Building company culture: Katie Burke on what most businesses get wrong

Updated On: October 14, 2019
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Katie Burke, Chief People Officer at HubSpot, is a marketer-turned-culture expert. To her, culture is much more than a blurb in your job description. Instead, it's the foundation for making a workplace where employees will do more than just work – they'll thrive.

A strong people strategy can create a noticeable competitive advantage by marrying culture, innovation, leadership, and inclusiveness. While culture is something  many companies try to do, getting it right takes a certain finesse. In her recent talk at Recur, Katie broke down the top cultural mistakes companies make. In this article, we'll recap what these common pitfalls look like to give you a better sense of how to successfully approach culture within your organization.

The top 9 mistakes companies make when it comes to culture

Culture can be the difference between a good and a great company. But you can't (and shouldn't) fake culture and get the same results. Your approach to culture should be more than an item on your HR checklist.

You can think of culture as the foundation. It needs to be strong and everything else will depend on it. And, it needs to last. In the same way, you should build your culture for the long-term. It should last even as your company scales and grows.

When designing your culture code, here are nine mistakes to be aware of.

Mistake 1) Assuming everyone in your company is on the same page about the culture you're building

When HubSpot first launched its culture code, Dharmesh Shah, CTO and Founder of HubSpot, felt it was important to share it with candidates. Since then, its culture code has been viewed more than 4 million times. Yet, when it first released the details about its culture, HubSpot had no idea how much customer, prospective customers, and job candidates would appreciate reading about it.

While HubSpot's culture launch is well-received, what people don't know is there was some initial internal backlash. When Dharmesh first offered to make its culture code public, employees reacted with stones and fire for two reasons:

  1. They did not want to share HubSpot's secrets with the world.

  2. They did not want to be “that company”; the one that struts around sticking posters on the wall saying how good they are with culture.

However, making the culture code public prompted a very important journey for HubSpot that helped employees become more accountable. When the culture code said the company was looking to hire people who were humble or remarkable, HR and hiring managers had to live by those words. It helped the company measure up to the culture standards it set across all levels of the company.

Katie encourages every company to take on the challenge of getting everyone on the same page. In her talk, she suggested,

“If your company has a set of values that you assume that your newest and most junior employees know exactly what you mean by those values and what they mean, do me a favor and just go back to your office and ask. Tell me, explain how you think about testing this in an interview. Or help me understand how you describe it to someone or our prospects or customers. Chances are you'll hear some nuance in there.”

While getting everyone on board with culture might feel exhaustive or you might feel like “that” company, it's the down payment for making a strong culture for the long haul.

Takeaway:

For a culture to be strong, everyone needs to be on board. You can't have some people committed and others not. To pull that off, everyone needs to know what the culture is and how to live by it, which will also improve accountability.

Mistake 2) Solving for sameness (culture fit vs. culture add)

Ever heard of the airplane test? It's a thought exercise where, while conducting an interview, you ask yourself, “do I want to be on a cross-country flight with this person?”

According to Katie that is not an ideal way to assess cultural fit. It can quickly develop into a diversity issue and impact the long-term inclusivity of your team. In her talk, Katie offers that if you solve for sameness right from the start of your organization, you will end up with a company that looks, acts, and talks much like your founding team. As it turns out, that's negative not only for your performance but also your ability to access and reach diverse talent long-term.

So rather than getting caught up in hypothetical questions in your interview process, you can stamp out sameness in your interview process by:

  • Asking questions that make sure that someone is not just coming in to be the same as everyone on the team

  • Looking for perspectives that will meaningfully add to the dialogue

Takeaway:

Diversity is good for teams. Avoid the temptation to only consider candidates who are very similar to employees already on the team. People with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives will bring a lot to the team.

Mistake 3) Confusing perks for culture

Perks are not culture.

If someone asks, "What's the culture like at your organization?" And you talk about things like a ping-pong table or free food like snacks or pizza; you're doing it wrong.

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When it comes to perks, strive to do more than just compete with your neighbor. Chances are, that plan will fall short on actually retaining and recruiting top talent.

For example, HubSpot does this by showing people its “mother's room” during tours. A mother's room is a designated place where new parents can nurse or breast pump. For HubSpot, mother's rooms are not there to serve as a cool facilities perk. They are a visible signal that the company cares about the well-being of its employees and their families.

Takeaway:

Don't show off your culture by focusing on the bling. Go below the surface by showing people examples of the true pillars of your culture.

Mistake 4) Solving for consensus vs. clarity

"If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?"- Hamilton, Broadway show

A successful culture code will explicitly state what kind of people will thrive at an organization.

To know how good your culture code is, see if it passes the yoga studio test. If someone were to put their hand over your company's name on the first draft of the culture document and it says something like, “We challenge people to do their best every day. We want people to grow. We want people to get better being here. We want to create safe spaces," then you don't pass the yoga studio test. Your employees don't need a yoga studio; they probably already have one. They need a job. The key problem with a yoga studio culture description is that most people will feel like they fit into the box you're describing.

On the flip side, a good culture code will be able to describe exactly what type of people will excel in your organization. Share what you value most and don't be worried about scaring people away; the culture code is as valuable for people who read it and opt-in as it is for people who opt-out.

At HubSpot, for example, it is very explicit that it gives people a lot of autonomy. Some people will read that and say, "I read your culture code. It sounds like you expect people to be really self-motivated, really self-driven, and really self-directed. That's not me. I actually like to be told what to do." Those people are simply not a great fit for HubSpot's culture, and it's better for everyone to be upfront about that.

Takeaway:

Make sure your culture attracts the right people to your company without attracting everyone. The reality is that not everyone is a good fit for your culture, and the sooner you can establish what type of people will succeed at your company, the better. If some people look at your culture description and decide it isn't for them, that's okay. In fact, that's probably better for everyone than if you found that out after they've been hired.

Mistake 5) Promoting your culture on your careers page

To promote your culture beyond your careers page, think about things you can do further up the funnel to engage prospective candidates because most of the talented people in the job market are not currently looking for jobs.

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Why? If you think about the job funnel, the jobs page or careers page is at the very bottom. If you're looking at a careers page, not only are you considering leaving your job, you are considering putting in an application. You're probably sending the link to a friend or colleague to say, "Do you think this would be a good fit for my skill set?"

On top of that, if you know anything about recruiting, you know that some of the most talented people are sitting at their desks today and are not thinking about your organization, and they are certainly not on your jobs page.

Takeaway:

You need to have a top of the funnel strategy for your culture (and your employment brand as a whole). It should not be isolated to just a small section on your careers page or in the job description. Ideally, your culture will be widely circulated enough that even non-employees can articulate the basics of your culture. That'll help you attract top talent.

Mistake 6) Mismanaging your people managers

At most SaaS companies, people managers were the most talented people in their former individual contributor role. Sales managers were the best reps. Customer support managers were the best customer support reps ever. Chances are that your technology leads were your best engineers.

But does that always correlate to their success in managing people? The hard answer is no.

You can't just have a culture strategy and hope the people manager thing works itself out. The good news is that all you have to do to help people managers succeed is create a community for managers within your organization.

But, you need to make sure that your community for managers is known and accessible to managers to help them learn from each other. At a bare minimum, get your managers together regularly to encourage important leadership discussions such as:

  • What's working in teams

  • What's not working in teams

  • Compliance

  • Anti-harassment

Takeaway:

Give managers the resources and encouragement to collaborate and learn from each other. That community will help your leaders improve, which will support the rest of your organization as a result.

Mistake 7) Making a cookie-cutter culture

Most organizations want their culture to be exactly the same, no matter the team, location, and level.

HubSpot takes a different approach. It wants its officers and teams to be siblings, not identical twins. Its Tokyo and Dublin offices, for example, will feel relatively similar, but its traditions will be different. The local leaders should bring their own perspective and traditions and ideas and people. This gives local leaders the autonomy and freedom to add to the culture, rather than feel pressured to just fit in.

If you're going to build global teams and you're going to hire external leaders, you need to give them the flexibility to add some of their own spice. So if you think about culture as an old family recipe, you want to improve it over time. To do that, you need to be open to new chefs in the kitchen adding to the recipe.

Takeaway:

Whether it's due to different departments or offices, you probably have different teams in your company. Allow each of these teams to embrace their individuality while still staying aligned with the fundamentals of your company's culture.

Mistake 8) Focusing solely on growing profits, not people

You probably have revenue targets, operating margin targets, and big goals. Whatever metrics you're using on a regular basis, do you have a growth plan for people who come into your organization? Rather than thinking about what you can't do due to budget restrictions, think about how you can help people grow.

Early on in HubSpot's history, founders Brian and Dharmesh would have all these cool meetings with external founders and leaders. They would talk to all of these great people and then go, "yeah, we had this great session with them and I learned a ton. So one of the things we said was, why don't we let them talk to the entire company so that every single sales rep, every single support rep, every single engineer, gets the benefit of hearing from leaders outside of the organization and growing better?”

These talks come from internal HubSpot networks, but they really allow people to think outside of their own world. It also means the company gets new ideas in front of employees without a huge cost and expense.

Takeaway:

Don't think about supporting your employees as an obligation. Make it your mission. When you have a team of motivated, excited, and thriving employees, your company will benefit.

Mistake 9) Leading with nostalgia

As companies scale, nostalgia tends to creep in. HubSpot noticed this after its IPO. While that step was just the beginning of a new era, it was clear that some employees missed the feel of the company's earliest days. That can naturally occur when a company grows or shifts, but it is also important to be excited about the present and future direction of the company.

By resisting nostalgia, HubSpot was able to focus on the company's growth and development. Since its IPO, it successfully founded many companies, including Tettra.

Takeaway:

You need to be a forward-thinking culture. Employees should be excited by the vision and direction of the company. As a company grows, some people may choose to leave to go to a smaller company, and you need to accept that.

Grow your people and your company will grow too.

Focus on building the next generation of founders. Give your employees the freedom and encouragement to develop personally and professionally, and see how that feeds back into how they contribute to your company.

Katie explains,

“When people ask us how we recruit great engineering talent, great technical talent, great sales talent, great marketing talent, one of the many ways in which we do it is we're not trying to hold on to people for decades, for hundreds of years. We're trying to make it explicit that they can grow with us for as long as is appropriate and then afterwards that we'll support them in their growth. We will be advocates for them in the market.”

And remember, when your people thrive, your organization does too.

Tags: company culture

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