VENTEUR spoke with Roza Szafranek of HR Hints about building a solid company culture. Szafranek has been working with fast-growing organizations, including startups, since 2014. During that time, she worked in a recruitment agency, led teams, and acted as an HR and people manager. She was also responsible for people and operations for the Polish arm of an American startup. Later, Szafranek started working as an HR freelancer, being recommended by VCs and other startups.
HR Hints is an HR boutique operating on a subscription model dedicated to startups and growing companies. Szafranek is an HR expert with managerial experience and a Ph.D. in psychology. Together with her team, she has supported over 50 best-in-class startups, teaching leaders how to be better with people and quickly develop companies. Szafranek aims to show founders and managers how to build and run organizations based on valuable employees who deliver. Szafranek works with companies such as Ramp Network, JOKR, Infermedica, Packhelp, Zowie, Aleph Zero, and ShopRunner.
How can leaders cultivate a culture of inclusive leadership throughout their organizations, and why does such inclusivity matter?
Diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging cannot be just slogans.
It's our opinion and our team's experience that it's super important to be authentic when implementing any of the above in your organization.
These being cheap talk or empty phrases are much worse than lacking them. Really. A much more common sin of leaders is a lack of authenticity than a lack of diversity. If you are not ready to implement it, maybe you need some numbers.
According to Gartner, inclusive teams perform up to 30% better in high-diversity environments.
It's also estimated that diverse and inclusive companies are 60% more likely to outperform their peers where decision-making is concerned.
McKinsey's analysis finds that companies with the most gender-diverse executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than those without.
On the one hand, it's understandable that, as a leader, you want to work with people similar to you. It's much more manageable. And it's much more comfortable when you think about the many challenges you must face while at the intensive growth stage.
At HR Hints, we see that daily, as we are usually the first external company to help build a team. So this is the moment when a founder has constructed as much as they can with their initial network. We come in, and what do we see? A team of founders' copies.
But, on the other hand, these copies are having great fun, and they feel comfortable working together. But are they able to see the mistakes and problems where founders don't if they have the same point of view, the same background, and they graduated from the same university, eat the same pizza, and listen to the same music?
And it can stop your business' success and your company's growth.
So you should not only build a diverse team for yourself, for your growth and seeing different perspectives, but also for your customers.
How important is recognizing employee achievements to developing a positive work culture, and why?
Employee achievements are the product of their work.
But unfortunately, many managers make two fundamental mistakes: they don't measure the effects of an individual's work, and they don't recognize the job done by their people.
I think we all know these stories about managers assigning someone a task and never asking if it's done, and suddenly, at some point in the future, saying: "Oh, right, there was something to be done here. Who was responsible for that?"
To build an adequate motivational system, we can follow some basic rules.
First, the task of the project should be more ambitious than the person assigned to it can currently do. But not too tricky because they'll give up before starting. And here, I think a great rule is just being super caring as leaders. We can help others' ambitions grow and develop, but we cannot force anything. If we want to be good leaders, there shouldn't be words like "force" or "violence" in our dictionary, even if we're passionate about what we do.
Sometimes it can be challenging, especially for leaders who are also founders of the company. Employees work differently and don't have the engagement and motivation like the founder. So it's essential to expect only what is realistic and know where the boundaries are.
And stay open when someone sends a message that their boundaries differ from yours. That's the moment for recognition and reminding yourself how difficult and challenging it is to give feedback to leaders.
That's a huge thing; we should appreciate it and thank them.
And one more thing, when we talk about recognition, we need to ignore older generations speaking to us in our heads; "My grandfather didn't recognize me for anything. If I don't comment, that means all is good.”
If something is good, say it out loud.
What should celebrating employees' milestones and achievements look like, and why?
The first thing is to have these milestones in the first place.
So many fast-growing companies we work with daily reach the next steps in the plan and need to remember where they were a few months ago.
That's great on the one hand because the pace is speedy, a lot is going on, and the future is promising for founders and their employees. But on the other hand, it's super easy to lose long-term vision in such cases.
We usually describe the company's culture based on three layers.
The first layer of values is the driver of the company culture.
Next are behaviors and rituals, which give more color and detail to what we set up with those values.
And finally, we have interactions, so all these small things between people in the organization, including manager-employee relations, flow between teammates, and between teams.
Celebrating achievements should be part of the second one, company practices and rituals.
As in social and private life, company life should be based on rhythm and regular cycles of communication, updates, and information sharing. Even if we move fast, we must give our people frames and transparent rules. Sometimes leaders think that chaos in startups and fast-growing companies is acceptable, and that's just the way of operating in such companies.
According to The American Institute of Stress, 83% of American workers suffer from work-related stress. So what are three out-of-the-box ways leaders can help reduce their employees' work-related stress and add to work culture, and why these three?
What we see in workplaces, primarily when we work with first-time founders or people joining startups as their first job, is that they expect boundaries to be given and described to us by someone else. And work-related stress often comes from the feeling that we don't meet standards or that someone will judge our work below the manager's expectations.
These are the moments when we need to take care not only of our willingness to be great performers but also ourselves.
Not every place of employment will give us healthy boundaries, and not every leader will be experienced in setting them up.
So, there are moments you need to negotiate and sometimes even fight for them.
Second, we need role models and company leadership to speak out loud about the consequences of not taking mental health seriously.
First-time founders we work with hear that mental health problems, mainly work-related stress, are common and significant problems. But usually, at the same time, they think: "oh yes, that's so true, but it doesn't concern me." And next week, they pass out from exhaustion or cannot concentrate because they neglected the symptoms of depression for too long.
We work with leaders who are burned out, although they raise huge rounds.
We need to understand that success is not the cure for being tired.
And we need people to speak about it with boldness.
The third thing is rather practical. It's based on cognitive behavioral therapy. I'm not a therapist myself, but with a Master's and Ph.D. in Psychology, I had an opportunity to ask experts what CBT methods could be used in business practice.
Everyone can use a basic technique: mental exercises based on "what if…"
For example, if we are terrified of the consequences of our performance not being perfect, try thinking that through: "what if I was fired now?" or "what if my manager is disappointed in me like they've never been before?"
In the process of that exercise, we find out that our fear and anxiety are, 80% of the time, not as significant as our actual problems.
But, of course, it cannot replace therapy.
We must remember that any manager, even one with great psychological sensitivity and awareness, is not a doctor or therapist.
If we suffer from work-related stress, we need to talk to experts.
66% of American workers suffer from sleep deprivation caused by work-related stress. How can leaders determine whether these issues are due to toxicities stemming from leadership or compartmentalized toxicities that happen without the leaders' knowledge, and how can they be addressed?
On the one hand, we cannot forget that leaders are also on a journey.
We now have access to a lot of research showing that line managers, those leading their teams and responsible for reporting to Heads or C-Suite, are the most tired group in a company. That’s in any company, from startups to international corporations.
That's why we need to move our HR and leadership forces to that area to educate and support line managers. Today, practices that the manager or HR don't know about wrong habits that line managers present are unacceptable.
HR must check if all the managers are working up to the same standards (E.g., doing one-on-one meetings with every employee, organizing team meetings, having clear paths of work reporting, and giving and receiving feedback).
An excellent solution for being on the same page with company values and aims is skip-level one-on-ones. They help higher-level managers understand different points of view, typically those who work directly with customers.
People from inside the company will have great ideas for improvement too. What's usually missing here, but is super important, is the context of the problems.
Common thinking in that aspect is that this is "biased," and it's much better to let a new expert or manager handle a crisis.
But as research shows, that's not true.
It's much easier to make mature decisions when you've known the organization for longer than to do so from an expert position.
Finally, reacting immediately is crucial when we see some toxic work culture elements.
Going directly to the consequences of unacceptable behaviors or practices in the organization guarantees that other company members see and understand the rules. As we say in HR Hints, organizational culture's worst accepted behavior becomes standard.
So, even if we need to learn how to react when the incident occurs, we should refer to it or, at least, comment publicly afterward, to send a clear message about what the rules are.
Not all environments need creators. However, what value can a creator work culture add to an organization, what might that culture look like, and how does one develop it from the ground up?
Stable organizations are excellent for some types of employees, but the negative side is that they grow slowly.
That's the pain we often see when we work with growing companies. Founders start to ask: how is it possible that having 300 people onboard, I don't move three times faster than when we were 100?
Yes, that's how it works.
And that's also why corporations are still interested in learning from startups and small, fast-paced companies. And we know it's the same as creating new things and working in chaos.
Repeatable frameworks are an excellent method of work for a stable business.
Still, from time to time, we need a kind of shaking moment to move forward. The pandemic showed it excellently. Many companies added additional services and features to their standard portfolio to survive.
And they win.
It's surprisingly common that some companies are growing in crisis, showing us that we need to think unconventionally. That brings insecurity, and everything changes all the time, which is neither safe nor pleasant daily, can be good for business, and getting out of the comfort zone is needed in the industry.
Startups often require employees to do more for less and do so with smiles. How can leaders spot when employees are overworked, positively intervene, and what corrective actions should be taken, and why?
We must remember that we are most burdened after the last few years: first pandemic, isolation, then war; great resignation, quiet quitting, zoom fatigue.
The main thing leaders can teach their people is honest communication.
Not saying: "we can work up to 12 hours a day, no more 16-hour days" or "work-life balance means not working after 6 pm."
Research shows that more than 80% of IT workers want to talk about their mental condition at work, and less than half of workplaces give space for this.
That's why we need to prioritize straightforward communication in organizations. If something violates my boundaries, I have the freedom to say so if I don't want to accept something.
Most importantly, the organization must not only say that it gives space for it but be responsible when it receives it.
Many managers make the following mistake: they invite employees to share feedback and voice their opinions, and then, having been in a situation where the employees are talking about difficulties and troubles, they punish them.
This punishment is usually indirect.
For example, their influence in the company diminishes, they are no longer invited to critical meetings, and they are treated as a "problem employee."
Then the rest of the office learns that this declaration of openness was a ruse and that there's no point in being open.
Nothing can protect our organizations from burnout and stress as effectively as employees. It's worth making a real effort here so that people speak up when they're tired, when their boundaries are crossed or when they're having some personal difficulty.
Does offering benefits such as four-day work weeks, unlimited PTO, health insurance, and the ability to work from home make up for toxic workplace cultures?
Benefits are another thing.
And, for many people, they matter.
But they are not the answer and a supplement for toxic workplace cultures.
When we ask employees in recruitment processes and read the research, we see very clearly that the most important aspects for them are three areas.
The first is a challenging project, so the chance and opportunity to learn something new and gain new knowledge and skills.
The second is the team.
More often than before the pandemic, people ask headhunters about the manager.
We see that the earlier the candidate can meet the manager in the recruitment process, the better the chance they continue with the process.
And the third thing is the money.
Great employees have so many chances to work in coherent and honest cultures that communicate what they want and live up to it that they don't have to stay in toxic workplaces.
If we find out our company is toxic, we should immediately react by implementing changes (changing the manager, recovery programs, and communication plan). If we don't, we can be sure that the best people will leave, and we'll be left with those with no other choice.
The benefits are great, of course, and many people appreciate them. However, they are just a bonus and icing on the cake; they cannot replace healthy management or a manager's response to inappropriate behavior in the company. Lack of toxicity in an organization is the responsibility of its leaders, and it is in their interest to regularly take care of it and review organizational standards.