All Turtles’ San Francisco event space was buzzing last night as people filed in for an evening of conversations about building company culture. The program was an opportunity for attendees to learn from experts about what it means to scale culture and cultivate values at a growing organization.
Disco hosted a panel with speakers Phil Libin, cofounder and CEO of All Turtles, and Kristen Berman, behavioral economist and cofounder of Irrational Labs. Justin Vandehey, cofounder of Disco, moderated. The three took to the stage, armed with microphones and their senses of humor, to dissect what they’ve learned from building their own companies, and from research on employee engagement and motivation.
Libin has had the experience of building culture at a number of different companies, including at Evernote, where he was cofounder and CEO. He began by acknowledging the broad challenges entrepreneurs face: “Making a company is super hard. You shouldn’t work on something you’re not prepared to spend the rest of your life working on, because that’s what it’s going to feel like regardless of how long you’re actually there.”
Yet his experiences have taught him effective methods for clearing some of these hurdles, including best practices for hiring and working with people. He said, “The main management technique that I’ve tried to get better at is not conflating difficult decisions with emotionally unpleasant ones. I think a lot of people confuse a decision that’s difficult—meaning that it’s hard to know what the right answer is—with a decision where you know what the right answer is, but it’s just really unpleasant.” Recognizing that these are two different types of decisions is the first step toward finding a resolution.
In a discussion about company values, Libin joked about the ease of writing values on a poster and calling it a day. Effective methodology is, of course, not so simple. “Behavioral science de-emphasizes attitudes and beliefs and really emphasizes behavior,” said Berman. “We always emphasize that you want [employees] to behave with integrity and honesty versus being able to recite the values of integrity and honesty.”
Diversity from the start
An important factor in building a sustainably productive company culture is the diversity of hires. This is something Libin makes a conscious effort to maintain at All Turtles. “In most other startups,” he said, “you’re under so much pressure to do things as quickly as possible that you take shortcuts, and the biggest shortcut is to call up your buddies and say, ‘Hey, let’s work together again.’ That gets you a team that looks exactly like you, and that makes it much harder to scale after that because it forms a clique and it’s harder to find new people.”
That’s a norm in the startup world that Libin actively fights against. “At All Turtles, we force ourselves to look at people that we don’t already know for every single position,” he said. “We pay recruiters to bring in candidates—including underrepresented minorities or women—when hiring people at the top of the funnel.”
This is a photo of Justin Vandehey, Phil Libin, and Kristen Berman speaking on a panel.
When companies aren’t careful to curate the kind of culture they want, one of the outcomes is that it’s more difficult to brainstorm in an effective and collaborative way. “We love our own ideas,” said Berman. She explained that people tend to assert that their own idea is correct, despite other suggestions that might be better. The more testing you do, Berman said, you start to see that “your intuition is wrong many times.” That’s helpful information for idea generation because understanding it encourages people to think, “I’ll put my idea out there, and it might be wrong, and that’s okay.”
Vandehey asked about incentivizing employees, and Berman shared an anecdote in which she talked to salespeople at a company who were given small monetary awards for individual tasks. Yet when she spoke to executives at the same company, they shared that their own personal motivations had more to do with making an impact and doing meaningful work than money. “It’s an interesting conundrum that we’ve created where we think other people are motivated by money, but we have this feeling for ourselves that we are intrinsically motivated,” Berman said.
Disco conducted their own research on the impact of rewards on employee engagement, and concluded that a more effective approach than monetary prizes is building company rituals that nurture connection and relationships.
Developing an open and cooperative company culture requires thoughtfulness and a great deal of effort, but the results pay long-lasting dividends.