Matt Roche is no stranger to botched transactions in company growth, and he doesn’t sugarcoat his failures.
“There is one part of company culture that I have singularly failed at,” Roche, CEO of referral marketing company Extole. “One thing that I missed, that our people caught: that it’s too easy to get too serious. Core values have to, at some level, involve how you enjoy each other and celebrate. Because startups are a frickin’ grind.”
Roche’s industry experiences during the last 20 years and with four companies brought him to Extole in 2013, when a culture of pervasive anxiety was taking over as more than half of the company was being let go. Since then, rebuilding the company’s culture is taking one thing that wasn’t planned: time.
It took Roche and his leadership team a full year to realize that the core values, identified early when he joined the company, were just wrong.
“When you have a transition where there’s a new CEO and the company is basically in crisis, it seems like, ‘Oh, this is a perfect time for values,’” Roche said. “But it’s unbelievably hard to implement new core values when everyone’s afraid.”
Out of four core values, three were completely irrelevant to the remaining employees at Extole, he said.
“Mettle, pride, responsibility,” Roche said. “If I’m being completely honest, when I finally built enough of a relationship with our people in customer success, they told me, ‘This just doesn’t mean anything to us.’ And values that are judgments are not values.”
Over a month and a half, Roche met with every single employee at the company, and asked them for help in creating a “word map” to describe their feelings on both good and bad things about Extole. One term stood out: One Team.
“I think there was a little bit of PTSD left from when the company was not doing so well in 2011 and 2012,” Roche said. “Every person started pulling their oars in the direction they thought was right, and the company was just going in circles.”
Roche’s voice expressed the stress and difficulty of the responsibility he felt to improve the workplace, and it’s certainly still a work in progress. Even now, Extole has a lackluster Glassdoor rating of 3.1 out of 5 stars, with several harsh and very recent reviews citing the culture specifically. But Roche noted the same key to company culture that many executives know to be essential: employees who fit in.
“One of the hardest problems when it comes to company values is when you have someone who is extremely effective, but not aligned,” he said. “If someone is extremely aligned [with the company’s values], but not effective, you can put some work in to make them more effective.”
But an employee who works effectively but doesn’t fit in with the company culture isn’t worth keeping, he said, and it’s always better to let them go. Always? Yes, always.
“I know, it’s so hard to find talent,” Roche said. “But it’s unbelievable how much damage even a single person can do to the culture, especially when you’re not that big. If you let people off the hook, then people start questioning if you really believe in the values and if the values even matter.”
Moving forward, one of Roche’s main goals for Extole is to balance the number of women to men who are in the executive team, from the current two up to six.
“I’m putting a disproportionate amount of my own time into developing the women in the organization who I think can lead,” he said. “For the first time, I took one of the women and said, ‘You’re going to coding boot camp. You have to learn this. You can’t be a modern street fighter without these tools.’ And I’m about to send the next one.”
In general, not enough women are learning to program, Roche said, and sometimes it’s easier to just hire the male candidates. But he’s going out of his way to balance Extole’s employees.
“It’s not that I don’t want male employees,” he said. “I think you’re missing out on talent, on point of view, on effectiveness. I’m not anti-guy, I just think if you wake up and your entire company is guys, you should think, ‘I’m missing something.’ The more I invest in these women, the stronger the company becomes.”
April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.