Anthony Tassone founded GK in 2014 and has since gained first-hand insight into the critical importance of building company culture from the ground up. Here are some of his experiences and advice.
Why is having a defined culture so important to you?
Great culture is everything. It is absolutely the thing that separates winning companies from losing companies. Founders should view it as the level of positive leverage in their organization. It accelerates hiring decisions, reduces recruiter dependency and increases employee retention and product quality. I like to think of GK’s culture as an environment for surfacing bad ideas and replacing them with good ones. In my view, trust is the most important factor. I didn’t always understand the importance of company culture nor did I measure and track our culture in the early days of GK. It seemed ethereal. Instead, I hired super-high performers regardless of their character traits. I approached building GK the same way I did building trading desks, where productivity is paramount. Over time, I began to understand this was a misstep in data analysis. When I sat down and better quantified my poor hires versus good hires, I started to see patterns and realized that great culture could be codified.
What exactly does “codify your culture” mean?
It means creating cultural principles and constantly reinforcing the behaviors that exemplify them. Management needs to walk the talk and create the environment to protect these principles, and you need to hire and fire ruthlessly against these principles. Suddenly the HOW you do your job is more important than WHAT you do. When you create cultural principles, you have a set of ranked behaviors that must be espoused by management, employees and interview candidates, and guidelines for what behaviors are expected and encouraged. At GK, we decided on seven character traits we value above all else:
- The bias to be compassionately candid. Everyone is smart. But do you have the confidence to surface bad ideas and the creativity to replace them with good ones, all while being very nice about it? Style is important.
- The bias to be consistently optimistic. You must enjoy the people you work with and the problems we work on. Defaulting to the negative is lazy. Gossip is gross. It takes discipline to approach problems with a positive mindset.
- The bias to be curious. We absolutely love people who are skeptical and ask a lot of questions. Questions mean you care. Questions are like strength-testing decisions and we value them highly.
- The bias to be long-term resilient. No love for quitters or short-term thinking. Stay focused on the mission, push and see it through.
- The bias to be empathetic. You are part of a team. Your work impacts others. We love when teammates check with others and ask, “How would you feel about that?”
- A very high level of self-awareness. Describe in detail your weaknesses. We all have them. Not all of us are genuinely aware of them.
- Integrity. Do what you say you will do. Don’t blame others.
Underlying each of these principles is the importance of trust. Trust is the opposite of ego and is the critical element of any team. Trust means I know you are always doing what is best for the company and when you get new data that suggests a course correction, you will take it. Trust means admitting when you are wrong.
Every day I need to make decisions. I’m constantly thinking about these principles and whether or not I’m exemplifying them. We also used them to standardize our interview process to help us scale.
What do you mean by “standardize your interview process?”
We frame each interview question to understand a candidate’s alignment with GK’s stated cultural principles. In fact, our first interview with every candidate is one hour and we don’t even discuss his or her skills or capabilities. It is all about cultural fit. We ask questions that assess a level of compassion, curiosity and self-awareness and we’ve become very proficient at interpreting the answers. The key is to be vulnerable and transparent. I like to explain to candidates exactly why I’m asking a question. If I can follow up with my own personal failures or stories of my childhood I will. The worst thing you can do is create an interrogation atmosphere. Often my interviews end in hugs and feel more like a therapy session! It’s important to remember that 95 percent of interviewees will not get the job, but they must walk away from their experience with GK knowing we treated them fairly, in an environment of trust.
What type of testing do you conduct with potential hires and do you implement testing now?
Testing people is a sensitive topic! I think most people’s reaction is to believe they are so nuanced and complicated that no test could accurately capture their strengths and weaknesses. Breaking down such a multi-dimensional personality can be a little bit of a blow to the ego and view on free will. I also think most people are not trained to interpret the results correctly and should let actual scientists provide guidance. We have all taken Meyers-Briggs and rolled our eyes. But advancements in assessments over the past ten years are mind-blowing.
I’m fascinated with many HR companies that utilize data science to better quantify and place candidates, so I was very open to behavioral testing for existing employees to help increase communication effectiveness and remove any bias and personal blind spots. After some research our management team decided to use The Predictive Index, and I strongly recommend their product. It’s a complete package that makes administering and tracking tests for both employees and management easy. We have now extracted invaluable insights about ourselves and all employees that have helped us create personal growth plans for everyone.
I like to think of testing as a factor analysis for putting together a diversified stock portfolio. It helps you understand the features of your people better so you can leverage their strengths. Since implementing The Predictive Index, my team has removed me from decision-making on things we all agree are not in my wheelhouse. Knowing my own assessment data and theirs, I don’t resist. I trust them.
How important are mentors and coaches to you, your management team and GK’s company culture?
Extremely important—I can’t stress this enough. The fastest way to get from where you are in your career now to where you want to be in the future is to ask for help from someone who is already there. Most successful people are willing to help, but asking for help requires you crush your ego and admit you need it. At GK we talk about having the mindset of an athlete. We encourage eating well, exercise, meditation and seeking coaching. My mentors are like caddies, they are with me as I walk the golf course, helping me to decide which club to use, shot shape and reading greens for every deal we’re in. My executive coach, whom I see twice a month, is like a swing coach who gives regular feedback and adjustments. We did some psychoanalysis testing in the beginning and I learned a lot about myself. We now work on how to more efficiently manage people and run the company. For example, at GK we just implemented an “After Action Review” (AAR) method where we schedule five minutes after all important events to debrief and discuss only the things that could have been better. It’s a license to be constructively critical with no one making excuses. Recently after a presentation I did, my CTO, Tom Schady, pulled me aside for an AAR and said “A.T., you didn’t make good eye contact with this other half of the room. You spent too much time talking to one part of the audience.” I agreed and I love Tom for having the courage to tell me and the compassion for the way he did it.
There are many companies and investments, especially in capital markets, where terrible decisions get implemented and stay implemented. I think this is a primary reason why big companies, consortiums and early-stage investments eventually fail. Over time their decision framework gets corrupted and misinterpreted as truthful data. It’s important for founders and CEOs to have strong boards, mentors and coaches who can challenge their decision processes and help destroy ego-driven outcomes.
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Wishing you a cheerful holiday season and a Happy New Year from the entire team at GreenKey.