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Culture, HR, and Leadership with Jackie Lauer

We sat down with Lauer to talk about what founders applying to AC:Incubate should think about it regarding leadership, HR, and culture.

November 24, 2022

Culture, HR, and Leadership

There are two ingredients we continuously see in startups that scale successfully. The first one is founders who start with a big problem instead of looking for a problem for something they've developed.

The second ingredient is those founders who understand that it takes more than one person to scale. They're the founders who are open to mentoring. They know that they're not just building a company – they're building culture too. Most importantly, they're the founders who can let go of tasks and responsibilities as the company grows. Sometimes that means knowing they're not the right person to be the CEO.

At the Accelerator Centre, we're lucky to have a fantastic mentor coaching founders through these questions – Jackie Lauer.

We sat down with Lauer to talk about what founders applying to AC:Incubate should think about it regarding leadership, HR, and culture.

When you're talking about startups, Peter Drucker's "culture eats strategy for breakfast" quote gets brought up often. Startup culture is more than the spaces where the work happens. Has the last year of work-from-home and remote work changed that?

For me, culture is still paramount. I think what happened is that people started to understand culture does matter. For the first time, people were believing. They're finally paying attention. What's become more relevant than ever before is how do you align your people when they're remote? How do you excite them based on your core values? How do you connect with other human beings to motivate them to do great work when stressed at home?

How influential is culture to a team as it scales?

The way the team behaves is predominantly because of the culture that exists. People will say to me that they don't have a culture yet. Even if there's just three of you with a couple of contractors and volunteers, the way that you're behaving together and all of your unconscious biases and beliefs and values that you're not even explicit about are still there. We need to pay attention to those and understand are they working for you?

There's a lot you need to get right when you're first starting your business – talking to customers, understanding your potential market, and looking at your IP strategy, to name a few. What should founders be doing for culture at that point to help set themselves up for success?

Half the time, I have to chase them to believe me and buy-in that culture matters. Often it's only until they have a pain or a mistake that they go, oh, it does matter. I am hopeful because I am finding the next generation genuinely interested in culture. With many of the clients, we go through a culture design canvas. It's similar to a customer experience roadmap. We're going to do the employee experience roadmap. We're going to strategically design everything from mission to values. You need to think about what rituals and celebrations you are going to have and why they matter. Part of this is also understanding conflict – if there's conflict, how will you manage it? It's just making founders get explicit in their values so that they're real.

We talked with Bob Mathers about the importance of customer experience. He defined that as every interaction a customer has with your brand. How does culture play into that customer experience?

That's a conversation that's hard for people to wrap their heads around sometimes. Have you ever been to a restaurant you were excited to go to, and the server is just in a terrible mood? Maybe they were just treated poorly by their boss, and so you have a horrible experience because the employee has had a bad day. We've all had that experience. To me, it's the same thing if your employees have a bad day where they're not allowed to show up and be their best selves, and they're no longer allowed to be creative and innovative. Do you think they're going to deliver on the promise to your customer? No way. And that's when the CFOs and CEOs are paying attention. That's when they'll open the purse strings and say, oh, yeah, we probably should invest in some time for this culture stuff.

Many of the Accelerator clients we're working with today are hiring to fuel their growth. Often some of these hires don't live in the same city – or even the same country – as the rest of the team. What are your thoughts on building culture when you have one or more employees who are remote by default?

One of my mentors was Judith Glaser. She was a world-renowned neuroscientist and wrote the book Conversational Intelligence. She used to say that a really good culture is dependent on the quality of the relationships we have. And the quality of the relationships we have is dependent on the quality of the conversations we're having. So as I've been helping leaders and their teams navigate this past year, I've been reminding them that the quality of the relationships and the quality of the conversation is the culture. You can do this remotely. It just takes a different way of connecting. I'm not just talking about video. It's how someone hears your empathy and compassion and not just the tone but also the words you use. Those things matter. Connection happens in global communities. It has been for decades. It's just now people are waking up to it. I've done remote work for 20 years, and most people are like, no, you can't build relationships that way. Well, relationships are my bag, and you can.

As a startup begins to scale, building out the team becomes a priority. How do founders know when it's time to bring in leaders in roles like sales and HR?

Many of the founders I coach tend to think it's when they can afford to. They're wearing too many hats. They're overwhelmed. They're just starting to burn out. So to me, it's getting them to understand that it's a little bit of a risk, but you have to trust that if you hire the right person, you're going to generate more product development, more sales, more marketing – whatever it is. So it's like you can't afford not to.

One of the issues we see founders face is giving up control of their baby. How do you coach clients through that?

It's just giving them some shared experiences. That can be by introducing them to people who've been there. I think that it's essential to get people connected who have just been through the same journey.

One of those challenges in hiring someone is having to let them go if it doesn't work out. How do you handle that?

No one loves to do that. And sometimes it's early days – sometimes it's, oh, I think I picked the wrong co-founder. That's pretty common. But that's okay because I want to help them through that, so it's not painful and messy. You want to make sure that if they do depart, that they're departing on as good of terms as possible. Sometimes it's their first time terminating an employee who hasn't lived up to what they promised. We'll walk them through the Employment Standards Act and what's expected of them as an employer.

We know you've got a lot going on, but we've got one last question. One of the scenarios we've seen play out a couple of times is a founder isn't the right person to be the CEO. How do you handle those conversations?

There's this great little workshop I'll do at the beginning of AC:Incubate, and one of the sides reads, "Founder does not equal CEO." It's just my way of getting them ready to understand that we all get attached to something we've created. What they eventually learn, in my opinion, is that the founder often thinks they're supposed to be the CEO. And once they get in there and do the job, they often don't like it because it's not using their core strength. It's not doing the things they love. One of my favorite clients of all time said, yeah, I know I'm not going to be the CEO forever. They asked how to prepare to find the right CEO. I told them to take it slow – date, don't jump into bed together, don't get married. They were really intentional, and now the company is succeeding very well in the marketplace.

Thank you! Is there anything else you'd tell founders thinking of applying to AC:Incubate?

When I'm thinking about my fortune 500 companies or the clients at the Accelerator Centre, the best leaders are the ones who are cocky and confident enough to do it. They've got the vision, and then they're humble enough to be challenged and pushed and learn and fail. That's a hard combination, but if that's you, then this is the world for you.