On Culture: Ending 7 Years at SalesLoft
Today is my final day at SalesLoft. I’m moving to a full-time focus on Clove, which has pivoted into a much better product since my first post on it. I have some thoughts on writing about the technology powering Clove. We’re doing a lot of—I think—interesting things with Elixir to build a really great product.
This post isn’t about that, though. I was reflecting on the most important thing that I learned at SalesLoft. What helped me grow the most? What kept me there for 7 years—an eternity in startup land? The answer is culture. I know, I know. Some people really don’t like that word, but let’s talk about it.
The importance of culture was present from the very first conversation that I had with Rob, Kyle, and Tim—the founding team. They made clear that culture is not about tangible benefits you get from a company, but rather it’s about the shared set of values that the team is founded around. Values are the things that are never intentionally compromised on. If there’s a tough decision to make or challenge to tackle, the values must the center point of the thought-process.
How are the core values of an early team established? It’s going to be based around the founders. In the case of SalesLoft the values were positive, supportive, and self-starting. This came from Pardot, which David Cummings (early SL investor) was the founder of.
How are the core values played out? They really need to be embraced by the team early on. This involves making them a center of conversation in all-hands, calling people out (kindly) if they aren’t living them, and involving them in hiring decisions.
As the company matures and increases hiring (let’s say 100 employees in), the feeling in the company changed as well. Corporate policies are being played out more. Interviews are happening more frequently and with more applicants.
SalesLoft tripled down on values during this period. It was great having focused discussions about the values, what they mean, and how they can help us interact better as a team. In particular, conflict resolution and how to directly face issues rather than triangulating were effective in helping to reenforce the values. I really looked forward to monthly all-hands breakfast where content about improving team health was presented.
Trust was very much at the foundation of everything that we did. If you lookup the “5 functions of a team” model, you’ll see what I mean. One of the great quotes that always sticks with me is to “always assume positive intent” and “understand that you’re working towards the same outcome.” If a team member and I heavily disagreed about something, we could base ourselves around the outcome and realize that we’re reaching for the same thing.
How might the core values of the team change? I think minimal amount of change is a good thing in the foundational values (unless they were just bad and need redone). In SalesLoft’s case, aspirational values were added to the foundational values. Even to this day the original foundational values haven’t changed, although they moved from single words to phrases. The aspirational values were ultimately replaced again with two foundational ones.
How are the core values played out? Team-building and trust are very important as teams are increasing in size. Communication becomes more difficult and fraught with misunderstandings. Values help the team center around the common foundation to solve problems. In addition, hiring has to evolve in this period of time. Hiring should involve focused culture-fit interviews that use a standardized path of questions and rubric. There should not be “gut feeling” in the hiring process, especially at this point.
Evolving into Enterprise
I’m not sure if SalesLoft is at the point of counting as enterprise or not, although in my shoes 500 people was a lot compared to the original 10. At this point, hiring and employee churn start to become more visible. The percentage of churn doesn’t necessarily go up, but having 5x more employees means that the raw numbers will be 5x higher.
As a company expands into departments the size of SMBs, values can really easily slip. I think it’s really important for the values to be lived and talked about both top-down and bottoms-up. The content around team-building and values is also important at this point, even more so than early days. SalesLoft had a great leadership course that people could take. It wasn’t a management course, to be clear, but discussed being a leader in role and values. I really enjoyed it.
One exercise that stuck out to me, recently, was the co-founder Rob doing a clearing model exercise with one of his direct reports. She cleared an event that had bothered her the week before, in front of 500 people on zoom. The significance of this is that leaders need to be vulnerable, humble, and involved as the business grows. Otherwise, the values will slip.
How might the core values change? I am not convinced that values changing at this point is a good thing. I have seen history of companies that go from a few effective values to way too many as the company gets larger. Values are not a means of control, and so keeping the foundation stable seems like a good idea. SalesLoft did not change the values so far in this stage, which I’m happy about.
How are the core values played out? Things will look pretty similar at this point, but I think it’s easier for microcosms to form where values might slip a little. Give awareness to everyone in the company about the values, what’s expected, and empower them to talk to their peers about issues.
This is definitely the company stage where I have the least practical experience, though.
I am curious to see how SalesLoft will evolve its value system in the future. I won’t be along for the journey, but I hold a lot of confidence in the leadership team and the people that I interacted with on the daily.
I’m excited to take what I’ve seen and learned into my role as founder at Clove. We have a set of values at Clove, and they were based around our shared experience at SalesLoft.
The most important thing to recognize about values is that no one is perfect. Things will slip, people will mess up now and then. There’s no shame in that. Recognize the importance of this as a learning opportunity, as it ultimately shapes how people apply core values in their daily actions.