A few months ago, my Stanford classmate Aly El Badry reached out to ask about the work I do shaping workplace culture. He is the CEO of a medical technology startup called CloudCath, based in San Francisco. Though his team is relatively small with only 8 full-time employees, Aly and his co-founder Eric Yu – CloudCath’s CTO – encountered several situations in the past year that made them realize that getting their company culture “right” was not just nice to have, it was a necessity. They wanted Take Back Work’s help planning and facilitating a retreat for the team – a chance to deliberately and collaboratively work on developing the CloudCath culture.
You might be thinking that “Silicon Valley startup” + “culture” = foosball, beer on tap and free lunch. Nope. At least not at CloudCath.
While artifacts like these can signal that play is welcome or create convenience for employees, our focus for this retreat was very different. Aly and Eric wanted their team to spend time getting to know each other more deeply, generate consensus about their dreams for the next half of the year, and draft up company values to “try on” – a solid start for a first session. Essentially, these discussions would surface key themes related to CloudCath’s mission, vision, and values. These are what make up the true foundation of company culture.
In the startup world, things move quickly and time is precious. Devoting a full day to an offsite or retreat can seem unwise. But sometimes, you need to go slow to go fast. Aly and Eric knew that the next 6 months would be full of critical decisions: who to hire, who to partner with, who to accept funding from, etc. And then there are all the smaller decisions like team behaviors, systems, and routines. With every interaction, people create patterns and signals about what is acceptable and what is not. Before long, these other elements of culture start to take hold, whether planned or unplanned. Yes, creating a shared framework on these topics takes time – but it’s so much faster than dealing with the fallout from misalignment.
Plus, it goes without saying that it’s easier to build a positive culture from the beginning than it is to fix a toxic one, especially once bad habits have set in. That gives your organization more time to reap the benefits – and these are not just great for your people, they’re great for your bottom line, too. Consider these statistics:
- According to Gallup, 70% of workers are disengaged, but 66% of engaged employees work in a healthy workplace culture.
- Highly engaged employees are 38% more likely to have above-average productivity (Workplace Research Foundation)
- Companies with engaged employees outperform those without them by up to 202% (Dale Carnegie)
- Turnover for companies with poor culture is 48% (!), but turnover for companies with a great culture is just 14%.
With only 15% of C-level executives satisfied with their company culture, getting this right could lead to major competitive advantages. Still, culture often takes a back seat to other pressing issues, especially in startups. It doesn’t seem to have the same urgency as an issue in the supply chain or the launch of a new product. That’s why it’s so valuable to check in and assess the situation periodically – and that’s why I was so surprised and delighted to hear from Aly.
Together we crafted an agenda that would meet (or at least get us started on!) all of the objectives mentioned earlier. Through the process of preparing for the offsite, we learned about what’s working well and what could be improved. At CloudCath, team dynamics are considered a strength, and people are proud to work with other high-performers. Additionally, individual intrinsic motivation is high, and team members derive a sense of purpose from working on a mission that matters, saving lives day in and day out. We also made space to discuss anticipated challenges that emerged through team interviews, to include prioritization, scaling, and balance.
When the day arrived, we met at a lovely site north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin. The breathtaking views and crisp ocean air signaled that today is not about business as usual. After a few words from Aly, we kicked things off with one of my favorite icebreaker questions – “Which superhero would you be, and why?” On the surface, this seems like a pretty light-hearted topic, but it yields tremendous insights into someone’s beliefs, values, and contributions. A few laughs (and some serious discussion) later, it was time to get to work.
As we settled into the rhythm of the offsite, I couldn’t help but think about how much I enjoy these sessions, especially with a team like this. Each organization is unique and has a different set of challenges, so you can never quite know how a day will go – and that’s the beauty of it. There are the special moments you plan for, and the ones that transpire organically.
One of these moments came early in the day. Aly is big on transparency and vulnerability, and he wanted to model that behavior for the team. We put him in a hot seat at the front of the room and gave the team the task of providing him honest feedback, using three questions recommended by the former Senior VP of People Operations at Google, Laszlo Bock:
- What is one thing I currently do that you’d like me to continue to do?
- What is one thing I don’t do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?
- What can I do to make you more effective?
It can be a bit unnerving to give the boss your unvarnished opinion, but Aly’s positive reactions encouraged the team to do just that. This bit of offsite magic laid the foundation for deeper conversations about tough topics later in the day. The team covered a lot of ground, but the best surprise came after a mid-afternoon hike. We gathered around the table, and in a very unscripted way, the CloudCath team began sharing feedback for the group and each other. From words of praise to requests for improvement, the experience felt profoundly thoughtful and sincere. And apparently, so very CloudCath!
CloudCath is a San Francisco-based medical technologies startup on a big and bold mission, to build the world’s first and largest infectious disease remote monitoring platform. Their breakthrough product combines hardware and software to allow for the early detection of infection within all chronic disease catheter-based treatments, starting with at-home peritoneal dialysis patients.
This life-saving technology has the potential to enable early intervention and vast clinical outcome improvement reducing hospital visits – and even death – for millions of people worldwide. In addition, the value of this first-in-class early infection manifestation data set is vast for Drug Development and Antibiotic Resistance research.
In less than 18 months, the company has built an incredible product, ran a successful 150-patient clinical trial with amazing outcomes, is on track to receive FDA clearance early in 2020 and commence commercialization with some of the largest dialysis providers in the US shortly after.
Fueled by the sense of impact and a purpose-driven vibe, CloudCath is attracting tremendous talent. And while the pace of startup life is often hectic, CloudCath is a company where how the job gets done is as important as what gets done. Team members commit to values like:
- Mission first: Making positive outcomes for patients a priority – always.
- Candor + vulnerability: Having difficult conversations where you can be honest and hold each other accountable is the norm.
- Results-oriented: Striving for excellence and timely achievement of goals, accountable to one another.
- Gratitude: Our goal is for every one of us to always be grateful that such great people are owning all the various elements of our execution. We’re either continuously showing this gratitude or immediately addressing the reasons it may be lacking.
- Family: Caring about each other holistically and treating our team members like family on all our good days and more importantly, our tough ones.
The combination of a game-changing product with a positive workplace culture makes CloudCath a startup to watch! For more information on how to join the team, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.