Luke - Welcome everyone to the first in what we hope will be a long-running and wildly successful discussion series. Today we're going to be talking about how to build a 'healthy company'. I’m delighted to welcome our first guest, Dave Witting, founding partner of digital media agency Rocket Insights, now part of DEPT.
Dave, would you mind starting off by giving us a bit of the Rocket backstory?
Dave - Sure, so we started Rocket about eight years ago. It started with this hypothesis that we could build a services company better than what existed. We joked that we wanted to build the company that we had always wanted to hire, and that’s what we set out to do.
We did not have a formal mission statement, we simply wanted to build a smart, kind and kooky company where people could grow to the top of their craft. It was very much about running the business by our word and a firm handshake. We thought that if we just focused on working with people we like and trust, that’s a pretty good spot to start from a client and a company culture perspective.
Luke - More people are saying that you can't force a culture, you have to grow it. Does that resonate with you?
Dave - It does. We started off by treating everyone like an adult. And what that really meant was, by default, we were going to trust everyone we hired until proven otherwise. As simple as that sounds, that felt like a breath of fresh air compared to other companies that always seem to be preparing for an inevitable lawsuit. It’s notable that we've been able to maintain this position as we’ve grown to 300+ people. It's become harder to sustain as we've grown, but by and large, we've been able to sustain it. We don’t think you have to abandon a default position of trust as you get bigger.
Luke - It sounds like what you were doing was a direct result of what you had been used to at companies that you'd worked at previously as opposed to thinking “we’re going to do it like this because it’s going to make us ultra successful”. Or was it a little bit of both?
Dave - It was an idealistic view. We all worked for companies that had started out with a similar type of culture that we all really enjoyed. Then as time went on, and as things grew, that spirit in that culture eroded. And so yes, you're right. We had sort of an ideal in mind and had experienced erosion of that ideal. We were keen to get back to that ideal. The question was, how long can we sustain it? Could we do a better job of maintaining this ideal for as long as possible?
Luke - Switching tracks a little, do you sense or see that the people you’re hiring now (vs. 8 years ago when you started the company) have different expectations about the company they work for?
Dave - So the short answer is definitely yes. Things have changed for two reasons; 1) we got bigger, and 2) the pandemic. In addition, we have noticed a generational shift. When we first started, we mostly hired Gen X or older Millennials. Everyone in this demographic had similar expectations out of a company. They all wanted a good work/life balance but did not expect the company to weigh in on social issues or express a political opinion.
As we've hired younger people, we have noticed a generational difference where this expectation exists. It's not enough to just be a smart, kind, kooky company. There is an additional expectation that all companies should take a stand on social and political issues. That change in expectations surprised me. Things like becoming B Corp certified, or being Climate Neutral are now table stakes.
Luke - That resonates with what I’ve seen personally and on a broader level. We did some research recently where we surveyed 2000 people in the UK where we were looking to understand what are they expecting from the company that they work for, and what motivates them, incentivises them etc. And 88% of people said that they wanted to work for a company with purpose. It seems to me based that the definition of that word “purpose” has expanded over time.
Dave - I think that's right. And I think the initial purpose for that first cohort was “a good company where I can grow to the top of my craft”. And that was enough. The younger generation still has those expectations, but the political and social expectations are new to me.
Luke - How have you kept pace with that change in expectation from your people? Because I can't imagine that it's an easy transition to make?
Dave - As a company we try to concentrate on making a few bets in areas that we think will have the broadest meaning for the folks that work here. Environmental work felt like a good place to place a bet. There have been other areas where we wanted to invest to make our values known. The recent proposed changes to abortion rights in the States is a good example. We didn't publicly post this anywhere, but internally, we told employees that if they live a state where abortion rights will be restricted, we will pay to fly you to a spot where it is legal and safe. In this case, we're making clear that women's rights are important to our company and we're going to put our money where our mouth is.
Luke - Do you have visibility into whether the things you’ve just spoken about e.g. the wider environmental and social, are having an impact internally via tools like OfficeVibe surveys or NPS scoring or similar? Can you see that people are buying into and saying “yeah I know this is good place”?
Dave - So we use a tool called Peakon…
<Editorial insert - Luke and Dave now go off on a weird (and frankly untranscribable) tangent on whether you spell Peakon like the old Dan Dare villain “Mekon”. We’ve edited this out in the interests of you, the readers’, sanity.>
Dave - We do an employee survey every year which we just finished for this year. Peakon works on a scale of one to 10 and we’re up at 8.6, which is great. We’ve treated people as adults for the past four years and that goodwill has paid off.
Luke - By that logic if you're a company that has not invested in that way from the beginning, trying to course correct is going to be going to be problematic!
Dave - If you have a rotten culture, no amount of free bagel Fridays will make a difference! I worked at a company that had this problem and they spent over $200,000 in an attempt to fix it. We went through this whole long and expensive exercise and it didn’t help. The core issue was one of the founders. He was inexperienced and treated people poorly. He had wild mood swings and his response was always unpredictable. The company had a solid organic culture, but it was stifled from the top. No amount of consulting exercises could improve that.
Luke - What would your advice be for a company that has no culture, or even worse it has a rotten culture?
Dave - I think culture is modelled at the top. It’s how you treat people, deal with clients and handle adversity. You have to make goals clear, and then just let the organic culture empower those goals to happen. If your culture is not ideal, then you should start with the leadership tier. Is leadership modelling the desired behaviour? How has the culture grown organically and are you allowing that to grow on its own? With culture, less control is often the answer, not more.
Luke - As the company has grown, what have you done to try and maintain the sense of connection between your people in different offices and working in different places?
Dave - We went from big central hub-offices with small, local spoke-offices to all spokes. We shrunk all the office space and we put it close to where people live. We try to make these spaces unique and better suited for collaboration.
We've always been very careful to get all employees into Slack and make that our company meeting place. We started with obvious Slack channels, e.g. finance, marketing, HR questions etc. Then all these self organised groups started popping up. I'm surprised at how many special interest channels have popped up and how active they are. It was nice seeing all these special interest things completely grow on their own. In my mind, that’s the sign of a good culture and it’s completely organic.
We used to do this thing called the slush fund, where every new employee got $500 to spend on doing something for the collective good. One guy took everyone out to lunch. Another person did an indoor rock climbing training session. Someone bought copies of their favourite book and mailed it to everyone. It was one of those things where we set light rules at the top and just let it happen. That has worked well for us.
Luke -Companies usually approach this by going for a big company wide initiative and 75% of the people say ‘but I don't like doing that, I have no interest in it at all and so I'm not going to engage with it’. Whereas people naturally engage with what they're interested in. And then when they find other people who are interested in the same thing, that passion and excitement is augmented. People want to connect with people through something that they have some agency over. And that’s when you get the ‘bottom up’ part of building culture happening.
Dave, thank you so much for your time. I know we could both keep going but you’ve got a noon call and I’ve got to transcribe this unholy mess so let's end it there. Please come back and talk to us again soon.
Dave - My pleasure!