Investing in Personal Growth to Grow the Business: Interview with Fraser Stark of Influitive

Recently, Tim Jackson and I have been conducting interviews with leaders in the tech community about their thoughts on leadership and talent management. Check out the Leadership Pad if you’d like to see the past interviews.

Continuing in this series, I spoke to Fraser Stark, VP of Talent of Influitive. Influitive helps B2B companies to spark, build and sustain a movement behind their brands through the voice of their most passionate advocates. Their advocate marketing platform enables companies to expand reach, accelerate sales revenue, and increase customer retention and growth.

Fraser’s key piece of advice? When your company is growing, it’s also critical to invest in the personal growth of your people.

More insights from Fraser are in the interview below.

Q: How would you characterize the culture of Influitive?

A: Culture is a topic of constant discussion among the leadership team and the company at large. To summarize it in a word, it’s around the concept of growth. This is true of every start-up. But we think of growth as the defining element of our culture in a few ways.

One is just the pace of growth of our company itself. When I joined 3.5 years ago I was employee 25. Today we are 185 people. We are in 3 main offices — Toronto, Boston, San Francisco — and we are putting people overseas in Asia and Europe very shortly. The pace of growth in our revenue and customers matches or surpasses that.

The second part of our culture is around personal growth. An obsession of our CEO’s is helping his people grow as professionals and people. We invest heavily in the deliberate growth of our people.

Finally, Influitive is a category creator. We’re pioneering a new category of marketing and marketing software. We’re not a “me too” company who says, “we also make a nice widget”. Putting customers at the heart of everything they do and getting those customers to be active and vocal advocates for the company is a truly different way for a marketing professional to tackle their job. There are other companies now emulating what we do, and there are others that have been doing it in different sectors for quite some time as well. But our focus of advocate marketing for the B2B space is truly category-creating, and I think really defines what the culture is like working here.

Q: How have you managed to maintain or evolve this culture as the company has grown?

A: That’s something that we think about very thoughtfully, because the culture of a 20-person organization is very different than the culture of a 200-person organization. We have codified very deliberately what our values are, and we did that very early on. We created our values, mission, and vision before we even knew what product we were going to make, which is very unusual. Most companies get quite far along before they do that, but we set the values first. We have 10 core values, which arguably is a lot. But we like our values. They relate to concepts like transparency, humility, shared leadership, balance between our personal lives and our professional lives, and innovation and growth

We’ve really tried to embed the values into the processes and the operating norms of the company. For example, every single day our entire company comes together for a meeting from 11:50 to noon — in person for those in Toronto, and online for those in our other offices or that are working from home. During that time we run through about 8 agenda items, which includes transparent demonstrations of the operating metrics of the business, and one employee recognizing another for going above and beyond. That’s a meeting that many companies would start when they’re small, and do until they have 10 or 20 people. But our approach is that if things work, and are key elements of your culture, don’t abandon them even if they start to feel a little bit awkward. Tweak them and improve them. There is no point in our upcoming future, with 300 or 1,000 people, where we plan to ditch that meeting. We may have to modify how it’s done, especially as we go multinational. I don’t want someone in Singapore waking up at midnight to participate in a meeting! But we’ll find a way to adapt it, rather than abandon it.

Q:Tell me more about some of the ways you develop talent at Influitive?

A: The biggest thing we do is putting dollars behind education. Every employee has a budget for education equal to 4% of their salary. We give tremendous discretion in how that can be used. It ranges from attending a conference where there is no obvious commercial benefit but there is a personal development benefit, to in-person management training. We even had people on our sales team enroll in improv training at Second City so they could be more comfortable engaging with prospects on the phone. A variety of things can be invested in.

The second thing we’ve done is implement a program called ‘Tours’ or ‘Tours of Duty’. It comes out of Reid Hoffman at LinkedIn. It’s the idea that employees build their career out of a series of building blocks. Rather than saying, “Welcome to the accounting team, please sit there and do accounting for us,” we say, “Welcome to the accounting team, your mission, or ‘tour’, is to get our accounts payable function operating incredibly, and we give you 12 months to get that in place.”

Each employee has a conversation with their manager about what their next Tour might be, whether it’s on that person’s team, or in another department. For example, I have people on my team who’ve had conversations with me about how their long-term career ambition lies elsewhere. They’re excited about what they’re doing now, but once they’ve mastered that, they want to work on a different team. They want to know if we can work together to make that happen. Of course, the answer is “yes”.

We have established a set of four documents we call ‘The Cascade’ — one leads to the other. First, we have an optional Life Plan. We ask them, if they are willing, to share their life goals. This leads to their Career Plan, which is a subset of your Life Plan. Your Career Plan leads to your Tours Plan, which is what I just described — what are those building blocks that you’re going to stack to get you to where you want to go? The final one is the Skill Development Plan. It is essentially a documentation of how you’re going to spend your education budget, and what other non-monetary things we are going to do to invest in developing your skills so you’re ready for your next Tour — so you can have the career you want, and so you can have the life that you want.

Q: How has your own leadership style evolved as you moved between different roles and companies in your career?

A: My leadership style evolved significantly based on the situation and context. As a case team leader at Bain and Company, which is the bulk of where I spent my career, you’re dealing with a highly motivated, very hardworking group of people in a very organized structure. You’re able to use a traditional style of asking your people for what you want them to do, reviewing their work, correcting it, incorporating it into your client work, and passing it up the chain. Even though these firms are wonderfully run, it’s a very traditional style of management.

As Chief of Staff, I was the right hand man to the CEO. I was in a unique position where I was nobody’s manager, and yet I had responsibility to affect the actions of other people on the leadership team and everybody in the company as a proxy for the CEO. That relied on a lot of Socratic management where you lead by asking questions. It’s subtle, in-the-shadows leadership where you try to create the situation that you want without telling people exactly what you think. It’s a little bit like being an executive coach.

Now, running a more traditional team, I think I have landed somewhere in the middle. I tend to trust my team as much as I can and give them the benefit of the doubt. We have a value here called ‘Open, Honest, and Direct’. I hide nothing from my team because I have hired fantastic people. Ever since I have done that, good things have happened on our team.

Q: What advice would you give to someone managing the People function of a start-up?

A: It really is about getting your values right, sticking to them, and living them every day. That’s the hardest part — actually living the values. Writing them down is easy. The hard part is living your values every day and being willing to fight the good fight to adhere to those values. Let the values adjudicate almost any debate and guide decision-making. There will be so many times in a start-up when the logic is going to point in two different directions, because it’s such a dynamic and changing environment. There’s going to be very sound arguments that are contradictory to one another. If you let the values adjudicate those types of conflicts, I think you’re miles ahead. You’re going to attract the best people, inspire the best people, and ultimately retain and make those people very productive and aligned.