This is an article by Mariana Santos Silva, Head of Talent at Beta-i. It was originally published in the digital newspaper Eco.
Most of our struggles in different relationships come from a place of bad or incomplete communication: parents and their children with completely different mindsets and perspectives often don’t know how to speak each other’s languages; couples often assume the other person has the psychic ability to guess what the other is thinking and wishing for, thus resulting in a huge gap of communication. This is no different in the workplace – a lot of the frictions we find at work with colleagues or managers could be solved if we communicated honestly, respectfully, and promptly.
This is one of the reasons why feedback and having a culture based on constructive communication is something so fundamental in an organization. At Beta-i, for example, Feedgize is one of our superpowers – Feedgize is the merge of two words: Feedback + Energize, and stands for “Energizing yourself through constant feedback.” These analyses are a powerful communication tool to have a deeper understanding of collaborators, themselves, and their colleagues, providing the insights and the necessary energy to improve.
It’s inspiring to think of constant evaluation, but it takes time and intentionality to build one. It’s about showing why feedback is important for a healthy culture, creating moments for it to happen, learning how to give and receive it, as well as the concrete steps needed to progress.
Here are some examples of constructive communication in action:
Building understanding is the main component. Imagine when two companies merge, in addition to combining knowledge, this transition also creates a lot of challenges, such as different cultures, different ways of working, insecurities, and questions. One can think that a top-down approach is a way to handle it, with strict guidelines on how to work and how to behave, but I think trusting people to become a team and getting there together is a better way. This is what happened in Beta-i back in 2018 when we merged with Couture and had 60 – new – people discovering how to work together as a team. One of our initiatives was to implement a feedback challenge – not necessarily a manager-direct report, but a peer-to-peer one. This was when we partnered with Skoach, the micro-learning virtual coach, to create safe spaces for these conversations to happen, making our team feel safer and more open to listening and receiving productive reports to progress and build on those assessments.
It’s fair to think that giving feedback is a skill that needs coaching to achieve. However, for the person receiving and listening is just as important and as difficult, and there’s much to be learned about the act of listening (check this TED Talk from Celeste Headlee on how to have better conversations). “Seek to listen first” was one of the ancient values of Beta-i, inspired by Buffer’s value “Listen first, then listen more,” and that was what we decided to do at Beta-i after restructuring, a process that is often difficult with loose ends and a lot of doubts. Simply asking “what are your concerns about this situation?” and “what ideas do you have to improve it?” can be much more powerful than leadership or management trying alone to come up with solutions or wear out pitching why this is a better way.
I’m a true believer that performance management systems should look to the future and not focus only on the past. Ultimately, we want these assessments to be able to improve things and not only to evaluate. “Feedgize sessions” is the name that Beta-i gave to bi-annual feedback sessions focused on growth and development and based on a 360 perspective (self, peers, direct reports, and manager). To complement these conversations that take place every six months, there are also monthly “coffee awareness chats” between managers and direct reports. The result is an ongoing conversation about growth and development opportunities that allow employees to understand how they are performing and how to constantly advance and move forward in their careers.
When seeing feedback in action it is easy to understand why it is an essential communication tool that should be embedded into organizations. First, intentionally, and then, organically. These assessments allow for teamwork to happen and make us get out of our bubble to understand one another and collaborate. Feedback feeds collaboration, which then boosts innovation and progress, and that’s what organizations should be all about.
When I first met Tony Hsieh, at a social media conference in Las Vegas in 2008, I was inspired by the simplicity in his message as much as the awkwardness and humility of his public appearance. Tony seemed to be the least probable of people to ever inspire you, let alone run a company with revenues of over $1 billion USD.
Tony’s emphasis was, and has throughout the years, centred on the internal culture of the company. With the passing of time, the only thing that changed was his conviction that in fact culture, and not customers, was the number one priority, a belief that was grounded on the impressive performance of Zappos.
Through time, the core values from which Zappos derives its culture, brand and business strategy have subtly evolved from Core Values to Family Core Values. This is a big change. You can’t enforce a culture at work if those values are not followed through in the private life of the employees.
Deliver WOW Through Service
Embrace and Drive Change
Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded
Pursue Growth and Learning
Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
Do More With Less
Be Passionate and Determined
Every time I went to a conference in Las Vegas, I always made time to go and spend some time at Zappos. I still remember walking around their Henderson offices, as part of the daily tours they have for anyone to join, and being left confused with the amount of joyful activity yet impressive business results.
As we moved from department to department in a vast open space, each group of Zappos employees put on their best show for the visitors. Some blow horns whilst others put on a wacky dance, most interrupting their work to demonstrate the Zappos culture at work.
I let my group move on and couldn’t resist leaning over to an employee and discreetly asking “what happens when you have shit day?” Her concerned look should have prepared me for the answer. “We don’t have shit days”. And there you go. This is no place for skeptics, naysayers or individuals with chips on their shoulders. This is Zappos – happy land where you are either in, or out.
With time and experience, I began to understand that this isn’t a strategy you copy, but instead one, which you need to fully understand and decide whether you are prepared or not to adapt to your organization.
It’s not about being Zappos or like Zappos, but instead understanding that every decision you make, whether product or recruitment based, must be aligned with your culture yet the hard part is defining it concretely and then executing on it, every minute of the hour, every day of the year.
It’s a process in constant evolution and not something you revisit on a yearly basis. It’s not a strategy, tool or marketing gimmick. It’s central to your existence and of the utmost importance, more so than being centered on your customer.
“To make customers happy, we have to make sure our employees are happy first.”
The idea of creating a great company culture emerged in the latter part of the last decade, as companies feared employee turnover simply because working in most companies just plain sucked back then. There were just a few case studies where traditional media focused on the gimmicks – free food, Ping-Pong tables, spas and child care at work. When interviewed, most of these lucky employees seemed overly gracious of their luck in being so happy at work.
In one 60 Minutes interview, an employee walked around a campus describing all the endless perks paid by his employer to ensure they were looked after. The interviewer asked in a skeptical tone “Isn’t this like living in Disney World?” The reply was sharp. “Yes. But who doesn’t love Disney World?”
We need to ensure we don’t confuse the existence of perks with a great company culture. Don’t be fooled by the shiny objects – the visual side of a great company culture: what you don’t see is even better yet. Companies like Zappos don’t motivate their collaborators – they inspire them to learn, share and look after each other. They are building a sustainable and tight community of like-minded individuals with one single goal. Some might see it as a cult. At times, it sure does sound like it but it really is voluntary. Or so I’m told.
In most businesses, product and price play too much importance in the future of the company. Building a strong culture does create a competitive advantage, difficult to emulate, especially compared to the time it takes to copy a product, undercut the competitors’ price or poach their most valuable of employees. Culture isn’t copied. At best, it is understood, adapted and implemented to fit the company, ensuring relevance and context. It’s a monumental commitment that will eventually pay back but it’s no quick fix.
It is in the beginning of a company’s existence that identifying and creating an internal culture makes most sense. As you are focused on the core product and/or service, the business model and investment and recruitment needs, a well-defined and relevant internal culture will greatly increase the odds of success.
Relevant because culture starts at the top, defined by the CEO and his/her traits as a human being. If there’s one thing that is extraordinarily difficult to teach adults, it’s principles – our morality, values, ideologies, philosophies, ethics, doctrines, beliefs, attitudes and opinions.
Though all of these appear to be synonyms, there are subtle differences between them, yet they all converge to define us as human beings and impact the way others around us view and react to us. Understanding them is fundamental yet ironically overlooked by the majority of startups.
There seems to be a general consensus that first you build it, then you scale it and, once you have secured funding, you can then resolve these issues. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Making Change Happen
Change is possible but it requires self-assessment, time, focus, energy, humility and the desire (need) to become a different (better) person. However, most individuals in startups don’t understand their position as CEO and/or Founder, the tasks that are incumbent to such a position and the impact their personality will have in the shaping of the company.
Some even foolishly believe that democracy and friendship is the best possible form of managing their future business. They are seriously deluded and are in for a shock the very first time a decision needs to be made in the face of discord. Someone has to decide and everyone needs to be onboard, whether or not they agree.
A winning culture does not necessarily reflect in a wacky and fun place to work where irreverence is favoured over sobriety. Before Tony Hsieh and Zappos, Herb Kelleher was doing the same with Southwest Airlines. Both companies are team oriented, striving to create a family atmosphere, but it deeply reflects on the founders’ principles and the culture they created.
Culture evolves organically, and forcing “fun” and “wacky” only increases your odds of failure. If you believe that your internal culture sucks then remove the Hawaiian shirts, flip flops and annoying Ping-Pong tables and figure it out. Not everyone can create a billion dollar company nor invent the next big thing, but most of us are capable of creating a sustainable business that will ensure we live a life of quality.
You can learn a lot from Zappos and Southwest Airlines, but if you think you are going to pay people to leave your business halfway through recruitment, encourage them to dress in bizarre outfits and pamper them with an enviable package of perks as a form of revolutionizing your culture, think again. What works for one company, doesn’t work for another.
Be honest about who you are as a Founder, who you want to be and reflect that in a way in which it can be understood, embraced and followed by every person that works there. Ensure that everything and anything you do is solidly based on those principles. It’s not about having your marketing and PR department create a sexy or intelligent mission statement, but instead a correctly communicated statement of intent that clearly maps out what your company stands for but, more importantly, what it doesn’t.
What does managing music artists have to do with investing in Tech Startups?
Regarding talent, can we look at music artists the same way we see entrepreneurs?
“I think the common denominator and the one word is ‘hustle’”
Troy Carter made his name in the music industry, promoting Hip-Hop artists and concerts and he was the one to discover and launch Lady Gaga’s career. Later on, he started to apply his learnings into the tech industry, early investing in Startups like Uber, Lyft, DropBox, Warby Parker and many more and creating his own fund, CrossCulture VC.
Here is a 20-min enlightening talk between Troy Carter and Mark Suster (entrepreneur and VC) about the ability to “spot, nurture and mentor talent”, the relevance of conquering the first users (“The first 50 super fans”), how to go after the product/market fit, the importance of a narrative in marketing and the role luck plays in success.
The video was originally posted at Mark’s Blog Both Sides of The Table, where you can read all the highlights from the talk.
This article is part of the Lisbon Challenge series on culture and how it affects every decision you make.
One of the key components of our acceleration programs is the inclusion of workshops relevant to the different life cycles of the startup. These presentations are posted online as are all the corresponding posts that dive deeper in each topic. Though these sessions are closed to the startups of each acceleration program, you should be able to get all the information from the presentation deck and accompanying posts. For future series on specific topics, please visit our series page on our [Re]Think blog.[/fusion_text][one_full last=”yes” spacing=”yes” center_content=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” background_color=”” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” hover_type=”none” link=”” border_position=”all” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” animation_type=”” animation_direction=”” animation_speed=”0.1″ animation_offset=”” class=”” id=””][title size=”1″ content_align=”left” style_type=”none” sep_color=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” class=”” id=””]