Evolving Culture at Work

BoS Conf Online Fall 2021

In this talk, Patrick Campbell, CEO and founder of Profitwell, discusses how his approach to ProfitWell’s culture has evolved as the organization scaled, navigated the rapid move to remote and beyond.

He shares how he has thought about and changed the way his company operates and defines its culture in the face of some difficult issues all companies have had to address.

Today, many companies have been blindsided by the often extreme reactions, particularly on social media, to changes in their culture, working practices, and policies that previously would not even have been noticed in the outside world.

It is right that people should have a voice. It is also the case that what people read and write about on social media is different to what people may think privately. In the high profile example of Basecamp earlier this year, there was a visceral reaction to the changes that the company made. However, there was also a significant but private, narrative by many entrepreneurs, that while the way that the company had executed their change in policy, that there was a lot of logic in their goals.

How can you create a workplace environment that both allows your employees to express their views and identities whilst ensuring that the goals of the business are not subsumed?

Culture – a function of encouraged and discouraged behaviors. Every workplace has a distinct culture – consciously created or not.

Over the past decade, companies have considered workplace culture increasingly seriously. At the same time, major changes in the wider world – #MeToo, #BLM, an increasing focus on inclusion, ‘politics at work’ – have impacted workplace culture and driven change.

Cultures must evolve and adapt over time rather than stay fixed forever, even if their guiding principles remain the same. Thoughtful evolution and adaptation is almost always preferable to sudden and abrupt shifts as many companies have discovered to their cost.

How can an employer provide a place where employees thrive, feel fulfilled, grow personally and contribute to the growth of the business?

Patrick Campbell’s talk approaches the subject in a remarkably honest, open and thoughtful way.

Learn how great companies are run

At BoS we run events and publish content that is highly valued by anyone trying to build, run, and scale a great software company.

Sign up for a regular dose of actionable and useful content:

Transcript

Patrick Campbell

We’re gonna talk about some some fun things today. And specifically, we’re going to be talking about uncomfortable conversations. And I, I’m gonna probably preface a lot in this conversation, because this is kind of a is a little more of a sensitive topic than I normally talk about; I normally talk about pricing and retention and these types of things. And this is one that I think that we’ve we’ve really struggled with over the past couple years at profitwell. And I think that I end up talking with a lot of peers like you and everything like that we’ve we’ve noticed a lot of other companies are dealing with some some really uncomfortable or difficult conversations, but important conversations. And so I kind of wanted to unpack this a little bit because when Mark asked, you know, “Hey, these are something to speak on?” I was like, “Well, I can always talk about retention or pricing. But this is the thing that like I’m writing a lot about internally, this is the thing that like, we’re worried a lot about this thing we’re thinking a lot about.”

Context and the Basecamp

Let’s jump in to give and I’ll give a little context of myself and the company in a bit. But to kind of jump in here, I want to take you back to April 2021. And this was a very fascinating time, for a lot of reasons. But for us in this community, specifically business of software, and I mean business of software very specifically, we had some of the people that we all kind of look up to these look a little mugshot II but these are like the only the picture that first came up and Google. These are the base camp founders DHH. And Jason’s if you’ve become into BoS for a while, you’ve probably heard a talk from Jason. A lot of us as bootstrapped founders – even if we’re not bootstrapped – we’ve looked at Jason and DHS, oh, this is what they’ve done for remote work that’s really fascinating. They’re always kind of pushing things forward.

Well, they did what they’ve been known to do, from time to time they, they published a fun little memo, publicly. And one really, really big piece of that memo was this excerpt. And I’m not going to read this. And it’s been edited since the original posting, to kind of clarify some things. But the basic idea is they said that at Basecamp, at least on the internal Basecamp account – which if you haven’t used Basecamp, its internal slack account – we are no longer going to have societal or political discussions at Basecamp.

And the justification, if you’re reading, basically, like these conversations are tough. They’re even tougher at work, you don’t want someone thinking, Well, I’m not a part of that conversation. So maybe I’m complicit in the problem. And because of all this, and because it can get unhealthy really quickly, we’re just gonna stop doing it. And if you want to have those conversations, you can have them you know, privately or separately.

As a result, just like most things that come across these topics, there was just like peace and harmony. Everything was great, no one got upset. Our community like really calmly provided feedback on Twitter, you know, because Twitter’s really good for like, really deep kind of conversations and kind of feedback. And basically, everything was great, right?

And for those of you who have kind of know about the story or know about the situation, like reality was just a dumpster fire.

Like the world kind of at least for a day or two just kind of turned into Oh, my God, like, don’t meet your heroes, like, don’t look up to these guys. They’re terrible. And, and not everyone right. But it was one of those things, where in these tweets are all still right out, but I’m not making a judgement call on if anyone’s good or bad here, I’m just trying to show like, a like, you know, one tweet here, like, why didn’t you just write, you know, we only hire rich white cis men that would have saved you 1000 words. Tech companies, like they say, Bring yourself to work, but really, they meant like, make your life about work, and then come to work and all kinds of different things, right.

And then Basecamp for 37 signals, as the parent company’s called, they lost about a third of their workforce, which was about 15 to 20 people. Which, which was painful for them, right? And regardless of what you believe, of what they did, right or wrong, or you think it was the right move or not. What was really kind of fascinating is that while this was all happening on Twitter, all of my DMs or private conversations with folks just like you – and maybe even some of you actually – either expressed confusion as why it was so negative, the reaction to what they had done, or was like, this is exactly what we should do. Right, we should do exactly what Jason and DHH did.

Public vs Private Reaction

And what I found is that most of the discussion and I was part of that discussion in some places, but also on like Twitter, and stuff like that most of the discussion was around, was this the right thing to do? Should you do this at your own company? What does this mean for your company, etc? And I actually think that’s really the wrong question.

I think that the right question and this is the question that I was struggling with when other companies had done this before, but also in some of the things that we were facing, was really why. And I think this is a really, really important question for all of us to kind of think about it hopefully not as much as we have because this was like a dog to a bone where I just wanted to like, really try and understand and the social underpinnings of our society and work in these types of things. But like, I found myself asking, Why did some of the most liberal folks and their political affiliations don’t mean much in this whole analysis. But like, like, why did these folks who are normally like heralded for how outspoken they are about everything? Why did they lose that particular glimmer from people who basically were on kind of the same side, if you will? And very upset about this? And why did they feel the need to publish this when they knew this probably wasn’t going to go well, for like, the groups that typically really liked them.

And, again, the political affiliation is not an important thing here. But what’s really interesting is also if you don’t know this, we saw similar memos or similar kind of things from Shopify, medium, coin base, and we’re in the world of tech and in the world of tech, it’s, it’s really kind of fascinating, right?

What it Meant for Profitwell

And so, that’s the question that I want to unpack. I want to unpack this. And again, I’m gonna preface this in a second. Like, I’m still figuring this out. I’m sure there’s gonna be some things I don’t necessarily say that are, you know, right. And I’m sure there’s some things that like, in three months, I’ll be like, Oh, actually, my thinking is evolved on this, right. But to give you a little perspective, like what Profitwell does, is just completely irrelevant to this conversation. So I’m not going to go into like what our products are, and things like that.

But we’re an 85% company, we’re bootstrapped. So we haven’t raised funding, we’re past eight figures in revenue, we’re based in Boston, Utah, and Argentina. And we’ll talk about that in a little bit. But basically, for the context of this, you know, we’ve we’ve faced, not quite a backlash, like Basecamp, but we face like interesting kind of conversations that are in that part of the Venn diagram.

And so this is something that we’ve had to kind of think, think about, and my only ask of you is, again, I’m going to preface again, and hopefully don’t preface it, just keep prefacing. Because I feel like this is a really good community where I can have this conversation. If there’s something where you’re like, that’s completely wrong, this guy’s an idiot, like, I’m sure there’s something in here that’s like that, but just please be gentle. Like, I’m not I’m not definitively saying, this is like the way or this is the thing that I’ve analysed perfectly, like those people have been studying this with PhDs, and they still haven’t figured it out. But it’s very much for me, I’m a leader. I’m a straight white guy, which, you know, in some cases, like, means that some of the stuff I shouldn’t, you know, talk about at least that’s what some folks have said. But a lot of people look like me who run companies, and you’re going to be facing this. And it’s really easy to go, what they did is right, or what they did is wrong.

But I think that the question of why and what you actually do in the long term is much more complicated. A couple of other quick prefaces, you know, I’m going to be speaking in aggregate a lot. This does not mean you/your company/your workforce falls into any of these trends, but they are trends that we’re seeing kind of on a generational level or on like a high level. And even if you know 10% of your workforce, and if you’re only like two people, right now, this probably isn’t gonna affect you. But even if you get into 10/15/20 people all the way into the hundreds of people, if 10% of your workforce falls into these trends that I’m talking about, it’s really going to impact your team and your culture.

So, again, heading in some rocky waters, so, so be gentle, that’s all I ask, I’m very open to being completely wrong about most of this. With that preface. Let’s, let’s jump in.

So the first thing I want to do is I want to talk a little bit about these really big trends that we’re seeing with millennials and Gen Z. And the definition of these generations, I think is within question, it’s very, obviously these lines are very blurry. Everyone’s circumstance on individual basis is very different. But again, we’re seeing these big trends. And I, myself as a millennial, a lot of folks, we hire are millennials, we hire a lot of Gen Z. And this isn’t going to be like these people suck or anything like that, you know, because I’d be saying I suck, but it’s going to be more of like, what are these big trends that are affecting things that caused either the memo in and of itself, but also like the backlash that basically happened with it. And there’s the four really, really big categories.

First category words are knives, shifting definitions, activist guilt, and this whole concept of bringing yourself to work. And none of these things I’m going to be saying are right or wrong, or good or bad, I want to make that super clear. These are just things that are happening with trends. And I have a lot of data on this. And I have a lot of like reading I’ve done on this, there’s obviously people have done a lot on this. So know that this isn’t the totality of the information I’m about to share. So I might be glossing over some things here. But let’s start off with this whole concept of words or knives.

To really understand this concept, I think that work has changed a tonne. And it’s really, really important for us to understand that. For a lot of us, you know, we obviously work in tech, so, you know, pain is very relative, right? You know, we all can feel pain, but we’re no longer at least the folks on this call, at least from what I understand. We’re no longer the cogs in the machine. And what that really means is Upton Sinclair, this you know, muckraking journalist back in kind of the blue collar revolution that happened there. Early 1900’s you wrote about like meatpacking plants and factories where like kids were literally cogs in a machine, making sure that things move from one direction to another. So it was like terrible, terrible working conditions.

And in the early 1900s, this was just reality. And he was scared of saying anything, you were scared of speaking up for your safety because if you didn’t have that job, you didn’t eat if you didn’t eat, your family didn’t eat and like when I say didn’t eat like you might die if you don’t have a job, right? And then came like this badass MoFo. Her name was Francis Perkins, Francis Perkins was the first labour secretary. She was the first female us cabinet member in the states here. And basically, she was a really big fight for organised labour.

And organised labour basically, wanted the ability to have unions, right. And so in the US, at least, I know, we’re not all US here. But we passed this thing called the Wagner Act that said, workers can collectively bargain. In 1938, we had the fair Labour Standards Act, which established the 40 Hour Workweek, basically, like you can’t you get a weekend now, which is a big deal, you get more than just maybe Sunday. You get a weekend, no more child labour, the child labour laws. And we’ve had many, many labour laws since then, and everything wasn’t perfect. And obviously, it’s, it’s better than it is was back then. But there’s still like shades of this, that you’re seeing, and there’s still like improvements being around worker safety. But we have OSHA, and all these other things.

Now, why am I bringing this up is that we made progress over time, and it was a lot better, but our pain, at least these generations that have come for the folks that you’re working with the folks that we are ourselves, has changed a lot.

And what’s happened in the past couple of decades is that we have been on a crusade – and this is not necessarily a good or bad thing. I think it’s net good – to eliminate as much physical pain, or as much physical problems as possible. We grew up with, you know, milk carton kids, or at least we saw the milk carton kids when our parents were growing up. And so this caused, like, hey, I need to protect my child, I need to protect this generation, from all things that could be bad, right?

You know, antibacterial soap is always like, you know, the classic like, let your kids play in dirt. You know, there’s always that little debate that comes up. Helicopter parents, we always joke about helicopter parents. But we grew up in an environment where safety was really amazing. And again, there is a lot of people even here who probably didn’t grow up in a safe environment I personally didn’t. But these generations grew up in a net net very, very safe environment to the point that this kid walking home from school alone, in a lot of municipalities, and even some states is actually illegal, at least in the United States, to the point that the state of Utah where I moved a couple years ago actually had the pass, or they kind of got ahead of it by passing this whole concept of free range parenting, where you legally can allow your kid to go play in the park alone, you can legally allow your kid to walk home from school without supervision, right.

And so what happened is now like, we’re at a point where yes, kidnappings happen, yes, terrible things happen. But we’re at a point where, like, we needed a new target for mitigation of that pain. And this is where, like, the psychological and emotional aspects have been very, very much fixated on. You had a big anti bullying movement, the recent anti bullying movements, it wasn’t about like physical fights and things like that, although those did happen. It was very much about words, and like, you shouldn’t call each other names, and you shouldn’t do things like that.

And what a lot of us did is that we validated that these negative emotions are names, you know, we used to say sticks and stones break our bones, but words can never hurt me. And we went to a place of, well, no, like, let’s get rid of those bad words as well. Let’s get rid of that pain. And again, not an individual basis, but very, very much in the aggregate, hey, this should be eradicated.

And what’s really interesting is that when you think about this, it’s easy to be very cynical. But when you see people who have hardship being very, very relative. And if the only real pain that they’ve known, like, is that emotional pain, like the big things that have made them hurt in life was emotional or mental. Is it their fault that things like words are things that are mental pain or psychological pain, like hurts like knives, right?

I’m not saying it’s good or bad. But then if you’re kind of cynical at this, like, think of social media, right? A lot of us we either relate to social media, we grew up right when social media was happening. Our kids are growing up in an environment where suicide rates are higher, depression rates are much, much higher. Our kids are looking at the Kardashians and thinking I can never live up to that photoshopped image, but we don’t think of it as a photoshopped image. And so this this mental health movement, which I think net net was really important, it’s had some interesting side effects are all of a sudden, like, words that make you uncomfortable, are very, very bad. And I should have a very, very emotional or very, very strong reaction to them.

Glossing over some things, a lot that’s written on this but just wanted to get this out there to give you a little bit of an example. I’m about to show you a glass door review about me personally. And for those of you understand glassdoor, you know, it’s probably not going to be good and it’s not good. But to give you a little bit of insight, I am I, some of you have no idea who I am. I’m not a, I’m a numbers guy, right? I am an Asperger’s kid. Not like heavy on the spectrum or anything like that. But like emotions are a little bit harder for me. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise when I’m making someone feel bad or when I’m making someone feel good, but it is one of those things where like, my path of least resistance to have a conversation is very much my face looking like this and going, Hey, like, I don’t think this is good. Or, Hey, we should fix this, or hey, we should you know, fix that and I I never personally attack anyone I never yell. And I’m giving you this context for what you’re about to see. This was someone who worked not directly with me. But their boss reported to me, and we had many conversations about different marketing things. And this is, you know, the review that we got in the past year.

The CEO is brutally honest and disrespectful. blatantly calls colleagues of mine stupid even questions, my own knowledge. But I understand there is a learning curve. Sometimes belittling employees to feel stupid or inept is extremely toxic. One on One calls with meetings with our CEO gave me severe anxiety, he had no problem berating employees in front of others, many meetings ended with me in tears.

And when I read this, I think, eight years ago, I would you know, insecurely go, what the hell is this person talking about the wrong blah blah, but I tried to fight the premise or fight the logic of what’s going on here. Like, I didn’t call someone stupid, I didn’t yell at them, like, what are they talking about? Right?

And then a few years after that, I would, you know, crawl into a hole in a puddle of mush, and basically go, I suck so much! Why can’t I get better at like, making this person comfortable. And what I’ve learned recently in the past couple of years is like, assuming I can look at myself and know that I didn’t yell and I didn’t call someone stupid, and I didn’t like act this way. This person still felt that way. Right? And so what’s the difference there? Like, where is it? Well, some of that’s on them, right? But that doesn’t mean they’re good or bad doesn’t mean I’m good or bad. It just means there’s clearly alignment and how this person wants to communicate and how I communicate. And at the end of the day, I think the onus is higher on a CEO or on someone who’s a manager. But this is definitely someone that like, I probably shouldn’t work with.

To kind of close this out, we’ll talk about what we do in a bit. But like, the thing to think about here is emotional pain should be rooted out, just like physical pain, if I make you feel anxious, that is that person’s fault. And that is something that should not happen. . And some of you older folks, or some folks who had, fun will say fun parents, not so fun parents, you probably are like, Oh, what are you talking about? Like you said, my email needs to be fixed. Like, that’s not that’s not bad. But to some folks like that heavy feedback is really, really hard. Right?

Shifting Definitions

And so the second thing that’s kind of happened in the context of this is that we’ve had a lot of shifting definitions. And it’s a little bit of a hard pivot here. But what is the definition of racism? Right. Now, I grew up MLK, this is what’s important, you know, that kind of style. And racism was like, KKK stuff, like the belief that one group is superior to another.

And I grew up with hey, there’s a difference between ignorance, prejudice and racism, they’re all bad. Like, they’re all very, very bad. But there’s degrees, that which they’re bad. And we should get rid of all of them. But the way we handle the different ones is a little bit different. Right? Well, to a good group of folks right now. And again, it’s not a majority, but it’s a good group of folks. And they tend to be in the younger generations, the definition of things like racism has changed.

Racism, there basically is no difference between all of these things. The label is racism is all these things Appropriation could be insensitive. So that’s bad, we have to get rid of the bad. And a quick example, from Profitwell, where we kind of dealt with this a few years ago is we had two people are on a call with a customer, they hang up the call distributing on the call, they’re sitting next to each other in the office, and it’s a man and a woman. And the man turns the woman and goes, who is that girl that they added to the call? Like halfway through the call, they added that girl, right?

And the woman in this case, like storms off, like didn’t flip the desk, but the equivalent of like throwing their stuff on the desk and just storms off, right? And the man in this case was just like, what’s going on? Right? Like, why why what’s wrong? Right? Well, it was because he used the word girl, right? And you know, it’s easy to be like, shouldn’t matter. But for those of you who don’t know, a girl is someone who’s less than 18, a woman someone’s older than 18. And we almost oftentimes call you know, boys under the age 18 young men, and you don’t really get called boy when you’re a grown man. So it’s one of these things where like, if you’re a woman, and you’re going through all this, like, you know, fun stuff in the past couple of decades, and all of a sudden, this is another thing right on top of it, right? It does, it does hurt, it can get really annoying, but it also can get kind of hurtful and get mean right.

But this person stormed off, I had to get involved. As the leader of the company, I investigated, I talked to a lot of other women in the office. And I was like, is this just a big I didn’t explain what happened. But I asked them kind of independently now is not a big deal. But this this woman in this case wanted a memo, the company in the Slack channel, they wanted a training about this, they wanted a whole bunch of things, right. And again, it’s easy to be like, Wow, this is ridiculous. But it’s one of those things where they actually felt this pain. And they also felt like this thing is bad. So let’s eradicate it. And let’s go to this level of eradication that we might deal with with like an actual full like sexual harassment thing, which God forbid, hasn’t happened.

And so the thing to kind of close this out is like, if something’s bad, regardless of the gravity, we got to root out regardless of intent. And what this has caused is a lot of ramifications, and we’ll talk about in a bit. But it’s one of those things where, because of the shifting definitions, and because we need to root out the emotional mental pieces it can be it can be really tough.

Activist Guilt

Now, the third piece here is Activist Guilt. If you’re working in tech, and I know all of you have had hardships, some of you have had insanely big hardships. But if you’re in tech, we’re pretty lucky in aggregate. Right? We think and tap a keyboard for living. And I’m not saying it’s not hard. I’m not saying it has like doesn’t have issues. I’m not saying there aren’t real mental health issues and things like that. I’m just saying like relative to people packing boxes, and hot warehouse or mining coal tan and basically a slave labour mine in you know, Africa or something like that. Our lives are really pretty good.

And that doesn’t mean that like the pain isn’t intense for what you’re doing. I’m just trying to give a little bit of perspective here. And what’s really hard for that for a lot of us is that we know about that injustice, we know about the person packing boxes at Amazon that might be worried to go to the bathroom. We know about the you know, the cold hand that like that was not really received in a great way that goes into our phones that we buy, like we know about these injustices. And we know about a lot of other injustice, right? Like because the news cycle is so intense.

And because of the things that we do we oftentimes have some time to think about these injustices, especially in a constant news cycle that we end up being on and so an Amazon worker who’s worried about going to the bathroom, like they don’t have the luxury to think about these problems. But what happens is, is that we’re not gonna probably quit our jobs to crusade against the injustice is that we know. We might change where we buy but we’re probably still Buying from Amazon. And I’m not saying Amazon’s necessarily bad, but I’m like, a little suspect, right?

We might still buy the iPhone, we’re not going to go out of our way. Because it’s, you know, it’s better than the nice phone that’s like, I think they have a phone that actually is like, sure from, you know, kind of bad sourcing methods like, we’re comfy, right? And I don’t know about you, but if I’m growing up with the luxury of being able to think about these injustices, and I’m going after some of these other things that aren’t necessarily the physical pain, like my union roofing father, you know, had to worry about in terms of like, not falling off a roof, I’m going to get guilty.

I’m going to feel like I should be doing more, I should be doing more, I should donate more, I should have more time, I should do all of these different things, right? Especially if I was really well educated at a university that, you know, a social sciences and all these other things. And the result is I think, what’s the best places place to do things? Well, how about that place where I spend a lot of my time, you know, that software company building inventory management software, or whatever you’re building? Right, and I’m saying this a little bit cheekily, but that company needs to tweet about the cause.

That company needs to donate money for that cause. We need to do this social training, because there may be someone in this company who feels pain or there’s something I know in the world is going to feel this pain, but but they’re not going to speak up. So we I need to speak up for them, right? I need to do more, I need to speak up, I need to make change. Or else I’m a part of that problem, right? We all don’t feel this on the same level of spectrum. But folks who are very, very high on the spectrum in particular, these are the folks that bring a lot of stuff up, right. And a lot of that has nothing to do necessarily with your your core part of your company.

Subscribe for new talks, episodes, and events

To give you a Proftiwell example. George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who was killed by police, that was a really hard time for our country, in the US at least. And I think it was hard time for a lot of parts of the Western world. But what was interesting about it is like, there were there were some debates that started happening was the trial happened and stuff like that. But when that happened, like, what I found kind of fascinating is like, there wasn’t anyone who was like, this is justified, like I’m sure there’s someone but like the newscasters and stuff like that, no one, no one was like, Wow, maybe this thing happened. And you shouldn’t have done this or whatever like that. Some of that did happen towards the trial. But I don’t know about your team’s our team, we had three people, it wasn’t a lot, but three people who were all white, who just a huge reaction to the situation, just an outpouring reaction to everything that was happening.

And, frankly, and trust me a little bit, it came across like a lot of guilt. It was I should have been doing something last year, I should have been doing something two years ago, here are 65 different things that prophet will should do, including non gendered bathrooms, even though like we already have them, and we’re not using them. But like just all kinds of things that should change.

And one of the hardest things I dealt with during that time was this notion where I am Patrick, you are racist, and perpetuating racism if you do not send this tweet. And some of you it’s like, really easy to be like, That’s ridiculous, right? But this person feels that like, we have to take a stand as a company, right. And what was really hard about this is, you know, I talked to some of my friends, or some of my mentors who, you know, are non white guys. You know, that’s me saying like, ‘Hey, have a black friend!’ Yeah. That’s not what I’m trying to say. But I talked to some folks in a very, like, hey, like, what is, you know, should we feature should we not and, on one hand, some folks who worked at large tech companies who were already putting the black squares and all this stuff out there, they were kind of aggravated about it. They were like, listen, like, you know, I hate to live in a world where like, you have to clarify that I have rights. You know, I What, did I not have rights last week, right, which is, you know, a pretty cynical view as well. And then some of the leaders I talked to you, they’re like, listen, I think your team just wants you to know that you’re noticing this, and it’s a giant thing happening in the country right now.

But what troubled me with the tweeting wasn’t the premise that I’m racist if I don’t do it, it was the premise of like, what are we going to say that is going to be helpful, and they’re coming from a premise that doesn’t matter, we have to do something, we have to like, show our support, right? That’s tough, really, really tough. So I am guilty of not doing enough and I have energy, or I have energy to think of all this pain, so I have to do something.

Bring Yourself to Work

And the final point here, this whole concept of bring yourself to work.

Google and kind of like big tech, when they started kind of this movement and bring yourself to work. I think that they I think it was a pretty clever and a really important thing. I think it’s actually a really good thing. Knowledge workers, we are expected to have opinions. We’re expected. We’re not that roofing company where if you have a opinion on how to change something, it’s like you know, shut the heck up and get back to work. That’s not the situation we’re in, we’re in a situation where like, if you see something, say something and you think there’s a better idea, bring it to us, right?

And this perk, which is really good. And it really is a perk in the grand scheme of the world, is it eliminates resentment, right? If you’re having a bad day, and you’re like, Hey, I’m just really affected by this thing that’s happening. Your manager is expected to go okay, cool, do what you got to do what you got to do. But it also builds trust. It’s like, Listen, you got ideas, bring them like you’re valuable. You’re a member of this team, right? We’re a flat organisation, the best I will do is to make sure you speak up. If you’re not energised, tell me so we can figure out how to fix that. Right? Like we deal in bringing yourself to work we deal in knowledge workers where you’re expected to have those opinions. And we ask our teams to speak up, we ask them to make their voices heard. And we essentially want them to revolt, right? We want them to push the bounds of what we’re doing. We want them to be successful to feature it’s not a bug.

But if you’re aware of injustice, and you’ve given folks a forum, and they’re high on the spectrum that we’re talking about, again, not the majority, like maybe 10% of people are in the extremes here. Like what do you expect people to do? Right? Like, what do you expect them to do? But you know, end up getting all these stories from Google about the all hands they do becoming all about all this other stuff that’s going on some of the Google some of it not.

And so when we ask people to bring themselves to work, and then we say, hey, you know, that thing you’re feeling because of you know, what happened in the world? Yeah, don’t bring that to work, bring the other stuff to work, right, that can get really, really complicated. And I don’t have a really specific Profitwell example. But what’s interesting about Profitwell is, before we made some of the changes that I’m going to talk about, I can tell you, I look back and I do pretty aggressive tracking of my time, even if it’s ad hoc reactive meetings, but there were probably two to four hours of my week for about two years spent discussing things that really just weren’t in Profitwell’s control. And this wasn’t like, it was three people typically is three to probably sometimes four or five people. And it wasn’t like they were bad things. And sometimes I invited those conversations because I like a good you know, repartee and talking about how the world can get better and things like that. But it was a lot in hindsight, it was a lot a lot of stuff that just didn’t have to do with Profitwell.

And some of it, you know, in the long run is okay, because there’s some things that we can then do it Profitwell, but some of the stuff had nothing to do with it. But I thought, you know, I have to accommodate, I have to like, you know, have this person to bring themselves because I think that is the better thing that you should be doing. And so the last point here, close this out is, you know, you told me to speak up, you told me to, you know, talk through these things. And if I see something, I need to say something. And so why do I think these companies have published these memos? And why do I think there’s a difference between the DMs, the private conversations, versus the public conversations.

I think it’s, well, if you told me to speak up, and I have a lot of guilt, by what everything that’s happening, and there’s this pain. And on top of all that, there’s these widening definitions of what is bad, and if something is bad, something has the high level bad word, regardless of maybe the first, second third degree of whatever that is, it needs to be routed out. And I’m so focused on emotional and just bad things that are happening because the physical have kind of been taken care of, again, in aggregate. Like what else do you expect? Right?

What else do you expect, but these like highly sensitive, low, nuanced folks act this way, what to be upset about this or to to feel like the ownership needs to write a memo talking about this. And I want to be super clear again, like it’s not everyone, like you might be rolling your eyes at this whole presentation, I get it. But again, even if it’s 10% of your team, it’s gonna move the culture at the very least distract you or distract your management team.

What we did at Profitwell

And so here’s some things we did. And I also want to be clear that a lot of stuff we talked about, it’s probably not good or bad. It’s just kind of what’s happening. And there’s some really good parts of it. And then there’s some unintended consequences in a lot of these things. I’m not saying like, these trends are good or bad, I just want to be super clear. But we decided, okay, and this happened about two and a half, three years ago when it started. And we finally have seen a lot of the results now, we decided to kind of get ahead of some of the stuff that we started noticing. And this is what works for us.

There’s some members of the BoS community that I know, that I’m good friends with that have very different ways of thinking about these things. And they will cringe at these things, just like I cringe at some of the things they’re doing. But I’m not saying this is the right way. This is what worked for us. And it falls into two categories. Falls basically in the people we hire and people of the culture and the behaviours that we enforce or behaviours we really encourage, which is you know the other part of culture.

The People we Hire

In terms of the people we hire. The first thing is like defining who you’re good or who you’re bad for, and this doesn’t mean a person is good or bad or We’re better or worse or something like that. But defining who you’re good or bad for, I think is extremely important. We went through a bunch of exercises, we looked at people who, like very volatilly didn’t work out. And we were kind of confused. And we were like, did it it wasn’t us like, cause we’re always assuming like, we screwed it up. But it’s like, well, if we feel like we didn’t exactly screw it up, and yes, there’s things you can fix. But like, it feels like there’s something else here. We looked at a lot of those situations.

And we found and these are a little bit general, but like we found we’re really good for like truth seekers, people who like, what is the truth, what is the thing that we’re looking for. And that tends to mean there’s nuance that means tends to mean there’s some bounds, we have this concept of missionary achievers, and your mission doesn’t have to be like the Profitwell mission necessarily, but they have really good mission when it comes to their craft, or their mission is like their family or something that they then put profitwell somewhere in the grand scheme of things, and try to achieve.

Those who give benefit of the doubt we’ll talk about that a second. That’s a really big thing. Maturity is a hard thing. Because the way we’re defining maturity here, it’s definitely not age, like age is not a maturity thing. But it’s the maturity of like how you handle conflict, that’s a really big thing. That’s the thing that we found is like, the way you handle conflict, is it volatile, which wouldn’t be mature in our eyes? Or is it something where like, very what you’d say professionally, or very, like, even if it’s emotional, you will still walk through the situation.

And then we’re bad for sort of the opposite. People who think there’s only one way, this this concept of Crusaders, which is like, they don’t understand the idea, no matter what anyone views, that’s the only way to fix it, or that’s the only way to like do things intent doesn’t matter. That was a, that was a big one that we discovered, and then the lower maturity on how to handle conflict.

Culture and Diversity of Thought

The other thing we did is we improved the diversity of thought, which is a really cringy term. So please don’t cringe, that term has kind of been co opted. But basically what I mean by that is like, in tech, if you’re in a large tech company, like 70-80% of people pretty much think very similarly. And I think that even if you’re getting the numbers of you know, X, or the numbers of Y, which is how we measure a lot of diversity, you still end up hopefully getting like net net diversity, but you still end up getting sometimes everyone kind of still thinks a little bit of the same depending on what it is. And it’s really, really hard when it comes to diversity, like, objectively, we can all say like, well, you know, having this many of this type of people or this many of that type of people, that doesn’t mean you necessarily get diversity, but it’s a good proxy, right. And we don’t have anything else to measure. So that’s the thing we measure, right?

Well, you know, what we did is we were like, We want a good crop of people who think differently, but also when they think differently, handle it in certain ways. So we want that healthy debate on like, the bounds of different issues. And this is kind of where, honestly, we got lucky. And if you’re remote, I think you’re gonna get just as lucky as us. The Boston, Utah, and Argentina offices, we’re still we’re not doing fully remote, we’re doing the office thing, which, you know, has a whole host of other other problems. But this really, really helped us a lot. Because oftentimes geography is a better measure of diversity of thought, again, cringy term than typically, you know, diversity in general. And we also worked on our numbers, right. I think like diversity is super important for so many other reasons. It’s good for growth, it’s good for thought all these other things, but we also like, went out of our way to work on some of our numbers, because like most tech companies, you end up hiring who you know, and you don’t always have the most diverse friend group. So you have to get out of, it’s not a comfort zone, but you have to get out of your own way to make sure that you’re you’re bringing about the good team.

And when we worked on this, a really cool example is a fun little anecdote we had, we had a big discussion, it was again, by a couple of people at the company, like wanted to, like really have this discussion at all hands, where we were talking about, like, who should be allowed on ProfitWell? So we have a freemium product so it’s the barrier is not that high. And the way that it was sparked was through this customer of ours, they do something to do with guns, they do concealed carry insurance, basically, which, you know, guns are problematic, right?

You know, in certain cases, and not saying Second Amendment, like, we don’t like it and that debate, but like, they’re doing something, it’s not illegal, but, and also, like, not directly tied to like, you know, paying but like, you know, through a few degrees, like, you know, if you’re very anti-gun, you know, could be could be problematic for you. And they weren’t really saying you shouldn’t work with this company, but they were like, well, then what about all the other possibilities of other companies that we could work with? Like, we should have a rule. And what you find when you start to have this discussion, when we had this there’s like no rule it’s a lot of judgement calls because illegal is not like obviously anything illegal don’t work with but like, that’s not the like line because there’s some things that are legal that are like, aggressive that you might want to know have at your company. And every company is going to face this.

Well, during this discussion, one thing that was really interesting happened is that I brought up and I was like, Why listen a second. Like, it’s very obvious to you that this type of a company and I can’t remember exactly what they brought up as bad. But like, what about the company Thrindr, which was a customer of ours. Thrindr is a dating app for threesomes and polyamorous people, right? And they go, they’re Bostonian through and through and they go, Well, no one should have a problem with that. And then someone in our Utah office goes, well, like, I don’t have a problem with it. But like, half the state is Mormon out here. Like, they probably have a problem with it, right? And like, they probably like aren’t fine with it. And so just that perspective, really, really helped in a lot of these discussions.

And then the final couple pieces: the other last thing here, and the people we hire is we filter for high sensitivity or low nuance people. And this is a case study, I think a lot of you if you’re concerned about this at your company, or you have similar kind of vibe, like should think about these people are not good or bad. They’re not on one political part of the aisle. They’re just this is just a personality thing. Like everything is not necessarily the end of the world. But everything is important. They’re more of those Crusaders. And so what we instituted, and they normally have really low understanding for nuance, as you just this R word case study. And what this basically is, is in a final interview, and I do all the final interviews, I say hey, I’m going to do a case study, I’m going to ask you, I’m going to give you a situation, I’m asking you, How would you handle yourself? If anything? And how do you think the company should handle if anything?

And then I say, I’ll go, I’ll challenge you on whatever thing you say. And then I’ll say Hey, end of case and then I’ll tell you why I say this and all that kind of stuff. And the case is I say, Okay, imagine we’re in a Slack channel. And imagine that someone shares a report from like, some content, like someone published some content, they put in a Slack channel, they go, Oh, I thought this was interesting. And then another person goes, Oh, yeah, I saw that article, I thought it was and then they use the R word, you know, which is the word for someone who’s cognitively disabled, it was a medical term back in the day, then it became kind of like something, you know, kids would say, you know, as as as kids, and then now it’s become very, very sensitive, right? And I say, what do you do?

And 10% of people, especially before we started doing pre filtering on some of the interviews, 10% of people think that that person should be fired. And I say, Well, what if they’re over 55, they have no idea that this is a bad thing. Doesn’t matter? What if, you know, they, they were just having a really bad day, and they just were flying off the handle on like, just had that? It doesn’t matter, right. And I always say like, when we end the case is, you know, I’ve never heard that I’ve never heard using that word at Profitwell. Well, but it is like a really good like, a political thing that kind of measures that sensitivity. And most people go like, I would DM them and say, Come on now like, and then they say like, if you know if, you know, it was a habitual thing, or they were saying something, they were like personally attacking someone with it, or there was some other situation like, the managers should get involved, that sort of thing. There’s different shades, but we really do this to just explain to the people who believe that they should be fired, like, Hey, here’s how we would handle it, which is kind of the way that I describe most people talk about it. And I don’t judge your your way of handling. But I just know that like, there’s probably things that aren’t this extreme, but are going to be like somewhere in this realm that are going to be handled, like with you and working and you’re probably not going to be really happy here. And you know, we can still talk and we can still figure it out. I mean, go through and have a bunch of conversations about it. But like, here’s how we would handle it. And if that bothers you, like let’s find you a different place, because this is this is probably not going to be the place.

Charitable Interpretation

On the behaviour side. We talk about the most charitable interpretation a lot. And the most charitable interpretation the basic idea is you give people the benefit of the doubt. If they say something to you, and you don’t like it, you try to just assume that they had best intentions. And when we started talking about this a lot, we started talking about a way as this is what you do, and instead and that gave the impression that this was just an excuse to be a jerk. And what helped us a lot talk about this was it’s an order of operations. So if someone says something that hurts or you don’t like or that bothers you assume the best intention.

If you can’t do that, talk to the person Hey, like I hope you didn’t mean anything because I didn’t really like how you treated me there. I didn’t really like this conversation like, and 99.9% of time the person goes Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know like, sorry about that. Or oh, I’m really sorry. I was having a bad day or something like that. Right?

If you can’t do that, find someone to help a manager, colleague, whatever just like to kind of a mediated conversation normally doesn’t get this far. But if you can’t do that, find HR and exec. And then finally, if you can’t do that we have an anonymous forum, right. And I was fighting whether to do anonymous forum because like transparency and like, feedback is so important to us. But I think like having a failsafe, and it’s, thankfully, it’s been rarely used which is good. But then the thing is, like, if you can’t do all of these things, this is probably not the company for you. And that’s not a bad thing doesn’t mean you’re good. Doesn’t mean you’re bad, doesn’t mean we’re that doesn’t mean we’re good. It’s just, we’re not aligned, and like how to handle these things.

Healthy Debate and Feedback

Other things we did we ironically increased debate and feedback. We talked a lot about healthy debate. Debate is a very, we should find a better word like collaboration discussion, I don’t know. But like debate, everyone’s like yelling or, you know, thinking of like, ad homonyms and like terrible things. But it really isn’t the bait in that sense. It’s more of like, oh, I don’t really like I think this is a better way. Oh, why do you think that? No, I disagree that, like, it’s that type of vibe. And we also have, we start from the premise that like, feedback is non negotiable. We talked about this a lot. The way you receive feedback is very negotiable. Not everyone receives feedback, well, in the same way, but we talk a lot about that.

And I think that if you have trouble with this, and we talk about this a lot, like in the interview process, but also when folks are there, like we work with folks, right? So it’s not just to dramatically, yeah, your troubles get out, like it’s not like that at all, it’s more of just like, hey, we’ve tried a couple of times like to get you comfortable in this type of environment. And it’s just not working out. Like, that’s okay. Like, it’s not the end of the world, like, let’s give you a couple months to like, wind down your work, let’s find another job. And then we can like, smoothly transition you to another place.

The Politics Memo

And then the last thing we did, we did our own politics memo. And we didn’t like the idea of saying, like, don’t talk about these things. It’s just not our style. I think that people, I don’t want someone thinking like, oh, is this a social thing, like, I’m really affected by the, you know, Asian hate that was happening or something like that, and I’m ageing or something like that. I don’t want people thinking about that. And in the defensive, like, you know, people who believe similarly, like, we’re oftentimes not talking about political issues, right, we’re not talking about like a debating abortion or something like that we’re oftentimes talking about like, someone is actually hurting someone is actually having an emotional, painful moment. And so, I, we don’t want to like, not have someone bring themselves to work if they’re having a bad day, or they need a few days off, because like, they’re actually affected by things.

But sometimes, it’s like political discussions, or all those types of things. So we did write our own memo, I’m happy to share it with everyone else. And probably going to skip over this really quickly. But the basic idea is to talk about whatever you want, but when it comes to topics at the intersection about work related, controversial, unlikely to tie to our identities, tread carefully, right. And so like, this is our mission, like, we re establish, like, why we’re here, it doesn’t mean that everyone has to be like, on board with, like, that’s the thing that they’re here for. But this is our mission. There’s a lot of things we can improve at the company. But we’re humans, and we have lives. And so you can talk about whatever you want but for the stuff that’s unrelated to the mission and controversial. It’s not related to I need to have a few days off for XYZ. Just tread lightly.

And the biggest thing here that I think was really powerful for us was, you’re not entitled to someone believing as you do. Which I think was important. Because I think what happens with folks who are a little more sensitive on the spectrum, that’s the thing, it’s like, if you don’t believe this, you’re a terrible person. Like that’s, that’s how that’s how they tend to think. And the response. Thankfully, we had done a bunch of these other things before, we’ve done a bunch of the other like hiring stuff. And so when we finally published this, which was in May, or June of this 2021, right after the base camp stuff, most of the feedback we got was like, why are we doing this? Like, Duh! this is like so duh, like, of course, like we’re all gonna have different opinions. And of course, you know, it’s okay to have this other opinion and things like that, which was, which was good to see. Because having the people aspect is a really important part.

Summary

So just to recap here, we work with people who see the world differently now. And that’s good. I think it’s good, I think it pushes us forward. But there’s some some unintended consequences, where you kind of have to figure out like how you’re going to handle if you have that type of population inside your company. Or if you don’t want some of the more extreme ways of looking at these things inside your company. It’s not a political thing. It’s not from a view standpoint, it’s very much like how people see the world thing. And that’s a really, really important distinction, I think, to put out there.

Not everyone you know, is at the extremes. Most of us are not at the extremes, but the big reason like I’m talking about this is that like, it’s very likely not the majority, but 10% definitely has an effect. And then this is how we’ve handled it. You’re gonna have to find your own way though. I think that’s a really big thing. I think I’m more than happy to talk about this, but I have, I don’t think he minds. You know, Nick Francis. From HelpScout, he’s a really dear friend of mine. They handle things very differently and helps them. Some of these things are like good crossover, some of the advice he gave is, no, I want these types of people at the company. But like, what I say is like, it has to be in the context of HelpScout, the external stuff like we tend not to have, that’s kind of how he handles some of these types of things. We’ve handled that by having people who are a little more focused on some of this stuff.

And so, appreciate it. If you ever want to talk about this as my direct email address, PC proko.com, if you want to see some of the memos we publish, but then the last thing I’ll say is like, if I’ve offended you, if you’re frustrated by some of the things I’ve said, just know that I’m not, I’m not doing that intentionally. And I’m very open to being completely wrong, a bunch of these axies. And also maybe not going as deep for the sake of going for breadth.

And so please be gentle with me and guide me a little bit, even if you feel like you shouldn’t have to, because I just want to do you know, do what’s best for not only folks with different temperaments, but also for what’s best for our team.

Mark Littlewood
Firstly, Patrick, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I personally have seen huge amounts over Twitter and social media generally about all sorts of things, not just Basecamp, not just anything, huge amounts of it. So I really informed and I think, you know, one of the really important things that we do try to do here is have a reasoned debate and a discussion about how people are doing things, and changing thing, I’m going to ask a couple of other people to come in and add in their thoughts. But I’m also very conscious that I think this is going to be something that I would like to talk about. More.

Patrick Campbell
Yeah. And if you don’t mind, I read through some of the questions here. And thankfully, like, so, if I could just address like a couple things. Like, I want to be super clear. Like, someone mentioned, like, these aren’t homogenised groups – 100%. People are taking back terms that they didn’t have – 100%. So I hope you realise and it seems like everyone’s like, you know, disagreeing but not necessarily in a non helpful way, if that makes sense. And so, yeah, I think a lot of the comments that are in here, like, sit, at least in my mind, and within what I’m talking about, and maybe it just didn’t have a chance to go into specifics, but yeah, just wanted to address some of those questions.

Mark Littlewood
Yeah. Are there any people that are particularly keen, I know, Radhika, you’ve had some really great things to say around some of these things.

Radhika Dutt
Maybe one thing I’ll add, you know, I think I can say that, for me. It’s not just about interactions and taking away microaggressions. Right. I’ve worked in environments where, honestly, there weren’t any microaggressions, or even if the word like it was so occasional, that wasn’t my big issue. But I can tell you that throughout my career, the biggest issue is being heard. The biggest issue is being heard.

And there’s research to share kind of why that happens. Right? So it’s not, I think very often our focus on just trying to deal with interactions and make interactions more inclusive, actually detract from some of the problems that are more fundamental that we don’t listen to minorities. And, you know, there’s there’s even been studies that show that dissertations, like PhD dissertations are more innovative coming from minorities, but they actually get less attention, right?

I mean, this kind of thing happens so often, like, I really want us to have a wider conversation about what inclusivity means, and how can we actually have people listen to and that listening part is what often leads minorities to leave tech, for example, at a much faster rate, right? It’s not just the microaggressions. So it’s a passionate topic for me. Because like, I think when we focus so much on just how we’re interacting, it makes it seem like these people are just super sensitive, like, oh, you know, you’re just being that, you know, it’s all about how we’re perceiving things, etc. It’s not so much about that a lot of the frustration that’s underlying comes from how hard it is to be heard, and microaggressions just sort of make it worse.

Patrick Campbell
Yeah, and I think something you brought up there too, is it you know, this is I think a wider I wasn’t trying to have an inclusivity or that full discussion. So I think we should have that. And I think there’s a lot of forums for that, which is great. The hardest thing I think is is is bounding these conversations, right? Because there’s So many different layers. And it’s so complicated and in some places so much more simple than we make it right. And so, yeah, I like what you said it’s not in and I hope you I hope you didn’t fully get the the interpretation that I was trying to say that, Oh, like microaggression. That’s ridiculous. That’s it. It’s like, well, no, in some cases, this is real. And in some cases, and I think it seems like that science article talks about this, where it’s like, well, people are heard, then then it takes care of a lot of this. And that’s really an issue. And so yeah, we didn’t go go into that at all. So I really appreciate you bringing that up.

Radhika Dutt
Thanks. I appreciate that.

Mark Littlewood
I know you shared a couple of links there Radhika and we’ll put them into Slack. I think a few other people have messaged and said that they’ve they’ve got some interesting stuff, I guess there are so many layers. To take this and it’s to know as a but I couldn’t be more stereotypical is sis white, old fat. More balding by the day, white man. It’s I, I’m very conscious of where I kind of stand in this world. I’m also very conscious of that sort of sense of frustration of her of difficulty that lots of other different other other groups have. And what I also am quite conscious of is that we have, despite anything that we will try to do to change ratios and change numbers, this is a not a majority. But things I think have changed for this, this community in this this in a business software over the years. And it takes time. And it’s hard. And it’s something that we want to keep going up. But I’m also kind of how do we help this group of people here, try to create that better environment and that better situation? And what I don’t want to do is pick on people and go, Oh, well, you’re the representative from here. So tell us how you think because, you know, this is it doesn’t. I really am keen to kind of move this beyond the debate and the oh, this would be good. It’s how people people doing things. So it’s incredibly incoherent, unlike your everybody else’s contributions. But I think having some more conversations and picking this up not just at the conference, but in other situations where we can bring some other perspectives on how organisations have dealt with things like this would be super interesting and super helpful for me, and I’d be very certainly keen to try and push some out together within what we’re doing. Are there any? I mean, I know we’re over. We’re over time. Julian, you’ve had a few things you’ve been saying

Julian
I respect Patrick for coming out. And, you know, sorting and organising his thoughts on this. I think in general, it’s difficult as an industry, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a tech company that wasn’t aware that this is a problem, but also, at the same time didn’t know what to do about it. So, you know, obviously thinking through it, is the first step. I mentioned, you know, kind of the concepts of sensitivity and the bounding which kind of came up for me when I was listening to Patrick, you know, I was the we frame these conversations I was that we framed terms to and how do we think about this scientifically, and tie into the very good research that I’m sure exists that I know too little about, especially when thinking about how we tie this into recruiting and our HR processes and you know, how we’re going to define what the norms and standards are for our organisations. But at the same time, you know, I kind of acknowledged that, you know, we have limited control and that, to the extent that we do have influence, I think we should all be responsible. But at the same time, you know, I don’t think I don’t think I place it upon my CEO to solve racism. But I do expect that, you know, my CEOs will treat me with respect and help support an atmosphere of inclusivity

Mark Littlewood
Thank you very, very much, Patrick. I think that was a just hugely thought provoking talk. It’s gonna take me some time to process So I think other people will you know would like to come back on it so thank you

Patrick Campbell
yeah that’s the goal thanks for having me and still learning so anyone’s got anything that I can that I can learn just let me know

More BoS talks from Patrick Campbell

Learn how great companies are run

At BoS we run events and publish content that is highly valued by anyone trying to build, run, and scale a great software company.

Sign up for a regular dose of actionable and useful content: