In my role of Chief Growth Officer, my focus is on growth (obviously), but what that is limited to is an area where I do my best to keep the boundaries blurry. Growth, after all, is more than just improving marketing ROAS or venturing into new products or markets. When you’re focusing on growth, you also need to focus on growth for your employees and the company as a whole. But how do you grow people, especially outside of general HR type practices?
The way I went about this was by a simple project: I made it a point to sit down and talk with every employee in our company.
It was a project that I undertook with a bit of trepidation. After all, opening the door to communication may sound great on the surface, but you’re also opening the door to hear things that you may not necessarily want to hear. Knowing this, I went into this with that as an actual goal: I encouraged my team members to tell me everything – good and bad.
I didn’t look for a specific set of answers, and I especially wasn’t looking to guide a conversation to reenforce my own biases as to what we should be doing and focusing our efforts on. Instead, I put together a simple guide for how the conversation would go, and put in a time limit of a half hour so we could do our best to stay on track (some ran over, some ran under – but it helped to keep discussions generally on topic).
Here’s how a general conversation was structured.
1.) I’d go over current projects that we’re working on. In my opinion, a company can only achieve its goals if the individuals within the company has an idea of what those goals are, and what we’re doing to achieve them. By going over current projects, and their purpose, I was able to put into context why certain things the employees were working on mattered, and how they fit into the much larger picture. For example, an increased focus on a specific kind of product from our publications team was tied to another project that our tech team was working on, which had been guided by customer feedback and feature requests (vague, I know – but I went into much more detail with the employee – I just can’t go into detail publicly here).
2.) I’d ask the employee “What, in your opinion is our purpose? Why are we here? Why do we exist?” We’ve been doing what we do for a while now, but we also haven’t ever put together an exact company mission statement – in particular because we’re always growing with changes in the market and technology. That said, we do have a very good idea of who we are and what our purpose is – but the reason for this discussion in particular was to get an idea of what individuals in the company thought. Ideally, people would be on the same page (they were) and their vision would closely mirror what we have focused on at the executive level (it was). We plan on using this feedback in the future in a project to put together an official company vision / mission statement.
3.) I’d ask “What are we doing right?” This was an opportunity for employees to tell us where our strong points as a company are. It dovetailed nicely from the purpose statement question, and gave us guidance on areas that we should look at continuing down the path we’re currently on.
4.) Lastly I’d ask “What are we doing wrong? What should be be doing differently, or is there something we’re totally missing?” This was the point where the potential for uncomfortable conversations could begin, but it was also the most important part of the conversation. Going into this section of the discussion with an open mind, and actively listening to the employee was key here. I made it a point to not interject, but instead to let the employee go through what they wanted to discuss. In some instances there were areas or ideas that we may have already address in the past, with less-than-desirable results, so it was a useful opportunity to go through past learnings with the employee. In many other instances, however, there were either a.) interesting ideas we hadn’t thought of, or b.) ideas that actually tied in directly to what our future plans were within the company. In particular, it was great to hear the “what could we be doing better” match up with upcoming projects and focus areas, as it helped to reinforce that even though we aren’t perfect, we’re on a path to continue to improve.
The biggest takeaway from my discussions though was that people wanted to have more communication. It wasn’t that they had a need to go what was going on because they felt they were being left out, or avoided – but instead that in order for them to do their best work it was important for them to know how what they were doing fit in to the larger picture and goals of the company. The employees wanted to know that what they were doing mattered and had a purpose. Likewise, they didn’t want to be caught off-guard when new things were happening that might affect them and what it was they were working on. Based on this feedback, we’ve done major work on implementing better communications systems (through a HipChat integration, and work on expanding our departmental “big boards”). It’s an ongoing process, but one that we are taking very seriously.
It’s also important to note that sitting down with me was not a requirement – but an invitation. At first not everyone was keen on speaking with me, especially as they had no idea what to expect – but as individuals had their discussions, and told others about the experience, others signed up. These discussions where not performance reviews. They were opportunities for people to communicate their opinions, ideas and frustrations with someone here who would listen.
There was no promise that anything brought up in these discussions would ever actually happen, but I made it a point to take notes of everything we discussed. Some issues bubbled up as things that needed to be addressed, and some ideas were simple things that we could test easily. Other items were catalysts for larger discussions within the company, which were brought up for discussion at the executive level. Most important, though, was the fact that I was able to talk to the people who make our company what it is, and learn from them how we can do a better job accomplishing our goals.
I strongly recommend that you take the time to sit down with your own team whenever you can – and when you’re done, make sure they know your “door is open” for them to stop by whenever they have a question or idea. Again, don’t make promises you can’t keep – but keep an open mind. There’s a reason the people on your team are there – and you never know where your next big win might come from.
In the end I spoke with nearly two dozen employees, most of which I had minimal daily interactions with. Our relationship is stronger now.