276: How to Hire a Head of Culture
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In this special episode of The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten are at Dreamforce and they talk about how and why you need to hire a head of culture at your startup, especially if your team members work remotely.
Thanks to Jorge Soto and the team at First Cut for recording and editing the video!
In today’s business world, a lot of startups are run as remote teams, and doing so has its benefits. Many studies have shown that remote working has valuable effects on employee productivity, happiness, and general well-being.
However, there are some challenges of running a remote team and one of these challenges is creating a positive company culture with your team. This is where creating the position of head of culture can be beneficial for your startup.
Tune in to hear Steli and Hiten’s recommendations for how to create the position of head of culture in your startup, when to create the role, what qualities to look out for when you hire for this role and much more.
Time Stamped Show Notes:
00:24 About today’s topic.
01:23 Why this topic was chosen for this episode.
02:45 Hiten talks about how a similar position was created and filled at his company, Kissmetrics.
04:11 Hiten gives real-world examples of how important a person in this role can be to a startup.
05:26 Steli talks about how a similar position was created and filled at his company, Close.
06:17 Steli talks about the qualities to look out for when you hire for this role at your startup.
07:46 If you should consider hiring for this role and when to do so.
09:50 The real value of having a person with this role at your startup and whether it can be measured.
13:34 Steli and Hiten attempt to come up with an appropriate title for this role.
- Having a person that team members can trust, come to and confide in can be a powerful thing for a startup.
- Once you get past 15 team members at your startup, start looking for a person in your team with incredibly high emotional intelligence, and is trusted by other team members for this role.
- A lot of the value that this person creates in your startup can’t really be measured.
Hiten: Here we like to talk about more than just sales and marketing.
Steli: We just want to bullshit and chat about business and life and hopefully while we’re doing that provide a little value to people.
Hiten: The world’s best business podcast.
Steli: Oh shit, we got it.
Hiten: We’re people trying to get shit done.
Steli: we don’t want to give you feedback that’s bullshit.
Hiten: We want you to do your best.
Hiten: So are you comfortable?
Steli: No, not at all.
Hiten: All right.
Steli: The only thing that makes me uncomfortable is that I’m not allowed to kiss you, they said that specifically.
Hiten: Yeah, they said you can’t do that.
Steli: I don’t know why they had to say it specifically, but now I’m totally thrown off by that. So, for people that just listen to the podcast, today’s a special episode.
Steli: We’re here with TeamFirstCut at at the Sales Hacker booth at Dreamforce.
Hiten: Dreamforce, yep.
Steli: So there’s gonna be a video to this episode.
Steli: There’s gonna be a link in the show notes, but if you can’t watch the video-
Hiten: We’re gonna embed the video in the blog post.
Steli: In the blog post as well.
Hiten: How about that.
Steli: Yep. But if you can’t watch the video for any reason just imagine him and I making out the entire episode.
Hiten: Yeah, there you go.
Steli: All right, so today’s episode of The Startup Chat is gonna be about something a little bit funky, Hiten and I like to do this once in a while-
Hiten: Make out?
Steli: Yeah, talk about funky subjects, but that maybe too. And the thing that we want to talk about today is a role that I see rise in significance with startups that does not yet have a name, I’m not even sure if it’s really a role or it’s something that’s been around forever, but I’ve been thinking about this so I wanted to explore that further with you.
Hiten: It has no name.
Steli: It maybe has one …
Hiten: How do you describe it? Bring it on.
Steli: So here’s the deal, I’ve been talking with a friend at his birthday party last weekend and he was telling me about growing his remote team and some of the challenges they have that seem to be cultural and communication issues. And one of the tips, he was asking me about tips to create a really healthy culture, one of the tips that I brought up, or one of the people that I saw that highlighted in our our team, was somebody what we call has the motherly energy of the company, it’s like the cultural champion. The person that has a warm energy, that has a nurturing energy and has established herself in the team without having a role or title in that regard as the person that people trust with their issues.
Hiten: Yeah, yeah.
Steli: Personal or professional. And so I was describing how important it is to have that type of a person in a team in general, but in a remote team even more so. And then other founders were chiming in, some people that had that person on their team and some people that were lacking that and were discussing this whole-
Hiten: How do you create that?
Steli: How do you create, how do you find that person, why is that person so important? But I still don’t know how to call that, like what is that? You know, in some teams it seemed to be the office manager, in other teams it seemed to be a person on the support team and some teams it was a co-founder. So it’s hard to tell who’s going to take on that nurturing energy and what do you call that person? But I wanted to talk to you about that, I’m sure you had some thoughts.
Hiten: Yeah, at Kissmetrics at some point it was about 30 people, we hired what I’m gonna call, what I’m gonna call right now a Cecilia.
Steli: A Cecilia.
Hiten: Her name was Cecilia.
Steli: Oh, okay.
Hiten: Is Cecilia.
Steli: I was like, is that some Greek mythology story that I-
Hiten: No, just Cecilia and I had, when I first met her she was coming off of being an office manager/admin type of person and when I met her I was like, “Oh, you can do so much more than that.” Just based kind of how her friendliness was with people and how she thought of herself. Well, I think that role, after we hired her, this is a funny story, I actually talked to my co-founder Neil and said I want to hire her. He didn’t understand, he was like, No.
Hiten: But I really want to hire her. He’s like, “Okay.” He calls me later, “I need some budget to hire her.” He’s the one responsible for budget and I was like, “Why?” “Well, you really wanted to hire her.” I was like, “Okay.” You never really want to hire someone that bad if I say no, I’m like, “Yeah, pretty much.” So we hired her and then two months later he was like, “Oh, I get it. I understand. I understand why you wanted to hire her.” And it’s like, we had a remote team, we also had an office in San Francisco and it was simple things like when Lars came to town he had a specific gear he liked. It wasn’t the easiest to find. Cecilia always found it and made sure it showed up and was there. Cecilia started conducting the exit interviews with the team members when they left.
Hiten: Cecilia would actually be responsible for a bunch of the first level interviews with the team members. The cultural interview was her, it should be everyone, but it was specifically her in our case. So yeah, I don’t have an idea of a role or title, but generally I think there’s some companies that call them the happiness person or happiness manager, that’s why you mentioned customer support and in our team I even totally forgot what we had ended up having the role be. But it ended up merging with some HR title just so that she could fit in a box, although she never fit in a box.
Hiten: The cool thing about her now, just to give people an idea of the sort of person, she started studying NLP and so that’s Neural Linguistic Programming and after that now she’s become more of a CEO/executive coach. And she’s really good at it, she did that for me, I was not the CEO of the company at the time, but I was responsible for a lot of people and she actually did that for me. And so when we wanted to talk about people, she always had a great way to talk about people in the company and what was going on with them and she was always in the know.
Steli: It’s so good to hear you talk about Cecilia because we have Mary and Mary does a lot of the same things that you’re describing with Cecilia. We call her queen of culture, you know, head of culture. She’s also the entire HR department, but from being our head recruiter and being the person that’s taking care of the recruiting process, of people being taken care of in our recruiting process, to doing the culture interviews to doing the exit interviews to doing … Organizing and planning our team retreats. All these types of things are kind of within her role, but even more importantly the one thing that I never thought about too deeply until I saw this in the last two years play out really strongly is that she is somebody who has instant trust in the team and the company and because maybe, especially because maybe she doesn’t have some kind of intimidating title, right? She’s not like the CEO, COO, even if it was CPO or something, or VP or something, just because her role was a little ambiguous people feel like they can open up. A, because she’s an amazing person and has a really good sense for people, because she’s very trustworthy, but also because she’s not intimidating in some kind of hierarchy, she’s nobody’s boss, technically. So people feel comfortable coming to her with issues and problems that they’re not comfortably sharing with anybody else in the company.
Steli: And these are tiny little things sometimes, but they do add up. And having a person that people trust and can come to and confide with can be an incredibly powerful thing for making small things stop at the beginning and never grow into big things?
Steli: And for making people just feeling treated really special in the company and feel like they belong. So you know you need, sometimes in teams we like to talk about leadership and we like to highlight especially the super overly-aggressive, confident, alpha-like type person that knows the direction and leads from the front and does all these things and I think that energy, that strong, dominant energy is important, but we forget to highlight leadership in a culture how important there is to have a nurturing energy as well.
Hiten: Yeah, more community oriented.
Steli: Yeah, so all right, now that we’ve talked about it and we realized that we both had a person like that, I feel like I did not know that this person needs to exist, so I was never looking for that person explicitly. Is that cool? Should startups not look for that person? Should they do look for that person? How do we think about, like …
Hiten: I think it’s like the way you said at that dinner, that some people were coming and they’re like, “Oh. I know who that person is in my company, or I don’t know who that person is in my company, that person doesn’t exist.” So it’s simply just looking and seeing well, are you at a size where you need that? Usually, truthfully, I think founders are doing that role and playing that role for as long as they can. Sometimes they continue to, right? But once you hit some scale, usually probably around like 20 people, 15 people, some number like that, you start realizing the people who are taking care of it, the founders aren’t always able to kinda pay attention to everybody in that special way.
Hiten: And then having someone who’s either dedicated to that and also taking care of some of the sort of more traditional HR stuff or retreats and things like that, it’s smart. So if you don’t have someone like that in your company and you’re over about a dozen, 15 people, you should probably consider thinking about whether you can budget that hire, or what that looks like. And then usually, I think you’re right, a lot of those folks tend to be office managers or admins to start with. I’ve seen that go really great and really badly. I’ve seen it go really great when that person is promoted into that role. I’ve seen it go really badly when the person is just taking on those responsibilities and still being perceived as who they came in, the role they came into the company for, right? And then they end up leaving and having that sort of upgraded role at another company usually. Because when people, what I’ve learned, is people who are really into that culture and community like that inside a company usually, they tend to want to keep doing that. They’re not somebody who wants to do anything else. Like Cecilia is still coaching founders, it’s the same thing, or CEOs or executives, right? And so I think it’s just … They gravitate towards it.
Steli: The one really important thing is I think to understand that a lot of the value that a person like this creates can’t be measured as easily as other things or cannot be measured at all.
Hiten: Well, that’s why my co-founder Neil wouldn’t have it. In the beginning, he’s like, “Well, I don’t know.” Then he’s like, “Oh, I get it.”
Steli: Because oftentimes we look at people, we put them in certain buckets and it’s like you’re the office manager, are you doing a good office manager job? You’re the support person are you doing a good support job? But here’s the person that you usually don’t hire for that role as a full time role, it’s kind of … We’re looking for somebody everybody will trust and will nurture our team-
Hiten: Yeah, that’s not … We don’t hire for that in that way.
Steli: But then the person might emerge and take on that responsibility, that’s incredibly valuable, but you cannot really measure that. You can’t really have KPIs, do people feel more nurtured and taken care of this quarter than last quarter? That’s a tough thing to really do. Since one of those roles where you … If the founders, the top leadership, if you don’t have culture and people as a priority and keeping a really healthy culture intact and making sure people are really healthy and happy at work, then you’re not going to be able to want to keep that person around or even promote that person in terms of their importance in the company because you’re gonna have a hard time justifying that because there’s no number you can point to that makes this person really, really crucial to the overall company.
Hiten: That’s true. One thing I would say to that is that’s why a lot of these people end up either stuck in HR or have kind of responsibilities that are HR oriented and that kind of goes one of two ways. Like if the person really wants those responsibilities on top of the sort of culture responsibilities, they’ll gravitate towards it and they might even want to have the KPIs, because there are KPIs there. If they don’t though, what do you do? That’s kind of the big question I guess in my mind about this role.
Steli: Yeah. I just had a flash- I don’t know if you ever watch the … what’s the television show called Billions? Have you ever watched that?
Hiten: Yeah, huh.
Steli: The Showtime show. There’s like a psych-
Hiten: Yeah, one of the lead characters, yeah.
Steli: She’s one of the lead characters, she’s like the psychologist of the-
Hiten: At the hedge fund. Yeah, that’s awesome, that’s the role.
Steli: That’s the role. Like, I was just thinking about her. And one thing I want to go back to quickly is at the beginning you said in the early days the founders typically or one of the founders will take on that role and usually the founding team are feeling pretty equal, nobody’s really intimidated by you being the founder hopefully, and everybody speaks very plainly and openly about their issues and challenges, hopefully, and there’s a high degree of trust. But as the team grows, even though no matter how much, and we’ve talked about this in a prior episode where I used to be frustrated by this, where certain people will not open up about certain issues with me, and I would be like, “Why? I’m like the most norm- why can’t you just tell me?”
Hiten: In your opinion.
Steli: In my opinion, I was just like, I just want to, I’m just a team member, like why … And then one of the team leads in our companies was like, “Yeah, but you’re Steli fucking Efti, this guy was watching videos of you for two years before he started. You might think you’re an idiot and I know you are.”
Hiten: They don’t.
Steli: “But this person, he doesn’t feel like sharing all his vulnerable weaknesses with you.” Right? So realizing eventually as you said around the, I think for many teams around the 20 person mark, roles will start to matter a little more, people that come new to the team will start looking at people above them in hierarchy and will open up to a certain degree to which they feel safe, no matter how great the culture is you just to embrace that and find ways around it versus, like, I was for most of the time resisting it and resenting it.
Steli: And being like, “That sucks. Why can’t we all just be the same?”
Steli: So, okay.
Hiten: You should be more vulnerable.
Steli: I try to.
Hiten: Okay, okay.
Steli: There you go, you’re trying to lure me in there.
Hiten: I did.
Steli: But I caught it on early. All right, I don’t know what, should we do an attempt to try and brand this since nobody is really given it a name? Or maybe this is one of those roles that if it had a title it would be a bad thing.
Hiten: I think it would be a bad thing. And sometimes it’s someone’s job on the side.
Hiten: Customer support, head of customer support for example. One company that I know had a customer support feels like, you know, that person’s role is this, but the person’s also running support, right? Sometimes one of the founders is really able to kind of connect with people in that way. I do know when the teams are smaller it’s not a role that you would hire for necessarily and I do believe founders should be doing that.
Steli: Yeah. So I think that’s going to be the tip of the episode today, once you cross that 10, 15 person mark, don’t write a job post maybe, but start looking for who in the team or who you are hiring has that kind of incredibly high emotional IQ, who has a nurturing energy, who’s somebody that has a really good sense of how people feel and what’s going on and somebody that people trust and look for that person as a very important energy. It’s a leadership energy, even if that person doesn’t come with like a VP title. And make sure you give that person the power to really do their job well because it’s going to pay massive dividends in your culture.
Hiten: Yeah, before we wrap up I think one thing we would add is … If you’re looking for this role, you probably just need to interview office managers even if you already have one. Or if you think you don’t need one or even if you’re a remote team.
Steli: Yeah. With an office manager, I like it.
Hiten: Right? And I think you will find that person.
Steli: All right, I think that’s it for today’s episode.
Hiten: Yeah, happy looking.