Masterclass on Remote Work: Management with empathy, fostering a values-based culture (Part 2 of 2)

How do you build a fast growing startup team that builds a world-class product? This is part two, focusing on management with empathy and how to build an organic remote work culture from scratch that is truly collaborative. 

My colleague Katelin Holloway (partner at Initialized, formerly head of people at multi-billion dollar startup Reddit) sits down with Shogun cofounders Finbarr Taylor (former engineer at Y Combinator) and Nick Raushenbush (former cofounder of famed video production co Glass & Marker) and they talk through all the things that they did to succeed.

Here is what we cover in this masterclass: 
01:00 Managing culture remotely 
01:54 Weekly check-ins and 1:1s with leadership 
02:29 Remote work requires trust by default 
03:45 How to run a 1:1 remotely 
04:52 Forming an organic remote culture 
08:53 How to communicate values 
11:39 How to handle management when things go wrong 
13:17 How to handle performance issues 
15:02 How to handle misalignment in values 
16:39 Rewards and recognition 
17:42 Approaching diversity and inclusion 
19:52 Remote work in the time of coronavirus

Keeping up with the culture and heartbeat of the organization as founders

Katelin: Most times, companies associate culture with the live interaction between people, you know, the who and how of an organization. If you were doing this all remotely, and primarily in Slack it sounds like, or Zoom, how as founders, do you know, when your community is thriving, and when it's hurting? What are those touch points? You talked about measuring things, and NPS surveys, things like that, but how do you as founders stay connected to the kind of the heartbeat of your culture, especially if you scale?

Finbarr: I think it's really in the way that we've structured the company—still fairly flat. But the way that we organize from a hierarchy perspective—Nick and I are co-founders, and then we have a leadership team that works very closely with us. 

Each of those people on that leadership team—we do a weekly check-in call with each one of them. A one on one call. Something that we really encourage at Shogun is just directness and transparency. I think you absolutely have to have that in our organization. 

We are very direct and transparent with all of our team members, and we ask that they're direction and transparent with us in exchange. 

I think that it has really fostered a culture where people are very open about how they're feeling about things. And there's a lot of trust. You know, one of the primary hurdles, to get over when you move from being in an office to being in a remote environment is, you kind of have to default to trust. You have to trust that your people are actually doing the best that they can and that they're working. 

Of course, you put in systems in place where you actually are able to see the output and kind of measure—that people are getting things done. But the default day to day is, you just trust that everybody is doing the best that they can. 

You have to make sure that your channels of communication are open for any feedback. 

I regularly ask people, "do you have any questions, comments, concerns or feedback?" I must have said that a million times. 

Then I sometimes push even further into specific ones—parts of that question. It really is just about creating a culture of transparency and trust, where people feel that they can be honest with you on their feelings. 

We've said to our team members: Come to us with your biggest problems and your complaints and the things that are bothering you and you'd be surprised how receptive we are to those things. The essential thing is just creating open communication and trust.

How check-ins work at Shogun

Nick: You've got your check-ins with your directors, and managers, who have teams. 

We kind of alternate between two templates, one that's kind of a standard check-in, and then another one it's like a team member deep-dive that actually goes into how the individuals on that team are doing. You kind of monitor that, and then obviously can schedule follow up one on ones, with those individual contributors, to see how they're doing. 

How do I structure those one on ones? The first question is always, "How are you? How are you feeling? How is it working at Shogun? Any, you know, any blockers, anything that's preventing you from reaching your goals? How can we empower you to reach your goals? And then to succeed in your role?" 

Asking if there's any systemic issues that they're seeing in the product, and the function of the company, and just really opening it up for questions to them. 

Being very genuine in the way that you do that. 

The non-management aspect of culture forming? It forms, it totally does. It might be a little different than in person office, but like, we got memes, we've got GIFs! We've got, emojis, right? You know, there's all this stuff, and you can see the health because, when you post, people react— they've even made like custom emojis of team members faces. 

So it just becomes like an online culture. We're all a little bit kind of introverts. We're all kind of dorky, and we just, I don't know how to put it. 

We have like a Slack channel where we share music. I discovered in Spotify that someone had taken the time to compile like the, Now That's What I Call Music, volumes one through 50. And so like when quarantines started, I shared that, and you know, it's just kind of have reactions there. We have a random channel, where we just share a bunch of memes, and jokes, and stuff. It's there, it's just different than it would be at an in person office.

Finbarr: Yeah, we have a book club. We have a baby channel, where people are posting pictures of their dogs, and children, you know, there's quite a bit of social interaction. More than you might expect, when people are in so many different places around the world!

Meeting in person like old friends, despite being remote

Katelin: I think in terms of helping people connect and the intersectionality that is us as humans— we show up to work, we have our personal identity, we have our professional identity, and those things marry, I think a bit more, when you are working and operating, primarily in text, and remote. Are you finding that? In these channels that are maybe not work related, are you finding that people are finding deeper connections and then spiraling product, or innovation, from those conversations?

Finbarr: About deeper connections, the thing which really drove home for me the fact that our culture is working is that we did an on off-site event in Toronto last year where flew in 23 or so people (we plan to do another one in July this year in Costa Rica but we postponed it with the coronavirus unfortunately, we're hoping to reboot that soon) — but, seeing all these people, flying to Toronto from all around the world, and meeting each other in person for the very first time, and us meeting them in person for the very first time. Seeing how they interacted with each other as old friends would interact with each other. And how they already knew each other. 

They were joking with each other! It wasn't awkward. It just worked. They just... the awkwardness you might expect when you get 20 strangers from the internet in a room together didn't really exist. They all knew each other and were friends. I think it just fundamentally works. At least for us.

Nick: I felt like it was really interesting recently talking to a member of our engineering team who attended our Shogun frontend hackathon, in person in Sao Paulo. And he said something, I forget the exact phrasing, but he was like, I had never met them before, but I knew them. Like many companies who are kind of looking for a certain type of person, that kind of shares our values. And I think that that's recognized when people meet in person, they end up able very easily to foster these connections between each other.

Shogun's values: A collaborative process across the whole team

Katelin: Working and operating with a distributed team. How do you feel you communicate your values to everyone in the company? And how do you know that everyone is appropriately living those values?

Finbarr: We actually did a really interesting exercise a few months ago. I sent a question to every single person in the company. I said to all of them, what are the top two or three things that you value? What are the two or three most important things that are important to you? As we have raised this money, and as we're looking to scale, or as we're about to scale up a lot, what should we make absolutely sure that we maintain about the culture here and what's important to you? 

I got 37 responses from people all around the world. And was absolutely blown away by how much overlap there was in what was important to people. The exercise became making a spreadsheet that kind of correlate all the responses, and stack ranking them based on how important they were to people. 

We used that as a basis for defining three values for the company. 

The three values are:

  • Work in the open. Be transparent with each other and be very forthright, and have high integrity. 
  • People are people. You have a lot of compassion and understanding, and assume the best in everybody. That that applies for ourselves, for our customers, for other for other team members. 
  • And then the third one is, individual growth. We kind of win and grow together as a company. Growth of the individual, is growth of the company overall, as people improve themselves, then that extends to what we're all doing. 

I think it kind of happened naturally. We just found a group of people that shared those key things. Some of the questions that we ask in interview, really helped to highlight whether or not there's alignment on some of those values. And we defined values quite recently. 

The values that we have are truly the values everybody—we didn't just make them up. It's the values that our team told us they're important to them.

Katelin: That's awesome. All right, one of the the ways we talk about diversity and inclusion, in the modern era of workplace and organization, as it relates to culture, we say, diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance. But really, it's about when they play your song, that's when you know that you're there. 

I think that if we take our values set, and our values alignment, as our inclusion factor, then we can focus on diversity in in our hiring process. Sounds like you've been very thoughtful about both of those, which is amazing. So, talk to me about, what happens when one of those factors or vectors goes wrong. What happens when someone isn't meeting expectations, either from a performance standpoint, or a values expectation standpoint?

How to handle performance issues and missing OKRs

Nick: Let's touch initially on performance. So one thing that's really important, I feel, especially in remote work is, making sure that you, that each team member has a north star. So that they know, when they're working, what they should be working towards. 

The way that we make that transparent is by OKRs, so that people have a usually a quantitative metric that they are focused on- sometimes I refer it to moving your number. Right? You're trying to work to move that number, whatever that number may be. 

So, those are again, articulated very clearly, and transparent across the organization using a software. We happen to use

Everyone gets visibility, and everyone else's goals, and people work towards that quantitative north star. 

The other cool thing that I like about that is that you can integrate it with Slack. And then as people go and update it Slack prompts them to do updates, and then sends the updates to mentors. 

So you don't even need to go and check in with people about their goals, you can have most of your check in being focused on: How can I unblock you, to get to your goal? Or how can I empower you even more to reach your goal? And then less of having to ask them what their number is, because it's already there. 

When there are performance issues and all the other issues in terms of the values are being met— Our first reaction is "How can we help you? How can we empower you? Right, let's, sit down, let's talk about the situation. And let's identify a path forward to just get you the support, you need to hit your goal." 

If there continues to be performance issues, we kind of, try to dig into why? Again, always assume the best in people. Before I ever have like a performance conversation, where there's been negative performance, I always start off the conversation with, How are you? How are you doing? Because you don't know what that person could be going through in their life. Maybe it's a difficult time for them. But if that's all looking clear, then alright, well, let's talk about performance. 

These don't need to be difficult conversations. Create a clear concise written plan for having that person move forward that has clear, and ideally quantitative goals for them to kind of hit. 

At a certain point though, sometimes a hard decision is needed around performance improvement, and at that point, I think that it's important for founders to realize that you actually have a responsibility to be selfish to the company, right? Because it's not just you. It's not just you about having to have this awkward conversation. It's about what's doing best for your entire team, and your entire company, because everybody else also relies on the right decision being made there. 

Finbarr, how would you handle it, if there was an issue with with a misalignment in terms of values?

How do you handle misalignment of values?

Finbarr: It's really important, especially now that we have the values defined, that we try and elicit any kind of conflict on those, during the interview process, so we just try and avoid that situation occurring. In instances where there's been a clear misalignment, you sometimes have to just give people that direct feedback, and say, "hey, that's not how we do things here." 

These are the things that are important to us. How do I know they're important? Because we asked the whole team and they told us that was what was important to them. 

If you end up in a situation where somebody is misaligned with you on integrity or something, it's just game over. There's really not a lot you can do there. If there's a conflict on integrity, that's just not something you can resolve or easily. Trust takes a long time to earn, and it can be very quick to lose, I think. It really depends on what the value is. If it's... not having... respect or compassion for team members, that's something that you can have a conversation around, you might be able to address that. 

Respect is difficult. You know, if people don't respect, that's pretty tough to coach. The values that we have are simple, and really should be base line. We really should identify, before we make you an offer, that there's a problem with some of the values.

When things go right, be sure to recognize and reward

Katelin: Let's think about the flip side of this. Typically when people think performance management, they they go immediately to putting someone on a performance improvement plan, or a success program. What about the opposite of that? The rewards and recognition. So being distributed remote, this isn't as simple as getting up in front of the company at all hands and say, "Hey Sarah, come on down, let's all give Sarah a round of applause." What do rewards and recognition look like in a distributed work workforce?

Nick:  That's a great question. We find that rewards are best in the form of recognition, title change, and merit based compensation adjustment. We generally focus on those areas. 

Our operations team actually starting next quarter is going to formally build and roll out career paths, for everybody. What's really important for a lot of team members is knowing their trajectory. We're now hearing a lot of our team members saying "I love working at Shogun, I want to work here for the foreseeable future of my career. And how can I grow?" 

So creating a clear path where they can see that and know what they need to achieve, in order to reach their professional goals.

On diversity when hiring remotely

Katelin: We talked earlier about how naturally your top of funnel has been fairly diverse. Just given that you are able to source talent from the the whole world over, so diverse demographics, backgrounds, points of views, perspective, all of those things that make building a more innovative, interesting global product viable. So, tell me though, if your top of funnel is naturally diverse, or organically diverse, does that mean that you are not employing other diversity hiring tactics?

Nick: Yeah, that's a great question. As we scale, diversity and inclusion remains like top of mind. We realized that it was occurring organically, but it actually does take effort to ensure that continues to exist. So what we've done is we've actually built that into our operations team, we now have an individual that focuses full time on talent acquisition. 

You're always going to hire the best person for the job. That's number one. And, the effort in having that coexist simultaneously with a diverse team, means that you will need to really increase the breadth of your talent pool. We've done that. We've also started to look at really awesome companies like Elpha and PowerToFly, and focused on exploring those avenues, and just kind of exhausting all of these additional avenues and resources for promoting diversity.

Katelin: That's awesome. I would also give a shout out here to The Mom Project. They're a really phenomenal resource for women who are returning to work after taking some time off to raise children. Many of them are, they come from very, very experienced backgrounds. So just really, really a rich talent pool. They're really great. 

Dealing with COVID-19 as a remote team

Katelin: The last question. I know that you all are very accustomed to working remotely, which is why we knocked on your door to ask you for your best practices and your tips. So thank you so much for sharing with us. But I am very curious, and I think that it's important for the audience to know what is it actually like working remotely, during this time of crisis, with COVID-19? It feels very, very different to those of us who are not accustomed to working from home. 

How does it feel to an organization who has already been doing this and been in practice? Is it the same or is it different?

Finbarr: It's definitely different. Working from home when you don't have any choice, feels very different to working from home when you have a choice. It's when you can't do something, you suddenly realize you want to do it. 

You know, even if in your regular schedule, you wouldn't normally go outside, the fact that you don't have the choice to go outside, means you feel a little stuck inside. It's something we're definitely aware of. I think the whole situation has been, obviously a major event. 

That's happening for everybody, and a hugely concerning thing that's happening for everybody. And I don't think that teams that were already remote are immune from that. Everybody's very aware of that. 

One thing that we've seen, which has kind of been quite eye opening: We have team members in countries around the world, including some areas that are pretty badly affected by coronavirus. We're getting first hand account of what that is meaning for their lives. In places like Italy and South Korea, it definitely is taking a toll on the team. 

I think this is a time where, more than ever, we need to be compassionate and understanding towards our people, and towards our customers, and everybody we interact with. If you know for anybody who is experiencing working remotely for the first time under these force conditions, if you're not enjoying it, I'm not surprised. And you know, I would say, try it sometime when it's an optional thing.

Nick: Our approach in near term is a lot of compassion and flexibility. Just identifying that this is a highly abnormal event, and it's disruptive to people's lives. And having empathy for that. 

In terms of how we're planning for the future, because we've been informed this can go on for months. This is at least going on to the the end of this whole year, potentially further and into the summer, obviously, it's a new dynamic for a lot of team members who are used to working at home by themselves in their home office, now having their their partner home, or kids at home as well. It changes the whole thing. 

Immediately what we had the other week, was we started to incorporate weekly yoga, and guided meditation, which is pretty cool. Now, that's going to be a weekly thing, thanks to our operations team. 

In addition to that, in terms of hardware, we got some requests for noise cancelling headphones. We're considering that, and whether we can you know, roll out some of that. 

In terms of software stuff, even as simple as Brain fm, I think is like this really good focus type of music, that helps you get in the zone and focus. Tools that help you monitor your productivity, even if you notice that your productivity is declining. It's good to have the data, right? Knowledge is power. And so using tools like Qbserve and RescueTime, and understanding how your productivity is being impacted, it's just good to know. 

We've even kicked around the idea for folks that have have kids at home, perhaps sponsoring some Disney plus subscriptions, and things like that. Again, they've just come up during our operations team brainstorm, but you get the idea. We're trying to proactively think of ways that we can help out our team members, in adjusting to this different work from home type situation. 

We have decided to take the stance that, everybody gets paid time off. That it's not PTO, or sick leave, but that is just, extenuating circumstance relief, for every team member, at Shogun, and in the form of paid time off. If you become ill, or if your family members become ill, and you need to care for them.

Katelin: I think that's amazing. I said this earlier, and I will say it again, I've had the pleasure of, working with, working for, and studying, some of the best cultures, and corporate cultures on earth, and I think that the way you too have been very, very thoughtful about building your company, you really are thinking through in ways that are very, very high integrity, and I am very glad to get to know you. And I'm very, very grateful that you shared some of these best practices so that more and more companies can adopt them during this very odd time. So, thank you both so much for sharing, and joining, and I look forward to working with you both in the future.

Finbarr: Great to chat with you.

Nick: Awesome.