How to Make Transparency a Cultural Pillar

By Marty Parker

Transparency is a theme that comes up a lot when we talk to organizations as part of the Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures program. But whether you’re in a company that prides itself on transparency, or a company that’s striving for transparency, it’s important to know what the word means in the context of your organization. It’s also important to recognize how transparency shows up in your day-to-day operations.

One organization that has made transparency core to what it does, is ThinkData Works. I recently sat down to talk with Co-founder and CEO Bryan Smith and Head of Brand and Culture Tim Lysecki to talk about building and sustaining culture in a startup environment, and what it means to have a culture based on transparency.

This interview has been edited for length. You can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
Was culture something that you and your co-founder were talking about in the very early days building the company, Bryan? Or is this really something that happened more organically?

Bryan Smith:
The short answer is organically… Hindsight’s 20/20, but if you’d asked me five years ago what the hardest part about starting a company would be, I probably would have rattled off things like finding capital, landing our first clients, building a sustainable business, all these sorts of business related KPI things. Not that those are easy, but there’s a lot of focus on that for what success looks like.

Culture is almost an afterthought in a lot of these early KPIs about what success looks like. I truthfully believe it’s one of the hardest things to do and one of the most important things to do from day one. I think we got a bit lucky on the culture side because we had the ability to lean on the transparency principles that were being governed in the Open Data Movement. So when we came up against difficult decisions about, how much should our employees know about what’s going on, good and bad? How do we talk about a decision to focus on a good activity versus something that maybe in the gray zone? We were very diligent on looking at the transparency rules that were set in the public domain with governments and saying, “Hey, if we’re going to be a company that operates in this space, we have to adopt these principles as well.”

And we sort of built that as the bedrock of the culture and since then have kind of built it and evolved it over time. But that framework started from day one with us. And that made it really simple to make decisions and grow the culture three, five years, six years down the line. If we didn’t have that, I think it would be a lot more difficult to be where we are now.

Marty Parker:
Talk a little bit about the organization’s approach to leadership communication and how you foster transparency in the organization and do that through communication as leaders.

Bryan Smith:
I think one of the things that we find a lot in the tech space, in the startup space, is this whole concept of stealth mode and all of these combat and military terms for how to grow companies… That creates a certain type of culture that, from our perspective, is not the greatest one that we wanted to set up as a company, nor one that we wanted to think was the best way to grow an organization.

When we started the company, six years ago or whatever, that was really common – companies had to be serious, they had to be dark colors, you didn’t need to know what they did you just needed to know that they could do whatever you wanted them to do. That was something we actively decided to push against… from our perspective, being completely open is how we wanted to run the business.

As we grew from five people, to 15 people, to 50 people or whatever, turning a structure from a flat organization into one that has hierarchy, especially in this new way that we operate businesses, especially remote now, makes it even more difficult. Transparency to us has just been the thing that’s kept us all together because it enables us to all follow the same principles of how we talk about things and how we keep each other in the loop.

The lack of being able to run into someone in the office these days, because that’s kind of the world we live in, means we lose those natural, organic transparency opportunities that I think a lot of companies take advantage of, or don’t really think of as a transparency opportunity, but it is at the end of the day. You talk to your coworker and they say something and it’s like, “Oh great, I’m working on something similar maybe we should collaborate.” Those things just don’t happen in a world where we’re all kind of plugged in online. So we try and counteract that… with the idea of just, don’t be scared to say what you’re working on to anyone, because you never know where these connections are going to happen.

I think that’s really how we, from a leadership perspective, push the culture down into the teams. And what’s happened is that’s filtered back up, which is great.

Tim Lysecki:
I think one of the big things that we hit on for all of our employees, we’re still a small startup at heart, and ownership is a big component of what we’d like to instill in everybody coming through our doors. That transparency just leads to that feeling of ownership – you’re part of the process, you’re part of these decisions, you’re open to bringing your voice to the table – because we do like to make sure that everybody gets that sense and that same pride, that same stake in our success.

Marty Parker:
One of the lines that caught my attention in your Canada’s Most Admired Cultures Awards submission is that onboarding means learning about the people, not just the job. Now, in my view that says so much about your culture. And what I’m wondering is if, either one of you or both of you can talk a little bit about that onboarding process and how you facilitate learning about the people as well as their role.

Bryan Smith:
I think, and this also ties to what Tim’s been working on with tying our brand and culture together as well, I think this is all sort of pieces of the same pie or cake or whatever that saying is. But really it comes down to, we want to be as authentic as possible as a brand… We know who we are, we’re not trying to be something we’re not, we may not be for everyone but we’re a bunch of nerds who get really excited when data gets released publicly. And then we get really excited when people turn that into stuff.

What we found really great about our recruiting process and how we bring like-minded people together is, you run them through a job interview like you would, but also there’s an authenticity filter that gets applied to this when you actually talk to people about what they do. And when we support people within the company to be who they are and be open about what they’re working on and what they’re excited about, it allows people to just talk authentically about how they work, how they operate. And what we find is people really like that when they come and apply for the company, because you’re talking to someone that isn’t wearing a mask, you’re talking to someone who’s like, “Hey, this is what we do. This is what we get excited about. This is what we’re looking for.” It’s cool if that’s not you, but at least you know what we’re looking for and how you fit in.

We found people integrate really, really well when we can just get that set up properly from day one, and that’s why we run an interview process where it’s not uncommon for people to meet six to 10 people in a three phased interview process. It’s just as much for us to get exposure to a potential new hire as it is for the new hire to understand what they’re going to get exposed to if they say yes.

Marty Parker:
Now, where did your team’s focus on recognition come from, and why has it become core to how you work?

Bryan Smith:
I sound like a broken record on the transparency front, but recognition comes by people delivering things that they own and everyone knowing that they’re working on it. I think the recognition became important for everyone from a sales person closing a deal, to an engineer introducing a new feature to the platform… We try and set up everyone here as an owner of something that will eventually come to an end, and you can look back on it and be proud of it. And I think this is one of the things that I took away from working in government was, it’s easy to work on a thousand things in government, and none of them ever end. Most programs in the public sector start and just continue. And it’s really hard to look back and say, “Hey, I did that, or I completed that or this is better because we’ve done this.”

With the whole recognition cycle that we try and put in on every aspect of the business, it really comes down to being able to take a step back and see the value and success of what you’ve done. That goes for being able to put something on a resume to being able to feel satisfied at the end of the day, similar to the farmer plowing a field and being able to see that it’s done. It’s a lot more difficult to do that when we’re all plugged in on the internet and things are virtual… It’s a lot harder to take a step back and get the satisfaction.

A lot of the recognition is recognizing that something has been done and we can take a moment to award someone for doing it. I don’t know where that came from. That was definitely an organic thing, but it’s really built into our culture into something we celebrate on a bi-weekly basis. We used to do it on a weekly basis, but it started taking up too much time. So we rolled it into a larger meeting, biweekly.

Marty Parker:
A question for you both. And that is, what has the past 12 months taught you about your culture?

Tim Lysecki:
I think one of the fundamental takeaways is that the times when it’s hardest are the times when you need it most… In a world where we’re all separate, remote, we’re all getting that same Zoom fatigue, it’s tough, but it’s also the time when you need to be most active about reaching out, most active about engaging, most compelled to bring your teams together around activities, whether they’re social or business related.

We’ve really had to work hard to adapt, not just the work, but the culture as well. We recognize a hundred percent that we’ve been really, really fortunate in our position as a company where when things slowed down, we got five times busier than we ever have been. But you can’t motivate a team by calling out that we’re fortunate for 13 straight months. We’ve been tested, but also it taught us that we’re a really close knit group who’s able to handle these challenges. We’re quite flexible in this regard, and I think our continued growth has just been evidenced to that fact.

Bryan Smith:
Tim sort of hit it. I think it’s a resiliency exercise for your culture at the end of the day, that’s how I would describe past 12 months. We had a good framework and we’ve spent a lot of time nurturing it. And I think that’s created a fortified situation for us from a culture perspective. We’ve been pretty blessed in that regard. I’m a big proponent of, we as humans, we can create energy by existing and we usually have a lot of outlets to send that energy, good or bad: your home life, your friends, your activities, your hobbies, and work, being a pretty massive one for a lot of people. What we’ve seen over the past 12 months is as all of those kind of outlets shut down for people. A lot of that energy gets channeled through the workplace just because it’s the one outlet that’s remained open through Zoom and online.

What we’ve been doing a lot with our employees is jut working on a constant recognition that work is an outlet and how people feel and what they’re dealing with isn’t necessarily related to work, it’s just the outlet that a lot of this energy is going through. A lot of our younger employees would be going out and blowing off steam at the bar with their friends or whatever, or going to do some sort of group sport activity, and those things just don’t exist anymore. But that doesn’t mean we’re not creating that energy that usually goes in that direction.

I think a lot of our culture shift over the past year hasn’t been a shift on how we manage and define our culture, it’s been a shift on constant recognition and exercises of constantly reminding ourselves of gratitude. But that’s been more important I think over the past little while than big culture changes, and we’ve got to rely the culture… to kind of hold the fort and just provide the support mechanism for everyone. But that’s kind of been the, I think from my perspective, the big change and the big challenge.