Biting the silver bullet: fronting up to a disengaged workforce

Lars van Wieren
Oct 18, 2018 · 5 min read

Of all the challenges that present themselves to you as a founder, the one that might sneak up on you in the biggest way is company culture.

In the first years of starting up you simply have to execute fast to get initial traction. You can invest a lot of time in your organisation, but you might never reach the point where it becomes a vital topic. But just like you take shortcuts in your codebase to launch fast, and create technical debt, you’re bound to build up organisational debt.

Things move fast, and that’s likely why ‘culture’ only enters the picture when you hit 20+ employees. At Starred we’ve always been true believers in a great working culture, we just never invested enough time to implement the right elements which comprise a great culture. More importantly still: one that’s ready to scale. Once these elements are all ticking along, and they’re aligned based on your mission and your values, the result is greater than the sum of its parts. I.E. you’ve got a Culture.

To go about re-engaging a disengaged workforce, there’s only one silver bullet, and as a founder it’s a hard bullet to have to bite.

The reason I’m writing this article, and several more to come, is to share the lessons I’ve learned on the road to building a company culture with highly engaged employees. In the past people talked about making sure you’ve got ‘happy’ employees, but you can have a contented workforce who aren’t delivering anything. If you’re aiming for hypergrowth, you need engaged people. There’s plenty out there that’s been written on what this means: dedication to the mission means your people feel part of something bigger than themselves, their role impacts and contributes towards this mission, and the success of the organization is top priority. No two companies are the same, but many paths will be alike. Hopefully these insights, some earned the hard way, will help other early stagers build a great culture themselves.

I say these lessons are ‘on the road to’ an excellent culture — the project isn’t finished. In fact, it never will be. Culture is dynamic and constantly evolving. Adapting to that mindset as early as possible is vital. Equally important is taking stock of the culture you’ve got and let me tell you, the starting point of ‘Project Culture’ at Starred wasn’t rosy.

“Lars, If things continue like this, I’m gone.”

Rewind to March 2018. I was living in London — busy with getting initial traction for us in a new market. Operating as a founder in an office other than your HQ isn’t easy. On top of the trials and tribulations of remote collaboration, you’ve got to keep your finger on the pulse of your organisation’s wellbeing by proxy. I made sure to have regular contact with many of my colleagues back in the Netherlands, and many of them were becoming increasingly vocal about our culture. One after another, I was having disturbing calls with my team in Amsterdam.

They weren’t happy. They were saying that “Starred isn’t Starred anymore”. There were key employees ready to leave, so it was time for action. Every company needs to ‘eat its own dogfood’, so for us at Starred we used our own feedback tool to run an employee survey. We asked our team how we were doing in terms of culture. We scored an Employee Net Promoter Score of -8. Anyone familiar with the NPS scale will know this isn’t a particularly good number. Ranging from -100 to +100, eNPS measures loyalty in terms of likeliness to recommend a company as an employer. So with a score of -8, there was a lot of work to do. Worth mentioning — this wasn’t an anonymous survey, so in reality our people were probably even less happy.

Biting the silver bullet

About a year ago we defined our mission and values, which was a good starting point. We felt they were a true reflection of the Starred ethos. The values are all still relevant a year later, but here’s the thing, and it’s crucial — we forgot to implement them. We invested a fair bit of time making sure they reflected the people we had in the organisation and what we aspired to, but this wasn’t enough. By ‘implement’ I really mean making sure the company lives and breathes these values and principles. That means giving them visibility, embedding them in practices and guidelines, and above all encouraging each other to live by them during our time at Starred.

To go about re-engaging a disengaged workforce, there’s only one silver bullet, and as a founder it’s a hard bullet to have to bite. Getting extremely honest feedback was the only way we were going to turn the ship around. We had these values — which we’d ‘forgotten’ to implement — but they weren’t dreamt up. How well do my people actually understand and identify with these values? The employee survey we ran was largely based on these values. It gave us a granular understanding of exactly where we were going wrong.

This was the starting point of our culture project. I assembled a team called ‘S Club 7’ — comprising seven team members from different departments and locations, who would in turn represent a handful of people in the organisation to voice their interests and concerns.

At Starred we have a mission and values — the problem with our culture was forgetting to actually live by them. It’s great to come up with these things, but does your organization live and breathe them?

As Ben Horowitz wrote, “The first rule of organization design is that all organizational designs are bad. The goal is to choose the least of all evils.” In many ways, we rapidly accelerated the maturity of our organisation and made it ready to scale from 30 to 100 people. After only a couple of months of work on the components of Starred’s culture our NPS already went up by a staggering +30. There’s still so much to do, but this was a great signal we were on the right track.

If there’s one piece of advice that I’d give any other founder, is that when it comes to building your culture — be bold and be ready to listen: to the good, the bad and the ugly. There will be nothing more confronting, and rewarding — once you make steps in the right direction. As I wrote earlier, you’re bound to build up organisational debt — you’ve got to pay it off before you’re really scaling. You can’t be changing your tyres while driving 100 miles per hour.

So when you get the first signals that you’ve got a disengaged workforce:

  1. Get feedback from your team(s).
  2. You’ve likely got a mission — a purpose — and values. Do your people a) understand them, b) identify with them, and c) have the feeling they live by them?
  3. Assemble a diverse team. Break down your culture into its components. Use your feedback data as your point of departure.

The more companies I speak with, and the more founders I speak to, the more I’m finding a common thread. Companies big and small have employee engagement issues, and there’s plenty of companies out there that will need to go through the painful, but absolutely necessary — and ultimately rewarding — steps of looking themselves in the mirror and fronting up.

Lars van Wieren

Written by

Founder of Starred.com ⎪Amsterdam ⎪SaaS fanatic