At BoS USA 2016, Promise Phelon discusses Silicon Valley culture, being black in Boulder, the role of the CEO and why perks are just the tip of the culture iceberg.
A sustainable business culture is only possible if you consider what is below the surface first. It’s too easy to confuse perks – 401k, travel, free food – as the mark of a good culture. The reality is perks are meaningless without deep thought about the behaviours you encourage within your workplace – an ownership culture, transparency of performance and compensation, clarity about what it takes to win and building winning habits amongst your team. Culture is reinforced by strong leaders with a willingness to address some of the daily things that stop us from letting emotional triggers preventing us from building a great company.
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Promise Phelon: Thank you! Forward, back! Excellent! I was so afraid of falling on those stairs just then. If I was – I would have been f*ck it, I’m out. Bye.
Hey guys, I’m Promise Phelon, the CEO of an incredible company TapInfluence. And whenever I give these speeches, I have my bullet points and my PR person is somewhere here so I will try and not drop many F-bombs today but I think she knows how that is.
But my goal is to talk about culture. And I stand before you as successful entrepreneur but not as someone who would say I nailed culture. I will talk about the lessons I’ve learned becoming the CEO of what has been in existence in about 7 years. And so I will talk about the transformation we went through as a company and our growth and lessons learned and then I will show you an image – I love one of the things Michael Pryor said about at one point when you’re building an organisation you have to formalise and quantify ideas because you have more than 10 people in a room, it’s not just 4 bros figuring things out and coding on the weekend. It’s actually – I will show you a concept that we’ve built that I will take credit for here because why not? It’s called the iceberg and I will talk about what that means for us and how we got there and I hope we have a good time going through this. Excellent!
That’s me and so I guess that’s my bullet point. So I’m from Texas as you can tell. I grew up in Texas and so there may be y’alls and things happening later on and then I moved to Silicon Valley. And started a company in college that actually sold which I will tell you the story later. And I got into one of the business schools there and I thought I would just go straight from undergrad to grad school and this was in 97. And so in 98 I heard about this thing called the Silicon Valley and I met Mark. So someone said why don’t you go up there and be part of a great technology company? The one I chose was called BEA systems and at the time we took the company public while I was there which was amazing and I got to do M&A and all these different things but I saw the valley and the trajectory of the stock market grow and we were internet millionaires and sleeping in our offices. Melissa was not alone, a lot of us were doing that. And we were building this great company.
I learned about the dark parts of culture where you’re working 100 hours a week and not having fun but you’re on a mission.
So that was the beginning of my career and I left BEA in 2002 and launched my own company which was a service company. And we became a technology company and I sold that business in 2008 and I saw going from nothing, being a founder, to growing a company and actually selling it. And from there I had joined companies that were in existence. So I joined as CEO and then in 2015 I joined TapInfluence but there was something different and ominous. Are you ready?
I moved from Silicon Valley to Boulder Colorado.
Where there are literally two black people [laughter].
I got there and my husband is Caucasian and he said this is amazing, had his mountain bike on his shoulder and started riding! And everywhere I went people were like are you Promise? And I was like yes I am. And then I realised oh my god, the joke is so on me, there’s two of us and I saw him across the street and I was like you! But it was such a different culture.
So my first day on the job, I go into the office and I get there at 7:30, I’m the CEO and arrive early and open the office, I bought doughnuts. And a bit later office kind of got going and by 10 the office was going and I was like this is weird. And then I left my office at 5 and looked out to the office and there was no one there and I thought this is really interesting. Boulder was a different culture than what I had grown up in and Boulder was going to be different. When I would say things, we’re in a different place. So that was a transformation that I had to make. I was taking over for a founder, I was professionalising this incredible company and I was also bringing a bit of that intensity that needed to be there because the investors were not from Boulder, but from the east coast.
So how do you build culture when your head is shaved, you’re one of two black people and are from one of the most intense culture in the world from a technology perspective? Sorry, Boston! Don’t hate! Silicon Valley is 1.2. But it was different. So building a culture as the new CEO of a company, a woman, start-up we’re going from a service to a software company and there were all these dynamics that happened all at once and created a lot of friction. So as humans the first thing we do when we enter a new situation where we feel like people are different than us – what do we do right, we go inside and try to protect ourselves. What else? We have to find allies. I did that [laughing] and it’s unprofessional for you to bring that up in this environment but I was there. I did have a flask in my office. But you also try to get people to like you. It’s a natural human instinct and I know that we’re all business people and raise money, raised 50-60 million in my career and you sell businesses, code and build stuff but your initial reaction when you’re somewhere where you think people don’t like to is make them like you. So what do people in Boulder like? They like skiing and these things and they want to go do this and work from home and I did all that stuff. My initial reaction was to do all those things.
And then I realised no way! I’m actually building a 100-year company. I wanna build a company that creates technology that removes traditional advertising from our experience. I moved from the valley, left my husband there to come and spend however long working long hours to turn this company around, not to be liked. But I did it because I wanted to create an organisation where consumers spoke on behalf of brands. I wanted to create a company where there were no more ads, banners, just none of that, but a 100-year company where people could have their entire careers, where my mother, brother and children could all go and work to be a part of it. And I wasn’t going to do that by starting out from a place of does everyone like me? And so I said ok, I’m going to lead a cultural transformation in this organisation and will have to raise lots of money cause we didn’t have much and did a bunch of things at the same time. I’m actually 28, I just look 40.
But it was the beginning of taking a company that had so much incredible potential and then realising it and being ok with the fact that it wasn’t gonna be a popularity contest but a life-game change for me but also value creating for the investors which is part of our jobs, for our employees, but more importantly for our customers which I don’t care what anyone is telling you, you’re not building shareholder value, but customer value and I couldn’t do that from the perspective that I want everyone to like me, actually I want the customers to love me. And so that’s where we started.
So I built this concept called the iceberg and again, we were changing our business model from services to SaaS, we were going from a more moderate pace to what I call a blend of intensity with intimacy and Boulder bringing the intimacy. So I built the iceberg and what I was trying to convey was the people who were submitting requests and giving me feedback were like we want better food, cashews – I don’t know why, but those are delicious if you’ve had them. But they wanted things that I couldn’t figure out and didn’t jive with me. They wanted Ping-Pong table and these things I thought were interesting but would not build a 100 year company.
So I started at the bottom and said what’s the most important thing every company needs? It needs a strong vision and also financial resources. So in 2015 I joined in April, we grew 400% in one year – we changed our business model from services to SaaS for all of you from a 30% growth margin to 82% in 3 quarters, it was massive. And we did that not because we just wanted to but because we were a 100-year company and at the bottom we needed resources. And so I fundraised in front of everyone after every group of meetings I would say here is what we learned and what we made. What works and didn’t work and here’s what you can learn from this and we successfully raised $14 million round and we did so and quadrupled the evaluation of the business in that short period of time, it was amazing.
Then people said great, we’ve done this. Now about the perks? Do we get to work from home, do we get all these things? Do we get ski trips? And I remember talking to one of the employees and she said you know, I don’t want much but I think we should widen our dog policy. What does that mean? I think the company should adopt its own dog and I was like, you’re kidding right? We can hardly feed ourselves! But that was the perks and people had heard about the slide in the box and thought are you gonna do it? No, for anyone that was in the box office they had huge slides but as a culture we had to move toward what we defined as culture which is the behaviour that we reward. So that meant starting with financial resources. And then we created something called the ownership culture. So I exposed the cat table to the employees – oh yeah! Not individual ownership but groups of owners, who owned our company and what mattered to those people? I talked about my ownership and what it was tied to and what happens when we exit and for a lot of the folks in Boulder that haven’t been through a successful exit, I’ve been in 3. So I walked everyone through, here’s what happens and the question that comes is – you know where I’m going right? How much do I earn? So every employee wants to know how much do I own and what that means and how do I get more and why do they have more than I do? And It was opening up ownership not only from an equity perspective but from an accountability and that’s when the change happened and it went from people saying do we need – we will have pizza 4 days a week or we are gonna do this are we going to have that? Wanting to understand what our TCV was and the engineers was what was the average value – what are we spending on our marketing and why. Every month we do our all hands, I show our financials, all the dirty bits as the British say. Everything. And not because I want to show off, but I want them to understand the trade-offs we’re making as an organisation and where we need to optimise. So it’s not just about how much you own but I want you to care, and I don’t wanna be the person that has to walk in the office and say you should be doing more. I want that motivation to come from within – and so that meant a lot of exposure of the business and of how we did things, so that was significant.
And then more transparency. Whenever we have a new group of hires, I sit down with them, I talk about the 100 year vision and the company and getting everyone on the same page.
Decoding what works
So there’s a study that came out today that LinkedIn did of 10000 employees. Anyone saw that study? It came out this morning – I need to get you all a bit more dialled into social, that’s ok. This study essentially said that most people leave organisations because they don’t see their career path and if they work harder they will get better career opportunities or choices. So I sat down with a group of CEOs and we had a 4-hour debate about culture versus perks. And what you think when you’re building companies and I know some people are in different phases of that, it’s what’s the energy in the office? How are the sales people? Are they happy? And you do a survey and you get different information than what you were expecting. Some are happy some aren’t – the same people have issues and they are coming up but what it became about is I started asking people do you believe you could fulfil your career aspirations here? And that was the most telling question and so I asked that of all my direct reports at the end of every 1-1 that I have with them. Because ultimately, that’s what people want. And a CEO that’s my job is to build a successful company where people can go from an entry level person to move laterally or upward but build their career here. So I believe that the core of culture is a CEO as leaders – a lot of people here are founders and CEOs we have to figure out how to get our teams to win. If we can get our company and teams to win, we can help managers and individuals and that’s what truly drives a sticky culture from the bottom up – you guys with me?
So this is not for everyone, I think there are some companies that put perks first, I just couldn’t do that because we wouldn’t get the outcomes we wanted. So the iceberg is printed on the walls and people hold me accountable to it now, it sucks [laughter]. Then we started focusing on winning as a habit. So micro wins and big wins but also lots of lessons learned – hey that failed but what can we do different next time? And we want but it costs the other person – there’s a perpetual balance between sales and customer success now where you can bring in lots of great customers – so there was such this focus on closing deals and that was the win – well we hadn’t identified what it means for customers to win and what do we celebrate? There’s this big, massive gong in our office and whenever a sales person closes a deal it used to be like – and now they are like [laughing]. But we had to build that and our building that for every single team. What does it mean for marketing or the CEO to win or our ops team to win? So really dialing in, what it’s a habit and what’s the reward system?
So we’re moving up this ladder and one of the things that isn’t here because it’s somewhat private but – oh it’s up there. So it’s all out baby! It’s all here for you. Is we were in some really cheap space and I don’t know if you guys are like me but I want to preserve our capital and get as much out of it as possible so I always told the team the longer it takes, the more money it takes, the less we own. So we have space that literally if anyone knows real estate it’s like $5 a square foot. Someone heard how much we were paying for that and they saw me writing the lease renewal and they were like you realise we have duct tape all over the floor? Yes. Ad it’s $5 a square foot so we’re never leaving. My family will move into this place, right? Everyone is moving, Texas people were all coming, anyone you got – we’re here. And as our PR person and office is just – I said we will paint it and then we put a couch over so as you walk through our office there are couches everywhere and rugs and you’re diverted – so we have a crazy office. So my team said look, when we get to a certain level of growth and get to 400 companies running on our platform, we would like some new office space. So I thought about it and looking at capital all the time so one of the things we’re doing right now – I think this will be online tomorrow – we just signed a lease for some delicious space which costs in order of magnitude more than our current space and has no holes in the floor but – and this sounds terrible but I wanted our team until we reached certain revenue inflection points.
I didn’t want them to take advantage of our capital because one of the great things about Silicon Valley, high level of experimentation and failure, people work hard and inventions come from here – but I didn’t want entitlement to ever be part of my culture and people to feel like we should have this and that. Today we get lunch one day a week and once we read certain profitability milestones, we’d go to 3 times a week. And I walk people through that and I know it feels time intensive but building a culture of ownership means everyone is part of the decisions and also tomorrow when I’m back in town but this will be a big deal for people because it will feel like we achieve something and that’s how this is working out.
So expose our financials, highly transparent – that would not be me. The culture where we talk about what’s happening inside the business. Winning is a fundamental habit which is hilarious but it happens – what does it take to win? Then the reward system that supports that from our employees. Individual learning and growth, so we’ve taken to – we have basically a performance system that’s not like that so every quarter we do something called 15-25-25 which is where you’re spending half your time and how do those tie back to the overall companies’ goals and to your individual career plans? So each manager now is responsible for building a career not a ladder but a lattice with their teams. So one of the things you want to do and how does that tie to the business and to everything you’re doing – so we’ve taken an approach on focusing on the development as part of the companies’ overall goals and then measure that on a quarterly basis. So as you can imagine it’s a lot of work, but it’s a good thing.
And then now we’re getting to the perks. The company has grown, we answer a lot of questions that I have about the business and we’re moving in to the perks phase. So I’ll launch a survey and ask them what the perks should be and I have a good idea – now it’s getting close to winter and we’ll do a lot of skiing. But this was a process of getting everyone aligned around who we are, how we built a 100-year company and what our vision is for the culture of the business and not perks. It meant separating the idea that culture=perks but that is what is sustainable and helps them achieve their own career objectives.
So what role do I play in this? As CEO there’s a lot of focus on – the 3 things I’m always thinking about. One is are we creating customer value? 2, do we have enough money? That’s always a question regardless of what anyone tells you. Where will the next money come from? Now I think a lot about we’ve built this organisation as a 100-year company, how do I garden inside the business and support the employees and be a better CEO? Cause I think about how do I spend time with my product guys? What value do I add on them? How do I spend time with my marketing team or my sales? I spend half my time out with customers so the constant gardener is a concept I live with that I’m always planting and nourishing the careers and overall objectives of my team cause that is part of our culture.
So we kinda talked about this but it’s a roadmap now, so it’s something that’s on the walls inside the organisation and we revisit on a regular basis and we’re moving up. So in 2015 we started at the bottom and my goal by the 1st quarter of 2017 we’re at the perks level, we are playing ping pong, we do have fewer holes in our carpet but it’s a different organisation. So I’ve got tons of time – I think that’s great! Any questions? [clapping].
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Audience Question: [inaudible]
Promise Phelon: It’s a good question, I think the managers do a good job of that. So one of the things that’s not up here is that my employees thought that they wanted to be better leaders inside the business. And so it was informal but I brought everyone up to my house on a Sunday night and lots of booze and Husky’s – everyone loves those dogs. They are interruptive. So I said give me the feedback on how I am doing and my leaders are doing. So what came out of that was that we had leaders who weren’t developing actively their teams and weren’t motivating them in a way that was sustainable. So we made a change, it was a difficult change, but the team felt like if we’re all about results and accountability how can there be people in the organisation who don’t live up to that? So on a quarterly basis now we’re having – it’s not story time with Promise but I will rename it. It was drinks with promise but I will rename it story time. Yeah, they do hold me accountable and when they see results that aren’t what we said we were gonna do, they ask what is the outcome of this? What do we do as a result? It’s a different environment, I’m much more on the hook because of the accountability.
Audience Question: [inaudible]
Promise Phelon: One of the leaders that I appreciate most and she is a new leader, and her question to me was at the end of the day, everyone has to understand how their team ties into these overall business objectives but that’s only partially motivating. The other part is what do I get as a result of this? Right? And so she’s taken that 15-25-25 and she does a daily meter for her team. Madison, here’s what you’re getting because of this and how your skills are growing as you look at your company’s success. So we spent a lot of time between connecting the dots between company goals and team goals and individual career growth but she was the best at doing that because she is 27 and a new leader and she sees herself and her team – so yeah, it was helpful for her to make that connection.
Audience Question: Thanks so much for a great talk! When I watched your iceberg picture and listening to your talk, you said culture is the behaviour that you reward. It seemed like the story you’re telling us one of the iceberg is sinking. Instead of having perks above the line you were converting them into perks below the line. Was this intentional on your part or something you’re discovering along the way?
Promise Phelon: It’s a great question! I think this is what a lot of people have defined culture are people having fun and are we going on off-sites? Do we have a ping pong table? It’s all those things, I mean was it Dropbox that has the Panda? Right – and that I believe is the cultural collective consciousness that the culture is about fun – that’s what the definition of what it’s become but it’s not sustainable. You can have a great culture where everyone works from home and has tons of flexibility and we have fun every day but the company is not healthy fundamentally. So it was I think a reaction as a CEO taking over an organisation having to transform it and be very unpopular – I did part by the trash cans and was is my car gonna be all right during one period? But no, I don’t think it’s the iceberg sinking, I think it’s exposing that all below all these perks has to be a healthy company with a healthy ecosystem with good growth and a team of people who have the capabilities to take it to the 100 year mark. I think the arc is we’re in a time where culture has become defined by perks and that’s not sustainable.
Audience Question: As you know most companies aren’t as transparent sharing financials, I can’t help but think why that is? What do you think is the downside of doing that?
Promise Phelon: So the best story and part – so we had a meeting and we got a guy who didn’t go to college and he’s in a meeting and gets up and kind of looks at the numbers and he goes wait, is the sales team paying for itself? He turns to our head of sales and says are you paying for yourself? I loved that after that, he pulled the head of sales aside and said could we do this and this better? So the good part is people take ownership and accountability for improving things that felt across the entire business – I think the downside is when things don’t go well, people are upset about that. And then when they go really well they want to know where are the perks, right? So I don’t see – when we’re at 200-400-500 employees, I will definitely pair down how much information will be useful to the company but for now more is better and the upside is people hold themselves and everyone else accountable. The challenge is they also don’t suffer fools when it comes to results and I kind of like that
Audience Question: How do you tell the story of the culture externally? Say, on your website? I know most tech companies…Google have a slide and that might bring people in…do you tell your culture story to people outside of the organisation, like the iceberg metaphor or a version of it?
Promise Phelon: We’re figuring that out. Can I tell you guys a very personal story? Ok. So and why haven’t you done that so far? What is this? I paid to get in here – [laughing]. Thank you! So I’m a big trail runner, I’m out trail running and I’m one of the 2 black people in Boulder and I’m running and this is in September last year and we went through this huge transformation in this company. It wasn’t slow, just like a business model, culture and what have you. And I’m on the trail and the guy behind me says are you Promise? And I’m like oh man. And he’s like I work at the law firm and I said it’s great so he goes hey, I was on glass door and I was like oh sooki. Here it comes! And he says I read a couple of reviews and I was like seriously? They were delicious, right? He was like not so much, you should go and look at them. So there were bad reviews and they were from people who had left the business. And so imagine you’ve left a successful career in Silicon Valley and moved to Boulder. Your husband is packing up his things and moving the house and family to Boulder and you go like glass door is a brilliant business model, like why didn’t I think of that? But there’s a level of public shaming that happens because if at any moment people are unhappy or leaving or need to transition, you’re open the kimono, it’s all out there and it’s only gonna be negative. It’s like going on like the worst parts of Twitter which I have gone to and they are hilarious but not about you. But horrible. And so what’s your immediate reaction when that happens? What do you do? You freak out – so I remember late one night I was talking to my husband and said why don’t you log in to glass door – ok? And then I was like wait a minute. Is that who I wanna be? No, because if I do the right things by the business in the short term this is going to be hell. So literally I have blocked glass door – I cannot get to it from Chrome, there’s a feature for that. Because it’s not helping me build a better company right now. We take the icebergs seriously so if people are interviewing and think what does this mean, our team and individuals as well as our HR team will walk them through it and say here’s the transformation we’ve gone through, I was here 2 years before Promise. And so we are living it but we are starting to externalise – I have a video I want to show you guys that starts to externalise that concept that we are focused on building this together so yeah we are doing that and need to do more quite frankly.
Audience Question: You mentioned 100 year company a couple times, what is your 100 year vision?
Promise Phelon: My 100 year vision is so we work with some really amazing companies and one of the things that they are realising is that marketing in the traditional sense doesn’t work. People don’t open email, ads get blocked, millennials don’t trust pop ups and whatnot. And our desire to be marketed to is declining and I believe this will decline to 0 over the next 100 years. And it’s gonna be about social and authenticity and connection. So my vision is for a company that allows consumers – the people in this room – influencers and advocates, ambassadors and champions to create content on behalf of brands but also give them feedback. So that’s a company we’ve built. So over time we believe we will replace a lot of the traditional add revenue that companies spend on because I love google and wish I would have thought of that and I will pick a fight with them – they have a lot of smart people that are making it more difficult for us to have a low cost of acquisition. Can I get an amen from anyone? But if you are a marketer and building marketing channels, what are you always thinking about? Optimisation, why doesn’t it work? Because the system is designed to make these things more expensive but my vision is that as a consumer, I want to help you make a better buying decision so I will make it very easy to get access to my content, I will tell you when things don’t work with a brand I’m working with and I might say this is better for you. I believe that’s when commerce will happen 10-100 years from now so we’re building that framework now of helping brands connect with influencers in a way that’s high performing and ties to revenue.
Audience Question: Great presentation! You talked about the transition from service to SaaS. Could you expand a bit on why you do it and what did you learn from it?
Promise Phelon: So I’d done this before, the company that I founded, and we used services to help organisations, this is back in 2004, figure out who their most profitable customers were. So we would use NPS data and a bunch of different data sources and we were crunching all of this. Then I thought what if we built a software that could do that for us? And then emerged a SaaS company. At Tap, it was managed services so our team was using technology to help brands connect with influencers but we were acting as an agency. So that transition was pretty significant – all the way from the types of customers you went after changed. We had a new ideal customer profile – the sales approach couldn’t be like you have a problem? Let me see how we can fix that to here’s the capabilities of our platform and what it does and doesn’t do. So a lot of sales training, brought in a new sales organisation, marketing change to be less on events. So we’re a big HubSpot customer. Dharmesh literally gets so much money from us. Good job, man! I’m like we’re paying HubSpot what again? I know, he’s like money for everyone! But yeah, I mean the biggest shift was really 2-fold, getting our customers to think about us differently, as a technology company versus a service agency and then the second was a technology focus where was less about adding key features that would make it more productive and make it self-service to the customers. It was very hard and if anyone is doing that right now, the best place to start is talk to your investors and say this might go to 0 and it never did, we actually grew substantially, but it’s tricky and not impossible to do.
Mark Littlewood: I will ask a question. Which is about toxic culture, and there’s been a lot of people talking about cultures that encourage that kind of behaviours and I suppose this is characterised as a Silicon Valley thing but it’s everywhere. How do you get around that?
Promise Phelon: It’s a parallel universe – yeah, that culture is what both attracts and repels. So you know, in our culture we have a no asshole rule – we also have a lot of women and I am very protective of them so there’s a lot of shenanigans I don’t allow inside the business because my goal is to grow their careers. I have an equal pay for equal work methodology which is I don’t care where you are or where you are from. If you can do the same work, you will get the same pay check. And it’s hard because dudes are aggressive and that gets shaken out because they were first in line to say pay me more. And we have to calibrate constantly that if we have that culture, we’re awarding the wrong behaviour. So I do want to reward people who are demanding about their success and the company’s success but I have to teach the women who are inside my organisation to be just as aggressive. I think the way that we get around it is look, I’m different and I appreciate difference and I work hard to get the company to also appreciate it. So one of the things that our software does is that it profiles influencers as they come in. So we have – you can profile as a man or as a woman and as race. And I went back to the team and is like there is no trans-gender here. What are we doing? There’s also people that I know who are African-American who don’t self-identify. And so what I hope to do and again this goes back to the constant gardener, I want to show it differently and be more uncomfortable and accept the fact that we don’t live in a world that is black and white, but it’s becoming more grey and I think grey is good, delicious!
Audience Question: Thank you for the personal stories! The question is how did you deal with resistance? How did you start that conversation and how did they react and if you saw resistance, what did you do?
Promise Phelon: There was a lot of friction in the business and how I manage myself – I had 3 habits, I will work out every day, self-care, gotta do that because you’re walking in to an environment where people – if you’re not in your game it’s impossible to get through a turnaround. Two is, I do a voice journal every night so when I get into my garage, I sit on my phone and record for 5 minutes like here’s what happened today and what I learned and what was terrible and great and then on Sunday I would go back and listen to that. And it was never in retrospect even a week away as bad as it was in the moment. You start to see patterns, this team has a lot of resistance to this, why is that? Ok let me go talk to that group – interesting, they don’t have the right leader, they have fear of failure – in terms of how I managed myself that was two. And three, I think I just accepted the fact that it wasn’t gonna be easy and once you do that, it’s like my first crossfit workout – my friend was like you will do fine and I was like another burpee for real? I will die here! And if I had any ideas that it was going to be easy – everyone was gonna be happy and love me through it, I just let all that go. And I was like it will be hard, the people will suck and I will want to move back to the Valley but I’m not going to. So it was self-care, constantly journaling and looking at things in context and not reacting emotionally. And thirdly it was the fact that I’m in the moment, this is what it is. It’s gonna be great, but I will not forecast and just live in whatever it is and get through it.
Audience Question: Since you worked with both larger companies and you’re taking over something and growing it, I personally observe that a lot of leaders when they come in new and have to change the culture, they struggle with being genuine. Can you comment about what makes the culture change of the leader genuine to the employees as opposed to they are just imposing what they learned somewhere in a book. How do you make it real?
Promise Phelon: It’s a great question and it’s hard. Next question! [laughing]. I don’t think – so I transitioned out of founder in this situation, right? And that is massively unpopular, right? And what I learned in that moment was that I can do the formal communication and follow all the bells and whistles but I think there’s something about just saying this sucks for me too. And I think leadership and I hope it’s because the presence of diversity and women and millennials, leadership cannot be safe anymore. And I think if it is, then it’s slicing off a lot of creativity and our own professional growth as leaders. And so what I’m uncomfortable a lot, I’ll put it that way. And I’m uncomfortable saying you know what…so there was a hire I made and I’ve been raising money and I came back to the office and there was a line outside my office and I was like this is really weird. And they came in and they were like she is not working. What are you gonna do and when? And I was like negotiating term sheets and telling these people one story and I was like ok, and they said we can’t work in this kind of environment if these 3 things are not there – if we can’t trust you or our leaders and can’t believe we’re doing our best work. I was like shit. I f*cked up! This person needs to be coached and I need to get this person a professional coach and will have a real conversation with them. Without breaking anyone’s respect or confidence as leaders, we can’t expose people in our organisations but I think we can be accountable if they are giving us that feedback that a process or something else isn’t working – we have to act quickly but I also believe it’s ok to say and I screwed that up. And I will never do it again, hold me accountable to that. So I don’t think it’s easy or comfortable but I believe that the people who are joining companies like ours absolutely demand it. I hope I answered your question [laughter]. I see. Yeah, I mean I think that becomes more complex the more people you have so we do the quarterly – now story time with Promise, I own that brand – I do a breakfast and a lunch twice a week with different people in the organisation so I will skip anyone. And I think that’s two. And three, there are points – and this is unpopular – I inject myself in to the hiring process and say this is an important role, it’s a developer and I want to meet him. I think there are ways to remain connected where there are all hands – we’ve gotten to the size now where I’m not the centre of attention, it’s the leadership team but I sit in the audience so I try to connect with different people. What do you think about that? Was that bullshit or real? I guess there is no formula – I think it’s just being accessible and having a portion of your time that’s about the team.
Audience Question: So as working with founding members, not founders, how do you take that talent pool when you come into this situation and readdress them?
Promise Phelon: Oh man! I was like – so the question is when you’re coming in as CEO and there are founders, how do you redirect that energy, how you assess it and what do you do once you’ve assessed it? Is that right? Ok, so it’s hard because being a founder there are sacrifices that they make that I will never be privy to, like as a founder when I founded a company, we forego buying property and a bunch of things because I didn’t take a salary – all these things, I don’t know the sacrifices they made – I try to respect that, there’s stuff you’ve done that I don’t know. I said to my founders what are your career objectives? And then it was a tough discussion which said there will be points where you will disagree with what I do or say and you can do that all day but this is how we handle conflict between us. And if at some point that conflict becomes too much, then we have to part ways because I want to protect your legacy. And B, my responsibility is to the customer, not to anyone else. And the customer comes first and if anything that happens inside the business reduces my ability to create a customer value, I have a problem. I’m trying to be as vague as possible [laughter]– Can I show you guys a video my team put together? There’ll be no dancing.
Do I have the bloopers version? No? ok, thank you guys! [clapping].
Mark Littlewood: Well done! Marvellous!
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Promise started her career in at BEA Systems where she ultimately led product marketing. We think she is badass. You will too.
Promise Phelon is the CEO of TapInfluence, a high-growth technology company that specializes in influencer marketing. The company is defining the category as it goes through a dramatic shift from manual to technology-enabled. Phelon is building a loyal team, innovating in a product area that’s entirely uncharted, and helping evolve how businesses get heard by consumers. Prior to TapInfluence, Phelon was Chief Revenue Officer of the Resumator, CEO of The Phelon Group, and served as CEO of UpMo, an enterprise talent management SaaS system.
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