A lot of my friends in the tech field are leaving great companies. Some of the most talented and dedicated among them even rush out of their prestigious positions where they have been making great products that millions of people use. When I talk to them about their reasons and motivations to leave, I hear the same thing: cultural meltdowns. Prestigious companies with long list of perks, stocks, and bonuses can be satisfying to some extent but as people grow in their career, their criteria of success and work satisfaction changes. Naturally, I have experienced the same questions, struggles, and doubts myself as I progressed in my own career. Over time, my focus has shifted from how good the company looks on paper to how the company’s values and culture align with my passions and beliefs. That’s exactly why I left agencies in the past and started to work at Foursquare - a company with smart people and a thoughtful culture. Since then, I have always appreciated the motto “work with people that you admire” or "surround yourself with people who are smarter than you." In light of my own experience, I wanted to share a few thoughts on how to win in the workplace.
Building a solid company culture
One thing to be clear about is that we are not just designing products and services; we are also designing cultures, companies, and organizations. I could not agree more with Ben Horowitz, when he says that we must “take care of the people, the product, and the profits - in that order.” If you want your business to be successful, first you need to hire the right people, and to be able to that, you have to build the right culture, so that good people can get excited about working alongside you.
Culture of trust and autonomy
Let’s start with the basics. Putting together a dream team of engineers, product managers, and designers is great, but the tricky part is building the true chemistry within the team. And that is achieved by first killing the authoritative executive philosophy and removing the barriers of bureaucracy that tangle individuals and drain their efficiency and productivity over time. People need the space and liberty to collaborate freely, without worrying about how many meetings they have to attend that day or how many people they have to invite to a review because their title requires them to be there. Instead, the culture should provide liberty, create a deeper ownership of projects, fuel teams with motivation, and give them genuine reasons to put their heart and soul into the work.
Things really start to break when you regard your employees as “resources" and "asana crashers” rather than individual contributors and thinkers. We should all come to the ultimate realization that the workplace is not only a habitat for building the best products. It’s also for people to build their careers, grow as professionals, and feel satisfied with their accomplishments. If we want people to stick around during the bad times, when there are fewer investors or when the annual revenue drops, we need to trust them and give them the well-deserved liberty to make decisions and run with them. Knitting this philosophy into the DNA of the company makes us appreciate employees more, not only because of the beautiful interfaces they design or how efficient and fast the codes are that they write. We also appreciate them as individuals for being self-driven, reliable, and accountable with a positive attitude. In effect, we come to respect employees as partners in a shared enterprise.
Culture of communication and transparency
We might expect this one to be self-explanatory for companies. However, in reality, companies fail miserably, regardless of their size, in building a transparent workspace for everybody. We often fall into the traps of roadmaps, sprint plannings, discussing which teams have worked on the most engaging features or which PM's have written the most deliberate product spec. In the end, we lose our sight of what’s valuable and meaningful to succeed as a company. Deciding what makes the company successful should be a collective effort. As long as a company is transparent and inclusive with their missions, goals, and objectives and makes sure everybody - including marketing, sales, support, and communications teams - is on the same page, then the teams have a clear understanding of the expectations. With that understanding in place, all team members intuitively work towards carrying the company to the finish line in a smooth sail. Nurturing this transparent and inclusive culture motivates the team to work harder and produce their best work. Yes, it’s inherently challenging to build up the momentum to get people behind the same goals. We lay the groundwork by first being honest about our goals, dreams, fears, and beliefs. A successful company is like a successful marriage. The magic lies in coexistence - letting each other have a voice, creating means to stay connected, and eliminating hidden agendas.
Culture of making mistakes and celebrating them
Tech companies, small or large scale, tend to be less predictable than other businesses, filled with uncertainty and risks. One year you are a billion dollar unicorn that everybody talks about, and the following year all the tech blogs pick up on you and talk about your possible “exit alternatives”. At the same time, there is a greater passion and momentum in tech companies to pursue extraordinary dreams, walk the talk, show the world that they are the inventors, makers, and builders of the future. This culture can only be driven by being fierce and not operating in fear of making mistakes. I love Ed Catmull’s take on mistakes that they make at Pixar. “If you are not experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.” He goes on to say, “Mistakes are not necessarily evil. They are not evil at all. They are an the inevitable consequence of doing something new.” Some of the greater lessons in life come from bad mistakes. We all should know that mistakes and frustrations are a part of the journey and as long as you are surrounded by the right group of people, creativity and brilliance shines through during tough times. Appreciate mistakes, make sure you have postmortems to give people a chance to express how they are doing, what is going great, what is not going great, and how to fix it moving forward.
And the rest is all nice and clear. With trust established, we can build a company that functions to its full potential, one where employees are not always looking out the door or ready to give in to the first linkedin recruiter that contacts them.