How to Build a Great Company Culture, from HubSpot's Chief People Officer Katie Burke

Company culture is tricky to define and even harder to get right. WeWork Labs reached out to companies that are consistently rated and ranked as great places to work to find out how they think about culture, how they implement it, and what advice they’d give to startups in the beginning stages of building theirs. Here, HubSpot’s Chief People Officer Katie Burke talks about company culture at HubSpot, the culture challenges they’ve faced as the company has scaled, and her best advice for startups.

WeWork Labs: How would you describe the culture at HubSpot and is that culture something the company has consciously cultivated?

Katie Burke: Both of our founders were committed from the beginning to build a company that matches how 21st-century employees live and work. And they saw culture for what it could be: a significant competitive advantage in building a company they wanted to be around for generations. So just as our company mission is to help millions of organizations grow better, our culture is built on helping our thousands of employees grow professionally and personally and our core values are rooted in flexibility, transparency, inclusivity, and autonomy.

To me, culture isn’t just the posters on the wall. It’s the promise you make to your candidates and to your employees and the way in which you deliver on it every single day. What that actually means in practice is the decisions that drive the company. It’s the people who get promoted. It’s how mistakes get treated. It’s how decisions are made, and who makes decisions. For all of us, it’s also personal—we want to create a place we love coming to every day. Brian [Halligan, HubSpot cofounder and CEO] often talks about wanting to come to a place where you work really hard but also laugh a lot with your teammates. I’m happy to report that we've scaled on a lot of metrics that matter, including that one.

WeWork Labs: Can you share a few of the ways that HubSpot works to make its culture an ingrained part of the company?

KB: Absolutely—it starts with the mentality. We treat our culture like we treat our product—something that is constantly evolving to meet the needs of our employees and customers. As a result, we measure feedback constantly (with quarterly employee surveys that are a key part of our operating system). We make the degree to which a leader is culturally additive a part of every interview process, and we infuse our core operating system with commitments to our customers and employees at every turn.

A few other examples I love that reflect our commitment to culture: our quarterly surveys are a critical part of our operating system and the results (good, bad, and everything in between) are posted to our internal wiki every quarter along with an action plan on how we’ll address that feedback as a leadership team. Second, the fact that anyone, anytime, can post questions about our business results, our management reports, or corporate priorities. And third, our response to anything tough as a team is to lean into our values versus running away from them. But above all else, the biggest evidence the culture is working is that our candidates and employees believe we deliver on our promise to them globally.

WeWork Labs: How do you think having a strong company culture affects things like recruitment, hiring, and employee motivation?

KB: We think of our culture (and our business) as a flywheel—employees and candidates have more power than ever, so we need to not just attract great talent, but also help leaders grow better. The ultimate goal is that we create a culture where candidates, employees, their families, alumni, customers, and partners recommend HubSpot as an incredible place to work, not just because it helps us with our recruiting and retention, but also because it helps us build a product and services that our customers truly love.  Companies with strong cultures saw a four times increase in revenue growth, so there are absolutely measurable returns on culture that go above and beyond people metrics, but we believe strongly that culture is a true competitive advantage for our organization and that it benefits our engagement from employees, but also the quality of the product and offerings we deliver to our customers to help them grow better.

WeWork Labs: On a foundational level, how does a company start to create a culture?

KB: People often ask me for HubSpot's secret to a strong company culture. While there's certainly some tactical advice I can share, the truth is that there's no secret sauce to building a high performing company culture. That being said, there are some critical ingredients: empathy, dedication, iteration, and understanding there are no shortcuts in getting the employee experience right. We’re certainly not perfect at it, but there are a few tips I have for people thinking about where to start:

  • Listen, and then write it down. People assume that employees have the same values. That’s not necessarily true. So start by listening. Ask employees in all departments what they think about culture and how to improve. Then think about how to codify your culture so your employees, hiring managers, and candidates know what the company stands for and why.
  • Don’t try to appeal to everyone. Many founders want to try to appeal to everyone, so they default to cultures and values that are very vague (We want great people! Doing hard work! And to create results!). Instead, try to be clear, truthful, and intentional about who you are and what you want to be — doing so will help you build an authentic and transparent employment brand, and make sure your approach is truly differentiated.
  • Culture is a business priority, not just a people one. Culture isn’t going to work if leaders and executives just think of it as “fun.” You have to make a business case for culture; explain why it actually matters to the business and show how it ties to core business objectives.
  • Obsess over employee experience: Our Culture and larger People Operations teams are constantly thinking about how we differentiate ourselves, how we keep great people and attract new candidates who will add to culture. And it’s all in the details. Recognizing every step of a new hire’s contact with the company to how we encourage employees to grow professionally—these things are extremely important and make a massive difference.

WeWork Labs: What kinds of challenges has HubSpot faced with scaling its culture as the company has grown?

KB: Culture needs to scale and grow along with your company. Oftentimes companies struggle when they try and keep culture the same in every office. What I always say is that office locations and teams should be siblings, not twins. In other words, every office and team should have shared DNA, but the autonomy to build processes and traditions that work for them, and doing that helps us scale our company culture globally while giving local leaders and teams a lot of flexibility to do what works for them.

The biggest lesson we learned as we scaled our company culture is that you have to fight nostalgia as an enemy of progress. As we grew from a 50 person company to a global company with nine offices and over 2,900 employees, we had to actively fall out of love with the traditions that got us to the place of scale and break away from them to get to where we wanted to be long term. We believe the best days of HubSpot are ahead of us, and to build the culture we want for the future we have to be willing to part ways with traditions or approaches that don’t scale or no longer solve for our employees or customer needs.

WeWork Labs: Can you share any common culture missteps you've seen startups make?

KB: There are two common missteps that I often see. The first is that culture tends to be viewed without seriousness because they often lack a core business metric. One of the mistakes I see people making over and over again is trying to convince their C-level team to ‘do culture’ just because it’s ‘fun.’ While aspects of culture certainly are fun, it’s not just a seasonal activity. In order to make it successful, you have to make a business case for culture. Explain why it actually matters to the business and show how it ties to core business objectives.

The second mistake I see people make is under-investing in managers as a lever for culture. Great managers help build amazing teams and truly impact the day to day experiences of their front line employees, and most startups drastically underestimate and underinvest in helping managers succeed and thrive. Think of managers as a huge opportunity to make your company better, and you’ll be much more likely to invest in them accordingly early and often.

WeWork Labs: What advice do you have for startups looking to make positive company culture part of their business from the beginning?

KB: I love it when I hear founders prioritize culture early and often, but I also encourage people to keep it simple early on. When you’re just starting out, you need to find product-market fit and really focus on growth, so I encourage founders early on to just write down what matters most to them, what kind of company you’re trying to create, and what you value in hires— the simple act of doing that and sharing it with your candidates and managers helps set the tone for what matters to you early. Over time, you can solicit feedback, evolve it based on what you learn the year before, and share that reflection with your organization. I also highly recommend early on making culture add, not culture fit, part of your hiring and promotion criteria.

Learn more about people operations for early-stage startups.

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