In this episode, Steli and Hiten tackle the topic of work ethic and how your team needs to be aligned. Having a collective team ethic results in an ability to get things done and establishes a smooth workflow, but misalignments can be disruptive. Listen as Steli and Hiten discuss their own work ethic and where it came from. They also delve into the very reasons why it is worth it for YOU to make sure you and your team’s ethics match!

Time Stamped Show Notes:

  • 00:27 – Today’s episode is inspired by a tweet Hiten posted on Twitter
  • 00:54 – The tweet said, “Your own work ethic and that of the people around you need to match. If they don’t, it’ll make it harder to get alignment.”
  • 01:00 – This topic has been discussed in past episodes already
  • 02:16 – What triggered Hiten’s post
  • 02:47 – The post came up because Hiten believes in a collective work ethic
  • 03:13 –When your ethics aren’t the same, it’s difficult to figure out how to get things done
  • 03:23 – “Alignment is used as a tool to get more stuff done ”
  • 03:42 – If your work ethic doesn’t match, it doesn’t work
  • 05:37 – Hiten learned his work ethic from his father and mother
  • 05:55 – Ethics may also be a result of value systems
  • 06:14 – When you have a job to do, do you take responsibility for that role?
  • 07:03 – When you screw up as a team member, are you upset about it?
  • 08:08 – Are you proud of the work you put out?
  • 09:13 – Steli shares a story of their new hire in the team
  • 11:43 – Steli’s team is a group of people who are passionate about their work
  • 11:52 – Steli is concerned that his team members are getting overworked
  • 13:18 – Match expectations with reality
  • 14:15 – “As companies get larger, you start seeing their office empty”
  • 15:31 – Work ethic defines your alignment as a team
  • 16:15 – Misalignments cause people to feel pressure and that they have to do less or do more
  • 17:00 – Steli mentions about growing up in the south of Germany where people are hard-working
  • 18:00 – Certain parts of that region had a very different culture and mindset
  • 19:32 – Steli cares a lot more than just relaxing and enjoying life
  • 20:23 – Steli shares another work ethic misalignment story
  • 22:31 – That cultural misalignment made Steli’s life more miserable
  • 23:26 – Steli decided he would do the work he wants without thinking about the clock
  • 24:08 – Compare your own work ethic to your team’s—write it out if you need to
  • 25:37 – Steli shares about needing to work vs. choosing to work
  • 27:36 – Communicate your work ethic to your loved ones
  • 27:47 – That’s it for today’s episode!

3 Key Points:

  1. It’s difficult to move forward without your team being aligned.
  2. How you are perceived can be very different from own your perception of how you’re behaving.
  3. Your team’s alignment depends on each one’s work ethic.

Resources Mentioned:


Hiten: Hi, this is Hiten Shah.


Steli: And this is Steli Efti. And in today’s episode of The Startup Chat, we’re going to talk about work ethic. And this was inspired by a tweet you posted recently Hiten, that got a lot of responses. And that I thought was super fascinating, something that I’d love to kind of unpack with you on the podcast. Why don’t you – do you have the tweet in front of you? Why don’t you read us the tweet first?


Hiten: Yeah. I’ll read the tweet. It got a pretty good response and it was interesting. So this was on December 30th, and what I wrote was, “Your own work ethic and that of the people around you need to match. If they don’t it will make it harder to get alignment.” And I know we’ve talked about alignment probably quite a bit now, and now I’m going to find the exact episode. The first time we talked about it was episode 76, I believe.


Steli: Yep.


Hiten: Around startup team alignment. The actual first time we actually talked about was episode 21, about how to simplify complexity in startups. And then even episode 77 was about startup team hacks, “Working Well with Difficult People,” in quotes. And then we talked about it in episode 146, “Stop Trying to Control People.” And then we talked about it in episode 91, “Leadership Versus Management.” This is just how it showed up in Google. We’ve talked about it in many episodes.


I’m going to go through them again because these are probably great ones for people to listen to: episode 21, episode 76, episode 91, episode 146. Those are all the ones that we talked about alignment in. and so we’ve got a lot of content and a lot of things that we’ve said about that. And my revelation on December 30th had to do with how work ethic has a lot to do with it.


Steli: How come? What triggered that tweet? What triggered that thought? What made you think about it and then communication it out on Twitter?


Hiten: It was like almost the last day of the year, so the day before the last day of the year. And I actually had been tweeting some things like later in the evening, so this was at like 9:37 p.m. Pacific. And usually that’s when I’m just thinking about stuff. It snot that I’m trying to go to sleep or anything, it’s before I go to sleep. I probably not doing anything more than email and I happened to go find myself on Twitter. And then I hit that Tweet button and I just put something out there. But these days, like I’ve just been thinking a lot about work in general, and how people like to work.


And then this came up because I have a ton of team members that either I’ve managed in the past, or worked with, or partners, or even people that I work with right now, and some people that I’ve even had to let go last year. And one of the things that I realized is that there’s a sort of collective work ethic that develops in an organization, in a company, or even between two individuals, it’s a collective work ethic. And when it’s not the same, it actually makes it so much harder to go figure out how you’re going to get stuff done.


And the way we, you and I have talked about alignment, was about like it show you – alignment is used as a tool to get more stuff done, or when you’re not in synch, and all of you are not doing the same things, or focused on the same goal, alignment is a good word. It’s a good system to enable you to sort of get back to kind of what matters. And I realize that if your work ethic doesn’t match, it doesn’t work. I’ll give you one example. Most of the people on the teams I work on have one of two modes. They’re either – and this is not everyone, there is very few people that are in mode two.


But mode one is like, if something needs to get done for the company, it doesn’t matter who you are, it just gets done, because that’s your responsibility, that’s your job. And if you can help in anyway, you will. And what that ends up meaning is that sometimes someone on a Saturday has to do something. Sometimes someone on a Friday night has to answer a text from me, usually. Or, you know, they have to stay up late. Or, you know, when the server goes down, one of health engineers is always on it, no matter what.


And we have very small teams these days, and so this becomes super important. And what I noticed is that if I text somebody or ask somebody for something late in the day, and they don’t respond until the morning, but it was urgent, or not even urgent, but important enough, then it’s just a different work style, a different work ethic. And I don’t mean that people need to work their ass off or anything like that, it’s just that the way that the majority of the team, or the other person, if it’s just the two person relationship treats their work, that’s how you need to treat it as well, otherwise you’re just not a good fit. And it’s something I haven’t really seen anybody talk about.


Steli: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of powerful stuff in there. I have some recent examples in our own company about this, but first I’d love to unpack a little bit how you think your work ethic developed? Like, is this something you learned from your father, is this something you – is it nature or nurture, was it a mix of it? was it always the same, you know even going to school, like how do you think you arrived at the work ethic that you have today? And how would you even describe your work ethic today?


Hiten: Yeah, that’s a great way to start thinking about it. So I think the copout is to say I learned it from my father or growing up from my parents, although there’s probably a lot of truth to it. I think that’s really a copout though because my father is a physician. He would do a lot of things, and you could call him a workaholic. And I would say he has a very similar work ethic to myself. Maybe it had to do with just value systems?


But I think that’s a copout because as you get in the workplace as an individual, you develop your own systems as well, and your own way of what you gravitate towards in terms of work. I think it boils down pretty simply to me, in terms of my work ethic, and what I look for in team members. And I’ve said a couple of these things before. But number one is like when you have a job to do, whether it’s a small task, a big task, or what most people would call a job at a company; do you have 100 percent ownership and responsibility over that role?


What that means is like whatever happens in that role, or even any ancillary roles, or maybe even at the whole company, you take it personally to some extent, not in a negative way or anything, but it matters to you. Even things like when someone in customer support, there’s a support ticket and they’re yelling at a customer support person, you’re there to help. Or, you have the empathy for that team member saying: oh, that sucks. Is there any way I can help you kind of thing.


So there’s a lot around that to me, to help kind of explain, I think, how I think about it as responsibility. Another one that I really like to use a lot is that when you screw up as a team member, like on something, you’re more upset about it than anyone can be at you. And maybe you learned it growing up, maybe. You know, maybe your parents are like that, or maybe you just realized that you have to take responsibility for things. Maybe there’s a level of maturity that relates to it. I definitely as a child matured pretty quickly. I know you did as well Steli for probably many reasons.


And it’s like are you an adult? Like, are you taking responsibility for your actions, or your lack of action, and do you take that ownership? And that’s the work ethic that I really value and look for. And it might be old school, as some people I’ve heard call it. It might be anti-millennial, although I think that’s a copout, too. I know a lot of people that are classified as millennials, I’m technically borderline. I’m pretty sure you’re a millennial too, at some level, or borderline.


Steli: Yep.


Hiten: That’s bullshit. Like, we can all be responsible for our work, and our jobs, and our lives, and what we’re doing. And I think that it’s like I just take a high level of responsibility. And I’ll say one more word about it, which is like pride. Are you proud in the job you’re doing? Are you proud? Do you have pride in it? Are you proud of the work you put out? Whatever it may be, as simple as like a tweet. I’m proud of my tweets when they work. And I’m pissed when they don’t.


And that’s why sometimes I get tweets that get, you know, people like them, and then we talk about them on the show and it’s awesome, but like I have pride in that, shit.


Steli: I love that. So work ethic, there’s so much in this topic that I’d love to unpack, but I’ll jump on this note, which is coming back to the idea of not really labeling what is good work ethic, what is not a good work ethic, what should everybody subscribe to in terms of their work philosophy or not, but more on the idea that you need to understand your own work ethic and others to know how well you’ll work together. And that that can be a huge factor. I think on that idea, something interesting that happened a few months ago.


So it’s funny, I think that – so I’ll tell the story in sequence. So we had hired somebody on the team. And a big part of kind of us representing us and telling people what it would be like to work at was to tell them that we do like to believe in our people and trust them. We don’t care necessarily or count the hours you work or when you work. And that we like people that have interests out of work, and that have a good integration of all their interests.


We’re not looking for people that are just going to be 18 hours in front of their screen seven days a week to race to kind of IPO or whatever. We’re in this for the long haul and we’re looking for people with stamina, and with lives, and passions. So that always seemed very authentic, when I told people that I believed it, right? So we had hired a new team member, and then a few weeks into that team member working with us, in a team meeting, he actually raised his hand and asked: you know Steli; I remember when you hired me. You guys talked about work life integration and balance, and all these kind of things.


But I have a few things that I’ve observed that are confusing, and I’m not exactly sure what the expectations truly are? And if what you said is what you guys truly live? Because, you know, you guys – you specifically Steli told me that you leave work at 5:30 p.m. because you want to have dinner with your kids and put them to bed. But every night at 10:00, 11:00, or even midnight, I see you online and you’re chatting, and you’re asking questions, and you’re doing work. And then this other guy, who is my cofounder, who works with the new hire on support tickets, he’s like: that guy, you know, on Friday we finished up some of the most important support tickets, and then we go into our weekend.


And that guy is just answering support tickets all weekend long. So I don’t know if you guys expect me to be doing support tickets on the weekend, or to be working at midnight? Because you said one thing, but behaviorally, I’m observing something completely different. And that was super crucial for him to bring up because it was not that it was not true what we had told him, it was just that it wasn’t – we didn’t understand ourselves well enough to communicate our work culture well enough. So I thanked him a lot and we kind of unpacked a lot of things in discussions as a team and as a company.


And now when we hire somebody, what I tell them is that – and this is the truth – that we are a group of people that are passionate about their work and that we work a lot. And that my number one concern is not do people work enough because we’re a remote team, but are people over working themselves? I’m telling people to take vacations, take breaks, not to work harder or longer. And that we are – we try to – like, we do take vacations. We do take breaks. I don’t work on the weekends, and I leave at 5:30, but to be honest I can’t help myself because I’m passionate about the work.


You know, once my kids are in bed, and I’ve had my discussions with my wife, and dinner, I go online for another hour or two and do some more work. The same thing is true on the weekends. I wasn’t even aware of this until that new team member mentioned it. I was saying I’m not working on weekends. The truth is I’m not working on weekends during the day because I’m with my children. But in the evening and at night, I do work. But I didn’t even realize it. I honestly didn’t realize it until he called me out on it.


And today I think we are doing a much better job at communicating our work culture with people. And telling them that I don’t expect them to work at night. I don’t need them to work on the weekends. But if they see me do it, and other people do it, this is why we do it, and we do encourage people to take breaks and have a life, and go on vacation, and have fun, and be completely offline. That doesn’t matter as long as you’re doing amazing work, but you need to realize that everybody in this company is passionate about work and probably works a lot.


So that’s the way we just discovered ourselves to like understand our own work culture better and communicate it way that matches expectations with reality with people.


Hiten: I love it. I mean, it’s easy to get confused when you’re doing the work, and when you have your own way of working. But it’s pretty awesome that even in your culture that someone can bring that up in a safe way, and actually have you guys iterate and improve and change. I think that’s really cool. I agree with you, for me it’s not about necessarily that you’re working all the time, it’s that you have this passion for it, if you want to use that word, and you’ll do what it takes when it takes that, or you’re just coming back to it because you really feel like the work you’re doing matters.


I don’t always see this in every company. I see companies scale, and people come in that don’t have that same work ethic as the beginning, and guess what happens over time? Over time that company stops growing. And it’s really about having that alignment on work ethic. And this is very common in a startup, that’s why as companies get larger, you start seeing their office empty. I went into an office, about a 30 person team. And that was probably like the last week of December, it was like the Monday or Tuesday of that week, you know when nobody is working.


And I went to the office and I met a friend of mine. And this was like – I’m getting the date, it was like the 19th? No, I think it was later. Yeah, I think it was the 19th of December, actually. Isn’t that a week that a lot of people weren’t working? I’m pretty sure it was. My calendar is full that week, though. I was looking and literally like there was nobody in the office. It was my friend who is a cofounder and I think a product manager there. And I walked in and I’m like, “Oh, everyone’s gone? It’s empty?”


And he gave me this look; you know, like what are you talking about? I’m like okay, alright, and then I moved on. And you could tell clearly, their work ethic, their style, is not – it wouldn’t work for me, but I hope it works for them. And so this is not about judgment. It’s more about seeing that like if you’re the one that keeps coming into that office, and you’re working your ass off, what ends up happening is that over time you start seeing nobody else doing the job.


And then you have two options. One, you become like them, which is totally fine if that’s what you want, obviously, or you leave. And this is what I meant by like the work ethic really ends up defining how easy it is to get aligned as a team.


Steli: Yeah, I think that’s a really great point. And I find that there’s a lot of confusion around this, right? So there’s some companies that are obsessive about their work culture, and especially the hours they put in, but they might not communicate that clearly with new hires or people they are trying to get onboard. And then there’s misalignment, or vise-versa, there are companies that talk a lot about like work life balance and taking breaks and all that stuff, but they don’t live it, or they don’t live it the way they describe.


And often times, you know when it comes to work ethic, if there’s misalignments within the teams, especially with the founders and people that work in the company, you don’t even have to explicitly say anything, people will feel pressure. They will feel either the pressure to work less, because nobody’s here, nobody’s doing anything at these times, or they will feel the pressure to do more. And either one, when they feel pressure to act in unnatural ways to themselves, it’s a bad thing.


And they might get judgment, right? If you like it or not, we’re all pretty judgmental creatures as humans. And even if you don’t explicitly ever call somebody out for working too much or too little, people might just look at that person, you know, in non positive terms, because they’re not aligning on work ethic with them. And it’s a funny thing, growing up in Germany, in the south of Germany, you get a – people are pretty hard working and they are craftsmen. There’s a great culture of craftsmanship.


It doesn’t matter what you do, everybody’s trying to do their work really, really well. And have good quality in their work, mostly. I’m over generalizing greatly here. But you see an above average around what I’m – what I’ve observed around the world, in comparison with the south of Germany, and specifically you see an above average level of craftsmanship in work. And so that was always a big part of what I’ve seen and observed growing up. My mom working really hard as a person, never ever complaining about any of the hardships that she had to deal with in her life.


It was another thing that I just observed in terms of taking ownership, and doing the work, and shutting up, and being happy and grateful for the things you have and all that. But then I also have this other part of the culture of growing up, the Greek part o fit, which is the exact opposite, where people had this – and I’m again over generalizing – but had this horrible work culture in my mind, where everybody was just trying to do the bare minimum. Ideally tricking somebody else into doing their own work, so, they could just spend more time with the finer things of life.


You know, friends, music, good food, dancing, relaxing, drinking coffee, talking about life and everything. Everybody just looked at work as a necessary evil to fund life. So everybody tried to be really smart about finding ways to optimize and do as little work as possible. Get away with the worst work product possible, in order to finance a good quality life. And that causes a lot of issues. So I had these stark contrasts in cultures growing up. And that was for me important to see, what do I value?


What do I want? You know, the Germans may be working really hard and doing great quality of work and taking great pride in their work, which I admired, but maybe not enjoying life enough. Maybe not, you know, being able to enjoy any of the fruits of their labors, and appreciate them as much. And the Greeks being the exact opposite were like enjoying the fruits of very little labor, way too much, but not getting anything done.


And seeing those two things influenced me in trying to – you know, I’m probably working – I’m not as balanced on this. I care about work a lot more in many ways than I care about just hanging out on the beach and drinking pina coladas. But I do want to – I do care about enjoying the work that I do and not just doing the work. And I learned that by just observing these two cultures to a big degree, I think.


Hiten: That’s so fascinating, like even the contrast, and being able to observe it, and then coming up with your own sort of model for it. I find that really refreshing because for me I just saw one way. And anything that – and that way was the work hard, don’t worry about the fruits of your labor and spending it on pleasure or anything like that. The reward for great work is more work.


Steli: I’ll give you one more example before we wrap up.


Hiten: Please.


Steli: Just because it’s so random, I would never talk about this in any other context than in this specific podcast.


Hiten: Awesome.


Steli: Here is a weird interesting example for work ethic misalignment. I was like 16 years old. And I had a summer job at a factory, at Mercedes Benz had like a car assembly line, basically. And I show up there, and I’m like – I’m in front of one, I’m assigned to one specific machine. You basically push four buttons and you turn around some pieces of metal a few times, and you do a little test. You do a bunch of little mechanical things, and then you push it and the piece is now moving to the next station in the assembly line, and the next piece has come to you.


And my brother was working at that factory as well during that time. And I was just a summer worker there. So I am assigned to this machine, the first day. And I just try to get the hang of it, try to figure out how it works. And once I got the hang of it, I was like: alright, this is cool. Let’s do the work as well as I can, but also as quickly as I can. It’s just the way I was thinking. So I do my work, I do my work, I do my work. And eventually my brother shows up, and he looks at me and he’s like, “How’s it going?” I’m like, “It’s pretty good. It’s not that exciting, but it’s not that difficult either. I’m fine.”


And he’s like, “Well, dude, you need to chill out and slow down.” And I was like what? “What do you mean I need to slow down? Am I making mistakes? Am I causing any trouble?” He’s like, “No, no, your pieces are fine, but you’re causing trouble because all the other workers in the assembly line, they’re pissed off. This is not the right speed, you’re too fast. You’re producing too many pieces. This is causing everybody else to have to do too much work, so you need to slow down. You have eight hours.


These guys don’t want to make more than X amount of pieces, so your pace needs to basically a lot slower.” And I remember that, A, that blew my mind. Nobody ever asked me to do work slower, do less work than I was capable of.


Hiten: You’re right, not happening.


Steli: And the other thing was that work became a lot more painful for me over the next two or three weeks because I was artificially slow. And I was like; just my day is not going by. Like, this is just making my life more miserable because I could do a lot more and I have to artificially slow myself down, and dumb myself down, to not piss off anybody else. And it was a very, like an interesting and important moment, and obviously it stayed with me because this was many years ago, over 20 years ago. Oh, almost 20 years ago.


Because I was like wow, there are people out there that optimize their work to do as little work as possible. And when there’s somebody showing up that is more productive, or is more focused, or more driven, it actually fucks with their day and it annoys them. It kind of like messes with their day. You know, I’m just like a 16-year-old kid; I’m going to be gone in three weeks. But I’m an annoyance, so somebody has to come to me and tell me, “Dude, slow down, you’re working too fast and nobody else wants to work that fast.”


And I don’t know, that always stayed with me that obviously I decided back then that the type of work I want to do in life is work that I don’t have to slow myself down, or I don’t have to tell other people to do less. I want to do the kind of work where, you know, I’m just passionate. I want to do as much as I can and as good work as I can, without thinking about the clock, or without thinking about how to optimize doing as little as possible and getting a paycheck.


Hiten: Man, I mean this work ethic thing is so much to unpack. So I’m going to jump into my tip, and hopefully help people unpack it for themselves. This is very simple, I think this might apply to family, it might apply to one on one relationship, as well as teams, just look around, think about it, what’s your work ethic, what’s theirs? And write it down, write the difference between yours and there’s if there is any, or even if there isn’t any.


Just like I think what you learned at your company from that new team member, try to think through what it really is and what it means? And one of the best ways is just statements like, I’ll answer a text message at 9:00 p.m. on a Friday, they won’t, just stuff like that. I know that’s a little aggressive, but you get what I mean.


Steli: Yeah.


Hiten: Or, you know, every quarter most of the people on the team take a weeklong vacation, I should, too. If you’re not into that, things like that. So I think it will really help you decide whether you’re in the right place or not, and that’s super important for all of our happiness.


Steli: Yeah, I love it. And the same thing can apply to personal life. So I’ll just add to this tip, work ethic is this funky thing. A lot of times in our private life, in our personal life, we don’t discuss it with a partner, maybe your girlfriend, boyfriend, or your spouse. Children, we don’t discuss it with our children, or we don’t discuss it even with other family members. Talk about work and how you think about work, and how they do, and try to get alignment there, but also try to make sure that they get the right impression.


I know that just recently I stopped saying – in the morning I used to say to my kids when they were – I’m playing with my kids for a few minutes whenever I can in the morning. And then I would say: okay, daddy needs to go to work. And they were like, “No, stay here, play with us.” You know, I would do the daddy thing: yeah, I’ll come back later. I really need to go. And then at one point I caught myself, and I was like: well, I don’t really need to go. I choose to go.


I could stay here, nothing would happen. I can choose to go, to leave, and I’m choosing to leave, so I need to communicate that better to my kids. My kids think I’m pressured to leave. I’m not. I’m free willed and deciding that now is the time I want to go to work. So I started saying to the kids, now daddy wants to go to work. Now I really want to go. Just like you want to play, I want to work. So I’m communicating and trying to be more mindful of the way I communicate with them. But also I had family over for the last two weeks from Germany. I had nieces and nephews here. And I went and I took them out for coffee.


And I asked them, why do you think your uncle came to the U.S.? Why do you think I work the way I do? And there was some misconceptions on; they were just assuming I loved money. And I’m like on this crazy hunt on becoming ultra rich. So although I never talked about money with them, but they’re like 9 years old, and ten years old, and they just observe me from afar, and they probably somehow thought: well, he wants to get really, really, really, rich, obviously. So that was a great opportunity for me to talk to them about why I work the way I do and what really drives me.


And what motivated me to come to the U.S. and all that. It was a great discussion for everybody involved. But it made me realize that work is something that’s maybe not discussed often enough, or not clear enough, even in your personal life, and getting alignment there. Making people understand why your work ethic is what it is. And making sure that, especially with your spouse, you have alignment over your work ethic. It’s probably a super important thing and something most people never really think about talking and working through it.


And then there’s all kinds of misalignments, and frictions, and misunderstandings that can cause a lot of trouble in life. So my tip is talk to your loved ones and people in your personal life about their work ethic and yours as well.


Hiten: Yeah, all the issues are preventable.


Steli: Yep.


Hiten: Alright, that’s it.


Steli: That’s it from us. Hey, here’s a thing. I’m not asking – we’re not doing a good enough job asking your listeners for favors. So here’s an ask that I haven’t made in a long, long time. If you enjoyed The Startup Chat, if you liked this podcast, do us a favor, go to iTunes, give us a review. Good or bad, we read them, and we appreciate them. And the more reviews and the more – the more reviews we get on iTunes, the more people will discover us when they search for podcasts around entrepreneurships and startups.


So the bigger the community we will get, and the more value people will get out of these conversations that we have. So please take a minute right now and go give us a review if you appreciate the podcast.


Hiten: Yeah, that’d be good.


Steli: Alright, that’s it from us.


[End of Audio]


Duration: 30 minutes