When a startup is in its infancy, the company culture is essentially its founders. But as it grows and matures, the founders no longer have day-to-day contact with a large portion of the team members, and the challenges of keeping the values that make a company special become increasingly difficult to maintain.

For the last post in the Startup Parenthood series, RJMetrics’ founders shared some of the lessons they learned about maintaining a great culture as a company grows. I asked our CEO, Bob Moore, how he approached this challenge as RJMetrics grew from 40 to 120 employees over the past year. He gave credit to two things:

  1. Hiring people who understand and share our core values
  2. Putting people into leadership roles who have proven their ability to serve as good stewards of company culture

For this post I caught up with one of those stewards. Xiao Zhou is our Director of Customer Analytics. He joined RJMetrics when it consisted of only 12 people and today manages our team of top-notch analysts.

Anita: In your own words, how would you describe RJMetrics’ culture?

Xiao: When I first joined RJMetrics I immediately valued the sense of ownership I had over our product and processes. It made me feel like an integral member of the team. Even as we’ve grown, we’ve managed to keep this as a part of our culture for every team member.

One way I keep this alive for my team is by setting goals, not direction. When we set a goal around a new process, project, feature, or program, I set a broad direction, but it’s up to the individual to define the “how.” There has to be room for whoever is working on the project to experiment, get feedback, and try different approaches. This gives people ownership over their work, and it also gets better results by incorporating a broader spectrum of input.

Anita: When you joined RJMetrics you were not a team manager, let alone a director, so you’ve basically grown the analyst team and your role within it as well. As you’ve done that have you purposely thought about our culture, or has it grown organically?

Xiao: I think it has happened mostly organically. But I do try to push my team so they know they can always question assumptions. My hope is this will empower them to take ownership. Of course, the only way this approach works is if there’s trust. I purposefully try to build trust with my team on a one-on-one level so they always feel comfortable sharing their opinions and feelings, no matter how long they’ve been here.

Anita: Ownership over your work and feeling empowered to create change are clearly things that resonate with you about RJMetrics culture. How do you approach preserving this? Do you frame it as a part of the overall company culture, or do you try and make it specific to your team’s needs?

Xiao: I believe that company culture is absolutely top-down and has to come from our founders, Bob and Jake. I do my best to make sure I’m passing the culture they envision along to my team, but because it’s a broader aspect of our overall company culture, other team leads are also passing these values along. And this means that my team members are then experiencing the culture coming to life when they work across teams.

Anita: The hypothesis behind the Startup Parenthood series is that RJMetrics’ culture works because it is based around the core principle of flexibility. Is flexibility an end goal that you hope to achieve when managing and building your team, or is it a byproduct of other principles of the culture?

Xiao: Flexibility is absolutely a byproduct of other principles of our culture. Particularly one we haven’t discussed yet, which is “Do The Right Thing” (DTRT). We aim to hire people who are intrinsically motivated, but also naturally good human beings who strive to do the right thing and be honest in all situations. If you get that part right then managers aren’t worried about the details of how a project get accomplished, and flexibility naturally flows out of that.

Anita: Your team has a unique challenge compared to other teams at RJMetrics, because they are required to support our customers at specific times, and your team is consistently recognized for going well beyond and delivering exceptional support. I’m curious how you balance those customer expectations and needs against the desire and principles of flexibility, and wanting your team to “have a life”?

Xiao: This starts with setting clear, reasonable expectations. First, around what great customer service looks like — and being clear that it’s not about killing yourself. Second, around the personal expectation that the team is responsible for managing their own time. Everybody defines work-life balance and flexibility differently, so this goes back to our hiring process and recognizing intrinsically motivated individuals who will naturally strive to put customers first, and at the same time have the ability to define how they will balance meeting both sets of expectations.

Anita: So how do you determine that the team environment you’re creating doesn’t also create stress, because of the fact individuals are responsible for actively finding a daily balance?

Xiao: This goes back to what I said earlier about building trust. Because the work-life balance is different for every individual, I address this by keeping an open channel of communication with each individual on the team. And the only way I can expect someone to speak up if something isn’t working, is to have built up that level of trust through an open, personal rapport.

Anita: Your team will have many people entering parenthood or taking on additional life commitments in the near future, as we grow in team-member size, how do you see this impacting the way our culture and policies change?

Xiao: We’ve already learned a lot about what “Do The Right Thing” and flexibility looks like for our team as we’ve grown, and fortunately our culture and principles have been amplified. We have even more resources and confidence around what works, and I feel prepared to handle the variety of life scenarios that will come our way as we continue to grow.