Photon Vault™

Culture vs Marketing

Bloomberg had an excellent piece this weekend about how hollow @Marc Benihoff’s “family” rhetoric looks in the wake of a layoff of 10% of the @Salesforce workforce. It further outlined the rise and fall of this sort of positioning by Silicon Valley firms over the past generation. It is worth considering the important distinction between the building of culture in companies vs how that process is marketed and how easy it is for the latter to undermine the former. It is something we are thinking about at @Photon Vault as we build a new company in an uncertain time.

I was fortunate to be part of the executive leadership at @NewEnergyEquity, where we succeeded in building a company culture that we each valued and considered to be authentic. We were guided by some great coaches at @Petra Coach, @Greg Eisen and @Katherine Parker. They encouraged us to think about more fundamental questions than short-term questions. Yes, we want a talented and motivated workforce. Yes, we want financial success. Yes, we want to do “Big Things”. But why? To what end? We started to think about these things and with that began to think about what we wanted to fundamentally achieve.

One thing we landed on early was measuring what we set out to accomplish. For our culture, that meant regular measurement of our eNPS (Employee Net Promoter Score). eNPS measures how likely your employees are to recommend your company to a friend as a good place to work. You can’t hide from that, and you can’t spin it. We’ve all suffered through jobs that were not good for us, or fun, or good for anyone else. We do that because we simply have to sometimes. To keep food on the table, to pay the student loans than never seem to go away. But would we encourage a good friend or our family members to join us here? I sure hope not! I’m proud to say that after we began measuring it to the day I left the company, we never had an eNPS score below 80. (I assume it is still high, I just don’t know because I am not there anymore). So, you have to measure it if you want to know it is real.

Important side note: It’s only realistic to acknowledge that people may tell management what they think you want to hear. You can’t just ask people in their annual or quarterly reviews if they are happy and expect an honest answer – you may get one, but you have no idea if it is. eNPS is anonymous and is generally considered to be a good reflection of how people really feel. It’s also important that you never tie any employee benefit to your eNPS score. You can’t pay people (or buy them happy hour drinks or ice cream sundays) to report good scores. Sad that this caveat has to be said, but it definitely does.

So how did we get these scores? To my mind, the more you are encouraging your people, rather than your employees, the better chance you will have to create culture rather a marketing and branding layer for your workplace. For one thing, language is always important, but the difference between marketing and culture is that the people you work closely with know if that language is true or not! Do you offer maternity/paternity support beyond what is required by law? Great! How many people actual take advantage of it who are eligible? If the answer is not very many, then there is a culture problem. People don’t feel like they can take it. Your job as a leader is to figure out why and remove that obstacle. Are your managers held to the same culture standards that you are trying to cultivate throughout your company? If not, that double standard will drown out any number of “team-building” activities you can think of.

The hardest part of the Bloomberg article was its call-out of the misuse of “family” when describing office culture. The fact is that your co-workers are not your family, and to say so will invariably create dysfunction. If your children underperform vs expectation, you are not going to throw them out of the family (at least I hope you will not!). Indeed, much of familial dysfunction tracks to this basic fact. Horrible situations are allowed to persist because we feel we cannot “fire” a family member. Luckily, there are lots of people we care about who are not in our families. It’s definitely hard to sit and talk with a junior colleague who is struggling with something and explain what she needs to improve in order to continue at the company and then finish the meeting saying “I care about you. I want you to be successful. And I hope that you find your success here with us.” It’s way easier to speak generally about the unnamed Team and call them Family. But the irony is that calling them Family never has much effect until the moment that you betray it.

Do it the hard way. Wish the people you work with success in everything they do, not just what they do for you. Know that as a manager and leader, your success is increasingly measured by the success of those you have cultivated rather than by the simple metrics of your current position. Your perspective must be wider, your vision farther. Then you will build a culture rather than a slogan.

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