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Your #CultureFirst Questions Answered on Building Effective and Healthy Cultures

On June 13, I gave the Day 2 Keynote at the CultureFirst Conference in San Francisco. When the video is available, I'll post it here. In the meantime, I wanted to answer the top questions submitted by the audience.

1. You've led teams in highly successful yet highly stressful orgs. What have you learned about supporting employees' health?

I've found that nothing energizes people more than doing great work that has impact on the world. The most important thing that managers can do is to help employees -- ALL employees -- get closer to the customer and know that their work matters to customers. What's stressful is doing meaningless work or feeling like you have no idea if the work you're doing matters. It creates angst and a sense of listlessness. Focusing externally on customers and customer value helps refocus people on the fact that the work they do matters. As a manager at Salesforce and Amazon, I encouraged my teams to meet and observe customers using the product. All product managers and engineers are invited to the user research meetings with customers. At all-hands meetings, we instituted a practice of sharing customer stories at the beginning of every all-hands. We'd start with a video of a customer talking about her/his life, as well as their pain points, needs, and desires from our product. It grounded the team in re-connecting to what they are doing, and why it matters.

When you couple a set of mechanisms to get the whole team closer to customers with a set of management practices that supports people's different life circumstances, you can be well on your way to healthy employees even under the tightest deadlines. For example, when we did the Lightning Redesign at Salesforce, we had to rebuild the entire CRM front-end, build new APIs to enable that, get the go-to-market in place (including new pricing & packaging, marketing, and sales & partner enablement, training, and onboarding), and complete a massive re-org in the product organization to get that to happen and allocate the resources that were required to meet the goal. All in under 9 months. At the same time, Salesforce's commitment to volunteer time-off, healthy work-life balance, and work from home (the "Ohana" Principles) were non-negotiables. We did it, and delivered -- one month early. Morale on the teams that were working toward the deadline was high and the energy was palpable. Knowing the company's Principles and respecting these constraints while staying focused on customer value can help direct managers to make the right decisions to make sure employees are healthy and motivated.

The bottom line is: Audacious goals and deadlines don't create stress, bad management creates stress. Help your managers manage according to your company's Principles and design ways to help their teams get closer to customers, and it will go a long way to keeping employees motivated and healthy.

2. You distinguish between effective cultures (Amazon, Bridgewater) and others. How do you think of Bridgewater’s controversial culture and Amazon’s reported suicides?

The reason why a company culture is effective is not because everyone likes it or because it feels good to work there. What makes a company culture effective is that it creates the norms of behavior that help the company get to its goals faster.

Personally, I admire Bridgewater and Amazon because they know what their culture is and what they stand for. They publish their Principles openly and encourage prospective employees to explore the reality of how those cultures feel. As Jeff Bezos has said openly, the Amazon culture is not for everyone. As an executive at Amazon, I felt the culture was a pretty good fit for me because I am naturally drawn to customer obsession, logical narrative, and writing. People who do not like that type of work environment should not hope that it will change, they should choose to work elsewhere.

Of course, all companies, especially large, will have problems. Unhealthy cultures don't admit their mistakes and therefore don't learn or evolve. Healthy and effective cultures admit when something has gone wrong, and the CEO and Board of Directors take personal responsibility to fix it.

Bottom line: Sh*t happens. Sh*tty cultures don't admit when it does and don't fix it. Effective cultures do.

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