“Take 3 weeks’ vacation or you're fired!”
Mark Organ sold Eloqua, his first company for £871m. Here he talks about the culture mistakes he made at Eloqua and how he is rectifying them at Influitive.
Interview with Mark Organ, founder & CEO of Influitive.
"It is all too easy to think that the customers who pay us are vastly more important than the “customers” that we pay. A big difference in my philosophy between the two companies I founded is that I think of my employees as my most important customers now."
- How Influitive makes use of platoons - self-selected cross-functional teams that spend half a day a week working on a chosen area of interest or improvement outside of their normal job.
- How Influitive improved the onboarding process by asking the design department to create an experience that would surprise and delight new joiners.
- How Influitive use a multi-layered system of recognition with cadences of daily, monthly, quarterly and annual episodes.
- How the company uses Daily Synch Up meetings that last exactly 9 minutes to embed and reinforce the company values
Our values are linked directly to our needs. In simple terms if you need something then you place a value on it. For example, if you are lost in a desert and you need a drink you will place a high value on a bottle of water.
The first person to make the connection between values and needs was Abraham Maslow, who identified two types of human needs; basic needs and growth needs. Basic needs, like water in the desert, are important to get in order to feel secure, comfortable and happy in your current environment. If you do not satisfy your basic needs you feel concerned, anxious, insecure and fearful.When you finally get your hands on that bottle of water you forget about that specific need, because once your basic needs have been met they no longer require your attention.
Growth needs are different. Growth needs, the need for self-development and/or the need to make a difference, do not go away once you experience and start to fulfill them. Fulfilling a growth need allows you to taste self-actualization, which results in you wanting more. Growth needs do not fade away, they intensify.
As the CEO you can only really start to focus on fulfilling the growth needs of your people once your company has overcome the basic needs, either by raising a decent funding round or building the business to profitability. The growth needs of your people, how they want to grow and develop, are to be found in their personal values. These personal values will influence the business’ values, especially in the early formative stages. It’s therefore critical, in the early stage of the business’ development, that the people on the team are involved in surfacing and defining the values of the business. If the team’s needs are represented in the company’s core values there is a greater chance for the values to be lived inside the company. Living the values generates trust amongst the team members and according to by Paul J. Zak’s fascinating neuroscience research, trust is the key to fuelling the strong performance of successful company cultures.
“In my research I’ve found that building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference… Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout, they collaborate better with their colleagues and stay with their employers longer.”
If the core values are lived by everyone in the company you can trust your people with the freedom to make decisions because they will make those decisions based on their own personal values, which match the core values of the business.
Some of the CEO’s that I have interviewed for this blog started to think deliberately about their company’s core values at the beginning of the business’ formation. Others didn’t have the bandwidth to think about the company’s core values at the formation stage, and only started considering it after some years had passed, by which time the culture that had evolved - without any nurturing or management - was baked into the business and it was too late and to build the optimum culture for the business.
Mark Organ is in a unique position of having experienced both of these situations. Mark is the founder of Eloqua, which sold to Oracle for $871m in 2012. At Eloqua Mark first started to think about the company culture five years into the business. Mark’s second company is Influitive, and Mark sees Influitive as his chance to right some of the culture development wrongs he made at Eloqua. He started to focus on the culture he wanted to build before the Influitive was incorporated and has developed a unique and highly effective company culture.
What is Influitive?
Influitive is a 6-year-old software company focused on advocate marketing. We believe this is a huge new category of software that’s driving the shift from company-centric marketing to advocate marketing. We believe that a company’s happy customers i.e. advocates, are always going to be better at selling and marketing than the company’s sales reps are. Our advocacy platform helps B2B companies mobilize their advocates for more rapid and profitable revenue growth. Prospective buyers can easily connect to knowledgeable peers before interacting with your company and it is therefore essential to surround those buyers with as much social proof as possible. Influitive's AdvocateHub first and foremost provides a unique and rewarding experience for advocates, those happy customer evangelists, employees and influencers that love your product. The AdvocateHub increases their advocating activity by five times or more, which results in more referral leads, reference connections, case studies, video testimonials, 5-star online reviews and social media participation. Influitive's 300+ customers include B2B technology leaders like IBM, Salesforce.com, Oracle, DocuSign and Intuit.
What’s the difference between Influitive and Eloqua from a culture perspective?
I bootstrapped Eloqua for years before raising outside funding, and we almost went out of business at least 3 times. We were permanently in survival mode during the early years, which made it hard to focus on anything else. Once we moved out of survival mode had the head space to realize the importance of culture and the importance of employee experience. It was about 5 years into building Eloqua that I realized I should have done more to develop and nurture the company culture. Our true north was measurable value for customers and it took too long to sink in that the only way to really achieve that measurable value was through our people. The people who built our brilliant products, attracted and satisfied our customers.
It is all too easy to think that the customers who pay us are vastly more important than the “customers” that we pay. A big difference in my philosophy between the two companies I founded is that I think of my employees as my most important customers now.
I should have shifted time from focusing on our customers and invested more time and effort in our people. The only way to become a great company is to attract the best people and get the best out of them. It’s obviously still important to spend time with customers but I realized it was important to focus on building the next generation.
I started by having walking chats to get to know people better, but there was too little that I could do about it at that stage - at 5 years in the culture was already significantly baked in. To be fair it wasn’t a bad culture, it’s still relatively autonomous and successful organization within Oracle, but there was so much more that we could have done. Influitive is my chance to right some of the wrongs that I made at Eloqua on the culture development front. We are focusing on employee experience as a “product” – always innovating and improving. This enables us to attract, retain and develop the best people and is a competitive advantage for us, perhaps one of the strongest advantages we can attain. It’s great to have a second opportunity to build a stronger culture, a culture that puts growth and development of people at the centre of it.
When did you start thinking about the culture at Influitive?
My co-founder and I, plus two early employees, started thinking about culture right from the beginning, even before incorporation. We didn’t start with the mission and vision because I believe that everything starts with values, they are the foundation and fundamental building blocks of every business. We started by codifying the values that were important to us, particularly in regards to the people we wanted to attract to our young company.
How have the company values changed over time?
Actually we first changed the values quite early on. My co-founder and I didn’t agree on the direction for the business, we had a mismatch in terms of our leadership styles, and I bought him out. This triggered some navel gazing because I realized that something in the original values had clearly not been communicated properly or was left unsaid, so we had a rethink, removed some values and added some others. This early rethink also forced us to hone in on the mission of the company. Every high profile executive that we have lost, since then, whether through resignation or firing, has triggered a review of the values. For example we had a situation recently where our VP Product had to go, he was an incredibly skilled person but he had a hard time engaging with the team. We didn’t at the time have an explicit value about team empowerment and that’s when we decided that it was a value that we had to add to the list.
What are the company’s values?
We recently brought in a consultant to take us through a values review exercise and have slimmed down from 9 values to 4 core values. During the process we found that a number of things that we thought were values were not, they were more like behavioral traits. Not living up to the values should be a firing offence. Not being an inspirational leader for example should not be a firing offence.
The 9 values were
- A company of owners
- Team productivity over individual glory
- Design the business for scale
- Blaze new trails
- Open, honest and direct
- Our true north is measurable customer value
- We all inspire and lead
- Take the high road
The new 4 core values are
- Take the high road, is all about integrity. We sleep well at night because we do the right thing and are proud of our decisions.
- Care like an owner, is about managing for the long-term health of the business and the people in the business. There is more to life than our professional lives.
- Find a better way reflects innovation in everything that we do, not just in our products. We also pride ourselves in bringing solutions to the table not just problems or complaints.
- Win as a team means that we put team health over individual glory.
We have a short sentence that encapsulates the values and is easy to remember “Take care, find a win”.
What do you do to keep the values relevant?
Within the company we pound home the values by recognizing them every day in many different ways. We have built the values into the fabric of the business and this includes recognizing a member of our Board of Directors if they have lived the values. It’s important to build up and tell stories of our people to living the values and going the extra mile, just like Nordstrom and Zappos do.
Every year the leadership team has an offsite. One of the things we do at the offsite is ask ourselves who we think the top two people in the company are, the two people who clearly represent and live the values of the company. We write their names on post-it notes that we stick them up on the wall. We look at which people got the most votes and create a top 5. We then talk about them and why we feel that they represent the values of the company. We then ask ourselves, what are their values and are they congruent with our company values. If we recognize a value that 4 or 5 of our top people are demonstrating that’s not represented by the company as a whole then we need to think about it.
What are the company’s Mission and Vision?
Actually, we don’t have a standard company mission or vision anymore; we have a 25-year BHAG (first popularized by Jim Collins in Good to Great: a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal”). That BHAG is - Every company will run advocate first. What we mean by that is every company will prioritize their customer, employee and other advocates over every other stakeholder type in their companies. This BHAG is combined with our statement of purpose, which is to be a vehicle to help every employee achieve their full potential in life.
Who is responsible for the culture in the company?
I see myself as the guardian of the culture. I need to be the model and live the values to the fullest, which is why the CEO job is so tough. I am fallible just like everyone else and make my fair share of mistakes. Although I am ultimately the person responsible for the culture, I have started to delegate most aspects of culture through a concept we call “platoons”. A “platoon” at Influitive is a self-selected cross-functional team of people who will spend a half a day a week on a chosen area of interest or improvement. For example we have platoon that’s been doing some work around international expansion. We are just about to start our expansion into Europe next month and we formed a platoon to evaluate and come up with a plan as to how we should expand, which country and why. We also have platoons for diversity & inclusion, creating breakthroughs in demand generation, and fostering better inter-departmental communication.
The platoon system allows our people to get a different experience to their regular job, that maps directly to the career plan that every employee puts together with their manager. For example, the Director of Finance may be acting as a marketing exec or leveraging their finance background by running the data and doing market research.
The leadership team plays an important role in culture as well, by getting deeply involved in hiring, promotion and firing decisions. The primary lens that we view these decisions is through the lens of culture and values.
How do the platoons work?
At Infulitive we work 4.5 days per week and the other half a day is spent working in a platoon on other projects. Anyone can propose a platoon idea and our people vote for the idea with their feet. If people like the idea and want to join that platoon they will walk over to join the person whose idea it was. Every 6 months we get 15/20 platoon ideas and anywhere between 4 to 8 get voted for and worked on. Cross-departmental participation is required for a platoon idea to be accepted. If 6 people from marketing want to work on an idea without any engineers or sales then it wont fly as a platoon idea. The marketing department should focus on that rather. The leaders (director level or above) in the company have to assume a followership role, in this way we start to see junior people shining as leaders.
What other types of platoons does Influitive have operating now?
We have a platoon that is responsible for all the company meetings: town hall, one-to-one, annual, sales kick-offs etc. Meetings are super important and very expensive from a time perspective, it’s therefore imperative that they run smoothly and to time. One previous platoon that has disbanded focused on optimizing our company meetings. This platoon gathered feedback on the various meetings that we run in the company and then made recommendations on how to improve them. One of the major initiatives at the moment is to get every meeting to start with an agenda. It sounds really simple and obvious but having an agenda makes a meeting way more productive. We have a saying “No agenda, no attenda!” Not only should meetings have an agenda, but they should also have action items and follow up steps. Meetings are an important part of our culture and we must therefore apply all our values, such as find a better way, to them. A while back we found that some meetings were running over. When we looked into it we realized that some of our boardrooms didn’t have clocks in them. It’s things like that we can change to improve the effectiveness of the company as a whole. We also have a platoon for celebrations. They are responsible for recognizing and celebrating milestones and achievements. I can make suggestions but other than that it has nothing to do with me.
What do you do to recognize the people in the company?
Recognition is an integral part of our culture at Influitive. The evidence is clear that people value recognition more than just about anything else so we are generous with it. We have a multi-layered system of recognition with cadences of daily, monthly, quarterly and annual episodes. Every day we recognize someone for living one of the company values. A quirk of our culture is we have a global all hands meeting, which runs for exactly 9 minutes from 11:51 to 12:00 Eastern Time, every day. The Daily Synch-Up Meeting is led out of Toronto but we do it from the Boston office 1 day a week so that the HQ team understands what it feels like to be remote. It’s taken us years to get the daily all hands meeting right. We also recognize a “hero of the quarter” which is voted on by peers for attainment in company values as well as execution, and annual recognition for each of our values that is celebrated at our holiday party.
How does the Daily Synch-Up Meeting work?
It’s open to anyone; we encourage employees to bring in candidates, friends and family members to the all hands meeting so that we involve more people and export our culture. The daily all hands is the heartbeat of the business and we use the same structure every single day.
- We introduce new hires
- We review the metrics from the day before
- We recognize and new qualified customer meetings and sales demos, as well as customer wins, renewals
- We do a deep dive into what’s currently happening in a department
- We will talk about any good news on a personal and professional basis
- We have a daily departmental deep dive, which is the only element that changes day-to-day. The department representative has 3 minutes to talk about the insights that they have had, what is going on in their department or what they have personally learnt recently.
- We also give recognition to a team member for living one of our values every day. A recent example of that is one of our team found a better way to go to trade shows without paying, by working with partners.
The minutes are written up and shared with the company, the board and shareholders to keep them all up to date. The result of our daily all hands meeting is that everybody in the company knows what’s going on. The advantage of this is that when we do our main town hall meetings we don’t have to spend any time giving status updates and summarizing the past. People aren’t really that interested in what’s happened in the past, except to ensure there is accountability in the company for what was promised and delivered. They tend to be way more interested in what’s going to happen in the future. We can focus our time and communication during the main town hall meetings on what we are planning to do in the future and answering the questions our people have.
How is the Daily Synch-Up meeting organized?
We have a system for organizing the daily meetings and Kyle who works on the front desk is responsible for organizing it. We have PowerPoint slides that guide the process from introduction through good news, and so on to the end of the meeting. Kyle updates the deck with the slides from the departments or individuals who will speak the next day. The department responsible for the 3 minute spotlight session will decide who will speak and about what. We have an award for the Department Spotlight of the month, which rewards excellent communication and great content and fitting into the 3 minute slot. At 11:47 we have music that plays in the office to let everyone know that they have to come to the boardroom. We invest a lot of time and effort in these meetings, it’s therefore important that we get them right. We have a committee that is responsible for the health of the all hands daily meeting; they make sure that it’s working well and collect any feedback about the meetings. Every few months we will make a change to the format, which is a result of the feedback from the company.
What keeps you up at night?
I really agonize over promotions and firings. The only thing worse than keeping an employee who doesn’t live the values is to promote someone who isnt living the values fully. We have demonstrated that it doesn’t matter if you are successful at delivering the product or closing big deal, if you don’t live the values, you will be let go. There are very few times that I feel I need to get involved and scrutinize things but promotions are one of them.
Describe Influitive’s hiring process
We hire by committee and the more senior the hire the larger the committee. Our committee based hiring process ensures that we keep the bar high and I believe that it works for us because we are so aligned on what we are looking for. If we are hiring for a Director level role we will have 6 or 7 people on the committee. Everyone has a job to do and the main job is to make sure that the candidate qualifies or not. After the first round interview we have two further rounds, where the candidate must present to the committee and anyone else in the company who wants to attend the presentation. We then ask the committee to vote on whether they are strongly inclined, inclined, neutral, inclined or strongly not inclined to hire this person. Our process is geared towards not making hiring mistakes. We distribute the responsibility amongst the hiring committee. One of the hiring committee members will be responsible for testing values 1 & 2, another will be responsible for testing values 3 & 4. Another will be responsible for testing leadership skills, another for testing domain expertise and so on. We have a list of suggested questions for the interviewer to use to evaluate the values match. If they have better questions they should use those because we prize finding a better way of doing things. We want to clarify whether the candidate lives this value or not?
How do you handle onboarding?
Onboarding starts when the candidate accepts the offer. We send them a package in the mail with some reading material and company branded clothing. There can be a couple of months between accepting the offer and joining the company so we will invite them to our town hall meetings and parties before they have formally joined, in order to feel like they are part of the team. It’s important that they feel like a member of the team as soon as possible and can hit the ground running when they do join. The first week is planned out for them. They do job shadowing, meet with relevant people, get business cards and their computer is set up. It took us years to get this right. We actually applied a UX experience by asking our design department to create the onboarding experience.We wanted to create an experience to surprise and delight the people who join the company so that they are enthusiastic in week one. A great first impression is important because it’s so hard to reverse the opposite outcome.
How do you approach diversity at Influitive?
We have diversity built into our DNA with 42% female, all ages races and creeds. We are building a company that’s homogeneous in the ways of culture and values but filled with people from different backgrounds who bring different perspectives to the table. We are fortunate to be based in Toronto which is currently the most diverse city in the world with respect to national origin.
We also have a platoon around diversity & inclusion which is empowered to make decisions on how we hire, promote and fire people. This platoon has done a terrific job in ensuring that we have a welcoming place for people to do their best work and that we attract people of all types of backgrounds to Influitive.
How do you handle performance evaluations?
Our performance evaluation is based on living values as much as the results achieved. We do a 360-degree evaluation focusing on how our people are feeling about the company and the management. We ask questions like is your manager living up to the values? Is there anybody who isnt living up to the values – how and why? We want to make sure that the individuals in our team are in a good place as well as root out the people who don’t fit into our culture, the “brilliant jerks”.
We are extraordinarily transparent at Influitive. It’s all about empowerment. I don’t love that word, because it suggests that I am some sort of king who bestows empowerment upon people, but I have not found a better word. We believe that people here are “born empowered” by being a citizen of Influitive. Influitive leaders are constantly looking for new ways to be transparent and empower our people. I have recently developed a new process for the one to one meetings I have with all my direct reports. Instead of a typical meeting agenda I ask the person who wants the meeting to write a blog post about the meeting. The blog post is available for everyone on the leadership team to see and in this way everyone on the team can know what’s going on and they can use the comments section of the blog post to add to the discussion. My goal is to extend this visibility to the whole company over the next year.
What additional company perks or awards does Influitive offer?
First, all our perks have to be tied back to our values. We did have unlimited vacation but that without qualification failed, so we have taken further steps to ensure there is no confusion. We now have a 3-week minimum vacation policy and I tell people to “Take 3 weeks’ vacation or you are fired”. We want our people to take a proper vacation and be truly refreshed, connected to families and working on their personal lives. We need people’s full capacity; we need their creative brains because we need to innovate in every aspect of the business, not just the product.
One of our fun awards is the Hero of the Quarter award. We put up photo shopped posters in the offices of the people who have been voted Hero of the Quarter for truly representing our values.
We cater lunch two times per week. It takes time to go out at lunch time and pick something up to eat and I would rather have people sitting together chatting and sharing their personal lives and coming up with new ideas. We want to make it easy to share stories and develop new connections inside the company.
How does the company encourage learning and development?
Learning and personal development is extremely important to us because it helps us fulfill our purpose to help every employee achieve their full potential in life. 3% of annual compensation goes into education and development and our people are required to spend the money every year on their ongoing education or development. We help each member of the team create a life plan and a career plan where we work with them to assess the gaps and look for opportunities to fill the gaps and work on those things. We had a young Finance Director who when she joined us stated that she wanted to be the CFO of a hot startup company within 5 years. When she set out on the journey with us she had experience gaps in Operations and HR and she was able to fill those gaps with us and progress her career to the stage that she was ready to be a fully fledged CFO. I already had a good CFO so she joined another company as CFO and I was really happy for her and proud of her. As a company we aim to maximize the career velocity of our people and we understand that occasionally that may mean they have to leave us to fulfill their potential.
How do your VC investors feel about your 25-year plan?
Venture Capital is the way we financed the business, which is not at all related to our BHAG or our purpose. We want this business to be around in 100 years time and in order to build out to our 25-year plan we will probably need to IPO, but I see this as nothing more than another means of financing and some good PR. Frankly in comparison to the importance of our people and our customers the VCs and shareholders are pretty low down on the totem pole.