As Kirsti Grant joined New Zealand upstart Vend in April 2013, she was given a very specific assignment – “Don’t F*** up the culture.”

She was joining the point-of-sale company as VP of Talent; employee 37 tasked with fulfilling Vend’s plan for growth. Vend prided itself on the culture it had established thus far. Most people in her shoes would probably be rather intimidated by such a massive responsibility, especially those that like Kirsti hadn’t had a lot of direct recruitment experience despite servicing the recruitment industry with technology solutions in previous roles.

Kirsti wasn’t one to be easily intimidated, however. She didn’t let her lack of experience stop her whatsoever. On the contrary, she decided to use it to her own advantage.

“I saw it as a clean slate with no baggage.”

Helping the company accomplish its ambitious growth and not f*** up the culture became her mission.

They built a recruitment process from scratch. By providing an exceptional candidate and employee experiences, Kirsti and Vend established a gold standard in hiring and in the process becoming a company many wanted to work for. They sense checked the hiring process all the time. “We would send NPS surveys to candidates who had been declined, to understand a little bit about their experience.” The average score was +70. They knew that if the candidates who hadn’t been successful still had great things to say, then they were on the right track.

In the space of two years, using all of these good practices, Kirsti, and eventually her small team of Talent Managers, hired over 200 people across 6 countries. For all of those recruits, she only used an external recruiter twice. While it’s rare to get it right every time, for the most part, they were known to be successfully bringing on great talent who were enhancing the culture.

Scaling a company this quickly is incredibly tough and puts pressure on every part of the business. At around 250 employees, the company strategy needed refinement, which also resulted in a restructure. It was during this time in August 2015 that Kirsti left Vend.

Wanting to build a product from scratch, she decided to use her recruitment experience and co-founded Populate, a collaborative headcount planning and insights platform.

However, as Kirsti thought about it, it’s what happened post recruitment that stood out the most for her in her experience at Vend. “Hearing how much the people I had hired loved their job and seeing them thrive in their roles gave me the most satisfaction.” She wanted to figure out what generated these feelings and help other early-stage SaaS companies achieve that culture at scale.

What follows is some of what Kirsti has focused on over the last 3 years. See it as your starting guide to not f***ing up company culture.

Why culture breaks

As Kirsti went about figuring out what the general industry problem was, she found out a fundamental glitch in thinking:

Hyper-growth companies put an emphasis on increasing staff, not on building efficiencies and having a clear plan as to how each new recruit will fit in the long-term strategy of the company and how they are kept aligned. And that is a recipe for issues with culture. And the business.

For a long time, the topic of company culture has mostly been about how to create it in the first place. Defining what is the culture of an organisation is often rather abstract and aspirational, consisting of figuring out the values, features and activities that bring happiness. The difficulty in all that was assumed to be finding the right people to fit that culture.

Far less emphasis has ever been put on how people are immersed in the organisation in the long term.

What Kirsti found out was that to not f*** up culture, you have to work really hard on aligning people to company strategy. Or simply put – every individual needs to know where the company is going in the long term and how that affects them directly. She has seen time and time again that if a company gets that part right, it will be successful.

Putting people in intense and high-risk settings with high rewards, you cannot predict how each person will fit and evolve just from the interview. You have to be able to envision the person growing in the role at the same rate the company is growing. The job of leaders is to be constantly listening to what people are saying and how they’re saying it. Taking those insights to other leaders and collaborating on the best way forward is essential.

“All too often we see leaders with their own agendas go rogue and the impact that has on a team is huge.” 

If a team can’t see alignment at the highest level you can’t blame them for feeling disengaged.

“When I started at Vend, the company was really aligned on the problem we were solving and were tackling it as a team.” But as more and more people were hired, that alignment and clear ability to communicate with one another deteriorated. You can absolutely get that alignment back but you have to work hard at it and it all starts with the CEO, some very courageous conversations and a little vulnerability.

The most important starting point is to assume the culture will break and with it your ability to deliver. The famous Peter Drucker catchphrase “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” has become something of a cliche in management and tech. While Kirsti would agree with it, she likes to think it’s much more middle ground than that. “Strategy can bite back if not handled properly at scale.”

“If you don’t do that strategic foundational work, it’s like building a good product and not investing in good infrastructure as it scales.”

The good news is that there are things you can put in place early on to prevent the culture crash from happening. Nowadays, Kirsti spends four days a week, helping different clients to put these measures in place.

She argues you need a person responsible for the culture and alignment as early as possible even if it’s part-time. “Bring one in either after your first raise or when you reach employee 20 at the latest.” You can’t really bring them in too soon.

A People & Culture Officer that gets both people and strategy

Good alignment will only happen with a strong strategic foundation. It consists of a well thought out onboarding framework, a good ability from the leaders to make and communicate decisions and healthy modes of internal communication. All these are absolute essentials to preserving culture.

You need someone that owns this foundation. You have to be careful, however, who you put in place.

Since, especially at the start, this is not a full-time role, the tendency would be to give it to people with other roles such as the Office Manager, for example. However, this isn’t always ideal.

Office Managers are great People Experience facilitators. They’re trusted, highly organized and are often the eyes and the ears in a company who can focus on all the little details that can make a difference for people in the day to day. The challenge is that an Office Manager will most likely not get the business side of things enough. And this role, according to Kirsti, is much more about the bigger picture. Those thinking about company culture have for too long been concerned with what makes people happy or unhappy in a workplace and how external things as perks influence that. Yes, people need to feel cared for, but most importantly they need to feel they know what they are doing and why.

Having a People & Culture leader that is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the business model is a great advantage. This broad experience will enhance every element of your employee experience whether it be hiring for specific roles, onboarding talent who may be new to the startup world and providing development plans that are aligned to where the company is headed.

It will also be someone who can predict how the functions of the SaaS founder will evolve as they move from “Jack of all trades” into a CEO. That transition is never easy and if they have someone who is helping them, it could make a huge difference.

“I always look at the founders and try to determine what things they are doing that they shouldn’t be, that aren’t their strengths, that they would rather not be doing but may not be spelling it out. It’s then easier to know what people are needed to fill the gap in the long run.”

Answering that requires knowledge and understanding of the business.

Whenever you end up getting a People & Culture Leader in some capacity initially, make it a priority to have someone permanently between employee 30 and 50.

An amazing onboarding experience is a must

The foundation for good alignment is a good employee onboarding. This should constantly evolve too, a good rule of thumb is making sure you’re making incremental improvements each time you bring someone onboard. “Never ever do a ‘hey you are here, cool, let’s now figure out what you will be doing. Oh, we haven’t even organised your email. Let’s do that first.” What you want to do is the opposite.

It shows you care about them and new people really need and want that. They have to feel like they are expected. People are smart and they want to be productive as soon as possible so sometimes overwhelming them with information is a good approach. The sense of achievement is key, so look for ways to have your new team member have some wins as quickly as possible.

“You have to nail those first few weeks.”

An onboarding process is often about managing expectations. There is no better time to start on that than before a new hire has even started work. This is a time where your new employees are at their most excited but also most vulnerable. Showing that you care how they feel in the prequel to starting work with you can really delight them.

There are a couple of things Kirsti advises to think about, based on what Auror, a company she serves as People and Culture Advisor to, does:

  • Signing the contract. This is your chance to make a somewhat boring process better. There are companies that ask candidates to print out a contract, scan it back or drop it back to the office and sometimes this doesn’t happen until the day the new person starts. This is unacceptable. Instead, make the signing of the contract (which is a special occasion for the new employee) a better experience. Use technology like PandaDoc which is a great process internally and showcases to your new employee that as a company you use good technology.
  • The welcome email. Send it before their first day in the office. At Auror, a new hire gets their welcome email a week before they start. The main things to include in it are: an overview of what their first few weeks are going to be like; when payday is; what time they should come in (on the first day you want to get them in slightly later, see why below), how to get to the office; where to park.
  • Early access to important tools. Give access to email, Slack and tools like Honey, but explicitly make it optional to login before they come in. And mean that when you say it. This way if they feel in any way anxious about their first day or how the tools feel or how people communicate, they can proactively login and have a look. But it has to be completely fine if they don’t.

Day One

How day one goes is essential. While you can adjust it to your own needs, here is what Auror do.

The new hire is asked to come in slightly later than their normal working hours to make sure that everyone else has arrived already. It makes a far greater impression when everyone’s around and gives them a warm welcome.

First order of business after they have met everyone is a proper tour of the office.

“Once they know their surroundings, the first formal meeting is a session with the founders to hear the founding story – who are we, where did we come from and where are we going.”

Each hire then has team lunch and time to set up their tech and desk. At the end of the day, they have a 1-1 with their manager, who further explains clearly how the first week is going to go, how the relationship between them will be fostered and maintained and what the expectations of them are in the first 30-60-90 days.

In the following days there will be loads more sessions they will get to. These mainly revolve around getting to know and understand the two key team squads in the company – Product and Customer. There will be more focus on one of those depending on what role the new hire is in but regardless of the function, everyone spends a lot of time understanding the customer and how the company works with them. These are the first key parts to strategic alignment.

On the product side of things, they sit with the Directors of Design, Engineering and Product to understand how the three disciplines feed into the overall product.

There is a further session with Kirsti and one of the founders on the Guiding Principles where they tell stories describing how the company values came about and giving examples, bringing the abstract into the concrete.

Separately, Kirsti does a session on People and Culture where she talks thoroughly about what the company is working on from a recruitment standpoint, how it communicates internally, how they use 15Five, a tool Kirsti swears by, and why it’s important that everyone uses it. It’s also a chance for the new members of the team to provide some feedback on how their onboarding is going so far.

Towards the end of that first week, new hires have a pretty good understanding and context of the company. However, at this point, they may have only just started digging into their actual job, and that is fine.

“We remind them not to worry about the job part yet, while we’re looking to have them get some wins in the first week what will make them better at their job is all of these parts we have been introducing them to all week.”

In their second week, their 15Five report includes some specific questions around the onboarding experience. “We ask questions like: Is this what you expected?? Is there anything we could have done more or better? Do you feel like you can be successful at your job? What has been the biggest surprise at Auror?”

In week five some of the questions in 15Five evolve into what Kirsti believes to be the crux of the alignment puzzle – a sense of belonging. “If you have managed to align people to strategy and where the company is going, they will hopefully feel like they belong. This manifests in them being able to be themselves, believing that their voice matters and they have a direct impact on the company, regardless of their role.” This is where 15Five plays an important role – the team can answer the questions honestly and know that the company has the best intentions and will act accordingly. No-one gets punished if they have feedback that is negative, everyone just wants to help make the company the best it can be.

What is the founder’s responsibility in all this?

“As a founder, you have to relentlessly remind everyone, where the company is going.” This is your number one job. Don’t assume that just because you have emphasised it during the onboarding process, people will remember.

Same goes with the decisions you make. You have to make them in a clear way and communicate them transparently.

“When your people don’t understand why you are making certain decisions, what the rationale is behind them and how it impacts the business, it is very hard for people to stay on board with what you are doing.”

You have to constantly keep them on the journey.

A few vital tips how to achieve that:

  • Auror has a guiding principle that is all about having strong opinions but holding them loosely. That’s so your employees’ opinions get a chance to have as much weight as that of the founder, regardless of their role. Only then will they feel like they can voice them with confidence. It’s key that the people in your team can confidently surface up the information they have if they feel it could help you get to a better outcome.
  • Understand the weight of your words as a founder. Don’t just throw ideas out there because when they come from you as a founder, people will assume they are something important and will go off and act on them. People want to impress you, so be clear what you actually want and what is merely an idea.
  • Be open about course correcting. Following up on goals and OKRs is essential but so is course correcting. Be very clear and transparent about this. Say stuff like “You know what, we have made some bets but they are not going to get us to where we need to be, so here is the new goal and how it relates to each individual person and how it aligns with the company’s core objectives”.
  • Remember – You cannot remind people enough times of the progress of things and how their work relates and contributes to that. If it’s at a company level then talk about it in the Company All Hands. If it’s at a Department level communicate at that level and then announce to the wider team at the next Company All Hands. If it’s at an individual level then that’s a 1:1 conversation.

Communicate to augment culture

Nothing influences strategy more than business decisions. How and when you communicate them to people is extraordinarily important and Kirsti argues you should establish a clear hierarchy of documenting and communicating them.

This starts with fundamentally differentiating between hard decisions and soft ones. Some decisions are open for discussion others are a closed case.

Kirsti has been working on this very thing in Auror. “We have recently started looking at differentiating decisions by classifying them as either one-way door or two-way door.” This is taken from Amazon and feels like a great, simple framework.

The one-way door signifies that there is no option for reversing that decision. The two-way door, on the contrary, signifies that this decision isn’t final and is open for discussion. “It can go back through the door.” A we-are-thinking-of doing-something has no place in any written documentation and is reserved for meetings or Slack. The one-way door ones, on the other hand, don’t really need to be put in a tool that is ultimately about collaboration. That’s why as of recently they have started a bi-weekly internal newsletter with one of the points being communicating the final decisions.

Using that framework, you can then determine what makes sense to be documented, what should be kept to All-Hands meeting etc. The exact recipe will differ but the fundamental thinking is to understand the fine line between overwhelming people with decisions and not communicating enough. This is where the hierarchy of decisions comes in.

Just as with the onboarding experience, be prepared to evolve how you establish your communication and meetings. As a starting point, you should have a Weekly Standup followed by a Monthly All Hands. When it comes to Slack, you should also try to establish a strategy of how you use it. Don’t assume that the tool will just make this happen.

If you are to take away one thing from all this

The journey of the last three years has been anything but calm for Kirsti. Because none of this is easy to figure out she has learned to be very disciplined to allow time for new ideas.

“I used to work a million miles an hour in a very operational capacity, doing too many things and not feeling like I was progressing. Not investing in myself and my own learning made me increasingly frustrated because the companies I was working for were paying me to be two or three steps ahead. But if I was constantly busy, there was no way I could be there.”

In the last year, Kirsti has put in the effort to improve herself. She started listening to audiobooks and podcasts. She gave herself the space to think and come up with new things rather than just rinse and repeat. Which is the sort of advice she would like to leave every founder with?

“Culture and strategy don’t matter whatsoever if you are not looking after yourself. The only way you stand a chance to make a healthy company is if you first take care of yourself. Only if you are physically and mentally balanced, exercising regularly, and making the effort to have a stable personal life with strong relationships can the culture of your company be good.”

After an amazing first SaaStock Oceania event, we will be back next year. Dates, tickets and more here.