors for experience at work and it’s become a go-to resource for scaling culture at fast growth companies. So to actually go a little bit deeper into this article, we’ve reached out to Molly Graham. During her time at Google, she scaled the comms team from 25 to 125 people in just nine months. Then she went on to work at Facebook to develop employer branding and culture initiatives, during a time when the company went from a few hundred to a few thousand employees. She was also the COO of Quip, which was acquired by Salesforce and most recently the VP of operations at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. So she’s probably one of the most qualified and experienced people to talk to us about what it looks like to truly scale culture.
MOLLY GRAHAM: One of the funny things that I say to people whenever they’re thinking about going to a scaling company, no matter how fancy the brand is and no matter how much … or the opposite if nobody’s ever heard of the company before, is literally regardless of where you are on that spectrum. And to some extent, for the beginning of the journey and that can go all the way up to companies that are very well known, like Stripe or Facebook at the time that I joined it, it always feels like a mess. And I really try to talk to people about that because I think it’s very easy when you’re sitting inside your company, wherever that is and you’re looking up to the other startups that are farther along than you or the companies that you aspire to be like someday. And just think, well, we’re such a disaster or these things are so messy, I couldn’t possibly have been like that at Amazon or Facebook or Google or Microsoft. And so this must mean something is wrong with us.
MOLLY GRAHAM: And part of what I try to help folks understand is that it genuinely tends to feel like a mess everywhere, and the challenge is distinguishing critical mess. So mess that you really is a big problem. And then just normal mess because I have never been inside of a startup or worked with a startup where it didn’t feel a little bit like everything was going to fall apart sometime in the next couple of weeks. And so, I would deglamorize all of those experiences immensely.
MOLLY GRAHAM: One of the things I learned at each of those places, but at Facebook in particular is that part of being good at startups and taking advantage of the startup opportunity is learning to be really zen in the face of a lot of mess, and in the face of moments when you’re like, oh man, this might really not work out well, but being able to kind of make it through to the other side of those moments and be like, “Oh, okay, well we survived that one. What’s going to happen next?”
DAMON KLOTZ: I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen this many times over in my career, especially after relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area where fast-growth startups deeply permeate the culture. As I got the chance to learn about some of the bigger, more glamorous companies, I realized that everyone’s got a version of their mess and that mess really changes based on where they’re at, what size they’re at, and the market conditions and the products that they’re trying to release. Do you only ever learn about the mess once you’re inside the company or are there like warning signs about how big the mess is from the outside?
MOLLY GRAHAM: It’s a good question. There are always warning signs and I think that my best metaphor for interviewing is dating. I always think that when you’re going on your early set of dates with someone and you’re kind of curious about whether it can be more serious, you basically find a series of red flags. Sometimes they’re yellow. And interviewing is very similar because as you’re asking questions of the company, as you’re seeing how the company treats you, how fast they are, how the interviewees ask questions, how they come into the room, how buttoned up the process is, all of that is actually reflecting to some extent how the company operates and I think it is very worth as a candidate thinking about what you are seeing in an interview process and if you just assume as we should in dating too, that all of those yellow and red flags probably mean something. Then the question is do you want to work there?
MOLLY GRAHAM: I’m a big believer that you can tell a lot by a company through their interview process and should take those warning signs and positive signs very seriously. When you’re thinking about where you want to go.
DAMON KLOTZ: You wrote this blog post that I think for anyone who’s worked at a scaling company or in the startup same or any kind of companies wanting to learn about scaling the people that is just so relevant and so important. And it was called Giving Away Your Legos and you wrote it with First Round Review. So before I get into that article and the metaphor and the story behind it, I just think to personally just say thank you for writing it because it is truly impacted my time since joining Culture Amp nearly five years ago. I think I’ve referenced the article into the hundreds of times, sent it to so many people, so many new employees and it’s become a core part of my language and symbolism that I’ve used during my time here. So firstly I just want to say thanks.
MOLLY GRAHAM: I’m really glad that it has been valuable to you. That is why we wrote it down because I don’t think people talk enough about what it feels like to be inside scaling companies. And it’s becoming a bigger and bigger part of a lot of people’s experience from an employment perspective.
DAMON KLOTZ: Yeah. And specifically for me, I went from working in a government department of 65,000 people and then I joined a private private company in the healthcare space and they had like 35,000 people. And then I co-founded a social enterprise and I had a lot of control and I was quite specialized in most of my work. And then to join Culture Amp, when there was I think 13 employees when I started interviewing and joining as one of the first 20. I’ve had so many different roles both formally and informally in so many different tasks and projects and like shedding the skin of old roles and giving away the legos and being okay with seeing someone else play with a project that you used to own. It can be hard. And when I kind of spoke about this to people, it’s like not only is it about giving away legos and making sure that you’re okay with that, but it’s also are you able to package them up back in the box? Are the instructions actually well written down? Are they actually still good to play with in a way that allows someone to be successful when taking them on? Or are you just giving away like random pieces over time that doesn’t ever allow someone to actually be successful with those, and then you’re not setting the company up or the other people you know for success?
MOLLY GRAHAM: One thing that’s interesting when you write down metaphors is they take on a life of their own. And the legos metaphor has definitely taken on a life of its own. It’s very interesting to see how it gets used. But one of the things I get asked a lot is how you should pass Legos around the company. So my answer is probably the opposite of one a lot of people would assume, which is, I think that in the process of giving away your job, and let me just clarify that, giving away your job can be as small as upleveling what you are doing every day. It can be the first time you hire someone onto your team, you are giving away your part of your job to the person you just hired. And that’s often one of the most confusing ones because three weeks ago you were desperate to hire someone. That person starts and you’re so thrilled they’re there. And then on day five, you’re like, who is this person? They’re never going to be any good at this. I should’ve just … or maybe there’ll be better than I am. And then everybody will know I’m a fraud and maybe I should just fire them and take all the Legos back and just do this by myself forever.
MOLLY GRAHAM: So to me, first of all, the versions of this are pretty incremental and small, which is part of why you end up having to do it so frequently when your company is scaling a lot because your job genuinely does change all the time or it should. But I think that all of those emotions I just talked about are what makes this so hard that just my metaphor is sort of the kindergartners playing with the Lego tower and first you’re building it by yourself and then somebody crawls over to try to help out. And a lot of times your first instinct is like, no, I don’t need help. Or you thought you needed help, but then they start building it wrong and you’re like, “What are you doing? That’s not how we’re supposed to do this”.
MOLLY GRAHAM: And the typical tendency is actually to be overly controlling about how that person takes over the part of the tower that you were just building. To say no, there’s a right way and a wrong way to continue to build what I was building and to kind of give them half a Lego one day and then another half of a Lego the following week because you want to actually try to overly control what they are doing and to make sure they’re doing it the way that you were doing it, which is really not actually in the best interest of the company because the company needs you to move on and to scale up and to take on a bigger or a different job and to let that Lego tower be left in the hands of the next person to try to build it.
MOLLY GRAHAM: And so my actual answer to this is often chuck the Legos at the person’s face because people’s typical tendency is to really hand them one by one in a very slow fashion. I find that if you tend towards chucking them at people’s faces and running in the other direction towards the next job that you need to do, you will find the happy medium. There are moments to slow down and make sure that people really understand what they’re taking over and there are moments to just be like, you seem like a very competent human that’s done a lot of things like this before and I’m just going to give it to you and tell me if you need help. Come find me, I will be just around the corner.
DAMON KLOTZ: So was I being far too formal and polite by trying to put them all neatly back into a box with instructions?
MOLLY GRAHAM: Yes. I don’t think you have time. I don’t think you have time to write instructions. I mean, that’s part of what’s so crazy about scaling is a couple of things. First of all, part of the reason why people’s jobs change so fast inside of scaling companies is because the company is changing really fast. I always tell people, look at the graph that gets put up every, all hands. There is some graph that everybody looks at that says, Facebook, it was the monthly active user graph and we would look at it every three months and it would go up into the right. And for me, what I learned over time is that that is the graph, not just of how fast our business was changing, but of how fast the company was changing.
MOLLY GRAHAM: And if you think about that at a place like Facebook and they’re less dramatic examples, then what that means is that it is a different company. It is twice as big, twice as complex, twice as crazy, every three months, and the cadence is different in every company. Sometimes it’s every six months, sometimes it’s every year, sometimes it’s every three weeks. It varies by project depending on what stage that project is in. But the idea that the instructions you write down for that box of Legos that you so carefully put together is going to matter in three months or a week is crazy. Instructions expire faster than almost anything else inside of scaling companies. It’s like talk to anyone that has tried to own documentation inside of a scaling company and they’re like … I don’t know that they give up, but it’s certainly one of the harder jobs.
DAMON KLOTZ: I think that might be the hardest job in a scaling startup. It is such a great point. Things do change so fast. I have definitely had a lot of conversations with people where I’m like, every six months you just need to have another conversation with yourself about like am I willing to do another six months at this company under the agreement that it is now changed from what it was six months ago when I made that agreement and constantly checking in has really helped me understand how I’m going next to the company and how the company is growing as well.
DAMON KLOTZ: During the companies that you’ve worked at, have you seen some of the pitfalls when a company overinvests in recruiting to scale and under-invest in the people operations?
MOLLY GRAHAM: To me this is not about recruiting an HR. This is about growing too fast and I think one of the things that happens in venture backed companies in particular is that there is a little bit of a sense of grow, grow, grow, both on the business side but also on the people side and that there is no consequence to growing extremely fast. And one of the things, I’ve made a bit of a study of looking across fast growing companies, informal study I would say and I strongly believe now that there is a rate of growth that is just simply too fast to be healthy.
MOLLY GRAHAM: My rule of thumb is like if you are growing more than a 100% year over year, you are taking on organizational debt and when you’re talking to folks that have a technical background, it is almost identical to technical debt where you’re moving fast and you’re just duct taping code together and getting the product shipped and you’ll come back and make it clean and beautiful and scalable later. That is exactly the same thing that happens when you’re like, we’re only a 100 people, and we’re going to hire another a 100 people in the next like six months and it’ll be fine. And the truth is it’s not fine. You are not taking enough time to wonder what are all these people going to do? Are they actually distinct roles? Are they the right fit in a bunch of different ways for the company. And that tends to manifest itself in a bunch of different ways and in your engagement data and in actual overall employee tenure. So like folks leaving.
MOLLY GRAHAM: But it is something that we really underestimate the cost of in the venture backed startup industry, which is just hiring too fast. So one of the first questions I walk when I ask when I walk into companies is how big were you at 12 months ago? How big are you now? Do you have a head count prioritization list? And basically I say, can we hire less people? What would happen if we don’t hire all these people? And then the really that stems from have you decided what you’re not going to do or are you trying to do all the things tomorrow and do all of them well, because usually that’s how companies get into, we just need more people and we’ll just hire more people without asking, is this the right thing to do?
DAMON KLOTZ: It shouldn’t be a surprise that there is such a thing as growing too fast and that things will break during this time. I was curious to look at the culture and benchmark data to see what really suffers the most during this growth. We examined our high tech benchmark data and looked at companies of three different sizes. Under 200 employees, 200 to 500 employees, and over 500 employees and these are proxies for different stages of growth. So we were able to actually look at the changes in the benchmark data during this time.
DAMON KLOTZ: Do you have any guesses to what part of the employee experience changed the most during this growth? If you said communication and collaboration, then you’d be right. Communication and collaboration gets more challenging the more a company grows, the more people who keep joining, the higher their risk of information not reaching the right people at the right time and the more people that you have to communicate with. What I found interesting is the fact that open two way communication between employees and consulting others when appropriate, drops by seven and six points respectively during this time, how do you really help employees with this?
DAMON KLOTZ: One suggestion would be to look at the idea of relational intelligence that we spoke about during episode one. I also spent some time looking at the responses to the following questions. Leadership demonstrating the importance of people, personally receiving recognition for good work, and the final question, the right people getting rewarded and recognized. These questions all dropped by an average of four points as a company went through growth. What seems clear to me is that actively recognizing people’s value to the organization should be a priority, especially during fast growth. It’s a high driver of engagement regardless of company size, but it becomes even more important as a company continues to add new people.
DAMON KLOTZ: A story that I’ve shared a lot during Culture Amp’s own growth story from 15 employees to 400 is to constantly remind myself and others that every new person who joins is standing on the shoulders of giants. To me, it’s really vital to recognize all the hard work that has been done before us and brought us to our current stage that allows us to continually add new amazing people to do this work. Working with over 2,500 companies across a number of industries has given Culture Amp a unique view on trends and employee engagement, organizational design, company culture, leadership and management. If you want to take a deeper dive of these, I’ve worked with our team to offer you our culture count report. You can find this at www.culturefirstpodcast.com/scaling.
DAMON KLOTZ: For the purposes of this report, we looked at the differences across these trends for companies at varying maturation phases, specifically in the tech industry. In it you’ll learn, what key areas companies need to focus on as they grow, what mature companies can learn from early stage startups and vice versa. We divided the data according to different company phases, seed and angel funded, series A, B, C, post series C, IPO and acquired. So again, if you want to read or download the culture count report, head to www.culturefirstpodcast.com/scaling.
DAMON KLOTZ: Okay, let’s go back to our conversation with Ambrosia Vertesi and let’s listen to her explain what management seems to get wrong about scaling culture and how we can support managers during that fast growth.
A. VERTESI: What happens to your world in that short period of time in hyper-growth as a manager is extremely difficult to prepare for and a lot of organizations don’t even think about that. They think about what do we need our managers to produce? They don’t think about what is their experience, what’s going on for them? Maybe they haven’t even worked at a 1,000 person company.
DAMON KLOTZ: Or maybe they never wanted to.
A. VERTESI: Maybe they never wanted to. Maybe they just joined this startup and they like their team and have you even asked them what they want to do with that if they want to be a people leader, we think to ask them in engineering, we don’t think to ask them across the business. We assume that their definition of success is up and more senior, more people, more money, more budgets. And so I think if there’s an effort by the people leadership team and the executive team to think about that leaders of people and then leaders of teams because those levels I think have a similar experience. What is their world look like? How do you map their experience is the same way you would a customer experience from end to end. What does their day look like and how can we help them prepare for moments of friction, pressure, growth? That are going to be growth spurts that a lot of people don’t make it over. What are the things that they’re thinking about and we’re asking from them that we’re not giving them tools for?
A. VERTESI: Instead of describing some stuff off the shelf and being like, okay, so early stage managers need help on difficult conversations and then we’re starting to roll out things that maybe that’s not what they need right now. Have you asked them?
DAMON KLOTZ: Yeah and actually tailoring it to what they’re experiencing that week. This is what you’re trying to do a blanket approach of everyone might be feeling this, so please do this where it’s like you could have an expert on that subject. Who is like, this is not the thing I need right now and what I’m looking for is most support around another topic.
A. VERTESI: Right. And sometimes I believe that teams, especially earlier, they’ll come in and they’ll ask people, what do you need help with? Is it time management? Is it this? They’ll see it a couple things. Maybe that person can actually vocalize the right terminology, but if you switched it and said at three o’clock in the morning, what’s your big concern for your team? They probably have a complete dialogue ready to with you that if you can find a way to tap into that vulnerability for them and see that as a helping mechanism before you’re talking about their career development and how their growth is and performance reviews and all of that kind of stuff and keep that in early and often conversation, then you get the one to many solution of knowledge of what people are looking for because you have deep and meaningful proactive relationships.
A. VERTESI: But you can also look at that individual in a context of a hyper-growth early stage company and be able to say, when are they going to need me the most because it might not be for another year and then they might hit a ceiling and hit it hard. And so if you get them to talk to you consistently about their team and ultimately themselves because usually leaders talk about themselves through their team, then I believe you can build a pretty strong development partnership with them that will change the organization.
DAMON KLOTZ: One of the things that we’re just sort of speaking about was what are the fears that our employees are holding or managers are holding and are we actively having a conversation with them during a time that’s can be quite stressful. I think one of the times when it’s super clear is through like a merger or an acquisition and there’s the fears that we hold in our day to day work about, am I performing, am I supporting my team, am I growing, is this the right company or role? And then there’s the changes that happen that you’re not expecting. You’re not planning for them that you have to adapt to. So you then joined Duo Security, you were head of people there, you went through another stage of hyper-growth and then through acquisition. How did you support managers, employees during the acquisition time where they’re probably holding some of the most precious moments of their career and their life when everything could change and they’re very uncertain about what might be happening?
A. VERTESI: How do we arm our leaders for the human conversations they’re going to have, not the is my numbers still the same? Are we still pushing out that product that that stuff is easier? But the people side of how are we going to reengage people around this new direction when we just pulled the carpet out, we need to let them grieve and we need to let them surface whatever is going on and we have to do that now and we have to do it again and again and again. But if we take away our leadership from that and we say everything is the same, don’t worry, we’ll tell you what you need to know when you need to know it. And we shut that door on them. They’re going to talk to each other, and they’re not going to feel like they’re in a safe space anymore. And immediately they’re going to say, this isn’t what I signed up for. I’m going to find a new opportunity.
A. VERTESI: And so I was really happy that the team, both Cisco who was acquiring us and the Duo leadership team just leaned right into letting people talk and then giving them the leaders skills to be able to help their people through that.
DAMON KLOTZ: I think you summed it up beautifully. Either hold the place for your employees or expect them to go find a place to go hold it.
A. VERTESI: Right.
DAMON KLOTZ: And you can even be involved in that conversation or it’s going to happen regardless. So it’s like, do you want a dialogue with employees about the fears that they’re holding and what’s happening, especially if there was a change they weren’t expecting because they’re going to have that conversation. It’s natural.
A. VERTESI: Right. And I don’t want to create an environment that I don’t want to be in, I’m an employee as well. I don’t want to create an environment where if you have challenges, go to HR and then HR becomes this voice of people are feeling and then the executive leadership team feels attacked or it feels loaded or maybe they interpreted it wrong, whatever that is, it’s a way healthier and more efficient and productive for their direct manager and their leadership teams to feel that they know what’s going on. The employees feel seen and heard and even if the news isn’t good news or if it’s great news, both of those can exist in the same team, and both of those are okay.
A. VERTESI: And when people feel as though they might not be happy with the outcome currently, but they’re okay and they’re supported, I believe they’ll stay. I believe that’s where true engagement sets.
DAMON KLOTZ: There was so many great takeaways from my conversation with Ambrosia, but if I was to extract out the one that really resonated with me, it would be that your employees have the answers to a lot of the questions that managers and leaders are wondering about. Create the space for this feedback and don’t be afraid to ask your team what’s keeping them up at night. It’s the first step to taking action to improve your people and culture. Ambrosia truly is a well of knowledge and I could have spoken to her for many more hours, but in order to distill a wide variety of information into an audible format, I turned to a couple of rapid fire questions.
DAMON KLOTZ: So I’m going to turn to the rapid fire questions.
A. VERTESI: Okay.
DAMON KLOTZ: So what are the departments outside of the people team that you collaborate with the most?
A. VERTESI: Finance or scaling.
DAMON KLOTZ: How does a culture first organization support line managers to put culture first in their teams?
A. VERTESI: Demonstrate it.
DAMON KLOTZ: What are the cultural rituals that you’ve implemented?
A. VERTESI: A lot. Mostly ask me anything.
DAMON KLOTZ: What’s one lesson that stuck with you from your time at Hootsuite that you were able to then apply to your time at Duo?
A. VERTESI: The importance of localization of new markets for people.
DAMON KLOTZ: What is the role that communication plays to bring people on the journey with you?
A. VERTESI: There is no journey without communication.
DAMON KLOTZ: When scaling culture, how do we go far together instead of fast alone?
A. VERTESI: Learn together, share mistakes.
DAMON KLOTZ: What’s one left field strategy or approach that has helped you scale culture that you weren’t expecting?
A. VERTESI: I don’t know if there’s a left field approach. I think they’re all on the field. That’s my answer. They’re all there. You just have to … employee driven ones are the best. Whatever they come up with is usually the right one.
DAMON KLOTZ: What’s one piece of advice for managers at the 100 level mark and one piece of advice for a manager at the 1,000 level mark?
A. VERTESI: Same. Listen to what your people say is a solution to a challenging problem.
DAMON KLOTZ: What are some of the practices that companies in hyper-growth spend a lot of time focusing on that companies are unexperienced the same growth should still be thinking about?
A. VERTESI: Workforce planning. Just going back to working with finance, absolute partners and making sure that you grow thoughtfully.
DAMON KLOTZ: What’s one piece of advice that you think is often overlooked that you think is actually really important for people to know?
A. VERTESI: I’m really thinking about that one and I know this is supposed to be rapid fire, but I feel as though the piece of advice that people don’t often take that they should is you can learn from everyone.
DAMON KLOTZ: What’s one memory from childhood that still shapes how you operate in the business world today?
A. VERTESI: I was telling you earlier about the fact that I was an athlete in school. I was a wrestler and I remember there weren’t a lot of females in wrestling at the time. Sometimes when we came down to the States, we had to wrestle the males, so it was a really tough place to be, but the memory that I always keep with me is my coach saying, “I can’t help you when you’re on the mat, but I can help you those five days a week to get you there and win or lose, I’ll be there when you’re done, but I can’t help you when you’re the mat”. Everything’s about preparation. It’s not about performance. And I keep that with businesses. It’s not about the big day. It’s not about ringing the bell. It’s not about that. It’s about the everyday in between those moments, the moments between the moments. I always think about the moments between the moments because of that coach.
DAMON KLOTZ: I think Daring Greatly by Brene Brown is actually, she got a lot of that from a quote who I believe it was from Teddy Roosevelt and it was actually LeBron James writes a part of that quote on his shoes before every game and he writes the man in the arena and it’s just exactly that. It’s like at the end of the day, you’re in the arena, you’re doing the work and you’ve got to take a 100% responsibility for being that thing. Coaches are important, managers are important, leaders are important. But at the end of the day, it’s like how do we allow employees to feel comfortable in their own skin, in the decision that they need to make on their own because that’s where we spend so much of our time is just trying to wrestle with that.
A. VERTESI: Yeah, and I think that people want to create a culture of innovation, but in order to do that, you have to have a culture where people can be vulnerable and where they can fail. And if you don’t put people in that arena and you just heckle them from the sides or you give them a hard time, I don’t think we’re going to end up with the organizations that we want, but I believe that people are jumping in the arena on a daily basis. I think Brene Brown is absolutely exceptional at showcasing what it means to be in the arena and what happens when you don’t let people get there. And I hope that we as people practitioners and as managers specifically, I think managers play a huge role in this at create that environment for their team in whatever way they can so that they don’t feel penalized the minute they step in the arena. So they don’t feel like they’re pushed in there, but there’s a consequence. That would really change the kinds of products we create and the kind of environment we get to design.
DAMON KLOTZ: Innovation is a constant as opposed to a sprint I think is a really fascinating concept. How do we create a culture where you can make decisions and try new things as an everyday not being told to go to a two day offsite to be innovative only then to go back into a place where you don’t have the chance to actually feel like that on the norms.
A. VERTESI: Yeah. At Duo one of our values was learn together and it really resonated with me because it didn’t just mean we all go to conferences and come back and do teach backs. We shared things that didn’t work and we as leaders shared things that didn’t work at company meetings, in team meetings. It was very ingrained in who we were and I think as we onboarded people, it created an environment where people knew that it was okay to make a mistake and recover and that people could still be successful in their teams, in their careers. There was no penalization for that and that being a C-suite didn’t mean that you are infallible because we’re not. You make mistakes everyday. I make mistakes every day. My hope is that people will show up with empathy for me when I do and help me grow as well.
DAMON KLOTZ: Well that’s it for this episode of Culture First. Special thanks to Ambrosia Vertesi. If you want to find out what she’s up to, you can connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter or join HR Open Source. Also, thanks to Molly Graham for speaking with me. More information about her. Again, check out her LinkedIn, Twitter or definitely have a look at her article about Giving Away Your Legos. Finally a special thanks to Deputy’s head of people and culture and the recipient of Culture Amp’s prestigious people geek of the month award, Chloe Sesta Jacobs, that’s a thing.
DAMON KLOTZ: Okay, and if you want access to that culture count report, to read this episode’s transcript or learn more about this podcast and see previous episodes, head to culturefirstpodcast.com/scaling. One last thing is that Deputy is an organization that uses Culture Amp to measure and develop their culture. Culture Amp is the leading people in platform. So if you’re listening to this, I really encourage you to check out how Culture Amp could help your organization.
DAMON KLOTZ: I am your host Damon Klotz. This show is produced by Sarah Lessire. Editing by Nick Jaworski of podcast Monster. Designed by Nicole Dominic, Amelia Chieng and Christine Tapawan. Data and research by Vivian Woo. Video, which you can watch at culturefirstpodcast.com, by Kyle Doan. Marketing by Ayla Cleworth. Original music by Sarah Lessire. And all those people saying Culture First in our intro, well, these are just some of our Culture Amp employees who are currently working smarter to create a better world of work.
DAMON KLOTZ: If you like this show, then please make sure that you’re subscribed and share with others in your community. Reviews are enormously helpful as well. They help other people who might not have heard of us find this episode. And if you’ve listened to this and said, you know what, there’s some really useful things here for our managers, I really encourage you to actually send this directly to your managers. I’d love to know how this is helping them put Culture First for their teams.
DAMON KLOTZ: Just a quick announcement that the third episode of the Culture First podcast will come out on January 8th rather than January 1st, but to get you excited for our next episode, I want to give you a sneak peek. We’ll be talking with Pamela Abalu and Chinedu Echeruo, co-founders of the Love and Magic Company about how we can implement and design for love and magic in the workplace. Their talk at our Culture First conference was so inspiring that it literally left a permanent impression on Chloe Sesta Jacobs.
CHLOE S. JACOBS: The words empathy has ROI stuck with me so much when I heard them that Culture First that I got them tattooed on my arm.
DAMON KLOTZ: All right, well I hope you enjoy your break and I look forward to seeing you in 2020.