For some in the tech sector, company culture can make or break a business. Going beyond just ping pong tables, free lunches, and office dogs, company culture incorporates a mix of a founder’s ideals, the company’s mission, the way employees work, how they are treated, and how they treat each other and, essentially bringing all these ideas together, a company’s values.
A set of values are principles that guide a company’s internal conduct and operations, and its interactions with customers, partners, and stakeholders.
The way company values come to be defined differs. A list of values can essentially be the feelings of two early-stage cofounders who have yet to hire a team, or can be found by making an effort to understand how hundreds or thousands of employees in a later-stage company work, what is important to them, and what the company wants to achieve.
Taking US-based local services marketplace Thumbtack from one to the other was Jodie Auster, the company’s former Vice President of People and Head of Talent Acquisition.
Having recently returned home to Melbourne to join Uber and lead a workshop on how to define your company values at next month’s Pause 2017, Auster originally started out in medicine, working as an emergency doctor.
While people often say it seems like a shame that she put in all the time to train in medicine only to then leave the field, Auster believes all the training and experience has served her well in every business role.
“That foundation has been so powerful for me in so many ways because it taught me a certain way of thinking that’s been useful in every job I’ve done since,” Auster said.
Core to this way of thinking is hypothesis-driven problem solving: having a hypothesis about what the answer is from the beginning and then collecting evidence to prove or disprove that.
“The opposite approach is collecting information and then seeing what that information points to. You can’t do that in medicine because it’s too time-consuming, and because there’s a patient that gets pricked with a needle or exposed to radiation every time you collect information; you have to be much more targeted and refined in how you approach and collect information, so you have to have a hypothesis at every step,” Auster explained.
While appreciating the way her medical training has shaped her thinking – and the fact she is not one to be easily ruffled because “when you have a bad day in business, nobody dies” – Auster said her natural curiosity eventually had her looking beyond the emergency ward.
“I really felt a strong pull to understand what happens outside the hospital ecosystem; it’s a really insular system where you feel like the only thing that’s important is what happens inside the hospital walls…it felt really unnatural to me that I couldn’t understand the business section of the newspaper and I didn’t understand what other people did for their jobs,” she said.
After studying an MBA and taking on roles at Bain & Company and Scoopon, Auster joined San Francisco-based startup Thumbtack in 2013 as director of customer operations. In this role she led a team of over 600 across three locations, helping to scale the company’s teams in Salt Lake City and the Philippines.
Scaling these teams meant understanding and hiring along Thumbtack’s company values, which had been drafted by the founders in the early days of the company.
“I think the founders understood that writing down what was important to them and interviewing for it was fundamental to hiring the right people, so when I arrived there was already version one of company values and every person hired in the business was hired by a founder,” Auster explained.
As the team grew, of course, this was no longer possible; recruiting customer service representatives in Salt Lake, for example, Auster’s team was sometimes interviewing around 50 to 70 people a day.
“Here it was all about making sure that the values were written down and people knew about them early on, then carefully broadening the circle of people who were, quote unquote, qualified and ready to do that values interview,” Auster said.
“It was also about making sure that, even in a customer service interview, you don’t just interview for skill set, but make sure you incorporate a values interview as a really important part of the process that can’t just be cut because you’re in a hurry.”
While company values and brand or customer-facing values should not be one and the same – what you want a customer to feel when they’re using your product is not necessarily how you want people to behave when they’re working inside the company, Auster explained – it is important that your company values aren’t too far from the customer-facing brand values.
“If one of your customer-facing brand values is friendly, for example, and you’ve got nothing in your internal values that would attract a person who is likely to approach customers in a friendly way, you’re likely to have a big gap in the types of people you hire and the experience you want to create for the customer,” Auster said.
Moving to the role of VP of People and head of talent acquisition in 2015, Auster was tasked with leading the refresh of the company values and integrating these into hiring and people processes across the business.
“One of the reasons we needed a refresh was because the original draft was a mix of vision and mission for the business, as well as core values. One of the things we did was very carefully separate the vision and mission from the core values, clarifying that they’re not the same thing,” Auster said.
In approaching the task, Auster said she saw her role as extracting the right information from the right people and distilling it into a useful draft that she then worked on with the founders until it was perfect.
“It wasn’t coming up with new material, it was making sure I was asking the right people the right questions. The founders featured very prominently in that process because I do think a company’s a reflection of its founders, particularly when they’re still involved on a day to day basis,” she explained.
As well as the founders, employees across the company – at that time around 200 – were given a voice and asked what was important to them as the company grew.
“We also had to really clearly communicate that their role was to give input, not give the final decision about what the values were, which was a really clear distinction to make,” Auster said.
Auster said she found the process fun and interesting to lead because she got to interact with all parts of the business. She implemented an opt-in system, leading lots of sessions across different teams and locations, ending up with around 60 percent of employees participating in at least one workshop.
Through the process, Auster saw some interesting things emerge, for example seeing local practices and values that were key to the Salt Lake office. While important to recognise, Auster knew these were not going to be core values for the company globally; as such, part of the process meant understanding the different values across various teams and locations and finding what was at the core of each to determine what was relevant to the entire company.
From there, drafts were written, with people considered champions of the different values within the business brought in to help workshop. Auster then sat down with the founders and Thumbtack’s head of product for “painstaking wordsmithing” to come down with the final set of values.
“It was excruciating to get down to the exact right words, but taking the time to get it right so when you put it up in front of the company they say they totally get it, was worth it,” Auster said.
It is the process of ensuring the company truly understands and lives its values that Auster is particularly keen to highlight in her Pause 2017 workshop.
“Whatever they are, your values don’t mean anything if you don’t embed them really deeply in your daily practices. For example, if those core values are so important to your team and your function and business, they should be reflected in the way that people are praised and recognised and rewarded,” Auster said.
“The worst thing you can do to kill the effort you’ve put into it is reward people who are not the ones you call out as your champion of values because then everyone looks around and thinks, well, if that guy’s the highest paid and doesn’t represent what we think is important, then what’s the point of this?”
As she gears up for the workshop, Auster said she is looking forward to taking in all that Pause 2017 has to offer and seeing just how far the Melbourne startup and tech landscape has come since she left.
“I’ve been really excited to see how many more people are having a go at starting companies. There’s a lot that changed in the ecosystem to encourage people in that direction, but the amount of activity and businesses and talk and hiring and the people getting past a Series A has exploded.”
Pause Fest 2017 will take place at Federation Square on the 8th-10th of February 2017. Tickets can be purchased here.