How Michael Litt adjusted company culture while keeping core values11 min read
The first big shift in the life of a CEO hits around employee 50, as Michael Litt found out. Up until this point, founders act more like operators, doing all that needs to be done.
But at employee 50 all that somehow changes.
The operator has to figure out how to become a leader.
At the time, Michael, Vidyard’s CEO and co-founder, faced a round of hiring. He had begun to fear for the first time how increasing employee count may put the Vidyard culture in jeopardy. He loved the environment he had created. Would adding more people dilute it?
These questions hit with full force at a family holiday after he got food poisoning. He was sick for a week. Confined to his hotel room, Michael had a lot of time to think.
What did it mean to be a Vidyardian? How do we stay aligned as a team and a company? How do we treat each other and the customers?
Michael figured the only way to preserve the culture is to start answering these questions clearly. He put his thoughts on paper, answering these and many other fundamental questions. The scribbled notes would become Vidyardism, the centre of operations for Vidyard, both a company manual and a contract everyone signs on their first day.
“At the 50 people mark, the output of employees begins to have a much bigger impact on the company. Making them efficient and effective, bringing in appropriate processes for them to be onboarded and then collaborate with each other becomes the most important thing for the CEO.” What is even more important is ensuring they can thrive in the environment.
The following story captures how Michael has preserved the Vidyard modus operandi after employee 50, all the while adapting it to the increasing diversity of the company.
Pay attention and learn to let go
As a company grows, it inevitably becomes a more diverse bunch. That seems obvious in retrospect but may easily be missed if founders are not observant.
As Michael lay in that hotel room, he thought about something. The Thursday get-togethers, involving beer, pizza and playing video games that early on became the way to blow off steam for everyone on the team, had somehow lost their ubiquitous allure as more people had joined. Why was that?
He dearly loved that tradition. Eventually, he would realise that the reason it had become an institution among early employees was that most of them were just like him. “I didn’t mean to create another tech company comprised predominantly of men, but I did. You hire whoever’s available right now, who you can afford. If you do that in a male-dominated field without thinking about it, you wind up with a ton of men,” he wrote in a Fast Company article.
But not everyone was like him anymore.
These reckonings are important and allow to let go of traditions that the company may have outgrown. Diversity needs to be noted and trod with care. Paying attention to signals is vital, and sometimes the change that comes with them could be incredible for business.
A more recent example where Michael had noticed a change was observing how new junior sales associates approached customers. Instead of writing long emails to CEOs and CMOs, they sent them short video messages. Fitting, having in mind what Vidyard does. It had never occurred to anyone in the organisation to use their videos in that way. Michael could have easily disregarded that little thing.
Instead, he approached it with curiosity and respect that it was more than a whim.
Build a personal relationship with each employee
Michael met up with a few of them. The more he talked with them, the more he understood the discomfort with emails. A generation that grew up with Instagram and Snapchat, they communicated with visuals much more than with words. Born after 1995, they were part of a new kind of demographic known loosely as Generation Z.
“You have to make it your priority to get to know people.”
Ever since he realised that not everyone around was like him, Michael uses every opportunity he can to learn more about people and build relationships with them. That starts at the interview stage. 250 people in, Michael still makes the time to interview all potential hires.
“We are hiring at a pace of about a 100 people a year. It’s not that difficult to fit 2–3 conversations a week.”
Once the company has had a few new hires, Michael and his co-founder Devon Galloway, sit down with them for an executive breakfast to meet them properly. Further down the line regular coffee chats and lunches. Michael would make sure he asks them about hobbies and what tech they use as that reveals even more patterns of behaviour and habits.
Beyond these scheduled conversations he adds a bit of engineered serendipity to the mix. Deliberately, Michael sits in the open space office where everyone can just walk over and talk with him.
“I make sure I am accessible to everyone at any point if they have something on their mind.”
It’s important for Michael to get to know them. However, it is as important for them to get to know the company too.
Let everyone get to know you
This is where a well-thought-out onboarding program becomes key. And just like everything else, it has evolved during different times and employee counts at Vidyard. “For the first 20, the onboarding program was: bring your computer, and this is what we want you to do, go.” Once it got to 50 and beyond, Vidyard started to cement a more proper onboarding program.
“When your 100th employee joins, they do not care about what the previous 99 have done. They care about what their impact is going to be. Which is why everything needs to be ready and set up for them.” It has to be as productive as possible. Michael learned just how important that was on May 1st, 2017 when 24 people started on the same day.
To explain the importance of onboarding and how he views it, he uses the idea of a building as a metaphor.
“Every new employee is like a new building: good foundations are necessary before anything can raise from the ground.”
The knowledge about the company and how it operates shared transparently is what acts as the stable foundation. It will be more durable when the conditions get rocky,like during an earthquake, which every growing SaaS company will inevitably experience in one sense or another.
A new hire comes to the office on Friday before they officially start on Monday. The only task at hand is to start bonding with the team informally. Even as they come back on Monday and a more structured onboarding begins, they are not asked to do anything for awhile, just understand how the company works and its ways.
On that first official day, they go through strategy and mission, culture, vision, the key themes Vidyard is focusing on, customer profiles, the big bets the company is making, and what are the KPIs for measuring all this. That means that everyone would have understood the business model for the next two years before the first day has ended.
But onboarding also needs to be adapted. A recent change to the onboarding was setting realistic expectations how long it takes to grow in the company. It’s what Michael had realised as he spoke to many of the Generation Z people the company had recently hired — their expectations were very unrealistic. “Expectations for promotion and career development are generally fairly aggressive, but with clear communication and helping them understand the gaps in their learning and development, we can create a more cohesive plan for their career advancement which creates better alignment.”
Let everyone’s voice be heard
New ways, which come with new demographics, still need to be embraced by everyone else in the company. “The value of being flexible and accommodating has to be embedded in the organisation, but not without an option to say if something is bothering them.”
Crucial here is the balance — establishing what is subject to adaptation and what isn’t.
Instigating zero tolerance to discrimination as a rule and terminating people’s contracts if they didn’t abide by that fundamental principle is an obvious one to have. It’s non-negotiable.
But others are.
To figure out aspects of the company that are unfitting, everyone has to have a say. That starts by asking people to openly say if there is anything in Vidyardism that they find unfitting or missing. Before signing it, every new employee can suggest amendments if they feel uncomfortable with anything inside.
However, that is not always a reliable way of instigating change. If diversity is a priority, it needs to be proactively sought. In an industry where there is a lot of talk about the need for diversity but very few guidelines how to achieve that, Michael thought of ways he could do it.
There was no shortage of willingness from people in the company to help.
In the fall of 2017, he came up with the idea of a committee, which focused on diversity and inclusion. In October, MyYard was born. Comprised of 25 members, its focus was on bringing awareness to diversity issues, removing barriers, and being more inclusive. The committee itself needed to be diverse. Some people on it have been with the company four years, others as little as three months.
The first 2–3 meetings MyYard held were about laying the groundwork for their work, so it’s structured and brings actionable outcomes. Vidyard partnered with a local consultancy to help them define the framework for working and a structure for sharing. By December the committee had identified areas of focus for the next two years.
They started by looking at the end to end recruiting process. Were words used in job adverts and website, as well as photos reflective of a diverse community? What could be done to expand sourcing efforts to broaden the net of attraction?
Next, they looked at Vidyard events and activities. Were they family friendly, did they happen at times that allowed people with outside occupations participate, and would they appeal to a wide spectrum of people? They developed a checklist for teams to ensure that going forward they would take all these things into consideration. MyYard also looked into spearheading a 12-month event calendar to ensure that Vidyard celebrates multiple “focus days,”e.g. International Women’s Day.
One of the first changes they implemented was to those pivotal Thursday get together. They were kept, but board games, non-alcoholic drinks and healthy snacks were added to them.
Finally, they are looking at the workspace to make sure they are fitting for different working styles, team activities and down times.
The group meets once a month, and Michael serves as the executive sponsor. They bring up issues to him and ask for amendments.
“It’s how you show you are willing to take some heat.”
That’s exactly how he was called on the parental leave, which many women found unfitting. Designed by men, it missed some key ingredients. “Thanks to the open culture of communication, people on the committee aired their concerns and the policy was improved.”
Figure out your biases
However, to truly commit to creating an inclusive environment and be fitting for every employee, one last piece of the puzzle is necessary — evaluate your biases.
Recently someone suggested to Michael that he should undergo a biases training. Were there unconscious and invisible biases that Michael was unaware of? “Turns out as a white male Canadian, I do have biases that impede my creativity.” He had to work on that but was also inclined to have all managers in the company go through those same training. If he had biases he was unaware of; surely many others did too.
Michael brought outside trainers to run bias workshops when it comes to gender, age and ethics.
It’s with these biases in mind and humility that Michael nowadays approaches any of the topics above when he needs to address any of the issues above. “There is a big difference between being kind and being nice.” Michael opts for the first one by always explaining why something is happening.
At over 200 employees, Michael is still as transparent and open to conversations as back when he was in the dorm room with his co-founder, Devon Galloway. Weekly town hall meetings, presenting to the company what he presents to the board, and a monthly update to the entire organisation over email are just a few of the mandatory things he does.
To learn more how to make your company inclusive and fitting for Generation Z and all other demographics, join us for SaaStock 18 where Michael will talk about this at length. Tickets are now on sale.
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