365 | How to Create a Cultural Change with Aaron Bell

Cultural change inside of companies is hard work. It is hard because it is complex and filled with landmines. It is also worth it. A cultural change can lead to higher profits, lower turnover, and improved customer satisfaction. I am interviewing Aaron Bell, Chief Product Officer with Adroll, who shares his thoughts on cultural change. Discover why it is essential and how to lead a cultural change in your company.

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Target Audience: Aaron Bell is founder and CPO of AdRoll, the most widely-adopted retargeting platform with over 20,000 active customers. Prior to AdRoll, Aaron was Lead Engineer at SHAI, an artificial intelligence company in San Mateo, Calif. There, he oversaw projects for the NASA manned spaceflight program, including the official planning software used to set the launch date for the space shuttle.Aaron has been passionate about coding. 

How to Create a Cultural Change: The Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Leaders in the trenches and your host today is Gene Hammett.

Gene Hammett: Hi, my name is Gene Hammett. I am the host of leaders in the trenches, and my question for you today is how do you create a culture that thrives? I know I’ve been doing a lot of culture lately, but it’s just so important for you to get the culture right. It’s not squishy. It’s not something that you can’t intentionally manage or lead if you put your attention to it, but the problem is too many people think it just is there. It is what it is, and I disagree with that so much, and so how do you lead a culture that really does thrive from the inside out? Well, first of all, you don’t focus on just the numbers. The numbers are an important part of the company and the growth, but you don’t want people to feel like cogs in a wheel.

Gene Hammett: You want them to feel like you care for them. You want them to feel supported. You want them to feel like they’re growing, that they’re adding value to this world and all of those things. If you can do that well, if you can pour into them as a leader and that culture really supports that, those numbers that you want to focus on and you want them to move forward, they move forward very strongly. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve done the research. I’ve talked to the companies, I’ve been in companies, my own companies. This really does matter. People matter. And so you’ve got to create a culture where people are able to thrive. We talk about that today with one of the, uh, leaders over at ad roll and this leader just really is an amazing guy. I’m gonna. Pull up my notes here for a second.

Gene Hammett: He is such an amazing person. I really feel like Aaron Bell is able to have this conversation because they’ve grown so fast. They’ve created some cutting edge solutions that a lot of people have tried to mimic and they haven’t been able to and they are on the edge of technology, which means they have to have employees that are willing to think for themselves. And Aaron and I talk about what does that mean and how do you do it? And all inside this interview here at leaders in the trenches. So here’s the interview with Aaron.

Gene Hammett: Hey Aaron. How are you?

Aaron Bell: Very well. Thanks for having me.

Gene Hammett: Well, I’m excited to have you here at leaders in the trenches and we’re going to talk about culture. We’re going talk about people and uh, I’m gonna give you a chance to let their audience know from your own perspective a little bit about you and who you serve there at Adroll.

Aaron Bell: Yeah. So a little bit about adroll. First of all, we were founded in 2007, uh, with a mission to bring advertising to brands of all sizes back when we started. Uh, the advertising world was very different. Um, the advertisements you saw online work so different than the ones you saw offline, you know, a typical campaign would be nike running a sponsorship on the front page and there wasn’t much space for all the emerging brands out there. Uh, and so we set out to change that. And fast forward to today, we’re now the most widely adopted, um, marketing tech platform out there for brands of all sizes. And we have two business units, one focused on consumer called adroll, and then a sister brand called [inaudible], which is focused on B to b advertisers. Uh, we started the company in 2007. Um, my background before adderall was almost all engineering.

Aaron Bell: Um, so I come from a very, uh, I love to build things. And when I began as CEO here, uh, I can admit I was pretty far out of my comfort zone. And, um, I, I had to think of ways to adapt my background, you know, building code writing programs and software into like how do you build a great organization where people thrive. And I, and I very quickly came to believe that the people are everything. If you get the people right, you can just get everything else wrong and still be okay. And so it, all, it all started there.

Gene Hammett: Well, let’s, that’s the reason we’re here to talk. You’ve, you’ve grown ad roll. Can you give us any kind of numbers or number of people where your growth has been?

Aaron Bell: Yeah, sure. Uh, we have, uh, we have about 500 employees at the company were a number of global offices, uh, in the United States where San Francisco, Utah, New York, Chicago, and internationally, we have a hub in Dublin office in London and then Sydney and Tokyo. Um, and uh, we are, uh, continuing to grow very fast as a company, um, about, about third of the company is focused on engineering and resources. So we’ve had to deal with a lot of. I remember back in 2012 when we went from one office to a bunch of offices and that was sort of a pivotal moment for us and you know, as we expanded different in the different offices, different places, how do we make sure that things. So this is the culture doesn’t go sideways. I felt like the biggest risk at that point because we were such a connected company. How do we make sure we don’t start going into an immediate direction?

Gene Hammett: Well, let’s, let’s go run into that. Um, you, you mentioned earlier that you wanted to create a place where people could thrive and where people are very, very important to the growth of the overall business. Um, and I find this to be a debate. A lot of companies will say it’s customer first or employee first. How would you guys phrase that within your company?

Aaron Bell: Well, I think they’re kind of restorative connected in some ways. I’m like I said, you got to start with your employees. Everything is derived from your employees. If your employees aren’t clued in to the right values. We have a value around do right by the customer and the community actually, which is customers, employees unless you have a way of setting a, setting the direction, setting values for your employees, they’ll never really know naturally that at our company we prioritize spending time with, with the customers. So it, all, it all stems from the culture you set.

Gene Hammett: Well, the way I phrase it within growth cultures, which would be different than a performance culture is its employees, but it’s customer-centric.

Aaron Bell: Yes.

Gene Hammett: Could you agree to that or?

Aaron Bell: that completely resonates with me.

Gene Hammett: Um, when you, you said you wanted to create a place to thrive and we know that changes when you have five employees versus 500. So I don’t know, can you walk us through some of the inflection points of how culture has shifted for adroll?

Aaron Bell: Sure. I think, yeah, there’s that hundred number where the thing is 150. There’s only 150 people that you can really know intimately and know their names and once you get past that number things really changed. We had that some sort of crisis is when we moved from one floor to two floors or open up international offices here. And uh, and I, there’s an onion headline I love which says a boss wants friendly, relaxed, uh, office by Friday. So it’s like, it’s a culture isn’t something you can, a mandate from the top. It’s hard for a ceo to go and say like, here’s the culture that we’re going to have and bring tablets. You really need to, um, as a leader, culture follows the leader. So you need to set the example. I feel that’s the only kind of like half of it. Uh, you really need to figure out ways to like involve all your, um, employees and get them to kind of live those ways too.

Aaron Bell: One thing that we did, it wasn’t really a to deliberate, but it ended up being really important is we came up with six spirit animals for the adroll values actually wearing my, uh, one of them today, which is a jellyfish which stands for transparency. And um, for whatever reason that really brought the company values to life and uh, you know, instead of having an employee handbook with your values that you kind of give the new employees and it kind of gathers dust on it. You have these different mascots or icons and there’s probably a million ways of doing this where you’re able to evoke those different, um, those different mascots in different decisions you make or projects or even teams or working groups and people and people have really enjoyed that part of the company. So, and we’re actually, when we’ve done surveys, I really, large percentage of the company actually understands the values and says we live by them. So I feel like that was really important. Codifying the values in a way that was like really useful to the company

Gene Hammett: and I’ve never heard that before. I mean, you know, we’ve seen that the values on a wall when we walk in. Just words. Yeah. Maybe there’s a picture that goes with it, but, um, you guys got creative and had these spirit animals there even on a tee shirt. Right? Um, how, how did that come about?

Aaron Bell: Some of US brainstorming, I happen to come from Seattle, that’s where I grew up in. My parents live in a wall and there’s a native American totem pole nearby. Um, so I think some of it was actually inspired by kind of my childhood where you could have these different mascots represent or you know, different animals represent different ideas. Uh, that I thought was pretty interesting. And uh, yeah. And then, and then it was just, we had, we painted a mural that was at the front door of our office with the different icons on them.

Gene Hammett: Awesome. When you think about transparency now, and I hear this a lot, so you know, I call it radical transparency. Would you say that your transparency is radical?

Aaron Bell: I would say we’re radically transparent. There are silicon valley at episode. They were making fun of radical candor, but we try to be radically transparent, which is good. I’m actually, it’s kind of fun. There’s like all these values are sort of linked together. Our first value is hire great people and help them grow a hiring great people is not a unique thing in our industry, but to help them grow as our first value is important and actually think, I think helping people grow, helping each other grow is really tied to transparency. I’m like, if you have a manager who goes to an employee and it’s just like ran radically direct with them all the time, uh, you know, it’s hard. That can be a challenging relationship come off as abusive. But if those two people are working in a company where they know how important personal growth is, um, it’s much more likely for that employee to see that transparency, that feed as coaching that my managers really in my corner, my company’s really my corner to try and get me from a to B and I, and I, it’s, it’s good.

Aaron Bell: It’s good feedback for me. Um, yeah. And then we try to do radical. He tried to do a lot with the other direction too. So actually, if you don’t mind me talking about this a little bit more, we use technology a lot in, uh, in transparency. Um, every Friday we have an all hands and we encourage people to post questions on a q and a board, uh, which allows anonymous questions. We encourage people to post fears, uncertainties and doubts, and we have a view. It’s much better to confront people’s ideas and talk about them in the open rather than let them fester behind the scenes or at the bar after work. And I could actually plug we recently, uh, some, some, um, um, employees who are at ad roll, uh, have built a product called Jellyfish, which is a slack extension, which allows anybody in slack to run a, I’m an interview or not interview like a, I am a type of reddit style q and a with someone which you can do before a meeting or before an all hands and let’s people ask questions and slack and put them up and down in preparation for a meeting or an all hands.

Gene Hammett: Yeah. I love the fact that you guys have embraced this so much in many different levels. And you know, you said something about helping employees thrive, you just said helped them grow or there’s anything specifically that you found really works well to help employees grow.

Aaron Bell: Uh, yeah. So, um, we in silicon valley, there’s this, this competition for talent. Um, you know, the, the Dotcom days or the early two thousands. It was all about perks. Like how much free food, free lunches, pool tables, those sorts of things. And we’ve sort of decided early on I’d rather spend a dollar on trading and investing in somebody and uh, rather than on some sort of perk, um, that’s kind of more temporary. Uh, so we, we, we tried to put our money there and at ad roll we teach thousands of classes per year. We have employees teach classes maybe on like how to use tablo or you know, how to use something in our dough, how to understand. Saying in our domain, we bring in a lot of external teachers too. I’m on almost like virtual mba type stuff. Uh, we also have, you know, the whole, the whole whole body type of stuff where we have a, we’ve had teachers come in and teach zoomba classes or other sorts of health related. I’m pretty frequently, so there’s over 3000 classes taught a year here for a 500 person company.

Gene Hammett: That’s pretty impressive and I can see how that would make people want to grow. When you think about culture, what do you think about, like, you know, what is the core essence of culture for your company come down to?

Aaron Bell: Yeah. I think that there’s three pillars around culture, there’s community, which is how do people interact, how do they get along, how inclusive is your environment, how comfortable people asking questions, uh, you know, the people will actually enjoy coming to work. They want to spend time together, are they going to recommend their friends to come there? Um, and I think adderall is done really well in that category and as, as we grow as a company, uh, the areas where we’re needing to grow the most are around performance. Um, which is, which is you have a performance culture. Do you have a way of setting goals? Is your leadership telling me what mountain you’re gonna Climb? Um, oftentimes people have defined culture is like who gets promoted, who gets hired, who gets fired, they’re so visible, and that really shows like what success looks like. Your company.

Aaron Bell: And I kind of defined that performance culture. And the last thing is like governance, culture. And I feel like this is an area that really hasn’t been not a lot as a mid stage leader at a company. It’s hard to find information about good governance at our, at our size and stage because you’re at this awkward place between having, you know, just being a bunch of people in one office or like in the back, you know, in a, in a garage somewhere versus being like a corporate company, like if you want to make a change the front page of the website, but different texts on there are different. Like who makes that decision, does the CEO have a sign off on it? Is the product people marketing like what are the chains there? And I find almost every mid stage company it’s really loosely defined. And so how do you, how do you deal with that? And uh, you know, how do you deal with deal with communication outside of the reporting structure? So that’s all about governance. How do you make decisions and does everybody speak the same language around decisions at your company?

Gene Hammett: I think one of the key elements I think in culture is, you know, you have leadership and team and then you also have systems. What kind of systems did you guys, you know, really put, put weight into to help you support your culture and your people?

Aaron Bell: Yeah. So you definitely want, uh, you know, the, the, the CEO or leadership really has three responsibilities. Um, you know, number one is they got to set up, paints a bold vision of the future of the company. So everybody, the company really imagined it all fitting on one sheet of paper. Everybody at the company should be able to recite that and make sure they’re aligned with that. The top level. And then the CEO is also responsible for making sure there’s money in the bank and setting the cultural tone I think. Um, and from there I think it’s good to have some sort of rhythm, uh, maybe not when you’re just a really small upstart, but kind of getting towards the mid stages where like a quarterly system, even though you’re not public, where there is goal setting and accountability around those goal settings and trying to be as, as data driven in that goal setting as possible.

Aaron Bell: Um, for an early stage company, I, I run product today at ad roll. I think it’s important that the goals are very much set on outcomes. Like what metrics do you want to drive versus outputs and outputs. Like for example, we need to ship product x on date. Why? Uh, it’s really hard is going back to the customer centricity. It’s hard to really predict exactly what your customers are going to want six months from now as you kind of go on your journey. So we try to focus more on the metrics then the actual roadmap items, but having some sort of rhythm on a quarterly basis that kind of fits into like big thematic, big thematic, uh, initiatives for the year is how we’ve always done it.

Gene Hammett: When I think about performance culture though, there’s a lot of times companies put too much emphasis on the numbers and the metrics and the people began to feel pressure for that. Have you noticed any of that? When you guys talk about metrics or how do you, how do you throw it against that?

Aaron Bell: Yeah. One thing, and it’s, it’s, it’s, there’s always this question of do you tie people’s compensation to performance? And I would say no, I try to keep them separate. Um, the performance, like the goals you set, I mean, let me take that back. Compensation should be tied to performance of course, but when you’re setting goals at a company, those are really supposed to be more of a stretch based goals. Thinking big, making sure you’re not thinking too small and you know, coming up with like a target, it’d be good if, you know, you reach 60 to 70 percent of your goals, uh, and making that part of the conversation when you do reviews, um, but making sure people are, are, are setting goals a quarterly and it’s also important. Make sure those quarterly goals aren’t just focused on that one a quarter, that you’re actually like, those quarterly goals fit into longer, like 12 month themes or else you could have people just try and make their numbers look right for that one quarter.

Gene Hammett: Yeah. You don’t want that short term thinking too. You know, when I think about your business and role and I see the technology and the marketing kind of intersecting together, I think innovation. So what do you guys do inside your culture that really drives their supports? Innovation?

Aaron Bell: Um, from a, from a lot of different things that we, from a product perspective, we really try to focus on doing a lot of customer discovery and that’s things like having, were, were interesting because it’s, it’s not an adderall is not a consumer product, meaning it’s a, it can be a little more challenging to find potential customers. And so we have customer advisory boards that we’ve built out which are great. Sometimes your customer advisory boards can have a lot of early adopters on it, which maybe not might. They’re great because they like to try new things out and they’re open to talk to you, but they might not. They might not represent who your ultimate longterm customer is. One thing that we’ve done in the last year is we have a sales team here and we use a program called chorus to record sales calls and we get the whole product team in a room and we play for them just a, just almost like a random, a sales call that happened and uh, it’s a way to hear the customer responding in kind of like a, um, in a, in an example situation about our product and almost like a bunch of art students.

Aaron Bell: We kind of critique, critique what happened on the call, what was said and try to get a view into the customer without actually even having a one on one conversation with the customer, which we found to be pretty interesting. It’s spurring a lot of really good conversations

Gene Hammett: Now. What do you think that you do within leadership to make people think it’s okay for failure to push boundaries and to push the edge of this is or is fair. You’re okay with you guys? Failure.

Aaron Bell: Yeah. Failure is part of the eel. You can’t learn anything if you’re not failing at things if you’re not taking it. If you’re not a, if you don’t have products failing, if you don’t have different issues feeling, it means you’re probably not taking too many risks. Uh, like Peter Teal said, if you’re not, if you’re not uncomfortable and you’re probably not doing it right, so it goes back to, it goes back to the values again, hire great people and help them grow.

Aaron Bell: Um, there’s a book we like a lot, um, called mindset, which is a pretty popular book in education circles, but it cross applies into, into business quite a quite a bit. Um, and, and talks about how you set the conditions for helping people, uh, you know, make mistakes. Um, and uh, one thing we’ve taken on recently is we do a fair bit of retrospectives so you don’t make it. So retrospective is like this, you have a big project and it failed. Instead of just kind of shelving and moving on, it’s good to break, break it down and really understand what happened. The problem is when you’re at a company of our stage, everybody’s so busy, you don’t want to take like formalize it too much. So at least creating some time and space and having some structure for looking back on things and making sure that you’re actually taking the time to learn from your failures. And I think by people understanding the value in that process, then they’re more likely to understand it’s okay to make mistakes.

Gene Hammett: So of all the things I’ve asked you about today, um, what is one thing that you wish I would’ve asked you about culture as it relates to your success? They’re at hydro.

Aaron Bell: Um, that’s a good question actually. Uh, one thing that you would have asked me about culture would be, um, well, one thing, I think it’s kind of, there are two things I can relate to that I’m. The first one is how do you measure culture, which I think is really important. Um, it’s sorta like how can it goes back to this idea I have where there’s this. I think a myth out there were, as a company gets bigger, the culture gets worse, it gets more bureaucratic against more stuffy things get slower, there are diseconomies of scale. And I’m hell-bent on destroying that myth. So actually as a company gets bigger, how do you make sure that the company improves and I think, I think measurements will be part of that. So we use software called culture amp and we have a lot of companies do this actually once a year we have a big employee survey and asked a bunch of questions about everything, like how we ran the company in three years.

Aaron Bell: When you think about your salary, uh, do we have a diverse and inclusive environment? People answer those questions and it allows us to. We basically really encouraged the whole company to answer it. And then you get these results back and you’re able to see across different departments and different geographies where the hotspots are and where were adroll is a little different. Where we do really well is we really focus on addressing those hotspots. So we immediately launched different programs every year to help us bring improve those areas and improve the culture. And so being able to really diagnostic about your culture and open about it can be really helpful with tools. And then the other thing I said is the question I would have the million dollar question is do you think culture is can get better as a company grows in size and I think, I think we’re in early days of a, but I think there are a lot of economies of scale to actually improve a culture and have all kinds of different types of people at a company I’m working together to create a great environment.

Gene Hammett: Well I appreciate you going there with me because that’s definitely something I want to give you a space to talk about. What’s most important for your culture. So Erin, if our audience wanted to catch up with you and, and find out more about that role and what not, what’s the best place for them to go on twitter? Triple a r o n a r o n a or you can just send me an email. Says my first name, two a’s at ad roll.com.

Gene Hammett: Perfect. Well, uh, you guys, uh, hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I have. Um, thanks for being here.

Aaron Bell: Thanks for having me. Take care.

Gene Hammett: Fantastic. Hopefully, you enjoyed that interview as much as I did, took good notes. I took a lot of notes in there because I want my culture to thrive. I want my client’s culture to thrive and I want the people that are inside these organizations to love what they do. I don’t know if you know. My mission is I love Mondays. I really do. Just recently wrote this up. I love Mondays and I want everyone else to love Mondays too. So what would it be like in your world if every one of your employees loved to come to work on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, but they loved what they were doing. That’s an organization that’s thriving. So if I can help you with anything, make sure you reach out. As always, lead with courage and I’ll see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

In this episode we’ll cover:

  • Radical Transparency
  • Encourage people
  • Helping Employees Thrive
  • Core Essence of Culture
  • Defined Performance Culture
  • CEO or leadership Responsibilities
  • Performance Culture

Resources 

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