Why awareness is the answer to everything
A guide to how I’m cultivating awareness at Polar
I’ve developed the belief that with greater awareness, everything else becomes easier. Once we become aware, our human instinct is to take action in such a direction that solves for challenges or seizes opportunities. It happens at a subconscious level, without deliberately thinking about it. It helps to disconnect from technology to allow ourselves the space and freedom to become aware (that’s why I took email off my phone).
For example, when you become aware that someone around you needs help, it could be as trivial as someone who’s unknowingly dropped something, you (without thinking) take action. Or if you’re with a friend who’s struggling with an issue, you naturally start to try and help them solve the problem with them. Or once you become aware that you’re hungry, you automatically start to plan out your next meal.
Focus on awareness, and everything else will be fine.
Without awareness, it is difficult to navigate a world that is constantly changing. This is why I have been deliberate in cultivating a culture of awareness at Polar. Here is a memo I wrote recently for new team members joining Polar, explaining (in one place) how our awareness culture works.
Let’s start with awareness of our market. In our case, this consists of the digital media, publishing and advertising industry. We built a Slack bot, called Newsbot, that curates a personalized feed of industry news for our team. Instead of subscribing to dozens of newsletters and forwarding links around, Newsbot handles everything. We’ve identified about 40 trade publications from our industry, selected over 100 keywords that are relevant to us, and our Newsbot algorithm is scanning these sites for these keywords, to curate a personalized feed. It’s a daily must-read feed now for most of the team. It has become a single source of information for what’s happening in our industry. I love it.
Next up is awareness of our partners (customers) and prospects. Every conversation anyone on the team has with an external party, be it a partner (customer), prospect, reporter, or analyst, is summarized and captured in a concise Slack post. We have a way to organize these by the company we’re speaking with, the relationship with Polar and how to structure the actual update itself. The belief is that any conversation we have is now available to everyone in the company. Everything I know, you should know. This increases context and provides greater awareness, in an efficient manner and on a consistent basis. Although not all of you interact directly with our partners on a regular basis (at least not yet), everything we ultimately do is to serve our partners. So you need to know what’s happening.
We do encourage you to join and listen in on partner and prospect calls. I often do take people with me from our Toronto office to New York for business trips, where we run around the city (sometimes literally!) meeting partners and prospects.
With 4 offices across 3 time zones, our small 40 person team is quite spread out around the world. Not to mention the fact a few of us (myself included) are consistently on the road (in the sky?). To keep all of us on the same page about the strategy and direction for the business, we have invested in a quarterly team-wide internal conference, called the Polar Summit, which happens in the first month of each calendar quarter!
We fly everyone into one location from our global offices for a week, and focus inwards on what’s happening with the business, our partners, our products and each other. This has become a great opportunity to connect with one another, strengthen relationships and spread awareness.
Having fun together is a key ingredient to a successful Summit. This past Summit we had an afternoon picnic at the beach, earlier this year we did an improv workshop together and also went curling! The Summit is a natural opportunity to step back, lift our heads out of the sand and align on priorities. We’re quite transparent with the good and bad in the business, I will share an honest SWOT assessment of the business and we’ll do a full walk-through of the company’s financials (revenue, expenses, cash, everything).
On a more regular day-to-day basis, we host a team-wide stand-up twice a week, every Monday and Friday. It’s 15 minutes, it’s called the Spotlight, and 3–4 people get to spread awareness for a specific project or partner that’s relevant to the entire team. New features are shown, new partner launches are showcased and completed milestones are celebrated. It also brings us together and after much effort, we’ve figured out how to get a decent A/V setup so that we can see everyone’s smiling faces from all over the world and connect. We’ll have lunch together in the Toronto office, where the bulk of our team is, after the Monday Spotlight. This has become a nice way to start the week, together.
We’ll also host Polar Talks about once per month, with external or internal speakers, to talk about the industry and deep-dive on specific topics. We also host Lightning Talks every 6 weeks, which is an opportunity to increase technical awareness. Developers, product managers and QA team members will share short talks on new technologies, tools or approaches they are experimenting with.
Feedback is a gift. We have built a few tools to make it easy to receive feedback at Polar.
We have a semi-annual review process (we purposely removed the word “performance”, as it’s not aligned with our way of thinking). The review process begins with a self-review, each of us answering 3 simple questions. Thereafter, your leader (we refrain from using the term “manager” here at Polar) will answer 3 questions as well, after reading your self-review, but with a twist. They will speak with other key leaders in the organization, including myself, to gather additional feedback for you. This way, you get a collective voice from the organization’s leadership which you will hopefully find valuable.
In addition to this, we have built a simple tool to enable you to ask for peer feedback, either anonymously or transparently. You choose who you’d like feedback from, you can use the template questions or develop your own and only you see the feedback from your peers. You can do this whenever you’d like as well; it is not tied to the semi-annual review process above.
And finally, we are experimenting with a growth plan tool, to help facilitate a bigger conversation about your longer-term professional aspirations. This is intentionally separate from the review process, because it allows you to ask for support and feedback from a variety of people (inside and outside the team), and also share your growth plan more widely. If you care about your own career growth, so do I. And I want to know about it, so I can help find opportunities to support your growth.
Ask Me Anything awareness
The most recent initiative I’ve kicked off is #AMA, ask me anything. I collect the questions anonymously (which helps everyone feel more comfortable asking truly whatever they want) and post answers on our Slack general channel every few days. So far I’ve received over 40 questions and have a good backlog to work from. I will answer every single question. The questions I’ve received vary widely, which is what makes it interesting and fun for me! Such as “why aren’t we more aggressive attacking our competitors?”, to “how do you make compensation decisions?”, to “what does Brexit mean for our company?”, to “how many pairs of red running shoes do you go through in a year?”.
In my experience, awareness takes care of everything else. The change you wish to see in yourself and in your outer world begins automatically once you become aware.
Earlier this year, I shared how I’ve been auditing my time and how this new found awareness of something as simple as where I spend my time has influenced my day-to-day choices at work in a meaningful way.
In a modern world where we are so connected with technology, we may still be disconnected from our work, our peers and ourselves if our attention is not focused. What I’ve shared here are some of the many initiatives we’ve introduced at Polar to support awareness. I am sure that these will continually evolve and change. I ask for your help in continuing to build a culture of awareness at Polar.
Kunal Gupta is the Founder & CEO of Polar. He leads a talented team transforming the media publishing industry with technology. He is passionate about leadership and finding focus in a modern era. Connect with him on LinkedIn, Medium or Twitter.