“To create a fantastic work culture you need to be transparent about good news as well as bad”, With Mike Volpe, CEO at Lola.com
…The good and the bad. It’s easy to be transparent about good news, but it’s just as important to be just as open about bad news. Otherwise, you risk creating a situation where a lack of updates leads employees to assume the worst. And they’ll also start to trust your updates less and less, figuring that you’re embellishing the good points while glossing over any negative or more ambiguous news.To combat this, I try to always vaccinate against bad times by being open about them even when things are going well. If, for example, I’m sharing news about a revenue milestone or new investment round, I’ll make a point of reminding everyone that there will be bumps in the road. Cherry picking things to be transparent about is the opposite of genuine transparency, and employees pick up on that really quickly.
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Volpe. Mike is the CEO at Lola.com, where he is responsible for definition and execution of the company’s strategy, including customer service, marketing, sales, and operations. Mike was part of the founding team at HubSpot, where he spent eight years growing the company from five people to over 1,000 employees, $175m in revenue, and a successful IPO. He was also CMO at Cybereason, a cybersecurity SaaS company, where he helped increase the sales pipeline by 650 percent in a single year, and grow revenue by five times during his tenure. Mike is well respected and active in the entrepreneurial community as a member of the board of directors of Validity, and as an advisor or investor in more than 30 startups. You can read more at MikeVolpe.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Working at startups and small companies is a great training ground for a CEO. At a big company, you are so far removed from how the CEO and management team operate that you learn very little about what they do. Because I worked at a number of startups, I got to see up close how CEOs and management teams operate at successful and failed companies. I learned so much from those experiences that so far the CEO job has been much more of a natural next step for me, which makes it a much easier transition.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Some of the operational parts of the company had a lot of different leadership and inconsistent management before I joined. I remember that after a few weeks of getting to know the company and team I gave someone feedback about what they were doing well, but also a couple significant things they needed to really work on. As a manager, you usually worry that those conversations will not be received well, but this person said, “Thank you. This is the first time anyone has given me feedback about what I need to work on and how I can improve. Before, everyone always said everything was great. Now I know what I should work on and where I should focus.”
This response showed me that many people on our team were ready to be pushed harder and were smart enough to know that everything was not perfect, and we had a lot of work to do. The courage to face your problems head on is the first step toward overcoming them, and our team has that courage.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
This fall, we’re launching Lola.com’s “Agile Operations Summit,” and I’m incredibly excited about it. It’s the first step in our larger goal of fostering a community of operations and financial professionals who want to fuel rapid growth through more flexible and efficient operations. I talk to a ton of people like this, and what I hear again and again is how they wish there were tools and tactics to help them operate more efficiently and grow faster. Tools like this are common in the sales, marketing and product development space, but finance and operations seem to have been left behind, so we’re excited to foster the conversation about how this can be remedied. Lola.com is obviously part of this, but the topic is much broader than a single solution — managing office space, hiring, remote work, etc. Of all the things I’m working on, this is probably the one that gets me the most excited.
Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
I think it can be hard sometimes for workers to feel deeply connected to their job — not just their specific responsibilities, but also in a larger sense. What value are they creating? Where is their career headed? How are they building relationships with their co-workers? Is this job the best use of their time?
When you think about the fact that we typically spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our friends or families, these anxieties shouldn’t come as a shock. If you don’t feel satisfied, challenged, and supported at work, you’re not going to be happy.
The hard part is that addressing this problem is a lot of hard work. Employers often throw up their hands and default to quick fixes: more snacks, parties, beer, etc. The impulse is right, but the tactics completely miss the mark. Snacks, beer, and other perks might be good for employment branding, but they do not make your team happier.
Employees need a few things to be happy. Transparent communication about both the current state of the company overall and each employee’s performance at the company is paramount. Unsophisticated leaders hide the bad news and tell everyone that everything is going well at the company, and each employee is performing great because they think this will make people happy. In the long term, it doesn’t. Employees also need to be challenged. They need to be told what they need to work on in order to improve — both individually in terms of their own performance and as a company-wide team in terms of corporate goals. If you do those things well at multiple levels of management, you’ll be on the path to having a happy and productive team.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
First, I would re-order this list so that employee health and wellbeing is at the top. A happier workforce leads to a more productive company which leads to more profitability. And when you think about it in that context, it’s a lot easier to understand and affect the impact of employee unhappiness on company success.
At Lola.com, we think about this a lot, and we actually explicitly prioritize employee happiness over our customers and even our product. Without a happy team, we know we can’t create a great product that delights our customers. It is impossible to overstate how important it is to create a happy, healthy workforce.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
I’m actually going to take this in a slightly different direction: the one thing I think all managers and executives should strive for, and five specific ways to execute on it. I truly believe that the most effective way (maybe the only way) to build a great company work culture is through aggressive and pervasive transparency. And I’m not just talking about sharing financials or distributing board decks. A really transparent culture goes well beyond that, even (especially) when it’s hard.
Here are the five ways I think about creating a more transparent work culture:
- Deliberate distribution channels. Transparency is nothing without distribution. If you want employees to really feel like they’re keyed into your company’s performance and decision-making process, you need to share that information in ways that your employees will actually use. And that means thinking deliberately about what type of information you’re sharing as well as how your employees are most likely to consume it. A quick update about a recent decision or ongoing discussion? That might be best served by sharing the details in a public slack channel. Slides from a quarterly board meeting? You might want to add the deck to a company Tettra page. Whatever the case, it’s important to think about the mechanisms of transparency, not just the content itself.
- The good and the bad. It’s easy to be transparent about good news, but it’s just as important to be just as open about bad news. Otherwise, you risk creating a situation where a lack of updates leads employees to assume the worst. And they’ll also start to trust your updates less and less, figuring that you’re embellishing the good points while glossing over any negative or more ambiguous news.To combat this, I try to always vaccinate against bad times by being open about them even when things are going well. If, for example, I’m sharing news about a revenue milestone or new investment round, I’ll make a point of reminding everyone that there will be bumps in the road. Cherry picking things to be transparent about is the opposite of genuine transparency, and employees pick up on that really quickly.
- Open hiring process. When you talk about creating a transparent work culture, most people immediately jump to being open and honest with current employees. That’s understandable, but it misses an important aspect of building a fantastic job culture: transparency needs to extend to your job applicants as well. If you’re not fully transparent with the candidates in your hiring process, you risk jeopardizing your long-term culture. New employees that join your organization only to realize that it’s not quite what they were expecting will ultimately erode trust among your workforce and lead to increased turnover. Remember, employees were once applicants, and they remember if they were misled during the hiring process.
- Continuous employee feedback. Of course, transparency doesn’t end with the hiring process — it’s also a key ingredient in how you should review and provide feedback to your team. Most of the time, I see companies stick to the annual or bi-annual review process. This system is obviously better than no employee feedback, but it inherently limits transparency. If you confine performance feedback to certain times throughout the year, what are you doing the rest of the time? Are you withholding valuable feedback? Or just not thinking critically about your team’s performance? Either way, you’re not acting in a truly transparent way. I firmly believe that the feedback an employee receives in their reviews should never come as a surprise. Feedback should be continuous, and reviews should be focused on career development and used to check in on longer-term goals. If you want a truly transparent culture, you need to provide employee feedback in real-time, continuously throughout the year.
- Honesty with customers. It’s easy to get in a cycle where you’re less than honest with your customers. I’m not talking about openly deceiving them — although that’s obviously harmful too — but more normal types of dishonesty. Exaggerating the product roadmap, overselling features, and making promises you can’t necessarily keep might seem justifiable in the moment, but they will ultimately create a culture where transparency and honesty take a backseat to expediency.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
To me, a workplace’s culture is less about the top-down management choices you make, and more about the bottom-up character driven by your workforce. For that reason, I think the only way that we, as a country, can effect true cultural change in our workplaces is by transforming the way we recruit and hire.
Strong cultures are the byproducts of diverse teams who respect and push each other. If you stick with the same hiring principles and profiles, you won’t be able to build a unique, resilient culture — you’ll be stuck with a culture that mirrors all the other cultures we’re so familiar with. Cultures that, we all know, have some serious blind spots.
Instead, I really believe it’s important to expand your candidate pool and sourcing and work to bring in a team that can help create the culture we need. This, of course, means more diversity in a literal sense, but also broader back stories as well. Does a college degree really have to be a prerequisite? How open are you to candidates with non-traditional work backgrounds? What about age diversity?
As long as companies are stuck fishing in the same ponds again and again for candidates, they won’t be able to change the culture regarding work culture.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I take the “servant leader” approach very seriously. As CEO, my role is really to set my entire team up for success. If I’m able to do small or annoying things to help them work more efficiently, I feel like I’ve done my job. While being CEO puts you in the spotlight a lot, I always try to be clear that I am in the spotlight only to represent our team, and I would not be in the spotlight if it were not for the great accomplishments of our team.
One small thing I do many mornings is to make a fresh pot of coffee for the office, as well as load any dishes from the sink into the dishwasher. I do this for a couple reasons. First, I expect everyone to do these things, and when I do them it makes everyone else more likely to do the same themselves. Second, I want to demonstrate to the team that we are all equal in terms of our importance to our mission, and there is no task that is below anyone on our team. I expect our VPs to clean whiteboards after their meetings, and I expect Directors to answer the doorbell when it rings — by making coffee and loading dirty dishes. I’m setting an example of the behavior I expect for everyone else.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I do a lot of mentoring and coaching — I take great pride in seeing people who worked for me grow in their careers. There are more than a dozen people who have worked for me who have grown into executive roles, some of who started working for me right out of college and are now CMOs. Beyond that, I’ve tried to make myself accessible to lots of people in the business community by holding open office hours for anyone who wanted to meet with me and coaching a number of other entrepreneurs.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s easier to hate than innovate. (source)
Once you have built a company or a movement to a certain level of success, people will try to tear you and your accomplishments down.
The best people in the world see success and use it to motivate them to achieve similar or greater success on their own. However, weak people see success and then want to tear it down so they feel good about themselves.
It’s unfortunate that as a leader you sometimes need a thick skin, but realizing this is not your shortcoming, but the shortcoming of the haters can put you in a better place.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Be kind. Our world has embraced an outrage culture where anything someone does and says is instantly called out as outrageous and unacceptable by people on one end of the spectrum. I think we would all be better served to try to understand each other more and be more loving and kind as a starting point.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!