A Fathers Pride & Joy
I used to work for a company called Smartly.io, hailing out of Helsinki, Finland, renowned for having a solid culture. The following article is about trying to inspire the company to discuss and formulate its purpose during a yearly all-hands event for the entire company.
Smartly.io helps the world's biggest B2C advertisers scale their paid social advertising by automation and thought leadership. Initially, Smartly.io served customers within the Facebook ecosystem but has expanded to other paid social platforms such as Pinterest, Snapchat, and Twitter.
Working for Smartly.io, you weren't "saving the world." Still, the company has managed to recruit and retain the best & brightest in the local scene & globally due to a solid culture and strong employer branding (read about in the Smartlies culture handbook) combined with favorable monetary incentive models for employees.
One crucial part of building and maintaining the culture was the company habit of running all-hands events every six months and later on an annual basis called Futur.io's. I won't go into an overview of why and what they are as it's something you can read in blog posts from their CEO, COO & employees from different years. However, I coordinated the exercise covered below from the very same one.
What I'd hope to highlight is what these events function as and why they are essential in terms of building company culture:
- They serve as a very effective way to build trust and provide inspiration within the organization distributing leadership by deliberate design. If you're benchmarking "self-organizing organizations" or "purpose-driven organizations," Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Redhat, has dedicated an entire chapter about their events in the book "The Open Organization." You can find examples of these from different companies in different formats in Fredrik Laloux Reinventing Organizations.
- They serve as an opportunity to involve everyone to discuss and refactor your cultural "foundation" regularly. Many companies may successfully undergo culture change projects or do some exercise to articulate the company values at an early stage. However, few make it part of their operational cadence.
Culture is not a static thing. If you don’t regularly refactor, you'll accumulate corporate debt, much like you get technical debt. It's also hard to find time a place for this type of discussion if you don't deliberately make everyone "stop what they are doing" and allow them to have the time to focus on the task.
Please don't go and time this with your high business seasons. Make it fit your company cadence. Again, referring to my other writings, this is an opportunity to create a "breathing exercise" for the company.
During my three-year tenure at Smartly, I was tasked to coordinate, design, and run these all-hands events alongside my other People Ops and L&D-related duties. No event was equal. Their function evolved as the company grew and demanded different content.
My intention is not to cover all what-why-and-how for these events as that's a series of articles. Instead, I'll cover one strategic initiative covered during one of the events that I found meaningful. It was one of the most challenging ones since we needed to establish and articulate its purpose where the company had never done it before.
What made this an arduous task was a leadership team and founders that hadn't put any thought into it before the exercise. It was a company operating in a business domain that many wouldn't describe as "meaningful." and me not having the mandate by leadership to ensure it’s incorporated in the business. Since I don't own the outcome, I can't ensure the company delivers on the promise of the statement made, unlike my previous experience at Slush as it’s President.
Usually, companies with purpose statements that ring true within the organization and outside have people like Reid Hastings at the helm. They would generally advise others on this matter by saying.
“Don’t teach people how to build a boat, teach them to yarn for the vast endless sea” — Reid Hastings
I choose to highlight this comment because it encapsulates the reason for having a purpose statement. It helps people give a sense of direction where there could be many directions to choose from and where it's their job to figure out how to get there.
If you're hiring people more intelligent than you, they'll reinvent sea fair for you, and if they're the right people, they'll enjoy the sea and not the mountains. The trick for hiring people who are better than you at what they do is to inspire, motivate and establish purpose (providing and articulating meaningful work) one way or the other.
I may sound like I'm judging the founders and the leadership team by saying they had not defined the company's purpose. On the contrary, they had created a fantastic company at least until that point without articulating purpose themselves. I'm merely highlighting the context of the issue that needed solving.
They had been able to hire intelligent people and the right people without purpose. They had created an environment where "establishing purpose" was shared among peers, and they had a powerful intuition for identifying talent and were good at hiring people better than them.
However, very little of this was "deliberate system design" as it was piecing together "best practices." Employee engagement data showed lack of purpose was something many struggled with when the company had grown. In addition, a growing company also inherently means a decrease in touchpoints the leadership team has with each individual within the company. Thus there is a need for scaling the leadership capacity within the organization.
Hence, the idea was to make it explicit and deliberate to formulate purpose as part of the all-hands event. I was making the exercise in itself, both the nail and the hammer. As in, the process of creation is as important as the outcome, and the process itself is essentially the key, the result a simple reminder of the process for those who participate in it.
The purpose exercise was scheduled for the second day of a roughly three-day program. Leading into this exercise was a day of friendly team-building activities the day prior and an outline of the company strategy and some storytelling from the founders about the companies early days.
The reason for having the content described above before the purpose exercise was to provide context to employees old and new, covering some essential ground while leading up to the reason for the actual purpose exercise.
This particular piece was something I was responsible for delivering the content on, whereas the rest was just me telling people what was needed and coordinating between stakeholders. I had a vision for the actual exercise but hadn't made the slides, nor had I thought what I would say to inspire the correct type of discussion, so I ended up making them on the fly the very morning of the presentation.
The goal of the exercise was to
1: distribute the leadership act of establishing purpose. The acts of leadership are something I've elaborated on in a previous article, "the difference between leadership and management," by having people share meaningful stories. Disclaimer; A similar ritual is highlighted in the book reinventing organization, where factory workers shared stories of what made them proud.
2: Establish a purpose statement for the company where there was none. The process is as important as the outcome. You want to involve the people in its creation, and having people listen to each other's stories makes all the difference in the world, even if the outcome feels abstract.
The outline was the following;
Opening the session, I explained that you derive your purpose from pride and joy. Essentially, the things make you proud or bring you joy in either work or life. When sharing these notions with others, it doesn't matter which one you choose to highlight, as long as they feel true to you.
During the morning before the session, I thought of examples to share as my pride and joy. Then, I received a video of my elder, singing a lullaby to his little sister. That brought upon me a smile, and I knew what to say.
What brings me joy are moments like these when watching the older kid is singing a nursery rhyme to his younger sister
What gives me a sense of pride about working for Smartly is that I never feel I need to compromise on my nbr 1 priority to e.g have moments like this with my son. Our leaders set a standard I highly admire; Anssi being away 6 months to take care of his family and Kristo through all the hardships he’s been through at Smartly debating with me about how he’s able to get home to put his kids to bed and get them to school during Futurio week.
What followed was prompt for people to think a few minutes of what they'd like to share with their fellow Smartlies sitting next to them. Then, allowing 10-minute discussion among pairs or groups of three.
Afterwhich, I brought the attention back to the stage, and the next part of the exercise began. Explaining what purpose statements look like a few pointers on creating them. We used Starbucks as an example;
To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time
Then we sent out all Smartlies in 4–5 person groups to design purpose statements for the company (approx. 30 min time). What came out was 38 different purpose statements for our people team to curate suggestions and the leadership team to debate after the Futurio event. Something that needs to be mentioned is that the leadership team members participated in these discussions just like any other Smartly.
The process of finding the right one among the leadership team wasn’t a very straightforward one, and credits for pulling together goes to Katariina Juvonen, the internal comms extraordinaire at Smartly, but a way to handle this is to e.g.
- Have the leadership team members pick three favorites
- In a curated session, explain to the others why they chose the three they picked.
- Have them vote on the top three for the whole team
- Present the three top-rated for feedback/reaction from the company
- Revise if needed and decide on one.
The purpose statement as found in the Smartly culture handbook is
We bring people and brands together Smartly
During the current times of the “great resignation,” companies have called to produce purpose statements and provide meaning in work. I believe it can be done for most companies regardless of industry, as “purpose” can draw out of people if you allow them to tell their stories and you care to listen.
However, it’s worth mentioning that just creating the purpose statement won’t help you tackle the issue in the long run. It needs to be constantly repeated by leadership for it to have the desired impact. During my time at Slush the purpose statement was “We help the next world-conquering founders forward” and we had that put up on the wall of the office. Also, embedded in all communication within and outside of the organization re it made sense.
Additionally, as Miki Kuusi the former CEO & Founder of Slush thought us “just keep repeating it whenever someone comes and asks what we should do” — as in when someone in your team comes and asks you what to do you say “[purpose statement}, (given this), what do you think we should do?”. Disclaimer; As a team lead in a big organization you don’t have to repeat the companies mission/purpose statement you can also create your own for your team and use that.
Reflecting on the time of the purpose exercise, I partially feel like a hypocrite. What was going on in my personal life was somewhat of a marital crisis, and my thoughts were dark. Essentially, felt like I hadn’t been able to adhere to priority nbr 1. It was a tuff time personally, but the following seems to be a reoccurring narrative in my life; During personal hardship, I seem to create what appears to be memorable work.
For further reading and given the title of this article and in light of my previous stories