A popular post on Quora by an early-stage startup founder triggered over 100 responses and more than 150,000 views — myself included. In the post, the founder (who remained anonymous) asked the community for the following advice:
“I manage a young startup company in the valley. My only employee is great but he is also a new father. Which means leaving work between 6 and 7 pm. I understand him but it’s hard for a startup that the commitment lasts for work hours only. What would you do as a CEO?”
This post actually angered a lot of people in the community (as you can tell from the responses), but as a founder, I understood his dilemma. Until a few months ago, I was asking the same question myself. It took losing our senior Android engineer, a talented and valued member of our team, for me to finally reconsider my position and begin to understand why staying true to a positive work culture mattered so much.
The extra work you might squeeze out of an employee who works a little later will pale in comparison to the productivity you lose when your best employees leave.
My hope for the founder who posted this question is that he appreciates this unique opportunity for a painless, yet extremely valuable learning lesson in creating positive company culture.
Here’s a recap of what I told him on Quora: “Your mentor in this experience is sitting right in front of you, asking to go home and see his kid. Listen and learn from him. He knows the type of environment that will put him in the best position to succeed.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind and to be focused on short-term productivity. But work culture matters. Creating a positive environment for your employees will make your team happier, and your company will do better as a result. Ultimately, the extra work you might squeeze out of an employee who works a little later will pale in comparison to the productivity you lose when your best employees leave.
There is a saying that I am quite fond of: “You hire an employee, and a human being walks in.”
When our lead engineer told me he was planning to leave, it came as somewhat of a shock. If we had been on the same page throughout his duration of working with us, I would have learned he was performing a management role that he did not yet want to perform. The work he was expecting to do here on a daily basis was set aside to meet the needs of a startup, but at this point in his career, he wanted to continue to perfect his craft.
After the conversation, I talked to Alex, our principal software engineer, and he spoke to me about the expectations he had of management, starting off with:
“Would you wait for a six-month review to talk with your partner at home about the things that are bothering you or does communication happen openly and often?”
I consider myself a logical thinker, so that resonated with me. One of the first changes that we made was in how we communicated with one another. In the past we had to schedule meetings or pull people out of what they’re doing to talk; now, we’re using Slack. It provides a great place for the team to discuss and share things freely on their own time, which ultimately helped open up communication. Also, it’s much less of a distraction.
This was interesting for me — someone who enjoys and even thrives off physical interactions — to see how valuable Slack was for our team. So now, when a conversation would be more appropriate in person, it is easier and less of a distraction to schedule now that most of our general communication is happening through Slack. Increasing the communication within the team has been an invaluable takeaway.
It is your responsibility as a founder to capture, navigate, appreciate and ultimately create an environment for the differences to not only coexist, but also to flourish.
It isn’t easy, but as a founder, it is critical to take an honest inventory of yourself and understand that to build an amazing team, you must find team members with complementary skills — that’s the obvious part. What isn’t so obvious is how complementary skills also come with different personalities, communication techniques, interests and expectations. It is your responsibility as a founder to capture, navigate, appreciate and ultimately create an environment for the differences to not only coexist, but also to flourish.
If you aren’t sure what your company’s culture should be, then take the time to talk to your employees. Nobody knows everything and you have a team so you don’t have to figure everything out on your own. I work with some of the smartest engineers, UX designers and wearables experts I know. The team not only appreciated, but respected the times when I would respond to a situation or question by being honest and saying, “I don’t know, let’s figure it out,” which happens quite often when you’re building the future of the industrial workplace.
The outcome was a mutual respect and an understanding for what we could learn from each other to make this company successful.
Each person’s expectations and vision of our ideal environment was not always in line with what I had assumed. From that point forward, my intention as a founder has been to strive to build a workplace that can exceed the expectations of our team.
When I articulated to Alex that he was accountable and empowered to make the appropriate changes to push us forward, almost immediately, a layer of friction was removed. If you allow your team members the opportunity to shape the culture and environment of your company, you will look around and see progress being made by a group of happy people.