Nurturing culture during times of growth and change

By Marty Parker

Establishing a corporate culture that resonates with your mission, your vision, and your people is an important part of building a high performance organization. But nurturing that culture so that it can shift and grow in lock-step with your company is often easier said than done.

What’s the key to building and maintaining corporate culture through times of growth? How do you manage culture through the acquisition process? And what happens to culture during rough times? There’s no road map nurturing culture through growth and change – but there are success stories to help point you in the right direction.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Kirk Simpson, Co-founder and CEO at Wave, and with Ashira Gobrin, Wave’s Chief People Officer, to talk about how they’ve built and nurtured their culture through periods of significant growth and through the acquisition process – and of course how they’re managing culture through the extraordinary circumstances that are impacting the way we work and interact today.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
Kirk, tell us a little bit about some of the shifts, the good times, the bad, and certainly what must’ve been cultural shifts you’ve seen and possibly some of the impacts of those shifts over that time.

Kirk Simpson:
I think in 2010, when we started, and then if you think about in 2011, we started to raise significant amounts of venture capital from tier one firms. And so, the pressure rose dramatically, the expectations rose dramatically. There were moments there where we would just pause and look at each other … and say to ourselves like, “How did somebody just deposit $5 million into our bank account? How is that humanly possible?” And you feel the weight of that money and the expectations through it. And I think at the time it was just, we were both finding our way.

We’d never grown an organization like this before. We’d never been a venture backed founding team before. And so, it was try and hire lots of people, try and point them in the right direction, try and survive through the process of really rapid growth. But there wasn’t a lot of a thought process to what environment are we creating? How are we investing in people?

We fell prey to something that I think a lot of high growth tech companies fall into, which is, your best performing person on an individual team. As you think about leadership within that team, you’d say to yourself, “Okay, well they’re a great individual contributor, so of course there going to be a great leader of that team.” And in fact, that often does two very bad things. One is, not everyone is designed or interested in leading teams, or quite frankly, good at it. And so, you might not have the best leadership of the team and you’ve taken your best individual contributor and turned them into a low performer, which is bad for everybody. And I think we did that many, many times as I think many fast growing tech companies do.

And so, I think as we got more purposeful about this in 2015 and beyond, there was just a meaningful change in how we got very specific about our values, how we ensured that those values were being lived every single day by me, just as importantly as everybody else, or maybe more so and more purposeful about what I was working on and how I did things. And again, this was all based on the work that Ashira was doing with us to say what are the core tenants of what we’ve always known to be here, but we want to double down on? How do we work those into the organization? And knowing that those would take a while to manifest themselves, I’ll give you one specific example that’s super important and this was the work that we did with both Ashira and the third party that she helped us get into the organization, which was really find a much deeper focus on the customer.

Marty Parker:
Ashira, I’d love to hear some of those examples from you because there’s some great ones.

Ashira Gobrin:
I really think that your values get put to the test in some of the toughest decisions that you have to make. In Kirk’s example of some of the leaders that we’d put into team or people leading roles that really shouldn’t have been, we had to make some tough decisions about do we keep their ego intact or do we find a way to give them an important position and a role to play that doesn’t have people underneath them, and to help them and the company be more successful. Sometimes that didn’t work because the person wasn’t willing to go that route. And we either had to coach them to find a way to navigate that route, or to coach them out and to find a different place in a different company that would work for them. Sometimes though that means saying goodbye to people that had been with us along the way, and done good work and was very loyal and emotionally connected to the company and to us, I would say exactly the same with very highly competent people that didn’t align with our values in the way that we have to approach things to make it work at Wave.

We’ve always had this rule of no competent jokes allowed, and even in times where we desperately needed the talent, and we found lots of technically professionals, really highly caliber engineers and other such talent. We just, we wouldn’t do it. And I think that we went a little longer, and then benefited at the end from having the right people around, and that’s clear about that one or two times that we did go against what we knew what was right, and brought in some of the people that just didn’t align with the way that we think about customer first and ourselves second as an example.

Marty Parker:
What’s going to be critical for attracting new talent in terms of continuing this path that you’ve set yourself on of a high performance culture?

Kirk Simpson:
I think what’s been interesting for me through all of this is that for the last nine or 10 years, we have been chasing growth in every way possible, under every corner. And when you’re a venture-backed business that raised close to a hundred million dollars, it’s just the expectations of growth are so significant on an ongoing basis, and you constantly feel the stress of are we growing enough to raise our next round? Are we growing enough to support the investments that we’re making in order to grow into the company that you want to be, etc.

And there’s a couple of things that I think come out of that. Number one is, I think I was always empathetic towards people, but I think that most of my time was thinking about, how can we create a team that can drive the growth that this company needs. And I think this crazy pandemic situation and many of the conversations that I’m having with Ashira right now are around understanding that the number one thing that we need to be doing is understanding that everyone is having challenges in their personal life on a day to day basis. And everyone’s situation is very, very different, and likely everyone is having both good days and bad days. I find some days I’m a nine and some days I’m a four. And expecting the level of consistent performance through that is going to be really, really challenging.

I think there needs to be a level of leadership through empathy that is just really heightened in a way that, quite frankly, I haven’t been wired for the last nine years and I need to do a better job of adapting. That’s number one.

And then on the business side, the fact that truly, in our business at least, it doesn’t matter how many corners you look under, there’s no growth to be found right now. Small businesses are struggling, and so we need to do as great a job as we can in order to support them. And so there’s a different mindset that needs to happen through that. And it’s not about chasing growth, it’s about looking at it and saying, how can we empathize with our customers? How can we be building tools to help their day to day right now?

And ultimately, the amazing thing is, I believe that we will come out of it stronger, but we need to be focused on those things right now. And that’s a very, very different focus than the last nine years. And so, it’s a real mindset shift. And I think, as I said, I think you can strengthen your relationships with the people that work with you, and you can strengthen your relationships with your customers. That will bring you to a better place over time. But why you’re doing it in the moment is to be a better support network.

Marty Parker:
I’ll just throw it out there, as I don’t know if any of us know yet, we can pontificate or we can see how our own businesses are moving, but what trends do you now see in terms of enhancing and building corporate cultures?

 Ashira Gobrin:
We actually had someone ask something similar at our town hall yesterday. My view on that is that we’re in … Kirk called it a mind shift.  I think it’s even more than a mind shift. it’s a universal paradigm shift. It’s one of those moments that we will look back on  and know that the world changed. It’s not the same world after that will be before. And, we can remember what 9/11 did in that capacity for us. Those of us that had grandparents that lived through the second world war, that would have described pre-war and post-war life and how different that was. There is something that is absolutely universal. There’s no country, no organization or institution, no person that is exempt from this paradigm shift that we’re going through right now, and we’re in the middle of it. We don’t understand what the other side is going to be. We just know that it’s happening.

I think in that type of a paradigm shift, one of the most important things that we can do is have empathy and connect. Just like in 9/11 everybody dropped everything and how can I help and how can I get assistance and how can we help the families of people who couldn’t find their loved ones or of the frontline workers. We all had someone who was involved with that and the whole world stopped to try and rally around what was going on. Getting our mind straight on how everything was going to change.

And I think that you get into the new normal afterwards and you come out different. And I think that in our discussion yesterday, one of the things that I said was, we don’t know yet what is going to affect us positively, and what’s going to affect us negatively. And there will be some that will take the same lesson and play it out in both ways. For example, we have a lot of employees that are saying, “I’m never working at home ever again after this crisis. I’ve realized how important it is to be in the office to be surrounded by people, that my energy comes from being in that place. I so appreciate the fancy standing desks and chairs that I used to complain about and my good monitor set up, and the lighting and I used to complain about noise and I’m never going to complain about noise again.” And then you have others who are going to be absolutely terrified of being in crowds. Will hand shaking ever be a normal thing again? There’ll be people who are terrified of public transit for a long time after this. There’ll be kids whose first hearing of the word virus has a memory of this experience, and anytime someone says, “Oh, it’s just a virus,” it’s going to bring back anxieties of being locked down and in quarantine.

I’m just very conscious in a way that we have to be ready for something very, very different, and I think if the more we try to hang onto the old, and solidify a world around the old assumptions and the old sets of priorities, and the old sets of values, the less we will acclimate to the world after the paradigm shift.

Kirk Simpson:
Here’s one thing that I hope comes out of this, I think over the last, call it 10, 12 years, if not longer, we in the technology space, and I think this could be applied more broadly, it’s been boom times and it just looked like there was always billions and billions and billions of dollars of capital floating out there for any sort of ideas. It didn’t matter whether you are a founder or a senior web developer, there were just five different places you could go at any given time. Everybody was calling you, – you were the smartest person in the room, your ideas were fantastic. And then you could press a button and a car would show up or you pressed a button, then your Starbucks was ready and you didn’t have to wait. I mean it’s the level of, you just had everything at your fingertips all the time.

I think we’ve lost focus through that process around what’s important  – gratitude for the situation that we’re in, and the desire to help those that aren’t in that same situation. I think hopefully this is a wake-up call that it’s not always up and to the right, and let’s focus on more important problems. Let’s get outside of ourselves and join, lock arms with others to do important things. I just hope that that comes out of this, because I think we were in a place that was unhealthy and I think this has the opportunity to reset that, and hopefully not damage anybody through the process, but instead just to be a bit of a wake-up call that we need to be a little bit more purposefully focused.