Squashing Culture Bugs with The Coming Disruption in HR Leadership, Transparency, and Communication

By Joy Walters Sybesma, Chief People Officer, Kargo

Joy Walters Sybesma, Chief People Officer, Kargo

Even great places to work experience culture bugs from time to time. Like programming bugs, culture bugs can derail your organization unless addressed swiftly and thoroughly. Culture bugs can be particularly endemic in start-ups where the combination of rapid growth and a mostly millennial, untenured workforce can cycle into larger problems.

When I joined Kargo almost three years ago, it was going through a period of explosive growth. Kargo is a mobile ad tech company that puts innovative, engaging ads in premium (translated: real news) content on smartphones. 2016 had been proclaimed the “Year of Mobile” by the advertising press, and we were experiencing what would be the second consecutive year of 100% year over year growth.

You may think that sounds like a nice problem to have, but the fact is that as we moved from approximately 125 employees at the start of 2016, continuing to just under 300 by the start of 2017, an unexpected outcome of our rapid growth was the development of some culture bugs.


What are culture bugs?

Culture bugs are problems that are not directly related to the product, revenue or business, but can impact those areas due to employee dissatisfaction or dysfunction. Common culture bugs are entitlement, favoritism, micromanagement, cliques, gossip, backstabbing, turf wars, inconsistency, and confusion of purpose to name a few.

What were Kargo’s bugs?

One of the processes that I put in place when I came on board was a semi-annual “temperature check” or anonymous survey to uncover what was working, what wasn’t, what was making people happy, and what was bumming them out. We would then analyze and share the results back with the organization at town hall meetings so that the whole company was looped in and felt included.

The first few temperature checks confirmed that everyone was working hard, feeling rewarded and proud of the product we were selling. It probably didn’t hurt that we had a blockbuster offsite meeting in Costa Rica that year where all employees from engineers, designers, accountants to the leadership team spent three days celebrating all that we had accomplished together. But by early spring 2017, the check-in told a different story. For the first time, people were frustrated. They felt that people were receiving undeserved promotions, that there were rifts between the “old school” employees who had been around for three or more years and the “newbies” who had come on board more recently. Additionally, there was a general feeling that Kargo’s leaders were no longer being as transparent as they used to be.

So, how did we handle them?

The results were a shock to us, but once we started to look more deeply, it was easy to see how each had come about. Accusations of favoritism in promotions were rooted in how we were communicating those changes, both to the individual who was getting promoted as well as to those who were not. Any young, rapidly growing organization will have a preponderance of young, first-time managers.

And while these managers had clear reasons why they might be elevating a certain individual over his or her peers, those reasons were not being shared with their teams, giving the illusion of favoritism. What might have come more naturally for an experienced manager never crossed the minds of our rookies: have 1:1 conversation with those who were not being promoted about why they were not and what they would need to do to achieve the next level. That way, instead of being demotivated by a promotion that they viewed as potentially arbitrary, they had a roadmap that they could use to achieve their next steps.

"To address the feeling that there were “cliques” of veterans and newbies, and that they didn’t mingle, we chose a different approach. We started free seasonal “Mystery Lunches” that employees were encouraged to attend. "

To address the feeling that there were “cliques” of veterans and newbies, and that they didn’t mingle, we chose a different approach. We started free seasonal “Mystery Lunches” that employees were encouraged to attend. Mystery Lunches were composed of a mix of employees from different departments and tenures and were held at a nearby restaurant that wasn’t announced until 30 minutes before the reservation time, making both the lunch location and guests a mystery right up until the meal itself. We received rave reviews for these surprise events, and people genuinely enjoyed meeting new people who they otherwise not have had an opportunity to speak with. The result was that the walls between groups started to break down as people learned that they had things in common.

The last challenge, a perceived lack of transparency, was particularly disappointing because the leadership team felt that it WAS being transparent with our teams. But what we realized from this feedback is that while the organization had nearly tripled in size over the past three years, we hadn’t changed the way we communicated with them. So while previously, an informal chat with the president in the middle of the office would be heard and participated in by the better part of the organization, we were now spread out over seven offices and three continents. We needed to do a better job. One of the changes we implemented was regular newsletter communication from our leadership team to all employees to ensure that everyone was getting the same messaging. And we also instituted regular town hall meetings to make sure that everyone would have a chance to hear from and ask questions of not just our leaders, but their presenting peers as well. The town halls were such a tremendous success, that we now host them weekly, which seems like a heavy lift, but with presenters from across the organization weighing in, it has diversified the content, provided a more well-rounded picture of the organization, and educated our employees on a wide range of topics.

We learned some valuable lessons from this experience.

1. Great employees don’t necessarily make great managers without being trained. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for even the best employees to transition seamlessly into managers without training and support. Especially in a startup environment where many employees are having their first real-world work experience, they have few, if any role models to draw upon.

2. What worked in the past may not work in the future. As Kargo grew, our casual communications style didn’t work anymore. While we may have felt that formalizing messaging wasn’t “our style” it was important to do so to ensure that everyone received it.

3. Even highly successful, high performing companies can hit a wall. Overcoming the challenge has everything to do with how deeply you examine what the underlying issues are, and how quickly and transparently you address them.

4. Lastly, we learned that culture bugs, like any bug, can be successfully deactivated. Shortly after these issues were surfaced and addressed, Kargo applied for a Great Place to Work certification. We were thrilled to have received a top score and ultimately earned recognition as one of the top small to mid-sized companies to work for in New York City last year.

Ultimately, we learned that while no one WANTS a culture bug, they can be helpful in pointing out what you might otherwise not see from a leadership position. Knowing that they happen and that they can be successfully addressed should help companies uncover and exterminate them before they cause lasting damage.

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