When I started at AppNexus, we had 28 employees. Over the last five years, we’ve grown to nearly 800. As we’ve grown, a question I’m frequently asked is, “how do we maintain the incredible culture we have?” This challenge isn’t unique to AppNexus—all start-ups go through it. So how do we keep the magic alive? How do we foster a culture where employees authentically care about each other’s success; where everyone acts as “owners”; where everyone has the opportunity to impact important things; where a strong sense of shared purpose exists?
First, let’s ask what culture is. For me, it’s how employees behave and feel in the workplace. By that definition, at some level culture must change as companies grow. At AppNexus, our CEO cannot release production code on Friday afternoons anymore. Our Services team cannot have direct access to production databases anymore. We won’t know everyone’s names or faces anymore. Culture always changes as companies mature—it’s unavoidable.
But it doesn’t mean that what gave our organization that magical feeling five years ago must be lost. The spirit of a company isn’t found or lost in its operational processes or company size—it’s more complex than that. Keeping the magic alive requires us to recognize a few truths:
#1 Clarity about our intention will create the conditions for growth.
In a previous post, I wrote about defining your organization’s intention. The idea is that creating a great organization requires defining our intention along three dimensions: company purpose, team mandate, and employee experience. We should clearly answer:
- At the company level, what is our purpose? Why do we exist?
- At the team level, what is our mandate? What are we trying to achieve?
- At the individual level, what is the employee experience required to achieve the above?
If we have clear answers to those questions, and if those answers have emotional resonance with employees, something like gravity is created which pulls employees together and propels them forward in unison.
#2 It has always been, and always will be, about the people.
At the end of the day, when things get really hard, when we’re feeling fried, or when we doubt the path forward, it isn’t the purpose, the work, or the money that keeps us going – it’s the person next to us. It’s that person we respect and admire. That person we don’t want to let down. That person who inspires us to be better. It’s the people that make a place special and keep it special. It was that way when we were a five-person org, and it will be that way when we are a 5,000-person org.
With that in mind, here are two things to consider:
- DNA Hiring. “Special” isn’t found in the companies where people have worked, or in the skills they have developed. Special is found some place deeper – in their passions, values, and capabilities. Hire for those things. At AppNexus, we look for people who are driven: to learn and teach, to make greatness happen despite obstacles and failure, to see and improve the whole system, and to empower the success of others.
- The Law of Attraction. The Law of Attraction states that like attracts like. Great people beget great people. Crappy people beget crappy people. Find one A-Player and inevitably many will follow because of that person’s influence—perhaps through a referral, or because of the great impression an A-Player makes when he or she is interviewing candidates. Remember that A-Players never follow B-Players, and B-Players only attract Bs (or worse!). So hold out for the As and avoid the Bs – no matter how desperate you are to hire.
Here is a case-in-point: Justin was a DNA hire. He had just finished teaching in Hawaii for Teach for America. Before that, he graduated with honors in Philosophy, and was an accomplished runner. He had countless examples of overcoming adversity. And he had zero ad tech and zero technical experience. After joining AppNexus, he quickly grew from being a Product Specialist, to a Technical Account Manager, to the manager of the team, to an influential Product Manager. Justin is also a great example of the Law of Attraction, because at least twelve amazing AppNexians have joined due to their direct or indirect connection to him. Hire Justins.
#3 All things atrophy; we must keep reinforcing what matters.
After we define our organizational intentions and hire great people, what happens next? Atrophy. It’s inevitable. The real work of leadership is in the maintenance. On AppNexus’s Global Services team, for example, we continually reinforce the things that create the conditions for great outcomes:
- Hiring: We never stop talking about how important hiring is, and we continually improve our process. For example, we recently improved our job descriptions to ensure that they are written as inclusively as possible in order to attract a diverse talent pool.
- Employee Onboarding: We designed our onboarding process specifically to reinforce the culture we want to maintain. I also give every new employee an orientation where I discuss the cultural touchstones that are important to us.
- Employee Recognition: We created an employee recognition program called The Merlin Awards where employees recognize other employees for living our values. We do this in a fun way that resonates with our culture.
- Knowledge Sharing: We maintain a tradition called “Friday Bullets” in which employees send around an email mentioning something they are excited about, and something they are concerned about. We maintain a program called Know@ where employees help each other answer technical questions and share best practices.
To keep the magic alive, focus on what created the magic to begin with (being clear about your organizational intentions, hiring for DNA, and creating the conditions for great outcomes by reinforcing what matters). This is hard work. It’s easy to focus our minds exclusively on the outcomes we need, like revenue growth, innovative products, or thrilled customers. However, focusing our minds on process (cause) over outcome (effect) is the surest path to achieving a sustainably powerful culture that scales with your organization.