A company’s culture is never a finished product. It continues to evolve with time as new rituals emerge, as the nature of the work changes, as personnel come and go, and world outside of work brings in new influences.
I’ve seen the culture at Barrel evolve through the years with its highs and lows. There were moments when things clicked and we felt we were on an unstoppable rocket ship. And then there were times when I dreaded going to work, afraid of the toxic environment I had a hand in creating.
These past few years, the culture, through my eyes, has stabilized and been trending in the right direction. There are recurring issues that pop up every now and then, but overall, I get the sense that the team is capable, caring, committed to each other, and accountable to their responsibilities. It’s a great group, and I enjoy working with everyone.
I’m appreciative of my partners and of the team leaders (both managers and individual contributors at senior levels) at Barrel who’ve played critical roles in setting the tone for certain behaviors at Barrel. Their high standards, pursuit of excellence, and team-first mentality can be felt day in and day out. They set the tone for junior team members and new hires to follow suit and match the intensity and accountability.
Things are good, and I’m grateful of where we are, so when I think about the future, it’s not a knock on where we are today, but instead, an imagining of how much further we can push ourselves to elevate our performance as a team.
I have three ideas on how I’d love to see Barrel’s culture evolve in the coming months and years.
Free-Flowing Two-Way Communication
There’s much work to be done in fostering a culture where people feel safe and even encouraged to share their thoughts on matters openly and directly. We’ve had modest success running workshops at the discipline and team-wide levels to get people to weigh in on what’s working and not working at the company. We also have project debriefs where people will highlight opportunities and things we could’ve done better. More recently, some of our managers have run upward feedback surveys with their teams to get honest thoughts on their performance.
As we continue to make incremental progress, I am interested in resetting the norms of how our team communicates. I’d love for all of us to cut down backchannel complaints about other people’s performance or behaviors and instead, feel safe and even obligated to share the feedback directly with the person. And in turn, this person would graciously take the feedback and thank those who took the time to share. Within our new norms, this can happen among peers, from junior to senior members and vice versa, and across different departments. True free-flowing two-way communication with a foundation of respect and caring.
We have some ideas on how we’ll get there which I hope to share in the future. A big part of this will be equipping ourselves with the language and techniques to communicate productively, and to engage, as Adam Grant puts it in his book Think Again, in task conflict rather than relationship conflict, where disagreements turn into respectful debates about the task rather than a question of whether or not you like someone. And once we have the tools, we’ll work to establish the rituals that provide the opportunity for endless reps so that giving and receiving effective feedback becomes as natural as breathing.
A One-of-a-Kind Onboarding Experience
In An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, one of the companies profiled is Next Jump, an ecommerce tech company, which requires new hires to go through a 3-week Personal Leadership Boot Camp that is focused on helping people identify their character weaknesses and developing a plan to overcome them. This happens as new hires are put to work with customer service and also given a project to identify ways to improve the customer service process. All this culminates with the new hire sharing their experience to a committee that, using feedback from peers, coaches, and leaders, decides whether or not the new hire can graduate from boot camp. It reads as an intense experience and is a departure from our more casual onboarding, where new hires are introduced to team members, given policy documents to review, handed a new laptop, and quickly assigned to projects.
I mention the Next Jump example because it can serve as inspiration to think boldly about what’s possible for us. We have the opportunity to use onboarding as a way to truly define The Barrel Way and to set the tone for a new hire’s time at Barrel. I love the thought of having all new hires immediately embrace the norm of giving and receiving feedback (reinforcing the previous idea) and crafting an experience that gets them working on a project that exposes them to how we function as a business. Whether it’s a designer, developer, strategist, or project manager, it’d be interesting to put people through the same set of tasks and challenges to help identify development areas and to get their input on ways our processes can improve.
Another thought for the onboarding experience is to do a better job of exposing new hires to our core values, our existing systems, the meaning of the words we use, and the subcultures of our different disciplines. I think the more we can invest the time upfront to help people fully grasp the ins and outs of the company, the more they’re likely to open themselves up to being a part of it. And on the flip side, for those who realize it’s not a good fit, they can find out sooner and call it quits before things drag on for too long.
Lastly, as we design and think about rolling out this new onboarding , I’d love for all existing team members to go through it so they can experience it themselves and provide feedback on how we can make it better. This way, everyone can benefit from a better onboarding experience.
Embracing Weakness as a Way to Strength
Six years ago, I wrote about shifting my focus from lamenting about our team’s weaknesses and instead finding ways to amplify their strengths. I don’t think this was an entirely bad idea, but I’ve come to realize that identifying, embracing, and working on our weaknesses is incredibly important and a key to developing as people and as an organization.
Our weaknesses are typically behaviors where our lack of self-awareness and/or follow-through negatively impact our performance. Think of things like listening, ability to delegate, or being detail-oriented. Weaknesses can also extend to the technical realm of skills, where it’s more about competency and speed. Think of things like coding, design, knowing your way around applications, or being adept with a spreadsheet.
I’d love for our culture at Barrel to be one in which people proactively seek to know their weaknesses, to chart a path towards overcoming them, and to openly share their journey with others. This ties in well with the first idea of free-flowing two-way communication which would enable the feedback that helps identify weaknesses.
For this to work, everyone at Barrel would need to participate in openly talking about their weaknesses and in demonstrating real progress. Our performance reviews would be a starting place for helping people clearly articulate their weaknesses. Ongoing small group discussions or team-wide sharing sessions can then further the progress of priorities established in performance reviews while creating a platform for people to share their respective development journeys. Team leaders would have to model these practices and be active participants for everyone to be truly on board.
None of the above feels daunting. In fact, aspects of this desired future state exist today within Barrel, so I find the prospect of our culture evolving in this manner very promising. This is a far cry from where I might have rated our culture even just a year ago. We’ve put in a lot of work to get to where we are today. It hasn’t been easy and things have definitely not always been smooth. However, the payoff has been real, and I can sense certain shifts in the way we feel about ourselves, the work we do, and the relationships we cultivate with ourselves and with our clients. There’s a lot to like, and it’s why I’m incredibly excited for what’s to come.