It takes a lot of effort to build a positive – and empowering – workplace culture, especially in today’s world of digital offices and remote work. But what happens when things start to go wrong?
How can leaders tell when their culture is faltering, and what steps can they take to get back on track?
Today we sit down with prolific tech leader and workplace culture expert Anna Marie Clifton. She discusses her work with companies like Asana, Coinbase, Yammer, and Vowel, and her unique approach to workplace culture “makeovers,” which can help organizations identify problems, shift workforce perspectives, and transform even the most toxic environments in as little as six weeks.
Find Anna Marie on Twitter @TweetAnnaMarie, and learn more about Vowel here: https://www.vowel.com/
- The importance of workplace culture to your bottom line
- The impact of workplace culture on your product
- How to make subtle changes that will ensure you get the culture that you want
- The power of asynchronous working
**In a post-pandemic world, workers want to retain their flexibility and have the best of both worlds: an office to meet and collaborate in, and the freedom to work remotely. The new norm is “hybrid,” but what does this mean in practice? What are the challenges and opportunities of this form of working, and how can leaders rethink collaboration formats and decision-making?
To answer these and many more questions, we have created a module on remote and hybrid collaboration. To learn more and find upcoming workshop dates, visit www.management30.com/module.
*Please note that the transcript has been automatically generated and proofread for mistakes. But remains in spoken English, and some syntax and grammar mistakes might remain.
Elisa Tuijnder: [00:00:00] It takes a lot of effort to build a positive and empowering workplace culture, especially in today’s world of digital offices and remote work. But what happens when things start to go wrong? How can leaders tell when their culture is faltering and what steps can they take to get back on track? Today we speak with a prolific tech leader and workplace culture expert who has developed a simple effective system for identifying potential problems, shifting workforce perspectives, and transforming even the most toxic environments in as little as six weeks
Before we dive in. You are listening to The Happiness At Work Podcast by Management 3.0 where we are getting serious about happiness.[00:01:00]
I’m your host, Elisa Tuijnder, Happiness Enthusiast and Management 3.0 team member. In this podcast, we share insights from industry experts, influencers, and thought leaders about what it takes to be happy, motivated, and productive at work, so that loving your job becomes the norm and not the exception. We will be publishing every Fortnite on Friday, so be sure to tune in and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Our guest today is Anna Marie Clifton, a renowned product lead and thought leader who has worked with a wide range of companies, including Asana, Yammer, and Coinbase. She currently serves as head of product at Vowel. Thank you so much for joining us today,
Anna Marie Clifton: Anna Marie. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast today, Elisa.
I’m very excited to chat. [00:02:00] Great.
Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah, so I’ve been really looking forward to this conversation and before we get started, we always ask the same questions on this podcast, what does happiness mean to you?
Anna Marie Clifton: I love that question. I remember there was a Charlie Brown musical that I was in as a child that has this incredible song, the final song, and it says, happiness is, and it’s a song all about what happiness is.
And the final note in that song is happiness is anything and anyone at all that’s loved by you. And so I just love that so much. It just gives me tingles and feels just that happiness is when you are loving something. That’s what the, that experience, that kind of feedback of loving something is happiness.
So whether it’s ice cream or a lover or anything you do for work that’s happiness. If you love it.
Elisa Tuijnder: Great. Yeah. Amazing. I really hope that lots of people have that feeling of Yeah. Love. So before we [00:03:00] launch into, why you’re so interested in workplace culture, I kind of wanna have a little synopsis on how did you get here, what was your path towards all these great tech companies that you’ve worked with, and how, why workplace culture.
Anna Marie Clifton: Totally. Yeah. So it’s completely non-traditional. I like to say that I had a deeply practical degree in medieval art history. And so I graduated with, medieval art history, know-how, and not too many people hiring for medieval art historians. So I. I, I started my career working in the art market in New York.
Kinda managing a contemporary art gallery. And that was a really interesting environment. It was a fairly small staff. I loved the people I worked with but the art market wasn’t the right place for me. So I spent. There part of a year and a half actually doing kind of very first principal search of just what are the jobs that exist in the world and which ones would make me happy.
And so I did a lot of kind of mind mapping and a lot of investigation [00:04:00] and coffees with a million people of what is it you do and what do you do? Not just like what is the output of your job, but what is your experience? What do you do day to day? What do you wake up in the morning and start doing?
When you get to work first thing. Obviously I was doing this before the pandemic. And so I, I did a really deep search for what kind of career I wanted that would sustain me for a really long time. And I landed on product management after a lot of research and talking to a few people and product management for those listeners who may not be familiar as a role in traditional tech companies.
That sits between design and engineering and marketing and all these other functions and tries to tie them together to get really good things out to customers. So I decided product management, because it’s a very complex role that always has new ways you can grow. You can get better at marketing, you can get better at engineering, you can get better at design, you can get better at customer research.
There’s all these different ways to constantly be growing. And it’s a role in, in the center of a [00:05:00] growing sector of technology companies. And so those companies are always changing and evolving and growing. And so I was really optimizing for working in an environment that would provide limitless opportunities for new growth and new learning.
Whole other story of how I moved from gallery manager to product manager. Not easy. Anyone who’s out there trying to make that move to product management, it takes grit. It took me years. It can take years. You can do it. Stick with it. Good. It’s hard. It’s hard. And then I that, that was a transition many years ago into product management and since then I’ve worked at a number of some smaller companies a few larger companies just across the gamut of technology.
Elisa Tuijnder: It’s I always see that role as the orchest leader and it’s, yeah, it’s the kind of role I went for as well but not completely the same path. But as a classically trained historian, I always love hearing these same kind of stories of the people with similar types of [00:06:00] backgrounds and how they got to, to this point.
Totally. I love it. Yeah. And so when did this, this focus on workplace culture come into focus for you?
Anna Marie Clifton: Totally. I, my first career really working the art market, a smaller environment. So culture was just like completely defined by the people I worked next to, and I didn’t really think about it.
Then my early moves into product management and the first couple companies I worked at I took it for granted. I didn’t really think about it. And then I made a transition to a company that I was really excited about for personal, professional reasons. And I realized that I was struggling very deeply emotionally, and I was having a not good time.
And I was like, what is going on here? Like, why am I unhappy? Why are other people around me unhappy? And I see my coworkers when we leave the work context and when we’re just, Just talking. We get along great, but in the work context, it’s a struggle and I had never experienced that before and so I went on this journey to try to [00:07:00] understand why that was happening, and it came down to culture.
And that was really the first time I realized how much the culture can impact your lived experience as an individual, which sounds pretty obvious I’m sure, to anyone listening to this podcast. But as are joining the workforce and starting to experience these things for the first time, it’s not obvious, especially if you happen to start in a really lovely place to work.
You may just assume that’s what work is like. And I would say, to your listeners who unfortunately started in the opposite, if you start in a place that’s Very frustrating or, unfortunate to work in. It doesn’t have to be that way. That’s not like the way work is, that’s culture.
So I, I’ve been obsessed with that ever since, and especially as I’ve transitioned into more leadership capacities and especially again now here running product at Vowel I take that very seriously as a leader of how I can ensure that I’m setting up a culture that provides the great environment for everyone that works for me.
Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah. And I can only imagine indeed, like going from the artwork to this [00:08:00] this tech startups feels very different and some of the tech startups have the, the ping pong tables and massage chairs. Those kind of things. But there’s probably a bunch of them that are just cutthroat and let’s get this product out to the market.
And probably not very easy. So some people tend to dismiss the importance of workplace culture. So why, in your own words, would that is, is it like, why is it the essence? Why is it the start of everything? Why is it so important?
Anna Marie Clifton: Oh, totally. Culture is what you do to try to be successful at an organization.
And it’s the impact of what you do and what that has on other people around you. And the lived experience of your employees is a direct impact of your workplace culture. Personally, I joined a company and left within a year. A little over a year because I was so unhappy. And I was not the only one who did that.
And it’s fairly common that you’ll see, workplace [00:09:00] attrition comes directly from cultural struggles. So that’s a huge point there. If you think about what, like in terms of bottom line, cuz we’re capitalistic environment, companies care about the bottom line.
The cost to hire good talent, it’s very expensive. The cost to train and onboard talent, very expensive. Once you’ve done that, you really wanna retain that talent for as long as possible, and you don’t want someone, leaving within a year. So I’ve seen, the opposite of that. I’ve seen companies I worked at Asana and Asana has one of the best retention rates where the culture there is just, it’s such an incredibly incredible place to work from an emotional perspective that people just don’t ever wanna leave. And that means you retain so much institutional knowledge, it means you can move faster because you’re not having to like deeply do knowledge transfer or incorporate new employees and things like that. So I think that’s like the one huge argument is all around like retention.
Another argument is around effectiveness of the employees that you [00:10:00] have. If you end up with employees intention and frustration with each other, you’re not going to be producing work as smoothly. You’re not gonna be producing work as quickly. And you’re gonna end up with things that are, in, in conflict in terms of the actual features that you ship are not, not going to work well together.
A little twist on Conway’s law which is the observation that when you develop a product, it will always reflect your org chart in some way. So you know, if you have two teams, you are gonna have a product that has two modules. Conway’s Law, it’s fascinating, but I think there’s a cultural element that Conway doesn’t capture.
I’ve always been thinking about making a law. Maybe you could have Anna Marie’s law, which is. The product that you develop is going to reflect the culture that you have internally. And if you have teams that aren’t talking to each other, the, those parts of the product aren’t gonna talk to each other very well.
And so there’s the value to the customer argument as well, not just the talent retention argument for culture.
[00:11:00] Yeah. Yeah.
Elisa Tuijnder: I’ve never thought about it in that kind of way. So yeah, enlightened a little bit on that. So what I hear is it’s seriously good for business. It’s seriously good for your product because it’s gonna be better.
And, it’s probably also seriously good for those people who are working there cause they’re gonna be happier and better and more happy in their job. Absolutely. A lot of pros, a lot of pros in, in that respect. Hey the business world and, our world in general, not just the business world has changed quite a bit in the, in recent years.
We’ve had the great resignation, we’ve had the pandemic, we’ve had quiet quitting and, this mass transition into remote work. So now we’ve talked, I’ve talked about this with so many people, but I always wanna know. How do you maintain culture in a remote environment? It feels harder.
It all doesn’t necessarily have to be harder. It really differs, again, from company to company. Yeah. How do you approach that at vowel at the moment and how do you maintain it? How do you grow it? How do you make sure that it’s close to your
Anna Marie Clifton: values? Totally, absolutely. A few thoughts there.
First of [00:12:00] all, Vowel, we’re a video conferencing, AI powered video conferencing tool. So you can think of us as like a Zoom replacement. So we obviously serve a customer base that is very remote remote first or hybrid, at the very least cuz they’re, in the video calls all the time.
So this is something that’s important not just for me personally as an employee of a remote company, but also as a product leader at a product that’s serving remote teams. So I think about this in terms of like how I lead and what I work on building culturally at our company as well as like how, what we’ve put into the product.
So in terms of how I lead, one thing I think is starting values first. And as we were working on building out the value set at vowel and thinking about what kind of company did we want to incentivize, what did we want to prioritize? We actually included in our values a value of working joyfully.
And that’s something that we prioritize. And you, and by the way, one little aside on value creation, it’s really important when you’re thinking about [00:13:00] picking values and thinking about, why these values are not others. That you have a reasonable like anti value that like other companies might choose.
And so when I think about like work joyfully, that’s a trade off against like work like very professionally and everything’s buttoned up. And some people might choose to work in an environment that’s they feel more comfortable in like very professional buttoned up environment.
And we’re choosing instead to imbue more joy into our work experiences. So that’s a trade off that, you wanna be able to hire people based on reasonable desires to be in one or the other versus have a good company is not a value. Cuz like everyone wants to have a good company, right?
So why it’s adorable. So working joyfully is one of our core values and that shows up. It’s not like glitter and unicorns. Working joyfully means appreciating your coworkers. We incentivize and we model as leaders, shouting out Hey, shout out to this person for doing this thing.
It was really great. We, [00:14:00] one thing that, I think about as a leader is if you want to incentivize behavior, you need to model that behavior. And you need to reward that behavior. And so we really focus on, appreciation for our colleagues and teammates. And so as leaders, we are in the shoutouts channel, shouting out to people.
Also, I have, back channels. Anytime anyone tells me something positive about someone else at the company, I always respond. Great. Did you tell that person? Go tell them. Tell them in person, put in the shoutouts channel. And Just making sure that you’re pushing and incentivizing that behavior.
And then we do call that out also in the all hands we’ll pull out shoutouts and serve as them to make sure they get a lot of attention. I think another key thing about remote culture is a lot of it is asynchronous communication. And so one thing that we did at Vowel is really put a and invest a lot of energy into thinking about effective asynchronous communication.
And we we have a [00:15:00] best practices doc that we build. And these are things like being mindful of other people’s time and attention. And Slack can feel like, chitter chatter or can feel like thoughtful dialogue. And so how can you encourage people to like more of the thoughtful dialogue side of things?
Which, hits on culture a little bit. If you have a very chatty culture, that’s one thing. Versus if you have a very kind of mindful and thoughtful culture. So we try to shift people a little bit more towards mindful and thoughtful by enforcing best practices in Slack behavior like, reply in a thread.
If someone asks a question, reply in the thread. And that kind of shifts the behavior away from these streams of chats to these more discussions. And so there’s little things that you can do, as a leader, a, tell people that’s what you want them to do. B, do it. And c, when you see them not doing it, be like, send a little message.
Hey, please remember, thread the reply, or, take the reply and reply to it in the thread. So you can like, pull it back in. So [00:16:00] that was something that I, we very effectively shifted culture. I joined Vowel a little a year and a half ago and we were a very kind of phonetic, chatty culture at the time in Slack and as a distributed company, we’re in 11 different time zones.
Yeah. As you try to figure out what’s going on the next day or even just coming online and being like, what’s going on? That was something that was causing some friction for our team. Shifting us to a more mindful and thoughtful culture by proposing these perspectives and guidelines.
And then modeling them and reminding people about them. So I have a lot, I have a lot more thoughts about, effective asynchronous communication. But I’ll also say that one thing that can be challenging with remote is that kind of those personal connections they really do feed your soul. Those like just that interpersonal and it’s deeply challenging when you don’t have a personal relationship with someone and some friction surfaces because your functions [00:17:00] have competing incentives. It’s really challenging to bridge that gap.
And so we’ve invested in a lot of different areas to try to ensure that people have, personal connections. So a few of them are, we do. We try to do in-person meetings quarterly. That’s super powerful. We don’t get everyone together, the whole company, but we’ll do more regional and just start building some of those bridges.
We do the, I think the remote team building things. There are. Ones that work and there are ones that are like awkward and uncomfortable. We’ve done a fairly good job. I can share in your show notes. The company that we use, I think does actually a good job of giving teams like something fun and funny to work on together outside of work.
We do those quarterly as well across the whole company. And then we also have We have a casual hour, like this one hour every week. That’s just casual time for people to meander around in this metaverse little space and just chat if they have any questions. Yeah. Or [00:18:00] ideas or thoughts.
And that’s something that, not everyone goes, every time. But it’s a useful place to just be able to pop in and form a little casual conversation. So those are all things that we do on the company side. I’m always looking for more ideas. I just, last week was talking with we have a few engineers who really love board games and I was like, oh, there’s a great asynchronous board game website where you can like each take a turn each day, and that’s five, 10 minutes. But it gives you like something to talk about and dm, trash talk, and like little things like that. So I’m always exploring new things there. But the on the product side we take a really heavy stance of ensuring that the in meeting experiences and the Vowel product are joyful.
So I, I’m sure you’ve used Slack and I’m sure you’ve gotten a little bit of joy out of this little custom emoji. A little kind of reactions oh yeah. We support the custom emoji reactions in Vowel, so you can have a little bubbling, like just little things. [00:19:00] It’s not like a takes over your screen and it’s unprofessional, you can have a little yeah, I’m excited.
Emoji reaction instead of just a plain old thumbs up. And that kind of adds a little spark of joy. And so we, we do things like that. We also ensure. We focus on, when you come into a meeting, we wanna make sure everyone’s prepared. So we have a lot of easy to use agenda functionality so everyone can contribute to preparing the agenda in advance.
And I think that, I talk a little bit about communication, norms and culture. I think communication is the way you transfer culture. And so communication norms really do set that tone. So I think a lot about that from a, like a product perspective is how, especially a collaboration product is how do you set the communication norms in your collaboration product that will lead the people who use your product to just happen to have a better time.
We also we think about zoom fatigue that’s really real. One of the biggest things that we found [00:20:00] with Zoom fatigue is it’s not. The meetings that you’re in, it’s whether they feel productive, that makes you feel fatigued. Everyone’s been in a meeting that’s been really exciting and you leave and you’re like, oh boy.
Yes, this is good. And those moments, It can give you so much energy. So like meetings themselves are not draining. It’s like meetings you don’t need to be in are draining. Meetings that aren’t productive are draining. Meetings that go on longer than they need to are draining. And so we put a lot of product effort into ensuring that you don’t have to go to meetings you don’t need to be in, because you can get the automated summary directly afterwards and just catch up on those automated notes without having to be there or skim through the recording right away.
Or rely on a, one of your colleagues to just send you a bookmark. And the When we shift a feature around just kinda like agenda timers, I noticed internally our meetings got so efficient. All of our chatty people just got really oh, that’s my time. Okay, I’m done. My, my time’s over, and I’ve heard this from customers who were like, all of my 30 minute meetings are 20 minutes now.
Good. It’s just so [00:21:00] Exactly. And then that gives you life back because it’s those 10 minutes, it’s not that you get 10 minutes back to go make a snack. It’s that those 10 minutes were emotionally draining cuz you’re like, I don’t need to be here. What are we spending our time doing? It feels like it’s dragging on.
And so being effective and efficient in how you communicate is actually a huge part of remote culture feeling good in my opinion. Yeah. Long-winded there, but lots of thoughts. I’ve thought about this a lot.
Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. It’s part of the product as well, so it’s good that you thought about it a lot.
I was wondering one thing while you were talking, and we started actually our conversation, we’re talking a little bit about recruitment. So do you feel like, do you recruit as well with a certain profile or a certain kind of culture in mind? Because some people work really well within remote circumstances. Some people might not or might have never tried it before, sometimes people, sometimes, definitely with remote cultures, it’s often easy or better to already know that the right people from the right, from the starters in there. Not that you always know this, but I wonder whether you had any policies [00:22:00] around
Anna Marie Clifton: Totally. Yeah. So we learned this lesson the hard way where we had a couple hires where we didn’t do a lot of culture fit evaluation. And we found that they didn’t integrate into the team very well. And unfortunately that meant that they weren’t productive and that we needed to let them go.
So we’ve definitely had this happen a few times and we’ve revamped our recruiting process to have the kind of culture fit assessment happen very early. Like a kind of a first pass on the recruitment side and then have a thorough culture fit evaluation during the interview. And one thing I’m really proud of in our interview process is a lot of times culture fit interviews at companies are an excuse for, does this person look and sound like me interviews?
Which is so unfortunate. I see. You just get like cookie cutter
yeah. That’s really not what it’s about. You need the diversity and
Anna Marie Clifton: but Exactly. Exactly. And so ensuring that you’re teaching people how to assess culture [00:23:00] fit to not just be, do I feel like this person’s cool?
Because a lot of times your cognitive biases just come into play there and it’s cool equals looks like me. Sounds like me. All of those things and you end up just with these cookie cutter companies. So I’m very proud. We have a completely global team incredibly diverse in where we live and what we look like and what we believe.
And I’m very proud of that. But we all fit together as a company very well because we’re evaluating people for, those values like, one of our core values work joyfully, I mentioned as well, another core value is incorporate learning quickly. So in lieu of making sure everything’s perfect before it’s done, we air on the side of you can ship things that aren’t perfect and incorporate that learning quickly.
And so that’s the trade off where we’re like, we wanna be willing to accept less perfection in order to move quickly and focus on like incorporating that learning. And one thing that we’ve learned there is that not every [00:24:00] employee is gonna be really open and accepting to like quickly learning and quickly changing their, perspectives, their beliefs, their about, release processes.
I’m not talking about obviously core like foundational beliefs, beliefs about how to work well. And we really hire for those kinds of people that are willing to like, iterate on what they do and how they do it so that we can all gel together better. I think it’s really critical that you do your culture fit evaluation up upfront to some degree.
Cause otherwise you can spend, we’ve spent a lot of time going through full interview cycles and then culture fit interview at the end disqualify someone and we’re like, we could have found some of this stuff out earlier. That was, that could have been done. But it just beware. It’s really easy for those culture fit and value interviews to just start turning into this person look like me.
Elisa Tuijnder: And that is a very good one for everybody and all our listeners to keep in mind as well. Because we always hammer ’em, it needs to be the right fit for your company. But yeah, diversity and inclusion are also really high at the [00:25:00] top.
Anna Marie Clifton: I think, just to give people a little tactical advice it’s important that to not fit in with your company culturally does not mean that person’s a bad person.
Absolutely. Because there’s such diverse, there’s so many different types of organizations, like the kind of person who’s gonna excel at Apple, which is very locked down, everything’s very private. Hush. Is going to be a very different kind of person than the person who’s gonna excel at like Buffer, for instance, which is like we post, all of our financials every quarter publicly on the web.
And those two people are both great people. Person who’s gonna accept apples? A great person. There’s no
Elisa Tuijnder: value statement in there, right? Yep,
Anna Marie Clifton: exactly. You’re not judging these people. And so I think it’s important that when you think about what your values are and what your culture fit questions are, you need to make sure that you’re not trying to assess it, this is a good person or not, but assess if this person is a good fit. And assume, cuz most people are great people [00:26:00] assume they’re a great person. That’s not for question. The question is, are they going to be a great fit with the way you are building and the what the environment and the culture that you’re creating.
Elisa Tuijnder: In a post pandemic world workers want to retain their flexibility and have the best of both worlds. An office to meet and collaborate in while flexibly working outside the office. The new norm is hybrid, but what does this mean in practice? What are the challenges and opportunities of this form of working, and how do leaders rethink collaboration formats and decision making?
To answer these questions and many more, we have created a module on remote and hybrid collaboration. To learn more and find upcoming workshop dates, visit management30.com/modules.[00:27:00]
Hey, so you’ve developed an effective matter for addressing cultural issues and transforming, workplace perspective in as little as six weeks. So that’s a big promise. How do organizations know that they need this help? How do they start and, are there red flags or warning signs that, because company culture is always moving, right?
And is there. Yeah. Are there red flags when you know it’s slipping and that you’re getting away from your ideal point?
Anna Marie Clifton: Totally. Yeah. I think the thing you’re alluding to is I had a kind of a team turnaround, the cultural change and Yes, there are red flags. I mentioned this early on when you were asking about what are, what’s the value of a good culture?
And retention is a huge part of that value. Yep. So the biggest red flag [00:28:00] is people leaving. Yeah. Are people leaving? And it doesn’t matter why they say they’re leaving, it’s just are they leaving? I was taught this I got this lesson from a couple different managers. One who, who pulled me aside and my engineering manager counterpart and was like, Hey, you’ve had two people ask to leave your team just to transition teams.
Your team culture is broken. And I was like no. This person had these reasons, this person had these other reasons. It’s blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s not a culture problem, it’s not a team problem. It’s you. It’s, people specific, and to my manager’s credit, he was like, there’s a culture problem.
It doesn’t matter what they say their reasons are when people choose to leave. That is, that’s a signal that there’s a culture problem. And when it happens twice, like that’s a like a big problem. Later on in my career, I had a separate manager. Give me this advice when you’re, when you’re becoming a manager for the first time and you’re trying to decide, like, when do I say [00:29:00] something?
When do I, I, I feel like something might be off, but I’m not sure. And she gave me this advice that I think is just brilliant and I wish every new manager got this advice twice is a pattern. If something happens twice, it’s a pattern and that’s when you say something, if it happens once, could be a one-off, could be.
If it happens twice, it’s a pattern. And if you make a just kind of internal rule that like I will take action and provide feedback, whatever, when I see something twice, then it relieves you from all of this like cognitive load of oh. But is there a specific like reason here that it’s not happening?
Because a lot of times, when you don’t take action early on it turns out your instincts were right. Oh, there was actually a problem. And, many more instances. And so just leaning on that internal system of like twice as a pattern, that’s when you give feedback twice as a pattern, that’s when you take action has just relieved a lot of my own consternation about like when to start, paying attention [00:30:00] to my spidey senses and my intuitions.
Strong advice on all things. If you see it twice, that’s a pattern. That’s when to speak up. In, in this case, I had two people who decided they wanted to, to transition teams. And in terms of, makeover, at first I went through the kind of like the full stages where I was like, denials like not my problem.
My team’s great. What do you mean? Everyone’s like self productive and rah. Yeah. And I was like, okay, maybe there’s something wrong. Let me think about it. I got into a room with my, again, my engineering manager counterpart, and we just talked about the team and we were like, okay, let’s not try to fix it from the top.
Let’s not try to like, say, Let’s fix this little problem. Let’s start from like the ground floor. Let’s start from first principles. What are good teams? What is a good culture? What is the culture that we want? And we just started very first principles.
And we talked about like trust being a huge thing. Good teams, they trust, [00:31:00] they like work productively together. You detailed out four or five things and then on top of that, we said, okay. For each of those things that a good team has, what are the ways you would measure if those things were happening?
Like, how would you evaluate if people are trusting each other, and for instance, with trust, we an engineering team, we said if people are trusting each other, you’ll see comments on PR reviews, and you’ll see, people will actually like, provide feedback of hey I think this could be better whatnot.
And you’ll see some back and forth in comments, in pr, reviews, little like examples we tried to pull out. And then we said, okay, for each of those things that we would see as an example that this team is trusting an example of this team being productive, an example of this team, let’s take each of those items and let’s build in some artificial way to make that happen.
And like some kind of way to enforce that. And so it harkens back to my comment about the Slack [00:32:00] guidelines of like reply in thread. If you make this artificial guideline that people have to reply in thread, then they become more thoughtful and less chatty in like the main channel, which then subtly changes the culture underneath that.
So in the case of, so it’s kinda like three, three steps. You start with the first principles of what are the core things we want to be true? What are ways that we would evaluate? What are the, KPIs or, the key results, what, how can we actually measure if those were true? And then let’s take each of those KPIs, each of those key results and Make it artificially true now through like process changes or enforcing things, et cetera, et cetera.
And then the goal there is that as people get used to doing those things artificially, then they start doing them naturally, and then it bleeds all the way back down to actually trusting each other. Yeah. And it like, Actually works. It’s one of these things where you, with the, these, all these studies about how if you smile, it will make you happier.
Yeah. It’s because as humans, when you take action and when you do things, [00:33:00] you’re training your mind that’s how you work. That’s how you think it’s how you feel. And then that actually changes how you work and how you think and how you feel. So you can actually enforce that on the outside and get it all the way back into the internal workings of a human over time.
It’s a funny circle actually. Yeah, it’s a very funny circle. Yeah. Yeah. We had one of the examples of things we did was I got a mascot, a little stuffed animal mascot for the team, and I was like and this was because I was like, one of the things that a healthy team would have is I think this was built on joy.
It’s if you have a joyful team, you’ll have inside jokes. Was one thing we thought you would see inside jokes in a team that was really gelling well together. And so I was like, I’m going to create an inside joke and it’s gonna be this mascot. And I got a mascot that was like, like this clever pun on our team name, the stuffed animal I ordered on Amazon.
And then I was like, we need to create more [00:34:00] appreciation. We need people to appreciate each other. And so I was like, we’re gonna do a thing in every retro where someone has the mascot and they’re going to appreciate someone else on the team for something they did, and hand them the mascot. And then in the next retro, thatperson has the mascot and they’re gonna appreciate someone else on the team for something they did.
And they’ll hand them that mascot. And so people just get used to the fact that we have an inside joke and it starts becoming funny and they get used to the fact that each other. Yes. Yeah. And it sets you apart from the other teams, right? Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And people get used to appreciating each other cuz it’s like part of our.
Rituals, like building rituals can build culture. Rituals become culture, so be thoughtful about your rituals. That’s one thing. And second of all, use those as a tool, as a leader. Create the rituals that you would hope would happen organically if the culture was what you wanted it to be.
And eventually you can push that into the culture. Yeah. And he feels
Elisa Tuijnder: like that’s so much more. Important within remote teams, it is so much [00:35:00] easier to get, your water cooler conversation in and your inside jokes in a in an actual office setting. Also easier to get very bad things slipping in, I think.
Totally. So it’s interesting that you can, guide it a little bit more towards the culture that you want. By just practicing and practicing the culture up until the point that it basically becomes the culture. That’s what I’m hearing, right? Exactly.
Anna Marie Clifton: Exactly.
And you can do this as a leader in Slack it’s harder, obviously. But again, start with what are the things, what are the elements of culture that we want? What are the outcomes that we would think we would see if we had those elements? What ways would we measure if those elements were there?
And then like, how can I artificially do those things and get the team to do those things now? And so maybe it’s I do think there’s a lot in how you message things with like little emoji reactions. There’s ways like, and maybe you’re not the kind of company that’s gonna use gifs in your slack channels.
We’re not a very gif heavy channel. But leaning into little bits of [00:36:00] inside joke written or visual I think personally builds a lot of sense of comradery. There’s a very strong sense of we are a team cuz we have shared language, we have shared context and shared, things that we laugh about together.
So I always put energy on that. But again, you know what culture you wanna build should be specific to you. I’m not gonna tell you like whether inside jokes. Absolutely, yeah. It’s like an important part of your culture or not. But I see it inside jokes as an important part of a sense of belonging and I think a sense of belonging is a core part of the culture that I wanna build.
So sense of belonging. A lot of times that comes with language and inside jokes is a key part of shared language. And so I will create inside jokes on purpose all the time in all of my teams to just try to get a better sense of shared shared belonging.
Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah. That’s so cool. Never. Yeah, it’s getting my head to spin it a little bit.
I’m thinking about how to do that and, yeah. So I love that. So you spend actually a lot of time designing your culture, thinking about it [00:37:00] and leading it into the right direction. But there’s also a lot of, a part of your job is also, very much concentrating on efficiency and making sure that your team works well in that, in the same direction.
And obviously all the things that we just said, you know, creating that culture, people working well together leads into that. But are there any other strategies or, changes and that leaders can make to improve operations and build, efficiencies, especially in the context of remote teams?
Anna Marie Clifton: Yeah I think the biggest thing. I would want more leaders to do is lean into asynchronous tools for meeting communication. And that’s something that I’m very passionate about, especially, that’s a big part of why I joined the company I joined is to build better product experiences around meetings that you don’t need to be in and better ways for you as a non attendee.
To still be in the room, still get the insight out of it, still understand the context. And so I, I think it’s really critical that you give your teams more and more [00:38:00] permission to not attend meetings that they don’t need to actually voice an opinion in, but are more of a a participant in the outcome of the decision.
I think it’s important. In two ways. One I think we’re like in this horrible, in the middle zone where people are going to more meetings than they need to cause they don’t wanna feel left out of decisions. And two more decisions are happening and people are getting left out of them because they’re trying not to invite people to those meetings.
And so there’s on both ends, things to be done. And I think giving more people context and access to the conversation around a decision. Will a speed development times and efficiency and process. It’s not just Hey, let me tell you about a thing that happened. Let me write it up. It’s here, let me send you the minute and a half where we were talking about it, and that gives you the entire context and you can hear tone of voice and all sorts of things that are, yeah very lossy in a text message.
And that I think is a massive operational gain. Then the second side of that is, People who are just sitting in [00:39:00] meetings they don’t need to be in cause they don’t wanna feel left out and giving them access. Like here’s a hundred percent of that content for anything that you wanna catch back up on. You don’t need to go.
Is a huge operational gain, but like right now, a lot of the tools don’t allow you to do that. Cuz who’s gonna watch a like hour long zoom recording? You might as well have been in the meeting. You’re not gonna watch an hour recording. So that’s the thing around, more the automated summaries, being able to navigate directly to a moment in a meeting.
Being able to see oh, I need to catch particularly this thing. I’ll search for this word, go right to that moment and catch those, those few moments around it. And allowing people to kind of time travel through meetings instead of having to just relive them wholesale can really speed the operations of a distributed team, especially as you’re across time zones.
Oh my god. Yeah. Not having to schedule everything with everyone in a single time zone. I know you feel that For sure. Oh yeah.
Elisa Tuijnder: We have team members from Canada to India. Yeah. And Canada like, East at, yeah. West side actually. [00:40:00] Yeah, it’s a long distributed team and I also think, you know what I’m hearing, it’s also great for transparency.
I do sometimes suffer a little bit from work FOMO. I still, I don’t have to be in this meeting, but I wanna know what’s happening and what this team is doing or what my colleagues are doing within this respect. So maybe there might be something interesting for my research that I’m doing on this particular thing.
The transparency part of that, helps a lot. I think
Anna Marie Clifton: it’s all right. And just, we don’t have really good tools for allowing you people to get the insights out of an hour long meeting without watching an hour long meeting. And so that’s like vowel is all about ensuring that like you can get a five minute overview of the key points of the meeting without any effort.
So that’s a huge operational win.
Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah. Great. Hey I wanna take it back really quickly to positive culture before we head into my last question. A lot of people, I feel like it’s definitely changed over the pandemic, but definitely before the pandemic people were just not very [00:41:00] interested in changing culture off, especially in big corporations.
It was like, this is just the way it is and it’s just, we just gotta keep going. But that it. There is still a lot of people out there who think, it’s too expensive or it’s too hurt to start constantly thinking about it. It’s gonna be natural it should become natural. So what would you say if you just had one thing to say to those people Hey, why?
Why is creating a positive culture? We’ve talked about a number of things, but if you had one more thing, say Hey, this is why it’s so super important to, to continuously work with this.
Anna Marie Clifton: Totally. I would point to the stock price of Microsoft Stock over the past, say, eight years.
I’m not sure exactly when Satia Nadela joined, but I was at Microsoft when he took over as CEO and his big push as CEO was to shift Microsoft to a growth mindset organization. And to shift the culture from one [00:42:00] of, this the mindset of I know what I’m doing and I’m gonna be really good at it.
To a mindset of maybe, I don’t know, maybe there’s something I could learn. And that one shift, it came through in tons of ways. It came through in redesigning the performance reviews process and all the questions that everyone was evaluated on at their performance review. It came through in, everyone was given a book every year of they could pick a book they wanted to read off of a list of books that were relevant for that cultural change.
Yeah. It came through in hiring and firing decisions. It came through, it was this massive campaign that was many years long. From the top of a hundred thousand person plus organization. And it I was at the company when it went through this culture shift and it was palpable. You could tell that people were changing the way they operated because at the top they had changed what success was defined by.
And you can look at the outcome, the products that they’ve built since then. The results on the Bo Company bottom line and the value of the company [00:43:00] as a result of all the things that came out of all those people who were more effective working together, better crossing incredibly large boundaries like the Gulfs between product organizations at Microsoft were gigantic and they’re getting smaller and crossing those.
Results in better product experiences because the product experiences are closer together and more integrated. Yeah. And users benefit and the products have gotten better. So it’s incredibly, I cannot wait for that book to be written about that culture change because I was there when it happened and I watched it and I was marveled at it, and I was, grateful to see my company perform so well, financially as a result of it, but also just really fascinated with the results of that.
Impressive. Yep. Yeah, so strong recommendation to just look at the really successful companies that have gone through these things, no matter how big. Microsoft is one of the largest companies on the planet. Yep.
Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah, absolutely. Hey, here on the podcast, we always wanna end with a tangible practice, so things our [00:44:00] listeners can start implementing tomorrow.
We’ve talked about, all of the things that you said already. Around the slack and the communication around it and trying to get some of your values to shine through in, in, in all of that. But is there anything else that you can one more tidbit that you could leave us with so that, listeners can start implementing maybe tomorrow, maybe next week.
And just start shifting that little needle towards a more positive culture or towards the culture that really embodies the values of the organization.
Anna Marie Clifton: Totally. Yeah. I think this goes back to my team culture makeover realization that it’s, that’s six week process.
It doesn’t need to be a six week process. It doesn’t need to be done with team buy-in. It doesn’t need to be done with, counterparts and managers. It can just be something you do for yourself. Sit down and think about what is the culture, what are the core foundational tenants of the culture that I want to work in.
Ideally one that, works while the organization as well. And if those things were true, if we were like the best company in the world at doing those things [00:45:00] culturally, what would the res, what would it look like? What would I see day-to-day? Would people use different language?
Would teams be talking across, the aisle differently? And think from that. What of those things can I just start doing? Because the thing about culture is leaders have an outsized impact for sure in modeling and setting what that is. But everyone has an impact on what the culture is.
Everything is contagious, and if you start changing the way you do something, it’ll start rubbing off on people. And so you can affect cultural change even from no matter where you are in the organization as long as you’re thinking about it. Be intentional. Think about what culture you want. How you would measure if that culture were there, and then just do the things that you would find if you measured that.
Just be like, all right, I’m just gonna use different language in in how I ask for things. I’m gonna say, I’m not gonna use the word just anymore. For instance, cuz just can be a little dismissive. Can we just do this? Can we just do that? And if you stop using that word, [00:46:00] other people around you are gonna use it less too.
That’s on the small side, on the large side, you can do massive cultural changes falling the same process. It just depends on what your, yeah. Your level of interest in investment is and what you wanna see changed.
Elisa Tuijnder: Yeah, no, that’s great and I love that you used the word intentional as well, for some reason the last couple of months I’ve been using intentional so much more in lots of different contexts.
So I feel this might be the new next leadership buzzword.
Anna Marie Clifton: Intentional. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Elisa Tuijnder: Everything needs to be more intentional. We don’t need to just go with the flow. So that’s a great note to end on. Anna Marie, thank you so much for joining us, and if anybody had any follow up questions that is listening today or just wanted to find you get in contact with you, where could they
Anna Marie Clifton: do that?
I’m very twitterable. Twitter, you can find me tweet annamarie. So I’m there. Also read everything that goes to Vowel hq. I’d love to hear from you. I’m a culture nerd and I’m sure everyone who listens to your podcast is as well. I’m constantly looking for new ideas and new [00:47:00] insights. If your listeners have those, please chat me up.
I’d love to hear it. Tweet annamarie. Great.
Elisa Tuijnder: Fantastic. Thank you so much again, Anna Marie for this really interesting conversation. And yeah, maybe we’ll see each other again in the future in some maybe the same capacity or some other capacity. So thanks again.
Anna Marie Clifton: Absolutely. Thanks so much, Elisa.
This is such a pleasure. Thank you.
Elisa Tuijnder: You’ve been listening to The Happiness At Work podcast by Management 3.0 where we are getting serious about happiness. Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and if you enjoy our shows, don’t be shy. Write us a review. Share the happiness with your colleagues, family or friends. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn under Management [00:48:00] 3.0.