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Category: Linked posts

Links to external articles by other people, usually with a pull quote and brief comment.

Six steps to open cultures

Leo Widrich, cofounder of Buffer, shares, via this Zapiers article by Fred Bauters, six steps to getting to an open culture. In summary:

  1. Check yourself: are you personally transparent?
  2. Be sure other company values are in place
  3. Hire with transparency in mind
  4. Start slow and steady
  5. Equip yourself with the tools for transparency
  6. Remind yourself: transparency is not for everyone

The whole article is packed with insight and well worth a thorough read. The only point I disagree with is number 2. I think that if you are the right sort of person to run an open culture (i.e. your personal rather than company values are in place), and you stick to transparency as a company policy, then the rest will follow. The reason why I believe that is because it is what happened at GrantTree.

As a company, we didn’t have our values explicitly described for a long time, but both Paulina (my cofounder) and myself were clear on our personal values of respect for people, personal growth, generosity and, most importantly, transparency. And it’s transparency that enabled us to create a culture which, while not open yet, was open enough for our team to start pointing out where the company wasn’t aligned with our own values1.

There were many challenges to our culture’s evolution along the way, and many, many chances to compromise, but the uncompromising approach to transparency ended up being one of the key drivers that kept us going in the right direction through all these changes, because of the way it tends to infect everything around it and force it to become more transparent.

So, my deviation from Leo’s advice would be that even if your company values aren’t quite sorted out (which will certainly be the case at the very beginning), sticking to transparency through thick and thin will do a lot to help you keep the culture evolving in the right direction.

Just make sure you yourself are committed – because ultimately, whatever you truly believe will come through in your actions and your choices when faced with challenges. As I’ve argued before, you can’t hide from yourself.


  1. A watershed moment was when, during a 121, I was told by Ellie, one of our Client Managers, that the motivational system that I’d designed as insulting and infantilising

Female Founder Stories

Here’s a constructive addition to the “feminism in tech” issue – a sizeable collection of in-depth interviews of female founders, announced here by Jessica Livingston.

Some interesting extracts from the “Was being female either an advantage or disadvantage in working on your startup?” question:

Danielle Morill:

I know that I care a lot of about nurturing people and making them feel how important they are through care and thoughtfulness, and so I have worked very hard on things like HR and diversity early on. I’m hesitant to attribute that to my gender, though my inclination to be more nurturing might start there.

One big benefit of being female is that a lot more women apply to work for us. I’ve been told it is a relief not to be the first woman on a team. We have 6 women other than myself, 2 of them are in engineering and I believe we will hire many more. Women are still less than 10% of the total applicant pool for technical jobs, even with this “advantage”.

Even a startup founded by a single female founder has trouble hiring women. No surprise that others also struggle.

Adora Cheung:

It may be 2014 but people still make decisions with all sorts of biases, including gender and race.

There’s been a lot of speculation on how this affects fundraising. I’ve had both easy and tough times with this. It’s really hard to tease out if being female was part of it. I do think as your business gets really hot, if it did matter, it starts to matter much less.

Being female, I think I’m more cognizant of creating a work environment that’s inviting to all sorts of people. Homejoy certainly abides by the no-asshole policy and we’ve avoided the whole arrogant, bro-ish culture that Silicon Valley unfortunately has gotten to be known for. Part of new employee orientation is to clean at least one home, and so that probably self-filters out these types of people.

Ultimately, you shouldn’t have to deal with sexism or racism. While there’s movement to weed out these bad, mostly low tier players, it’ll be a while before all players get over their own subtle biases. However, it’s not something you, as a female entrepreneur building a company right this moment, can control and you certainly shouldn’t use this as a crutch or excuse for failure. If you have a great idea and work really, really hard, you will find good investors and good partners to work with. Together we can build a quorum, smash all biases once and for all, and prove that female founders can build and run great companies.

Katelyn Gleason:

I have a tendency to see everything through an optimistic lens, so I like to believe that being a young driven woman may have actually helped me in the YC interview process. It certainly helped me stand out. It continues to help me stand out when hiring, closing deals, and fundraising.

I’d like to add this TEDx talk from my wife and cofounder, Paulina Sygulska, to the discussion:

Flat hierarchies, mentorship and personal development

I read this article with concern. Dustin Moskovitz, founder of Asana, took issue with Valve’s flat management structure and its lack of coaching:

Almost immediately after, I grasped what they had actually written and my enthusiasm waned. In exchange for freedom, they gave up *personal growth.* I can fully believe that there are people who can survive in such an organization, but I am deeply skeptical that they can thrive and reach their full potential. They are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They tied one hand behind their back. The juice is not worth the squeeze. Pick your favorite metaphor; the point is this philosophy lacks balance. More importantly, I totally reject the idea that freedom and mentorship have to be mutually exclusive.

Dustin then argues that some kind of people-management is necessary to ensure personal growth, and proposes a few lighter management-that-doesn’t-look-like-management approaches, such as:

An alternative approach to creating structure and order that we employ at Asana is distributed responsibility, exemplified by our AoR (Area of Responsibility) program. Rather than have all decisions flow through the management hierarchy, we have the explicit intention of distributing them as evenly as possible across all employees. Unless we forgot about the existence of an AoR (which does happen) or otherwise make a mistake, the relevant domain owner has the final decision making authority, not their manager. Additionally, we try to promote an understanding of management as an AoR on par with other AoR’s, making the organization feel flatter.

Management still plays a very important role, however, as a backstop for all decisions. If an AoR does not exist or the most relevant decision maker is ambiguous, then decisions do flow through the management hierarchy. In effect, the CEO has the ultimate meta-AoR. In practice, this happens very rarely, but we save ourselves a ton of pain by having clear decision making authority when it does. Another way of putting it is that the managers fill the whitespace of the organization, making sure we have complete coverage. People tend to value that clarity rather than see it as a form of oppression. No one wants to feel like the ship is not being steered and, in my experience, organizations that lack identifiable decision owners tend to end up with more politics than those with traditional structures, rather than less.

Ultimately, each company needs to evolve its own approach to this and other similar culture issues, but my opinion is that going back to having “people managers” and a hierarchy is a clear step backwards. There are other solutions to the problems described by Dustin, that don’t involve setting up an official hierarchy, and I hope Dustin will consider them before letting the Asana ship sail too far in its current direction…

Dynamic hierarchy isn’t bad

First of all, it’s worth clarifying that I’m not opposed to all hierarchy, not at all. As I’ve written before, hierarchy is essential, it’s a natural way that people organise when facing a problem and if you try to make it disappear, you just make it harder to change. What’s problematic is not the existence of hierarchy, but the existence of a static hierarchy that needs to be maintained artificially in the face of changing circumstances.

In one context, one person might be the best leader. In another, it might be some other person. Someone new might join in and be better than someone who was previously in charge of something. If you have a static hierarchy in place, how do you get the new person to take over a role for which they are a better fit?

Unfortunately, a people-management hierarchy, especially one based on mentoring and ultimate decision-making, sounds exactly like the kind of static hierarchy that is very hard to alter and that easily turns into a career ladder. This may work for Asana, but I dislike that instinctively, because I know what those hierarchies end up looking like eventually. Static hierarchies usher in arbitrary decision-making and unfairness, which need to be justified by secrecy, which reduce trust, etc… We’ve been down this road before.

Mentorship and personal development don’t have to come from above

Mentoring people is not something that needs to be done by a boss. There is no need for a mentor to have management or decision power over the person they’re mentoring. In fact, arguably, a mentor who is also your manager is a far less effective mentor.

A mentor is simply someone who can give you advice and help you reflect on what you do in order to accelerate your personal development. Mentoring relationships often do imply some sort of seniority, but seniority does not have to involve management responsibility. I can be senior to one of my colleagues without being their manager.

As for personal development, I think it is ridiculous to imply that personal growth requires a hierarchy. Personal growth is one of our core values at GrantTree and it is doing perfectly well without a static, non-flat hierarchy. Personal growth is about growing who you are, what you’re able to do, your sense of purpose, your sense of achievement. How bizarre that an entrepreneur, who almost by definition is someone who finds personal growth without any management structure around him or her, comes to the conclusion that other people need a manager in order to grow personally?

If anything, traditional management stifles personal growth by imposing boundaries on it. Without reporting lines, everyone is free to grow in the direction in which they feel they wish to grow, and to push themselves as fast as they want with no speed limit.

Conversely, an open culture with a flat hierarchy liberates everyone to grow in whatever direction they feel inclined to, without needing to ask for permission or wait until they’re promoted up the career ladder. Open cultures encourage people to grow at whatever rate they’re comfortable. Combined with a good mentor, this should outperform the hierarchical approach to personal growth consistently.

Decisions don’t have to float upwards

Finally, Dustin also made the point that someone needs to take responsibility for making the decisions, which he feels is not addressed by a flat management structure.

However, built into that statement is the implicit belief that people in general cannot be trusted to take responsibility for the decisions they make. In an open culture, everyone can and does make decisions and takes responsibility for the outcome of those decisions. The presence of a manager who will take responsibility for your decisions is precisely what leads to the infantilisation of employees that then provides evidence that of course, people can’t be trusted to take responsibility for their actions, etc.

If it begins without trust, it is unlikely to end up with an open culture. I see this assertion that decision-power lines of responsibility are necessary as a big warning sign about Asana’s culture and its future.

A conclusion

I’m not saying that Dustin is necessarily wrong with his assertions. They may be correct in the environment of Asana. However, the dismissal of flat hierarchies as incompatible with mentorship and personal growth are flat-out (!) wrong, and doing so based on a quick extrapolation of an “employee handbook” which clearly gives only a very partial picture of life at Valve seems quite unfair (practically a straw man argument). At least, before making this point, Dustin should have contacted some current or former Valve employees to ask how things work in practice.

My main concern after reading this article, however, is that although Asana seems to have started with an open culture, it is adopting closed solutions to problems instead of doing the hard work of finding open solutions. Eventually, this is likely to erode trust and lead Asana to becoming a culture just like very other top-down, hierarchical closed culture. That seems like a shame, since Dustin appears to want to do the right thing in other areas of the business.

Millenials: not working for money

“Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of millennials said they would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 a year at a job they think is boring,” the Brookings Institution recently noted in a report by Morley Winograd and Michael Hais titled “How Millennials Could Upend Wall Street and Corporate America.”

Given this, if your culture’s main lever for retention or recruitment is money (which is the traditional approach in closed cultures), you’re in for a rough few decades.

Open cultures typically have more ways of motivating people, and so they’re ideally positioned to appeal to the millennial generation: purpose, freedom, self-fulfilment – and paradoxically, those are much better motivators even for those who also want money.

 

How to strip off in front of your staff

Here’s a great article by my wife and cofounder, Paulina, on the topic of open cultures and her journey through the last few years, as we embraced more and more of the building blocks of open cultures in GrantTree:

I’d like to propose something radical, I’ve tried over and over again in my own office: strip off in front of your team. Do it thoroughly and from the very beginning when you start employing people. Sounds scary and unusual? It tends to be, but only up to the point when it becomes the very DNA of your company, and the benefits become so strong and so obvious, you wouldn’t even dream of running the business in a different way.

 

How Psychedelics saved Amber Lyon’s life

Emmy-Award-winning, former CNN investigative reporter Amber Lyon on her new site reset.me:

I invite you to take a step back and clear your mind of decades of false propaganda. Governments worldwide lied to us about the medicinal benefits of marijuana. The public has also been misled about psychedelics.

(…)

Five ceremonies with psilocybin mushrooms cured my anxiety and PTSD symptoms. The butterflies that had a constant home in my stomach have flown away.

(…)

I was blessed with an inquisitive nature and a stubbornness to always question authority. Had I opted for a doctor’s script and resigned myself in the hope that things would just get better, I never would have discovered the outer reaches of my mind and heart. Had I drunk the Kool-Aid and believed that all ‘drugs’ are evil and have no healing value, I may still be in the midst of a battle with PTSD.

Forgetting the personal development benefits of psychedelic drugs, the fact that our society does not explore their benefits to people with mental disorders is a disgrace of modern medicine and politics.

I wish Amber the best of luck in her reset.me venture. I hope it focuses on clean investigative reporting, consistently making the case for more psychedelic drug research, rather than letting itself be drowned in mysticism and superstition.

On discrimination in the tech industry

Whilst I am not one to side with dogmatic ultra-feminists, this kind of behaviour is not only reprehensible, it is disgusting and stupid:

After some small talk, he sat next to me on the couch and commented that I looked stressed. He put down his glass of wine and reached to massage my shoulders. As he slid his hands further, I made a nervous joke, quickly trying to shift my weight away from him. I leaned into the corner of the couch and crossed my legs, attempting to put an obstacle in his way. Undeterred, he continued to reach for me.

Silicon Valley may be a hotbed of technical innovation, but when it comes to social standards it seems to be pretty far backwards:

It’s not merely the men. Sometimes women help perpetuate the same tropes. Once while presenting to a group, the only female on the panel began an onslaught of questions, including “Did your daddy give you money?” “Are you old enough to drive?” and “How are you going to run up the corporate ladder in those shoes?” What was billed as a 20-minute pitch turned into a three-and-half hour inquisition.

Unfortunately, this is not even limited to Silicon Valley. This one is from a New York investor:

When she asked why, he told her. “I don’t like the way women think,” he said. “They haven’t mastered linear thinking.” To prove his point, he explained that his wife could never prioritize her to-do lists properly. And then, as if he was trying to compliment her, he told Tucker she was different. “You’re more male,” he said.

People who behave in this manner have no place in civilised society. They should be shunned just as they would be if they spouted racist jokes, joked about hitting people while drunk driving, or occasionally burst into homophobic rants. Perhaps the sad thing is that some of those people do those things as well, and still get away with it. Such is the power of money and position, still, today.

Beyond what women are already doing, i.e. patiently changing the system by becoming part of the system and then forcing it to change from within, and occasionally publicly shaming an exceptionally bad player, unfortunately there doesn’t seem much else to do. Change takes time. Deep, societal change takes more time.

Those backwards dinosaurs who still think it’s ok to beat up women or discriminate against them (or, indeed, any other minority) will die eventually. All of them. Let’s make sure no new generations are brought up in the belief that any of those behaviours are ok.

Based on the last few hundred years of history, I think we’re moving in the right direction.

Where do children’s earliest memories go?

Our first three to four years are the maddeningly, mysteriously blank opening pages to our story of self. As Freud said, childhood amnesia ‘veils our earliest youth from us and makes us strangers to it’. During that time, we transition from what my brother-in-law calls ‘a loaf of bread with a nervous system’ to sentient humans. If we can’t remember much of anything from those years – whether abuse or exuberant cherishing – does it matter what actually happened? If a tree fell in the forest of our early development and we didn’t have the brains and cognitive tools to stash the event in memory, did it still help shape who we are?

Fascinating article, well worth a read. There’s something mysterious and wonderful about early childhood that we try to recapture through our entire lives.

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