Accomplishing The Mission: Shaping Employee Experience in Silicon Valley

Canvas advisor and OpenTable SVP of People and Culture, Scott Day, spoke at the Human Capital Institute Employee Engagement Conference in San Francisco this July.

According to Day, employee engagement is about instilling support and encouragement for very common human emotions, emotional desires, providing a place for people to have a very human experience, and it's about achieving success together. 

Check out the video of Day's talk below, read the transcript, and learn how really engaged cultures start with leadership. 

Scott Day, SVP People & Culture, OpenTable. Find him on Twitter @scottzen.

Good morning, and thank you for coming this morning to witness what's gone before me today. It's just been phenomenal. This is the part of the day where I start to see that themes and patterns start to emerge. I'm gonna talk with you about my experience, some very personal experiences, shaping employee experience here in Silicon Valley. I want to tell you up front that this really is a story about you. It's a story about leadership. It's important, I think, to start with the premise that while we all have approaches and tools, and we're being exposed to some really amazing scientific breakthroughs that prove that the work that we do is important and amazing, engagement is an outcome.

Engagement is what occurs when a series of conditions are met and people feel a certain way. They feel emotionally committed and really willing to go above and beyond to achieve any particular mission. It's an outcome that starts with leadership. Your personal acts of leadership, in each of the roles that you play, will have more of an impact collectively than any tool or approach that you employ. I encourage you to listen today to my story through your ears and see how it may inspire you to step forward, to step into your power as a leader.

My leadership journey started at a very young age. I was fascinated with the concept of leadership, and I'm pleased to tell you that my nine year old son, Owen, is sitting right up front here in the audience today. When I was about Owen's age, I was really interested in war movies and inspiring experiences on the field playing sports, and understanding what was it about these people who were able to influence other people to follow them, and to have them go and try new things, or in some cases, put their lives in danger. The most important lessons that I have ever learned about leadership came to me in my first job out of college.

I started my career as a second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. It was during this period of time that I learned some really important lessons that were crucial, certainly to my success as a marine, but what's amazing to me is how these lessons have stuck with me throughout my career and how I've employed them over and over again, how I've taught other leaders about them, and how I use them every day, to this moment, in my job as an HR leader. I want to stress that. We in HR play a really important role in shaping the future for the people that work in our organizations.

Just by show of hands, any other military veterans in the room? About what I thought. Not that many, but powerful. First of all, thank you all for your service. For the rest of you, and this is the vast majority of you in this room, you don't have to have ever even contemplated what it might be like to serve in the military to grasp what I'm gonna be talking about today. That's how universal these lessons are, in my opinion. Given the fact that I had this fascination with leadership from a young age, and set about a quest essentially, to find out more about leadership, the big questions before I went into the marines were, am I a leader? Can leadership be learned? How do I get people to follow me, and will people want to follow me? Very personal questions. I figured the best way to find out was to join this organization, the marines, if they would have me, and learn for myself.

Well here's what I learned. First of all, I learned that leadership can be learned, but it has some requirements. First, a willingness to be accountable for everything that happens or fails to happen within your area of responsibility. The second part of that sentence is more important than the first. Everything that happens or fails to happen within your area of responsibility. It requires an ability to articulate a vision, to be able to tell people what success looks like, where you're going. Thirdly, and most importantly in my mind, a willingness to boldly try new things, to not be reigned in by convention or what other people have told you is the right way to do things, to explore, to try for yourself, to find what's authentic, and to really go for that. These last two concepts are the two that I'm gonna build on for the rest of this first segment of my talk, because I believe there is more power in knowing where you're going than there is in knowing how you're going to get there.

I want to illustrate this with one of those things that I learned as a young marine. This is a concept called commander's intent. I'm going to ask you to recall that part of the morning when we learned about Admiral Nelson because that was a demonstration of commander's intent in action. I'll read this to you and then we can talk about it. Commander's intent describes how the commander envisions the battlefield at the conclusion of the mission. It shows what success looks like. Commander's intent fully recognizes the chaos, lack of a complete information picture, changes in the enemy, read competition, situation, and other relevant factors that may make a plan either completely or partially obsolete when it is executed. Commander's intent empowers initiative, improvisation, and adaptation. It is vital in chaotic, demanding, and dynamic environments. I'll let that sink in for a second.

To me, the most important words in this statement, and this is from an article in the Harvard Business Review about the concept of commander's intent as taught in the marines, the most powerful words are "what success looks like," and "empowers." That's the point of commander's intent. When I was a marine, we had to learn the commander's intent for the leaders in our hierarchy, usually two levels up. We had to recite it almost verbatim so that we could demonstrate that we understood what success looked like, not just for our unit, but for the unit above, and the unit above that. Where were we going? Because inevitably, in the fog of battle, the plans are gonna go out the window and you need to know how to orient, and reorient, and reorient, and try new things.

Back when I first learned about this, this was just one of many leadership principles I was learning about, but this one really made sense at the time. It stuck out to me for some reason. I now know many years later that this is one of the most important tools. It's probably the most frequently taught concept that I offer to leaders in their own development, is "are you doing this?" The other thing that commander's intent does is it sets up the conditions for improvisation, for adaptation, for learning on the fly. The marines had another motto, and that motto was "improvise, adapt, and overcome." This was expected to be the way you respond. Once you have a clear sense of what success looks like and you know where you're going, and you have a plan but the plan might work or it might not work, what do you do then?

Improvise, adapt, overcome. This basically meant no excuses. The plan is going to fail, but what are you going to do to continually focus on the mission? In Silicon Valley we have a very similar concept. It's a phrase that we refer to as hacking. It's the same idea. We know what we're building, we know what we want to build, we know what the outcome and the features and benefits of a product ought to be that we're building. How we get there is often best arrived by small organized teams focusing on trying new things, seeing what works, throwing away what doesn't, not getting bogged down with failure, but always reorienting towards the mission. This is tantamount to setting an expectation to try new things and learn on the fly over, and over, and over again.

Now to me, the thing that's amazing at this point in my career looking backwards was how much emphasis the marines placed on creativity. It was a surprise to me at that point in time and it's a surprise to me today. If you're ever in a moment where you're contemplating hiring a veteran, there's all kinds of stereotypes that go along with that, usually about hierarchy, about rigidity, about formality, conservatism. I will tell you that if you look at that resume what you may not see as explicitly is the emphasis that's been placed on creativity and adaptation that's been honed and developed over many years. Let's move forward.

Here's an idea that I can offer you to help sort of drive home the idea of commander's intent. This is a concept that I got by reading an article about Amazon. Are there any Amazonians in the house today? Okay, good, because I stole this directly from that article. That's what we call improvising. It's just so simple and so straightforward that it's easy to implement on a daily basis. The idea is, at Amazon, product managers are expected to write a press release before they even start developing a product. Before they even start writing code or drawing a blueprint, they write the press release. They say, "This is what this will bring to the world when it is eventually launched."

I use this to convince my CEO that that amazing cultural impact initiative that I'm trying to drive is worth the 250 thousand dollars next to the statement of work. Before I sit down with her, I will often write a press release. Now we've gotten to the point she knows I'm doing it. It's not even a secret. I'll just pass it across the table. I use this with my team to orient them around changes that we're going to introduce into the company. I've used it with the company as a whole to talk about the reasons for making a compensation shift or introducing a new performance management system. It's a very simple, very easy to do type of effort. The most important thing is that it illustrates what success looks like.

Now let's take a look at an improvisational tool. I have a hard time calling this a tool because it's two words, "yes and." These are maybe the two most important words when used together, I think, in the English language. Let me tell you why. I learned about this concept, the use of this phrase, in a coaching certification program that I went through many years ago. It has changed the way I talk in the world, at work, at home, with my family. It comes from improvisational acting where the stakes are pretty high. You're live on a stage, you've got people watching you, and you cannot reject what's been given to you. When your fellow actor throws a scenario at you, "bananners are now falling from the sky," you can't run and stick with the thing that you were pursuing. You have to start catching bananas, and assuming that that's what the crowd is looking for now because the story has evolved.

This concept of "yes and" is really about moving things forward. It's about keeping the momentum going in any type of a discussion, especially when it's feeling like your options are starting to become limited. Be wary of using words like "but," and "or," which absolutely cause a choice to be made or bring something to a conclusion. "Yes and" opens things up. I'll give you a quick anecdote to illustrate a "yes and" moment in my career. Several years ago, my first job in Silicon Valley in fact, was at StubHub as the head of HR. I was joining a leadership team that was very interested in supercharging their culture. I knew this. We had a line made around this. It was the reason that I was hired.

When I sat with them and I said, "What can we do to convince you that it's gonna be worth the pain and effort that it's gonna take to supercharge our culture?" Their answer was "Analytics. Bring us analytics. We're a very analytical culture." Well I knew this. I had done my research and had worked around them for a little while before asking this question. Prior to the meeting I had done a Google search for analytical tools that will help me change culture, improvising. Google searches are great improvisational tools. I came up with one. I'll actually show you a little bit about that later. I knew that I had the analytics covered.

When they said "analytics", I said "okay, yes, we are an analytical culture, and it's gonna be very important for me to know that you feel the culture, that you understand at a visceral level what it's like to be a part of this culture, what your employees go through. And to do that I'm gonna ask you to nominate one or two people from each of your teams to join me, influential people. I don't care if they're positively influential people, they just have to be influencers in the culture." They complied. They figured they'd brought me on board, they should at least allow me to do what I was there to do. I organized this team of influencers with some basic conditions of what success looks like.

I said, "The leadership team wants to see analytics to show how we go forward and supercharge our culture. I've got that covered. What I need you for is to help me create a visceral, emotional experience that will help them feel internally what it really means to be a part of this culture, what our starting point is. There's only a few rules. One, no power points, no charts, no decks, no spreadsheets, I've got all that part covered. What I need from you is a visceral experience." Well they set about doing it. They started interviewing people around the company. They quickly enlisted the support of a copywriter from our marketing department. What they came up with was an idea to create a diary, A Week in the Life of Joe Stubber. A stubber is a StubHub employee. They read it to me after writing it. Let me tell you what, it was visceral.

There was nothing in any of the data that I had collected that told the story that this diary told. On the day that we were to meet with the leadership team to talk about our cultural supercharging initiative, we started the meeting with these members of this team reading from this diary. There were tears in the eyes of leaders as they heard this story. They had no idea. It was visceral. They felt it. They were moved to take action. At that point I could bring out the analytics, show them that we had a place to start, hit the rational side, but they were ready to go. Mission accomplished.

I want to translate this into your role, because I just shared an experience of something that I did. As you heard, there were a few moments where I didn't know what the heck I was going to do next so I turned to Google or sometimes I turned to the newspaper. I looked for inspiration every day. I can tell you for sure I'm going to be doing a lot of the things that Shaun just talked about. This is your role. Your business card may say program manager, or it may say engagement specialist, or it may say SVP people and culture. Your job is to be a leader.

If you can put aside the business card and move the survey off to the side for a little bit, think about what you can do, what personal acts of leadership you can do to inspire those around you, because the name of the game, the work that you're involved in, is about raising the net level of employee engagement in the workplace. If you see yourself as an administrator or just someone who pushes tools and approaches forward, I'm here to tell you there's a lot more that you can do. The bottom line on this, embodying these concepts instills confidence and a sense of freedom to explore and be bold. If we know where we're going, and we've got some latitude in how we want to get there, or in fact if we're expected to demonstrate creativity and experimentation, we will feel bold when we get there.

Okay, shifting gears now, I want to go a little bit deeper into some of the things that follow once a group of people know where they're headed and have a sense of freedom and opportunity to explore. Alignment and consistency are the next two topics that I want to mention. These are the keys to shaping culture in my opinion. Alignment is essentially tying your mission to your customer and your employee experience. Give you a few examples of this. Specifically know who it is that's going to benefit most from the products or services that you're developing and delivering, and incorporate the language of that community into the language of your community. I've found this to be the case in each of the companies that I've worked for in Silicon Valley, and it really does make a difference.

This is where "why" starts to emerge. If you know where you're going, you know what the conditions of success look like, you have some latitude in how to get there, really stoking and putting into people's faces on a daily basis why you're doing it matters. At StubHub, I'm going to go a little bit deeper into the story in a few minutes, but at StubHub we had a motto and it was "fans first." We talked about that all the time. We used language such as "fans serving fans." At Airbnb, we talked about being a host and the importance of being a host. That was the first cultural core value. That was also, incidentally, a big chunk of our customer base, people who were opening their doors for strangers to come and live in their homes.

At OpenTable we'd talk about "have a seat at our table." This is our recruiting cry. We're a tool that enables hospitality in the world, namely by connecting diners with restaurants. We talked to software developers in the same language. "Come and have a seat at our table." We talked a lot about openness as well. There's lots of examples about this. This is more than words on a wall. This is really starting to live and breathe the reason that you come to work each day.

The next thing that I want to talk about is consistency. Do all parts of your organization agree on which behavioral traits matter most? This is different values. These are demonstrated behavioral attributes. I think this is important, back to the discussion of tribes that Shaun was talking about. What is different about the way that your company does something than the way another company does it, even if you have the same mission or a very similar mission? This shows up in language like we are a learning culture, or we are a get stuff done culture. Just take a second and imagine the difference between a learning culture and a get stuff done culture, or maybe we are a social culture. What does that feel like? What's the different quality? Is that important to know?

I think it's important to know because consistency is where a little bit of shape starts to come in around how you're going to do your job and how that will be different. Here's why it's important. This allows you to direct all energy towards the mission. Think about the times where you've been confused in any organizational context not knowing what the rules are, what the commonly accepted, maybe unwritten, rules are about how you operate. A lot of energy gets dispersed and wasted in ways that are not efficient and focused. Consistency allows you to bring that into sharp, clear focus. Let me make this real for you with an example of my time at StubHub.

I mentioned earlier the phrase "fans first." Well, here's how that came about. In the time that I was there ... StubHub, I should say to start, is a two-sided marketplace. I've worked for a couple of these types of companies where that's the business model. You actually have two sets of customers. In this case, ticket sellers and ticket buyers. Of course our goal is to raise the net promoter score for each of those two customer bases. Of course everyone wants to have dedicated, passionate customers. What we realized were there were moments where we had to make a trade off or decide who's more important in this equation. I want to tell you how we got to fans.

There's this other company that had a similar mission, which was allowing people to have access to the arts and sports events that they really value and wanted to pay a lot of money for. That company was called Ticketmaster. Are there any ticket masters here today? Good, because they're the bad guys in this story. At Ticketmaster, they make their money from the venue and from the artist. Of course fans are an important part of that because they buy the tickets, but the model is setup around making sure that the venue and the artist get what they set out to get. The fan becomes a part of the equation. Well at Stubhub we saw an opening, because what we realized was with Stubhub we could create a democratization of fandom. If you wanted to take your wife for a special anniversary – my wife's here in the front row too, this actually happened – to go see Beyonce in Nashville, and sit where you want to sit, that's now possible with Stubhub.

Of course it's gonna cost you an arm and a leg, but it's possible. If you want to go to the World Series, if you want to go to the Superbowl, you name your bucket list event, it's now possible, and Stubhub made it possible. That's how we got to fans serving fans, this concept of fans first. We were gonna be the company that existed for the fans. Here's what's really cool about it. Very quickly, as I used the phrase a minute ago, we became fans serving fans. It became a part of our identity. We use this language in everyday around the office. We would go out to market and say, "Hey, software development engineer, you might write awesome code. There's a lot of places, literally thousands of them within an 18 mile square radius, that you could get a job. But if you're also the kind of person who paints your face orange and black to go to a San Francisco Giants game, come write code at a place where you can bring 100% of who you are to the work place." Fans serving fans. It was remarkable.

Now I want to talk a little bit about consistency in that same period. Earlier I mentioned that I had the analytics covered from a Google search that I did. Well the Google search led me to a tool, maybe some of you have used it, and I'm not here to sell the tool but I am going to have to explain it a little bit. This is a tool called the denizen cultural assessment. What this tool shows, with a little bit of orientation here, are behavioral traits that exist in any organization. These are not unique to Stubhub. They're grouped in four basic areas, adaptability, mission, involvement, and consistency, and then subdivided into three areas per. There's 12 behavioral traits represented here. Then each trait is broken into quartiles starting at the center and working it's way out.

Without any further delving into the tool, here's what you need to know. Where you see white in these outer rims here, that means there was lack of agreement about what that behavioral trait meant in that cultural context. The more color, the more agreement. You can slice and dice this by geography, or level in the organization, or function, there's all kinds of ways to pull it apart. But the thing to know is that in 2009, when we started down this path after the visceral Week in the Life of Joe Stubber story, we saw that we had some key areas where alignment was missing, where there was not a lot of agreement about how we felt on certain behavioral traits. How did we approach it? Well, we turned this into a series of many missions. Anywhere that there was an agreement gap, we wanted to close that gap. As a leadership team, we prioritized the ones that we wanted to go after first and then what we would do next, and what would we do next, and we assigned those.

Each leader had a behavioral trait that he or she owned, and they were encouraged to assemble a team and pull some experts together from inside the company to go out, define what the behavioral trait actually means in that context of the organization, and define what they wanted to do to try to close the gap. From there, they were encouraged to get as creative as possible and do whatever works. For those in this room who make a profession out of driving engagement initiatives, that probably sounds like the sloppiest plan ever. Well this is what it looked like in 2011 when we took the survey the next time. That focus on driving what success looks like, that involvement of people, that encouragement to be creative, I honestly didn't care what any of the behavioral traits meant. I just knew that people working together to close the agreement gaps got them into a place where they cared and owned the culture.

We had an impact. That was a pretty good looking chart if I do say so myself. What's more important is what it felt like in 2011 to be a Stubber. It felt amazing. All energy focused on beating the competition, on being a fan in the workplace. It was an amazing experience. Alignment inspires empathy for those your serve. Consistency keeps all energy focused on accomplishing the mission. If you have a good idea of what success looks like and where you're going, and if you have some latitude to be creative and explore your strength and how you go to get there, and you are aligned with why you're going there, and you kind of know the basic rules and have agreement about who we are and what makes us different in this organization from others in other organizations, this final concept emerges: belonging, which I believe is the key to authenticity.

Belonging emerges. You can no more create belonging than you can create engagement. You can create the conditions that allow belonging to emerge. This is another word that we've heard a few times today. In fact, it's just recently starting to really get a lot of focus in an organizational context. I want to tell you what I think is great about belonging on a couple of dimensions. First of all, we are a tribal species, as you heard Shaun talk about. As a tribal species, it is hardwired into us just like it is our drive to eat or our drive to avoid danger, to be in connection, to be a part of a tribe. In this day and age, we get to choose our tribe. Throughout history, throughout millennia, throughout the evolution of homo sapiens, your tribe was sort of a roll of the dice, the fatal roll of the dice. You were just born into a tribe or a family.

These days, in the corporate context and especially as more people are talking about this, we get to choose the tribe we want to be a part of. This is why it's so important to me that you have the alignment, the consistency, the sense of where you're going, because then it makes it easier for people to decide, "I want to belong somewhere else." People work themselves sick trying to fit in. This is another sort of universal truth of human nature. Particularly in an organizational context, people work themselves sick trying to fit in. Let's make it easier for them. We can do this by being super clear about who we are, what we stand for, such that if it's not an authentic expression for an individual, then that person can go and find one that is.

I want to give one last anecdote today about my time at OpenTable, because another important aspect of belonging is involvement. I'm a big passionate believer of grassroots, organic, bottoms up approaches to tackling business problems. Get a group of people together who have an interest in seeing something come about, and set them free with as few constraints as possible. A couple months ago, a fellow at OpenTable came to talk to me. His name was Nick. He had an idea and a question. His idea was that OpenTable should make a really focused effort to show up big in the annual gay pride parade here in San Francisco in June. Nick is gay. While he's never felt any sort of discrimination or reason to not be himself at work, he didn't find a lot of encouragement or places to really express that part of who he was in the workplace either.

When he came and said, "What would the company be willing to support," I said, "I think you're asking the wrong question. I think the question is, 'Where do you want to go with this? How big can you make it?' Why don't you go out and find some people to start a team to talk about what we want to do for the pride parade, and then come back to me and tell me what you need, and we'll start the conversation there." He was a little nervous that maybe there wouldn't be that many people who would be willing to sign up, so he sent out a note, and instantly 20 people responded and said, "Thank you so much. I wish somebody would've asked me this earlier. I'm so glad we're doing this." On the day of the parade, 300 people, friends, family members, and a whole lot of table mates, showed up to march in this parade, all because one guy, Nick, came forward and asked this question.

But it didn't stop with the parade. This team went and started talking to our designers and our product managers and said, "We want to take over the website. We want to take over the mobile application." They changed the look of our logo and our marks, and everywhere this started to show up. The team called themselves "out and open." They worked with our facilities team and they found very prominent areas of our facility, and they took it over. New interpretations of our colors, and marks, and logos went up on the walls. They remain there to this day, and they will remain there forever because this symbol does not just mean that it's okay to be gay at OpenTable. This symbol means we welcome your openness in every form, shape, color that you can imagine. This is about openness. Our name is OpenTable. This is about who we are, and our identity, and it all started with an individual coming forward.

Since that time, other groups of demographically underrepresented people have come forward and said, "We want to do what Nick did. We want to form our own group." We now have WOOT, Women of OpenTable. There's a millennial group that's coming forward. They said, "Is it kind of weird if we're gonna exclude the old people?" I said, "On behalf of them, no. I think this is amazing as long as you keep the door open so that the old people, like me, who kind of fashion themselves as a millennial just born a little bit too early ... I want to come and join and see what you're talking about. That's the only thing. It needs to be open." Belonging is a human need. It instills feelings of safety and acceptance. In the world of work, it enables you to choose your tribe. Jeopardy is an amazing game from the 1980s with a killer song that reminds you that it's getting time to close.

In your drive to put engagement into the workforce, are you also explicitly creating a workplace that enables people to decide if this is one where they want to belong? All of this, I told you at the beginning that it's about leadership. I think for really engaged cultures, it starts with leadership. It starts with your leadership. But it's also about instilling support and encouragement for very common human emotions, emotional desires, providing a place for people to have a very human experience, and it's about achieving success together. It's about winning. It's about respecting and beating the competition, driving up the stock price, gaining market share, et cetera. If these conditions are met, your company will continue to grow. If your company continues to grow, people will have more opportunities to learn more about who they are, and you get to play a role in shaping all of this.

When I joined the marines many years ago, I did so to answer a question. Did I have what it takes to be a leader? What I've discovered is I do, and so do each and every one of you. You are a leader in creating a more human experience in the workplace. You can do this. I want to thank all of you. I want to thank Owen and my wife Amy for sitting in the front row and providing moral support. I encourage you to follow me on Twitter. Thank you very much.