Street Culture: Ibotta’s Growth Teaches CEO to Make Cultural Expectations Explicit

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Photo above courtesy of Alpha Stock Images / RM Media

Colorado’s unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the country, and job seekers have options. As the Rockies attract more Silicon Valley-level tech talent, companies like Denver-based Ibotta are using cultural values to draw in the best employees.

Bryan Leach, founder and CEO of the shopping app, believes talented job seekers are looking for mission-driven organizations.

“Younger employees are increasingly looking for mission-driven approaches in their work,” Leach said. “When we listened to our employees, that’s what they said they wanted. They want to go someplace where they will get better and have someone to help them become the best version of themselves.”

Leach was recently recognized by Glassdoor as a “Top 10 CEO” based on his 98% approval rating from employee reviews. Ibotta has grown in every aspect, Leach says, by roughly 40–50% in the last year. It’s one of the top five shopping apps in the U.S. and has expanded into multiple cities outside its Denver headquarters, including New York and Minneapolis.

“We’re much more explicit and intentional about our culture than we were in the past,” Leach says. “In the earlier days of a new company, you have bigger problems to deal with. [Culture] is a ‘nice to have.’ Everyone is interacting with everyone else, and the culture is observable. As you get to be a more mature company, you need alignment. Put it in writing. Make it a part of coaching. It’s a big mistake to not invest time in making the culture explicit.”

Leach says that, thinking back, he probably could have invested more time in the culture sooner. Now, Ibotta provides multiple channels through which employees can provide feedback, including an anonymous question-asking tool.

“We have our own internal process to allow people to submit comments and feedback,” he says. “That’s good practice because if people are frustrated, you want a chance to do something about it before you read about it on Glassdoor.”

Ibotta’s leaders gave employees the option to ask anonymous questions that might not be asked otherwise—things like, “When are we getting pay increases?”, and, “What’s the real reason why the CFO is no longer with the company?”

“We don’t always divulge details in situations where it isn’t appropriate to discuss certain subjects, but we’re conspicuously not dodging questions,” Leach says. “I think people find it refreshing when some other leaders and public officials seem like they’re always obfuscating the reality.”

Having difficult conversations is one of the most important habits to acquire, Leach says, and it often starts with asking hard questions.

Leach read a book recently, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan, that speaks to the value of creating a culture of open communication.

“You have to make it a safe place for people to come forward with their concerns or different ideas,” he says. “If you’re doing something a certain way, whether that’s a product roadmap or a company policy like unlimited PTO, or if you have a person managing who’s not a very good coach, your employee has to trust you with that information and know that different points of view won’t be shouted down.”

He calls this process through which leaders are more and more able to talk about challenges and openly address differences of opinion “normalizing discomfort.”

“You want healthy conflict and to model for [employees] how to have healthy conflict,” Leach says. “You can disagree, but as long as you commit to a certain course of action, everyone will know they are in a safe place. That’s the kind of thing I spend almost all my time thinking about.”

His last bit of advice to his former self, and to other company leaders: “Get a coach earlier.” Coaches aren’t just for the employees—business leaders need coaches, too.

“Also, check your instinct,” he says. “Remember that everyone is always paying attention to your body language, your tone, the words you use. As leader of a 500-person company, you have to be much more conscious of your unintended leadership wake.”

April Nowicki is a staff writer at Street Fight.