Founder and Chief Fun Work at Voys
You might have heard it before, but Mark Vletter is a rebel with a cause. A leader of over 125 intrapreneurs with the companies he has founded, Voys, Spindle and VoIPGRID. Voys is the cloud telecom provider of over 13000 companies around the world. Vletter wants to change the way we work, and he knows how critical creating the right culture is to achieving his revolution. A noted advocate of holacracy, Vletter shares his insights and the lessons he’s learned about culture and the important role it plays for companies heading into the future.
Simply presenting who you want to be to the outside world, without actually living it, is nothing more than branding.
When did you start talking about culture within your organization?
I think culture is there from the start. I started right away, writing down how we work with our first hire. Once we grew to about ten people, we wrote down our ‘why, how & what’ for the operations of the organisation, and one of the first things we did was hook up a Wiki page and a CRM system. Transparency and communication were key values at the start of our organization because it made work distributable.
At 15 employees we formalized the culture, and with help from an external team, we created our brand values and wrote them down in an employee book. I was really inspired by the Valve Handbook for New Employees. The group dynamic changes when you're around 15 people, and that's when we began actively communicating the brand values and put them up on the website.
Culture becomes more mature as you go, that's the only thing that changes. You should hire for core values. Because if you hire for core values, they will be supported by everybody.
How do you hire for core values? It’s very easy. For example, let's say one of the core values is to be ‘open’. In the interview jump straight in and ask questions to reveal whether someone is open or not. I will ask the interviewee to describe their biggest blunder over the past year. If they say ‘none’, they’re either not open enough to share, or not open enough to try, and they will not fit in our organization. You have to look for actual behavior, and that's why you ask behavior questions. Culture is an inside out thing. Simply presenting who you want to be to the outside world, without actually living it, is nothing more than branding.
Founder and Chief Fun Work at Voys.
Founder of Spindle/VoIPGRID & 48percent.org Creator of the Voys Hanbook. Speaker and columnist about a.o. The Voys Model/Holacracy.
Holacracy: an organizational model without managers and fixed jobs
1. We are open and transparent 2. Contact is personal and based on equality 3. We provide excellent support 4. We develop for and with customers 5. Change is part of the company 6. Personal growth is the goal
If culture is behavior, everybody's responsible
How do you ensure you have a diverse and inclusive team? We always feel like we're underperforming in this area, and feel there is so much room to grow. We've learned a lot about hiring for diversity, but especially in hiring for inclusivity. We’re good at hiring from different cultures and hiring women in tech, but we're still bad at generational hiring. If certain groups decide to not solicit because they think they won’t fit in, we should show a more diverse group via our web photography or target them directly via social media. A diverse team is only as diverse as the people you hire. To ensure that the people you hire are diverse you have to have a diverse hiring team.
Your work is based on holacracy, who in your opinion is responsible for culture within your organization? Everyone. If culture is behavior, everyone is responsible. Make sure culture is part of the hiring process, and in the onboarding process. The reason we chose holacracy was simple. We surveyed what worked within our organization and what didn't work. When we hit 30 people group dynamics changed again and we needed to know who was responsible for what. Our culture and the way we work agreed with the holacracy model, and that’s why we uphold it. Voys is often labelled as a weird company, but if you look at it from a distance, we just act and work together as adults, and actually the rest of the world is weird. It's very rare to see a managerial system built the way we have done it. We've seen all the negative consequences the normal structures have caused, the crisis, absurd enrichment of the 1%; it is totally insane. And they call us the crazy ones! Organizational management hasn't evolved much in the last 100 years, where the entire world has. I think the organizational structures that we are setting up will be the default in the future because they're much more natural.
A diverse team is only as diverse as the people you hire
As a founder you are the strongest representative of culture because you determine the rules
What is your role as a founder in maintaining the culture? I describe how and why the company was started to make sure that the history survives. It's more of a history lesson than about culture, but we feel it's important to know the history to be able to ground yourself within the organisation. Once a month, I sit with all the new hires and share where we come from and where we’re going. You get to know each other personally, but that is tougher to do now that we have past the 125 mark. As a founder, you are the strongest representative of culture because you set the organization’s rules from the start. As the organization grows, you want to prevent certain behaviors from happening. If it happens once, you need to step in right away to fix the issue. If something happens twice, it becomes behavior and thus, it becomes culture. Culture is in the fabric of everything we do, and we often fall back on culture when things become difficult. You have to look at how you want to act as an organization and why you exist.
What are you most proud of in your culture? This is going to sound really fluffy, but it's how supportive people are for each other. It is said that holacracy organizes work but not people, and is considered a very black and white system, but I see that a lot of gray exists outside of the system, especially during this Corona period. For example, a few people are in wheelchairs, and someone else broke their leg, then it's very normal for the others in the company to ask, how can we bring them to work? It’s about supporting each other when there’s an issue. There is an openness in the company, people are comfortable being themselves and sharing their vulnerabilities.
Mark on culture and shared responsibility
How can you fuck up your culture? By saying one thing and doing another, and not taking accountability for it. As a leader you are responsible for everything, good or bad, that happens and you should take accountability. If you want to make a difference, start with yourself. So, the first step to prevent culture from breaking down is to take accountability. The second step to ensure that your culture remains strong is to share the accountability so that everyone feels responsible and involved with the culture. If you do not take and share accountability as a leader, you will mess up.
What are the biggest lessons you learned about company culture? First, that even when you try to do your best, people who won’t fit your company culture will slip through the system. It's one of the reasons why everyone has an initial six month contract at our organization, and we stick by it. Second, if you see something that you don't like and don't think fits your culture, you have to speak up, always. Because the second time it happens it becomes a behavior. Third, as a founder of the organization, you're going to be the one that everyone looks up to. The first time you don't do something when you agreed you would, they won't do it either. It's that simple. Lastly, don’t be an asshole. That's the only thing you have to do. That might sound really strange, but that is the heart's phrase. Be vulnerable, listen to what other people have to say, and be vulnerable enough to share what you're not sure about. Then your team can grow, you can grow and your company can grow.
People can be themselves, including their vulnerabilities