I’m fed up with newsletters, so I decided to create my own.
I’m not a fan of newsletters.
Many of them are full of B.S. or feel sales-y to me… especially when it comes to the topics of leadership, employee engagement, and company culture. And, compiling a million Google alerts for me to try to stay “up-to-date” on insightful reads on leadership wasn’t cutting it, either.
So, I decided to create my own. I’m calling it, “The Heartbeat” — a bi-weekly newsletter on leadership. It’s what I wish had previously existed.
Starting today, I’ll publish the The Heartbeat every other Tuesday. I’ll put together a roundup of ~10 links to pieces that I’ve found interesting and significant around leadership, employee engagement and feedback, communication, company culture, etc.
I’ll also include a short 5–10 minute interview with a CEO, business owner, or founder who I respect. I’ll ask one question that gets to the heart of how that person thinks about leading a team.
The first Heartbeat interview is with none other than Jason Fried, CEO and Co-founder of Basecamp. Jason is also on the board of Know Your Company. He originally first built the product four years ago when Know Your Company was still a part of Basecamp, before recruiting me later that year to become the CEO — so this is definitely not the first time I’ve asked Jason for leadership advice 🙂
I’m excited about this. It’s an itch I’ve been wanting to scratch for a while — so hopefully it’s as helpful and fun for you to read as it is for me to put together. Looking forward to sharing The Heartbeat with you!
Three fallacies that get in the way of hearing what we need to hear. Here’s how by recognizing them, we can overcome them.
My stomach dropped. My face flushed.
I thought to myself: “No way that’s true!” and “No way that’s me…”
Those were my physical and mental reactions when an acquaintance gave me some feedback a few years ago. (She told me I had “come across as fake” to her… Ouch!)
My first instinct was to completely dismiss her feedback.
Now looking back, I wonder… Why?
Why was my first instinct to push this feedback away? Why was I so quick to say it wasn’t true or that it didn’t matter?
Simply put: We hate criticism.
Anything negative, anything critical — we fear it. We resist, push back, and build a wall around ourselves.
In fact, as humans, our brains are hardwired to resist negative feedback. Research show how our brains hold onto negative memories longer than positive ones — so the negative stuff always hurts more. We’re more upset about losing $50 than gaining $50… It’s the same when it comes to feedback. When we hear something negative, it sticks with us more than when someone tells us something positive about ourselves.
Our distaste for negative feedback is so strong that further research shows we drop people in our network who tell us things we don’t want to hear. In a recent study with 300 full-time employees, researchers found that people moved away from colleagues who provided negative feedback. Instead, they chose to seek out interactions with people who only affirmed their positive qualities.
Fascinating, right? In other words, whether or not we intend to, we seem to insulate ourselves away from any potential negative self-image of ourselves.
To be honest, it sounds like quite a self-absorbed way to live: To seek out only those who tell you what you want to hear. To never have the humility to want to learn, adjust, improve and become better.
How did we get like this?
Some psychologists suggest that we associate negative feedback with criticism received in school or from our parents growing up, and that’s what prevents us from hearing negative feedback.
Personally, I’ve found three fallacies in my own head that get in the way of me being receptive to negative feedback…
I’m a perfectionist. I expect myself to be good at everything. So when I hear negative feedback about myself, it conflicts with what I think is true… and it makes me push the feedback away.
I don’t trust the other person. I’m skeptical of the person who gave me the feedback. What was her intention? Does she really have the full story? Perhaps she just misinterpreted things? So I disregard the feedback, as a result.
I conflate behavior with identity. I interpret the feedback as an assessment my sense of self-worth. “If I’m seen as fake by someone, that must mean I’m a bad person.” It’s hurtful to think about this, so I choose to ignore the feedback.
These knee-jerk reactions are the foundation for the wall I start to build around me when I hear negative feedback.
To knock down this wall, and make sure my mind and heart is open to receiving criticism, I keep these three fallacies in mind. When someone gives me negative feedback, I ask myself…
Am I being a perfectionist? Are my perfectionist tendencies getting in the way of hearing something worth learning from this feedback?
Am I distrustful of the other person? Am I resisting this feedback simply because of my relationship with this person, or what I perceive her or his intentions to be?
Am I conflating behavior with identity? Am I shutting out this feedback because I’m projecting this feedback onto my sense of self-worth?
Take a moment to sit and marinate on these questions. They may uncover why you tend to isolate yourself from feedback. This understanding of why you dismiss feedback is the first step to making sure you’re hearing all of it.
After all, you don’t want to get caught inadvertently pushing away those who tell you the truth, creating a circle of yes-people who tell you only what you want to hear.
Perhaps you’re considering how much time, energy, or money you should give to your coworkers, employees or customers.
I remember reflecting on this distinctly at the end of last year…
After less than two months on the job, our new Head of Business Development Jess Singer told me she needed to get neck surgery.
The surgery sounded serious. She wasn’t sure exactly how much time off she’d need for recovery.
It was December — a month with historically lower sales. Many folks go on holiday, and companies are often “winding down” their year. In fact, as Know Your Team, we close down our business those last two weeks in the year for our own “Holiday Break.”
Given this, we had a condensed sales window in December: We had only two weeks to pull in the business we typically pull in during four weeks time.
With Jess needing to take time off, we would have even less time. My guess was that she’d need at least a week to recover from the surgery…
So in reality, we’d now only had about one week to pull in the sales we needed for December.
This provoked an unavoidable question in my mind:
What should Jess get paid in December?
Should we pro-rate her salary for the amount of time she’d spend working in December, since she’d only end up working about a week or so?
Or should we just pay her full expected base salary in December?
After all, the rest of the Know Your Team team was receiving two weeks off for “Holiday Break” and getting paid their full monthly base salary, regardless.
As a business owner of a bootstrapped company, I went back-and-forth on the decision in my head.
I was hyper conscious of our margins — as a bootstrapped company, you always want more money coming in than going out. Financially, it didn’t make much sense to pay her for a full month’s worth of work if she only ended up working one week.
But beyond financials, there was something else I wanted to weigh:
What kind of work environment did I want to create for Jess? What was the tone I wanted to set? Did I want to send her a message that pinching pennies was more important than giving her the peace of mind to recuperate as long as she needed?
Or did I believe that her health and personal well-being was paramount? Did I trust her to take whatever time she needed to both recover and do what’s in the best interest of Know Your Company?
A lot of us as leaders say we care about our people…
Time to put my money where my mouth was.
I told her to take as much time off as she needed in December, and that she’d get paid her full expected base salary for the month — no questions asked.
Jess was grateful. Her surgery (thankfully!) went off without a hitch. She took about a week to rest and recuperate, and worked on her own accord when it made sense for her.
And then something kinda crazy happened:
December 2016 became our best month of sales ever, in Know Your Team history, because of her.
Somehow, amidst recovering from neck surgery and typically slow holiday business season, Jess found a way to leverage the time she did have and turn it into incredible results.
She didn’t rush back into work prematurely. But she also didn’t take advantage of the fact she was given unlimited time off in December, while getting paid.
All because of a little generosity.
I’ll always remember this.
What seemed like a black-and-white business decision, financially speaking, wasn’t black-and-white at all.
If anything, it’s now black-and-white to me:
Err on the side of generosity. The way you want your employees to feel about their work will affect the way they do their work. And in turn, you’ll get more than you ever expected.
Here’s the one thing that separates good managers from the bad.
Most of us have had two different types of bosses during our careers: The Boss Everyone Wish They Had and The Boss You Don’t Want to Be.
Recently, I was reminded of the latter — The Boss You Don’t Want to Be — when talking to two friends the other week.
Both of my friends are employees. One works at a large, growing healthcare tech company, and the other at a notable, high-profile nonprofit.
Both have managers who they cannot stand. Both of their managers have absolutely no idea.
One friend told me: “Three out of six people on the team have already quit, and two others are on the verge of quitting… And he has no idea.”
The other friend told me: “We keep losing talented people all the time because of him… And he has no idea.”
Both of their managers are good, well-intentioned people. In fact, they’re popular with their respective CEO and Executive Director. They were placed in their management positions because they were strong individual contributors and high performers.
But as managers? They are literally driving their own employees away. They’ve become The Boss You Don’t Want to Be.
What’s going on?
In listening to my friends, I realized their managers have one thing in common:
These Bosses You Don’t Want to Be habitually put their own self-interest ahead of their team’s best interest.
They cover their ass to look good to upper management, even if it comes at the expense of supporting their team.
They don’t want to know the truth of how their employees feel because they’re scared of what they might hear, and how it would personally feel to hear those things.
They feel entitled to more privileges, leeway, and benefits because they feel they’ve worked harder than anyone else on their team.
Sound familiar? Perhaps you yourself have worked with The Boss You Don’t Want to Be, who exhibited some of these beliefs. But don’t be so quick to judge: These people are not evil nor maniacal.
Truth be told, the mindset of The Boss You Don’t Want to Be is easy to succumb to yourself if you’re not paying close attention.
Consider these situations:
Someone on your team isn’t pulling their weight and you have to pick up the slack… You’re frustrated.
Someone on your team didn’t execute up to right quality standards… You feel like you can’t trust anyone to get the job done well.
Someone on your team isn’t producing the right outcomes… You’re worried how that’s going to make you look.
Someone on your team is pressing your buttons (and honestly being a pain-in-the-ass)… You feel low on patience when talking to them.
Whether you become The Boss You Don’t Want to Be or The Boss Everyone Wish They Had comes down to how you react to these situations.
You have two options:
You can decide the situation is hopeless — you’ve done all you can. Everyone has pretty much proven they’re incompetent. You choose to focus on yourself and move your own career forward. You put your own self-interest before the team’s.
Or, faced with the same situation — you can decide to look inward. You see your team’s shortcomings as a reflection of your own leadership shortcomings. You ask yourself, “What can I be doing to create a better environment for our team to be successful?”
Surely, taking responsibility for your team’s hardships and treating them as your own means more time, effort, and energy on your part. But that’s what the best leaders do: They do the hard thing because it’s the right thing. They put their team’s best interest before their own, instead of the other way around.
This is what separates The Boss You Don’t Want to Be from The Boss Everyone Wish They Had.
We just built our first software integration. Here’s why…
“Make it easy, make it a routine.”
This is one of our core beliefs at Know Your Company. If something’s a burden, no one will do it — including you. Especially if that “something” is feedback in the workplace. Asking for and giving feedback to your team has to feel natural, easy, and be regular.
Because of this, we built Know Your Company to deliver questions via email. Email is a universal tool, in many ways. Most people use it, and you typically don’t have to teach anyone how to use it. As a result, when you use Know Your Company, it doesn’t feel like you’re using a separate piece of software… It’s feels like you’re using email.
But what if a company doesn’t use email? Over the past few years, we’ve noticed more of our customers moving away from email as a means of communication. They’ll tell us, “Hey, we actually use Slack — we don’t use email anymore.”
I hear ya 🙂
In the spirit of making it easier to ask for and deliver feedback, I’m excited to share we’re releasing a Slack integration for Know Your Company.
Here’s how it works: If your company uses Slack instead of email, you can turn on our Know Your Company Slack bot. The Slack bot sends a direct message to each person when there is a new Icebreaker or question to fill out, or when a new question summary has been delivered.
Here’s what it looks like for a team member to receive a Know Your Company question in Slack:
This way, if your company doesn’t use email, Know Your Company can still be helpful tool for you.
I won’t lie: At first, I was resistant to the idea of building a Slack integration.
I was worried that pinging people in Slack to respond to a Know Your Company question was going to create too much urgency around answering a question. One of the beautiful things about Know Your Company is that we purposefully give you 24–48 hours to answer a question before publishing the answers and sharing them with everyone else.
So if you don’t want to answer right away, you don’t have to. You can take a day or two to think about your answer, say, to a question like, “If someone asked you to describe the vision of the company, would a clear answer come to mind?”.
However, the neat part of this integration is that we designed it as “ a soft nudge.” We’re not pinging people to answer the Know Your Company question directly in their Slack channel right away. Instead, the Slack bot merely prompts you to open a browser to answer a question, on your own time – so you still have a day or two to chew on an answer to a question (if you want!).
It makes things easy, while still maintaining the integrity of the product and helping people do what they want to do.
That’s the point, after all: You’ve got to make it easy.
10 things I’ve tried to keep in mind as a CEO these past few years…
“This is somewhat terrifying.”
I remember thinking this when I became the CEO of Know Your Team back in January 2014. Sure, I’d started two companies beforehand — but one was with close friends, and the other was by myself. With Know Your Team, it was the first time I was to lead a team of people who weren’t friends of mine.
At the time, I hired one programmer part-time to help me out at Know Your Team. And while he was just “one direct report,” it was imperative to me to be the best manager and leader to him, as possible.
Here’s the first thing I noticed in this process: Being a manager feels different than being an employee. And, it feels very different than working by yourself.
Your words carry more weight than before. Your actions are watched more closely. You aren’t accountable just for your own results, but also the results of others. How you handle tough decisions sets the tone for “This is How We Do Things.”
It can be a bit terrifying. If you’re currently a manager, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re a new manager, brace yourself 🙂
Now, I share this not to overwhelm you! Rather, it’s to underscore how hard this is for all leaders, whether you’re new to the role or not. Personally, with almost four years as a CEO under my belt, I still consider myself a “work-in-progress,” and constantly aspire to be a better leader.
Where to start? Over the past few years, here are ten things I’ve learned from observations and conversations with hundreds of managers and CEOs. It’s what I try to keep in mind each day as I lead, and what I believe the best managers do…
Know the purpose of your role: It’s NOT to manage.
As a manager, you may think your job is to manage others. Sounds straightforward enough. However, the word “manage” is misleading. By definition, it means to “run, control or supervise”… which isn’t what I see as the role of a manager at all.
I believe the best managers focus on doing one thing: They try to understand what intrinsically motivates people, and create an environment that allows people to tap into that intrinsic motivation themselves. You’re not telling anyone what to do. You’re not controlling anyone or exerting influence on anyone. You’re not even trying to empower anyone.
Instead, you assume that people already have innate talents, gifts, and capabilities within them. Your job as a leader is merely to provide an environment for those inherent qualities to come to light.
How do you create such an environment? Read on…
To create the best working environment for your team, you must create clarity. Do people know what needs to happen, why the work is important, and what success looks like? Do people know how their work fits into the bigger picture? Do people know what standard of quality needs to be met before their work is shipped or goes live? The best managers constantly clarify these things — in meetings, in emails, during one-on-ones. They also ask their team, “What isn’t clear?” or “What’s confusing?” or “What am I not explaining enough?”. Without clarity around the work, the work can’t get done well. There is literally no one else on the team whose job it is to create this clarity. It’s is solely up to you, as a manager, to make things as clear as possible.
Once you’ve made it clear what needs to happen and why, you have to make sure your staff has enough training, historical background, tools, and understanding of the stakeholders to make informed decisions. In other words, they need context. If you don’t give them context, you’re leaving them out to dry. As an employee, there’s nothing more frustrating than being expected to execute on something when you don’t have enough context to execute it well. As a manager, asking the question, “How am I getting in the way?” or “What do you need from me to be successful?” can help you uncover what context you need to give your team so they feel supported.
Ensure psychological safety.
Your success as a manager is contingent on how honest people are willing to be with you. Without people shooting you straight as a leader, you won’t be able to course-correct should things start to go wrong. For example, if a project starts to run behind, will someone bring that up proactively to you so you can take immediate action? Or will you only find out about it when the client is furiously emailing you after business hours?
Creating a safe environment for your team to speak up starts with going first and showing vulnerability as a leader. For instance, do you admit when you’re struggling with something as a manager? If so, that will give others permission to admit where they’re struggling too. Or, when an employee points out a mistake, do you thank them for being forthcoming and commend their honesty? If so, you reinforce that you want to hear the truth. Consider how every action you take as a manager is an opportunity to show your team that it’s safe to say what’s on their minds.
Ask meaningful questions.
We’re predisposed to believe that leaders must have all the answers in order to do their jobs well. As a whole, our society praises people who have the right answers: We give gold stars and A’s to students in school who have the right answer. We award thousands if not millions of dollars to game show winners who have the right answer.
Our society never seems to reward people who ask the right questions. It’s unfortunate, because I believe asking meaningful questions is a core tenant of what makes a manager good at her job.
When you ask questions as a manager, you do two things: (1) You show you care and have deep interest in learning more about your team. As a result, you foster a sense of psychological safety in the workplace. (2) You give yourself the opportunity to unlock valuable information that you might not have known about before.
About five years ago, I was an employee at another company. During that time, my coworker vented to me one day: “I asked our boss if I could take a 3-day vacation this summer…. It’s been several weeks, and I still haven’t heard back from him.” I’ll never forget how livid she was. For her, it was a sign of disrespect for her manager not to respond. Take note of this. Your team’s engagement is directly tied to how responsive you are to their ideas, comments, and requests.
In fact, a recent Gallup study shows how much responsiveness matters. They found that the most engaged employees said that their managers returned calls or messages within 24 hours. Keep this in mind the next time you receive an email with a question from an employee, or a suggestion that an employee mentions to you in-person. Let it disappear into a black hole without any response and it will feel maddening to an employee — whether or not you intend it to be.
When you’re an individual contributor, you’re used to doing everything yourself. The minute you become a manager, that changes. Your job is to create an environment for others to do their best work — you should not be meddling in other people’s work, yourself. You have to let things go. You can’t be thinking to yourself, “I can do a better job at that”… Stop it. You may not be willing to admit it, but that’s micromanagement. I had a friend who’s a CEO once tell me: “If someone can do your job at least 70% as well as you can, they should do it.” 70% is good enough. Just let go, and let them do it. Doing too much yourself encourages bad habits on your team, bottlenecks your team’s growth, and pisses off team members since they can’t operate freely. You know what it feels like… You’ve probably been micromanaged before, yourself! Don’t commit the same sin.
Lead from the front.
If you want your team to do something, set the example for it. If you want people to show up on time, show up to a meeting early yourself. If you want people to share more analytics and data around certain decisions, explain and support your own findings with data. If you want your team to be more proactive in taking on responsibility, actively seek out ways to pitch in and take things off your coworkers’ plate. No one’s going to do anything differently if you don’t do it yourself first.
It might be easy to ask employees to expense only up to a certain dollar-amount during conferences… but then make an exception for a friend on your team and cover more of her expenses when she asks about it. “It’s a one-time exception,” you say to yourself. Bullshit. Acting inconsistently — applying different rules and standards to different team members — sets a dangerous precedent for how you’ll behave in the future. While seemingly harmless, that inconsistency bleeds into other areas, and it will be picked up by someone else on your team sooner or later. Regardless of how long someone’s been at your company or what relationship you have with them, treating employees equitably is important. You want to be a fair, just leader. That only happens by being consistent in how you treat all members of your team, all the time.
People are naturally skeptical of those in power. A recent 2016 study found that one in three employees don’t trust their managers. You don’t want to be a victim of this statistic. To build trust, build rapport. Your team wants to know you as a whole person — not just as a boss. So revealing what you care about, what social causes you support, and what hobbies you enjoy outside of work etc. matters. You’re not making a superficial, desperate plea to be liked — that’s not what I’m talking about here. Rather, the more you can show that you are a real, multifaceted person who they can empathize with and relate to, the stronger your relationship with them will be. And, the more trust they’ll place in you as a leader.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t flawlessly practice each of these 10 things as a leader every day. It’s hard! Just last week, I realized that I should do a better job creating more context for our team, and of letting go. But, in writing these 10 things here, it helps me commit to doing each of them better . Hopefully, it is equally helpful for you.
Specific questions are our most underrated management tool.
Ask the right question… and you’ll learn that your company’s most valuable employee doesn’t feel challenged by her work and is thinking about leaving.
Ask the wrong question… and you’ll hear the same employee tell you she enjoys the work environment and is confident about executing her work. You only learn she’d been considering leaving when she gives you her two weeks notice.
The greatest example of a “wrong question” is one I found myself asking to others early in my career:
“How’s it going?”
Nine times out of ten, the other person’s response would be…
“It’s fine. Things are going fine.”
What an empty response! But it’s because I asked an empty question. “How’s it going?” could not be a more run-of-the-mill, vague question to ask someone. So I got a run-of-the-mill, vague response.
Ask a general, half-hearted question, and you’ll get a general, half-hearted response. Ask a specific, carefully thought-out question, and you’ll get a specific, carefully thought-out response.
The more specific the question, the more specific the response.
Sounds easy and obvious enough. Yet in practice, it can be tough to come up with specific questions “on the spot” — especially if you’re asking questions in-person during a one-on-one or over lunch.
Here are a few tactics to help you ask more specific questions that will yield specific answers…
Pick one thing.
When you ask a question like, “How’s it going?”, you provide no context for which a person is supposed to answer. You’re essentially asking a person to consider their entire time at the company, and deliver an eloquent, precise answer summarizing exactly how they feel about it. It’s no wonder people always answer, “It’s fine.”
To provide more context in your question, ask about “one thing.” As a result, you’re not asking someone to consider or talk about all things — just one thing. It makes answering your question much easier.
Try saying this: “What’s one thing that could’ve gone better?” or “What’s one thing that frustrated you?” or “What’s one thing you’re surprised is working as well as it is?”
Anchor your question in an event.
You can uncover a lot more depth about how someone feels about the company if you use an event as the focal point of your question. For example, if you’re curious if the leadership team is communicating well with employees, ask an employee about the last all-company meeting. It could be a question like, “What else should have been brought up by the leadership team at our last all-company meeting?” Doing so can be more revealing than just asking, “What could the leadership team improve?”
Or, say you’re curious to know about an employee’s relationship with her manager. A question like, “During your last project, what hiccups or struggles did you encounter while working with your manager?” is much more specific than simply asking, “How’s it going with your manager?”. A question around a concrete, tangible event will help a person mentally reference that in their head, and provide a much more meaningful answer to you.
Try saying this: “What’s something we totally missed talking about during our last meeting?” or “While you were on your last project, what did you observe that you felt were slow or inefficient?” or“What could have been improved about the most recent product release we did?”
Time-box your question.
Possibly my favorite way to ask a specific question is to time-box the question to a specific period of time. For instance, rather than asking, “What do you think we could improve on?” you should ask, “What’s something in the last two weeks could we have improved on?” By asking someone to reflect on the last two weeks, you narrow the scope of what they need to consider to answer your question well. All of a sudden, it’s easier for that person to recall something interesting, pinpoint a specific insight, and share it with you.
Try saying this: “What’s something last week that could be better?” or “What’s been most motivating for you to work on this past month?” or “What’s annoyed you this quarter? It can be big or small…”
If you’ve ever caught yourself thinking to yourself, “My employees never tell me anything,” now you know that the solution might lie in questions you’re asking, themselves. And the remedy is simpler than you might’ve thought:
Specific questions yield specific answers. General questions yield general answers.
Lately, I’ve been getting asked more frequently: “Claire, do you illustrate your own blog posts?”
The answer is, “Yes.”
To date, I’ve written hundreds of blog posts. With the exception of a few (where I’ve used a photograph as the main image instead), I’ve illustrated each one myself.
I’m not a professional artist by any means (I grew up drawing and painting thanks to my mom, who’s an artist). A much better idea might’ve been to hire someone else who I’m sure could produce higher caliber work and save me some time…
But I insist on doing the illustrations myself. Why?
It shows we care.
These days, everyone is writing something— be it blog posts, e-books, newsletters — and a lot of it sounds and looks the same. A high-resolution, parallax scrolling image as the featured photo. A brightly-colored, minimalist infographic. You can even hire ghostwriters or outsource your writing to content marketing firms who’ll both write and illustrate the posts for you.
See the same thing enough times in enough places… and you start to smell the lack of authenticity when you read it.
You think to yourself, “Do these people even give a shit?”.
Here at Know Your Team, we do give a shit. Our sole purpose for writing is not to increase our SEO ranking or “growth hack” our business. We write because we truly care about creating more open, honest workplaces. And we believe sharing our insights can help more people influence their own workplaces to be that way.
Illustrations done by me, the CEO, is one way for us to show this. We don’t hire out anyone else to write our stuff. We don’t even hire anyone to illustrate our stuff.
We give a damn, so we do it ourselves.
Doing something yourself — whether or not you have to — shows that you care.
This past January, I received a birthday card that my mom made herself. Admittedly, I cried when I opened it. It meant so much more to me than if she would have picked up something from the store. (By the way, my mom has handmade me a card almost every year since I was born!).
The same goes for business. When a CEO writes, illustrates, etc. herself, it shows she cares.
Sure, it’s time-consuming and a bit tedious. I first google some images to get ideas for what I want to draw. Sometimes, I draw a few images and riff on them before deciding on one. I sketch out the final image. Then it’s Sharpie time. I use watercolor pencils to fill it in. I take a picture of it with my phone, adjust it in Photoshop… And voila! The illustration you see is on our blog post.
Is that all too “in the weeds” for a CEO to be doing? Meh, I’m not sure that I care.
The fact that something takes longer and requires a little more effort matters less to me. What matters is that we’re trying to communicate authentically with whoever is kind enough to lend us their time.
Even if it’s not “perfect” quality or the most efficient thing to do… So what?
Everyone says, “It’s great working here.” But is it really?
“How do you know if a company’s culture is good?”
Last week, a friend who’s looking for a new job asked me this. She’d been doing a few interviews, and was trying to figure out what questions to ask during her interviews to discern if a potential employer’s workplace culture was healthy.
In each interview, she’d ask a version of: “What’s it like to work here?”
Without fail, the person on the other side of the table would tell her: “It’s great!”
But is it really?
How do you know if a company’s culture is what they say it is?
Instead of asking “What’s it like to work here?” these five questions are what I recommended she ask at the end of her next interview…
#1: When is the last time you had a 4-hour block of uninterrupted time?
Our most productive, creative work happens when we have a large block of uninterrupted time. Yet how many workplaces make that a reality regularly for their employees? Ask a question about the last time your interviewer had an uninterrupted period of time to get work done and listen closely to the answer. Your interviewer may scoff and tell you: “We like to stay busy, busy, busy — meetings all the time, messages constantly on Slack…” Or she may sit there, a little stumped by the question, before slowly answering: “Hmmm… I’m not sure.” Both bring to light a clear truth: The company does not have a culture that values a calm environment where employees’ time is protected for them to do real work.
#2: When is the last time you argued about something with someone?
Healthy company cultures have a penchant for heated debate. People who are a part of them are not afraid to voice dissenting opinions and they treat opposing views with consideration and care. You want to dig to see if this is the case at the company you’re interviewing with. Do they suffer from a “culture of nice,” where everyone is conflict-averse and afraid to step on anyone’s toes? Or are people abrasive, tone-deaf and handle conflict without any tact? Arguments are unavoidable. They will happen in whatever company you work in next. What’s important is figuring out if those arguments will be handled well. You want a culture where people are upfront and honest when they disagree, and come to a resolution civilly.
#3: When’s the last time you had a conversation with the CEO one-on-one?
(Or, if you’re interviewing with the CEO, you can ask her: “When’s the last time you had a conversation one-on-one with [a person in your role]?”)
As an employee, you want to gauge the accessibility of the leadership team — and of the CEO in particular. Sure, when you’re in interviews, many companies will point out how their CEO’s desk is out in the open with everyone else’s, or that her office door is never closed shut. Does that mean she frequently gets up from her desk or out of her office, and seeks out perspectives from the front lines? If you have a concern, will it be difficult or seen as uncouth to try get a hold of her? Asking a question about the last time the interviewer spoke one-on-one with the CEO will give you an idea of how seriously the company takes openness, access to leadership, and a desire to hear from everyone in the company.
#4: When have you felt most proud to be at the company?
This question can uncover what people at the company truly value. For example, someone might say in an interview, “Everyone here is a team-player and we all care about accomplishing our company’s mission.” But if you ask them, “When have you felt most proud to be at the company?” they might tell you their proudest moment was hitting a personal sales goal and winning an individual award in the company. While that’s no doubt an accomplishment anyone should be proud of, it does reveal a fondness for individual recognition. Compare that to, say, the interviewer telling you their proudest moment was when the company won an industry-wide award or when a customer raved about the company, etc. Either way, you’ll learn if what makes people proud to work there is about themselves or about the company. And it will give you a sense of if the same thing would make you proud to work there too.
#5: When’s the last time someone went above and beyond the call of duty at the company?
When people across departments and disciplines are willing to do favors with one another, pitch in to resolve an issue, and not worry about who’s getting credit for what — that’s the kind of company culture you want to be a part of. If you’re in a bind at work, you don’t want selfish office politics to get in the way. To clue into whether this is true for your prospective employer, ask about a time someone went “above and beyond the call of duty.” In your interviewer’s answer, you may hear her struggle to think of even one instance of this (uh oh) or you may hear her rattle off a whole list. From this, you’ll gain an understanding of how people at the company actively help and support one another… if at all.
If you’re on the job hunt, try a few of these questions at the end of your next interview. You’re bound to learn so much more than asking, “What’s it like to work here?”.
But if you’re not — if you’re an employer who’s actively recruiting new hires — ask yourself these questions.
Do you like your own answers to them?
Your company culture may not be as healthy as you’d like to say it is.
You can’t expect people to be open with you, if you’re not open with them first.
You’re at a swimming pool. The water looks nice. It’s not quite a warm enough day… But it’s almost summer so why not jump in?
You want others to join you in the pool (it’s more fun that way!). So you wander around and ask each of the pool loungers: “Hey, care to jump in the pool with me? The water looks warm…”
Think anyone jumps in? Especially, if you’re not in the pool yourself?
I view the process of getting honest feedback from employees the same way. If you want everyone in your company to be open and honest with you — if you want everyone to jump into that swimming pool with you — you’ve got to take the first dive.
I call this “going first” as a leader. You must take the first step to show it’s safe to speak up (particularly given that fear plays such a large role in why employees don’t give feedback). You must be forthcoming and candid with your employees first, as a leader. You can’t expect someone else to do something if you don’t do it yourself first.
Here are a few ways to “go first” as a leader and jump into that swimming pool to create a safe environment for employees to speak up…
Share what you’re struggling with.
One of the best ways to “go first” is by sharing something that you’re struggling with. If this makes you feel a little vulnerable as a leader… that’s a good thing! You’re modeling the honesty that you’re similarly looking for from an employee. As a result, you diffuse some of the anxiety and fear an employee may have about offering a critical opinion. An employee may now think, “Well if she, my manager, is struggling with this, then I guess it’s okay to share this…”
Try saying this: “I’m struggling with…” or “Can you help me understand something that I’m having trouble grasping?” or “Hey, I don’t have all the answers…”
Play devil’s advocate with your own opinion.
Another way to “go first” as a leader is to challenge your own opinion in front of your team. The next time you’re explaining a new idea, pose an opposing viewpoint to it yourself, and then ask for feedback. By playing devil’s advocate with your own opinion, you invite others to give dissenting viewpoints. When you’re a contrarian to your own ideas, you give your team permission to be contrarian too.
Try saying this: “I could also take a devil’s advocate point-of-view and say ___. What do you think?” or “Another way to look at it is ____. Would you agree or disagree?”
Commend vulnerability when you see it.
“Going first” as a leader also means to positively reinforce the behavior you want to see. If you want meaningful, honest feedback to be given to you more often, be sure to publicly recognize it when you do see it. A CEO who is a Know Your Team customer here in Chicago makes a point to do this every month during her company all-hands meeting. She’ll publicly commend an employee for her vulnerability, and say, “Thank you for sharing an opinion that might not be popular. It’s important.” When you do this, you set the expectation that you want to hear frank, non-sugar-coated information in the future.
Try saying this: “That’s a great thought — your honesty is appreciated and important to the team…” or “I’m so glad you’re disagreeing with me. It’s helping me understand a new perspective…” or “Thank you for bringing that up. I’m sure that was not an easy thing to share, so I value you doing that.”
As a leader, it’s your job is to make your employees feel as safe as possible to speak up. You can’t sit back and ask other people to be candid and forthcoming without doing it yourself first.
Want others to jump into the pool of honesty and openness? Go first.