How to build a championship team (not a team of champions)
He placed a digital voice recorder down on the cafe table in front of me. I wasn’t expecting that.
“Don’t overthink it, just say what comes into your head. Ready?”
We’d brought in an agency to help build our brand and the bearded bloke in front of me was the ‘tone of voice’ guy. We’d hit $1m of ARR, had a ten or so staff and it was time to grow up and get professional.
“Describe the culture within Stackla” he prompted me.
“It’s… a good culture…?”
Now — nearly three years later and 60 people stronger — it’s fair to say my response might be a little more considered. And no… not for the reasons you might think. Not because we’re bigger now and have time to lean back and say nice warm, feel-good things about ourselves. Or because we have hired some Psych-major-hippie-folks who say we need a ‘people’ story (and drinks trolley) to inspire our team. But for the very real reason that I believe it. I believe culture is critically important to Stackla’s success — as much as product, sales or marketing. And it’s just as critically important to the success of the individuals who make up Stackla. Each is dependant upon the other. We win together or we lose together.
Every company has a culture — whether by accident or by design. But it can always be cultivated and as a founder, this must be one of your core areas of focus.
So… that’s a big leap to make in a couple of years, isn’t it? Let me first explain why I’ve changed my tune so drastically, and then look at what we’re doing — yes, real projects, investments and initiatives — to nurture the Stackla culture.
What’s so special about having an amazing culture?
We can of course start with the obvious one — team retention. Great people are hard enough to attract — they then take enormous investment (and time) to onboard and it sucks when you lose them. But to my thinking that’s not really the point here. You might retain 100% of your team but if they aren’t engaged and are so crappy they can’t even find a job anywhere else… your super-awesome-high-five retention record has lost some of its appeal.
No, I don’t think the value of culture is seen in team retention. That’s a side effect. It’s really seen in team engagement. Engaged teams do really interesting things. In our experience (and almost to our surprise) we found that engaged teams commit emotionally and not just transactionally. They become connected to the company, the vision and also to each other. They care.
When they care, they are not satisfied with mediocrity or the path of least resistance. When they care, they look for solutions instead of problems. They take initiative. They collaborate and foster internal relationships for the greater good. They peel back their own egos or personal ambitions and trust that shared success leads to personal success. They become passionate advocates for the business — which in turn fuels recruitment and even brand awareness and marketing.
They adapt quickly to change. In fact they embrace change— even drive change — because they are bought into the “why”. That’s monumentally important when you’re in hyper-growth-startup-mode and every day throws you a new challenge or opportunity.
And perhaps most importantly… well, they become a bloody awesome bunch of people to get in the trenches with and share a beer with (though ideally not simultaneously).
So how did we begin to cultivate an amazing culture?
- Want it. The first step in creating an amazing culture is wanting an amazing culture. Understand the positive impact a great culture will have on your business. Appreciate the value of that positive impact — both now and exponentially as you scale. Own the challenge — if you’re a founder, this is YOUR job.
- Define it. I’ll be honest, the first time we had a crack at this it kinda ended up with myself and my co-founder describing our own ethic and attitudes (literally into a voice recorder). That’s important, sure, but also be critical of yourself. What weaknesses do you want your team to help you overcome? For me, it was our #culturecode #5 (Make our customer the hero). I wasn’t customer obsessed, and it impacted us negatively until we addressed it. Now we are 100% culturally customer obsessed and we’re better for it. So, you mightn’t nail it on the first try but give it a go. Write it, get team input, publish it and above all — live up to it as best you can.
- Recruit to it. Finding a person that’s a great cultural fit is hard. Changing a person’s attitude, work ethic and values is harder. We’ve had two defining character tests we’ve used since our first ever hire. The first (and most important): no dickheads, no egos. Those people suck. Sometimes they’re great (amazing CV, can talk the talk) but trust me, they aren’t. They suck. The second: hire people smarter than yourself. I’ve never run a sales organization before. And I’ve certainly never managed SaaS finances. But don’t be afraid to look stupid. Ask every question you need to and don’t be afraid of being “shown up”. Being shown up is the best thing that can happen to you. It means you’ve recruited perfectly.
- Measure it. Sounds hard, right? It’s not really. We just hired someone smarter than us to figure it out. For us, that person was Jade. Ironically, she actually is a Psych-major-hippie… but that’s another story. Through Jade and her team, we implemented regular culture audits across the business — detailed (and anonymous) surveys to measure engagement at set intervals and see how we’re tracking over time. We then took it one step further — we made an engagement score target one of our key Organizational Goals. For context, as a global business, we have four Organizational Goals that have become our guiding light. This is one of the four.
- Work on it. Sometimes we hit our goals, other times we miss… but we’re constantly launching initiatives to drive greater engagement across our team. Here are a few examples:
- Stackla Run Club — our global fitness & charity challenge that has the entire team (not to mention their friends & families) virtually running around the globe together, raising charity dollars along the way.
- Stackla Switch — our employee exchange program that recognises & rewards our top performers, providing them with the opportunity to spend quality time in a sister office or even relocate permanently to another region.
- Stackla Lift — our community service program that provides every person on the team with opportunities to participate in meaningful projects with our partner charity One Education, as well as paid volunteer days to use supporting other NFP’s close to their hearts.
- Stackla Culture Club — which provides employees right across the business, from all departments (not just P&C) with the opportunity to collaborate on, or even lead, people & culture projects that particularly resonate with them, including our Green Council, Diversity Council & Events team.
- Stackla Summits — our bi-annual global meet ups geared towards knowledge sharing, alignment & building camaraderie.
- Stackla University — our internal L&D program offering weekly Product training, regular Lunch & Learn sessions, paid Explore & Develop days for our Tech team to foster continuous learning & knowledge sharing, our Stacklathons, and our NextGen program for Stackla’s emerging managers / leaders.
- And my personal favourite… The Psycho Chicken Award — our employee of the month award used to acknowledge killer effort & the people on the team that truly live & breathe our #culturecode (so named after the BBQ chicken shop we once called an office)
As you can see, the key here is effort. And effort in the right places.
Sometimes culture takes some tough decisions. Not so long ago we let somebody go — knowing that there was going to be some short term pain and disruption and, yes, a negative impact on team morale. But we knew that the individual wasn’t a perfect cultural fit and that this was causing friction. The short term culture pain resulted in long term culture gain.
No single individual carries the culture — not even a founder.
Somewhat sadly, culture doesn’t equal what it used to equal when I was playing rugby. Which of course equalled drinking. Yes, we’re Aussies. Drinking is a given. But real startup culture isn’t beers at the pub… that’s called being social. Culture is about making those post-work beers a celebration of wins, not a drowning of sorrows.
Someone much smarter than me once said “our company’s most valuable assets walk out the door every night”. It’s our job to make them excited to walk back in the next day.