Andrea Sommer Shares Leadership Strategies To Improve Your Company’s Culture
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Andrea Sommer from Hiver for the ongoing series: CEOs Share Leadership Strategies To Improve Your Company’s Culture.
Andrea is an experienced technology strategist with over 12 years experience. She is passionate about technology, entrepreneurship, increasing the number of women represented in both, through diversity, from entry-level to board-level. She has spoken at numerous conferences on technology, the mobile industry, entrepreneurship, raising start-up finance, investing, being a female founder and women in technology.
Krish Chopra: What are the 3 most important values that your company’s culture is based on?
Krish: Managing millennials can often be a polarizing topic. Can you elaborate on your advice for managing the “millennial mindset?”
Andrea: This might be somewhat controversial but I don’t think managing millenials is any different then manging any other person. A good manager flexes to the different styles of person — how the like to work, how they like to give and receive feedback, what motivates and drive them, what stresses them. If you are a good manager who understands how to draw the best out of people, you will be effective when managing people of any generation. I am a firm believer in finding purpose in what you do — that is what I try to bring out every member of my team and of myself as well. I find it more important to worry about whether the individual has a growth mindset than to worry about what generation they come from. If they are open to new ways of doing things, if they are curious and willing to learn, then they are a right fit for the team and the team is good fit for them as well.
Krish: What are your “5 Ways to Improve Your Company’s Culture” and why.
Andrea: Culture is so important, but it is not often something founders & CEOs think too actively about until it is too late. In my view, building the right culture needs to start from the very beginning. Culture is not an add-on, it is the foundation of everything that you do and how you do.
To me, there are five elements that makes ours successful: creating a foundation of fun, embedding flexibility into everything we do, thinking about diversity inherently, enabling psychological safety and using transparency to empower people.
Fun is our foundation: In a start-up we are always working really fast, solving a lot of crazy problems. It takes a special kind of person to see this kind of uncertainty rollercoaster as fun. You have to love solving problems. People who want to be told what to do won’t last very long in a start-up because most often we are making up the answers as we go. To me, this is so important that it is one of my key questions during the interview process — what do you see as fun, how do you define it? Asking this question helps me understand the risk appetite of the person. I’m not saying that every person has to be a risk taker or adrenaline junkie — it doesn’t have to be as extreme as that. But if you don’t see solving problems as fun then you’ll really struggle in this kind of environment because we are constantly solving problems. One of our latest hires told me that when I asked her that question, and then she asked me that question in return she knew this is where she wanted to work. And she is a great fit to the team. So to me that is evidence that this approach really works.
Embed flexibility into everything: I’m a huge believer in flexibility and so I’ve built a company that has this mixed into everything we do. To us, every person should be able to build the schedule that works for them so they can balance all the other interests and commitments in their lives. We want well-rounded people in our mix! In some cases, these are family commitments — we have two, soon to be three parents in our business. Notice I didn’t say mothers. That is deliberate. I’m a firm believer that we will never solve the issues of gender equity and pay parity if we don’t address the elephant in the room, which is how to get more men involved in co-parenting. And that starts with flexibility in the workplace. If we are flexible only for women it becomes a women’s issue. We have to be flexible for everyone so that families can decide what works for them — including what works for fathers. Most men want to be more involved but the rigid way that most companies operate prevents them from doing so, so it ends up falling onto the shoulders of women. Inherent flexibility can change that.
Importantly, flexibility isn’t just for parents. I’m not a parent but I want flexibility to go to my yoga class six days a week — that is what makes me happy and balanced. One of our developers is pursuing a Masters in parallel to her work — that’s her version of balance. All of these reasons are equally valid so we make flexibility completely standard and people can decide if they want to come into the office at all, one day a week or every single day, if they want to work normal business hours or evenings and weekends. We don’t dictate when work is done — we just measure output. If people are delivering what they need to deliver, they can do it whenever they want, and they do.
Put diversity at the core: I don’t just mean diversity of background but also of thought. We are a team of eight — 5 women and 3 men. In that we have 1 American, 1 Brit, 2 Greeks, 1 Brazilian, 1 Croatian, 1 Italian and me a German/Brazilian that grew up in the US. Our ages range from early 20s to mid-40s. Some have 15+ years of experience; others are in their first or second work opportunity. Some of us are flaming liberals; others tend to be more conservative. The fact that our team composition is so mixed means that we each have different ways of doing things, of thinking about things, which brings very interesting (and useful) dimensions to problem solving.
One way this comes out is in the way that our technology is built. So much of today’s technology is built by men, though men’s experiences so it is no surprise that we’ve ended up in a world that is really transactional, where the bulk of our connections are weak and plentiful instead of few and deep since men tend to be more transactional in how they connect and network, for example.
What if we flipped things on their head and started to create tools designed to deepen how we connect, making those connections more meaningful? What if the goal wasn’t to play a volume game, where growth and acquisition was always the objective and instead we focused on getting to really know those around us more deeply? Maybe we’d spend more time listening, watching and learning and we’d overcome the feeling of isolation that pervades our lives and our society. Diversity enables us to look at the world differently and therefore to build technology differently — and that is what we are doing.
Psychological Safety is key: Everyone always talks about embracing failure but most fail to mention an important point, and that in order for people to be comfortable with failure they need to feel psychologically safe. If we’re worried about repercussions, then we’ll always stay in the safe zone — and nothing interesting happens there. I try to lead by example here — I often talk about mistakes I’ve made and I’m pretty open about. That inspires my team to do the same because they know that no one expects them to have all the answers. What we do expect is that people will be creative and resourceful in solving questions they don’t have the answers to. That only comes in a place where people feel comfortable, like we all have each other’s back. And we do.
Transparency to empower:
Anyone who knows me knows that I am an open book and so my business reflects this. If people understand context, if they are included in decision-making, if they share in successes and failures alike, then the result is a really strong sense of cohesion. This doesn’t mean you have to tell people every single thing — that is not what I mean. But I am open with my team about where we are a business, our wins and our struggles, our financial position — both good and bad, and this is especially true in difficult times. Start-ups are inherently uncertain and things have not always been good. A few months ago we were about to run out of money and the product wasn’t finished. I had to tell my team that I was giving everyone notice as we didn’t have money in the bank to pay them after that month. I was fundraising like crazy but I honestly did not know if the money would come in time but I’m happy to say it did. And not one person in my team quit or left. Everyone knew where we stood and knew that I would be honest with them at every step of the way. I reported back after every single meeting so they were right there with me. That is powerful. That is the sign of a strong culture.
Krish: Strong company culture is something that everyone likes to think they have but very few have it. Why do so many organizations struggle with creating strong, healthy work environments?
Andrea:Most organizations don’t trust their employees enough to really put in place the elements that support a strong culture. For example, without trust, there is no way I could create an inherently flexible culture because I would be constantly paranoid about whether people are actually doing their work, especially if I can’t see them. It takes a real mind shift to think about output instead of presentism — especially since measuring time at the office is so much the norm. Trust is extremely important, but so is hiring people you can trust. Every employee should be evaluated for cultural fit — this is as important as their skills or experiences. In fact, I would argue that it is more important, because a person with the right mindset can learn new skills, whereas someone rigid in their approach cannot. Most organizations don’t treat cultural fit like the priority that it is. They hire people who can deliver even if they will erode that balance that made the organization great! I have seen it done many times — culture is so often sacrificed in the name of growth but it isn’t sustainable. Eventually, the culture will become toxic, attrition will increase and the company will stagnate.
Krish: What is one mistake you see a young start-up founders make in their culture or leadership practices?
Andrea: When you are in the early stages of building a business things can be quite frantic, and sometimes people cut corners. Culture is often not something completely tangible, or that can be measured, so it falls by the wayside, often times until there is a problem. The biggest blocker in building a strong culture in my opinion is not putting enough value on culture as a real business discipline. Culture is not an add on — it is as important as deploying operational discipline, devising a clear strategy, or having solid financial acumen. In fact, I would argue it is more important because it is so much harder to fix when it isn’t working. You can always bring in new processes to improve your operations, finance, etc. but changing how people feel and behave is really really difficult. The solution is to have it be a pillar of your business from the very start. And if you’re a small business like we are, a strong culture can be a huge differentiator in attracting extremely experienced talent that you would otherwise not be able to hire because you can’t offer spectacular salaries or lots of perks. A strong culture levels the playing field so it makes good business sense.
Krish: To add to the previous question, young CEOs often have a lot of pressure to perform and often wear many hats. What’s a simple time efficient strategy they can start doing today to improve their company’s culture?
Andrea: There are no shortcuts to building a strong culture — it has to be a systematic priority, especially in the early stages. In my view, the most effective way to build and improve the culture is through your HR practices. Is interviewing for cultural fit a part of your hiring? If it isn’t, make it. Are there toxic people in your midst? If yes, fire them. Culture is a delicate thing that can be soured easily. Often time’s just one bad apple can really contaminate everyone’s experience, especially in a small team. Never turn a blind eye to problematic employees, no matter how productive they are. If they are bad for your culture — they are bad for your business. And if you don’t know whether there is a problem, talk to people. Take them out for a coffee individually and level-set. Be honest with them and they will be honest with you. And then act. If you just collect information then do nothing with it, that will have the opposite effect and it will erode your culture even further.
Krish: Success leaves clues. What has been your biggest influence in your leadership strategy and company culture?
Andrea: There hasn’t been one thing that has shaped me; I have learned a lot both from good as well as broken examples. I’ve had supportive bosses and have worked for amazing companies, and I’ve also been a part of businesses filled with toxic environments and people. Whether positive or negative, every single experience has given me insights which have helped me build my unique recipe for a strong culture. Culture mirrors the leader so I’ve tried to build a business that reflects my values, that creates an environment where I am happy, balanced and open, because those are the things that are important to me. Every leader needs to figure out what is important to them and build a culture that matches this. And the same is true for employees — one person’s perfect culture can be another’s nightmare. That is why the hiring practices are so important. It isn’t just about the company determining if that person is a fit — the person should assess whether the company is the right fit for them as well!
Krish: What advice do you have for employees that have bad bosses? How can they take control and improve a bad situation?
Andrea: My advice is figure out quickly whether this person is a ‘bad apple’ or if what you are experiencing is part of the culture. If you are dealing with one difficult person in a sea of otherwise great people, there are lots of ways of managing up. Getting a mentor can be a good way to navigate this person and to develop some strategies for improving things.
However, if this ‘bad boss’ is part of the fabric of the company then I would seriously consider whether this is the right place for you. The old adage says ‘People join companies but they leave bosses’. I really believe this. Life is too short to work for someone who doesn’t believe in you or who isn’t willing to help you grow. Whatever the situation you always have options. Leave and find a place that respects you.
Krish: Okay, we made it! Last question — what’s one unique hack you or your company does that has enhanced your work culture?
Andrea: This isn’t super unique but using video during our teleconferences has made a huge difference. Given the dispersed nature of our team, we have limited opportunities to see each other face to face, so video has really helped create a sense of closeness. This is especially true now that we are all comfortable with seeing each other in ‘less then presentable’ ways. I’m frequently a sweaty mess in my gym clothes for example. Other times we have visitors on camera — children, cats, and partners. While seemingly inconsequential, these slivers of personality really help shape the company and the culture. It has made us stronger and really brought us together. And that is the sign of a strong culture.
A note to the readers: Improving company culture happens at any level in an organization. If you learned one thing in this interview, please share this with someone close to you.
A special thanks to Andrea Sommer again!
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