Cindy Gordon is the VP of People at Policygenius, which is based in NYC and was recently named one of the best places to work by Inc. Magazine for the second year in a row (and Rover’s list of best dog-friendly companies!). Previously, Cindy was Head of People at Oscar, scaling the company from 80 to 545 full-time employees in 1.5 years. She spent 10+ years at McKinsey & Company in roles spanning HR/benefits, recruiting, and professional development. In her spare time, she runs a fashion consulting business and takes orders from her ferocious Yorkie-poo, Bert. She spoke to us recently about how she marries people process with people philosophy.
At many companies, the HR function has been relegated to a more transactional entity. In order to be a strategic business function — which it absolutely is — make HR about leading with purpose before process. Translating philosophy into process aids in understanding the needs of the organization to give the “why” behind the action. Putting those concepts into practice can be tricky though, so making minor tweaks — like with language — can be a pretty powerful way of shifting how people think about something.
In lieu of using the phrase “people processes” for building out our people programs, we use the term “diversified big hug strategy” — which packages together a number of micro-actions to appeal to a variety of perspectives to shift behavior. One of our strategic goals as a people team for 2019 is retention; which is clearly a very nebulous goal. With retention efforts, there's not one approach that is going to work for everyone at our scaling company. To move the needle, we are running a number of projects — but we also need to make sure that we’re tying back those efforts to our north star goal to tell the bigger story.
For example, one goal we might tie to retention is boosting higher participation rates at company-sponsored community-building events. If we want to increase employee engagement at events, there are a variety of ways to attract our team members to the events. Some people are going to meet new colleagues, some are going for the event itself, and others simply want to catch up with some old pals. We also have a “Culture Club,” made up of passionate employees from across the company, who take part in the brainstorming, planning, and execution of our events. If we were to focus on just one approach, certain groups would surely fall through the cracks.
It would be a shame to try one thing and say, “Well, we tried that and it didn't work. Too bad.” It is much more rewarding to giving employees the “why” and then help them find opportunities to engage.
There's a lot of data on the hiring side, but when it comes to other parts of HR, sometimes you have to get a little creative to figure out how you want to measure success — especially when it comes to shifting organizational behavior. If we go back to our goal of boosting participation rates, we dig into event attendance to identify gaps and successes based on team, level, and role. We may also approach individuals or do focus groups to collect more context so we can iterate on our programming.
Similarly, we collect data via engagement surveys, which are generally extremely useful for sussing out potential systemic themes. In addition to Likert scale questions, we also ask some open-ended questions — what should we start, stop, and continue doing. After the survey runs, we lead deep dives to generate discussion and problem-solve at the department levels. These sessions enable us to explore what we’re doing at the organizational, team, and individual levels — with the goal being to continue to peel away the layers to get to the root of the problem. And, sometimes, we’ll find that there's a lot of quick win actions we can take.
For example, we’ve discovered that Policygenius gets the most engagement at events that are centered around learning and development. While the social events are fun for our team, we learned that there is appetite to teach and learn more about different aspects of our business and how programs are developed. Every Wednesday we have “lunch & learns,” where anyone at the company can present on an area of expertise, like “What is AB testing?” or “How do you use [this software]?” or “Building trust-based relationships.”
We also learned that another reason we have a high level of turnout at our “lunch & learns” is because they are during the day — which is easier for people to commit to since they’re already in the office. We've also moved the days around upon request, which helped us test out attendance rates. Currently, Wednesdays at lunch is our prime time.
When you think about it, solving for discomfort can oftimes be the reason for dissonance between a company and its people. The people space can get really sticky for one main reason: lack of control. Unfortunately, we cannot control others’ reactions and behaviors. That ambiguity can be extremely scary for human beings — especially in the workplace with tight deadlines and savage deliverables.
We see this concept manifested a lot when it comes to giving honest feedback. We often see people scrambling for quick fixes to the issue or conjuring up any excuse possible to avoid confrontation. This is discomfort talking. When you're unable to control the reaction of somebody else, then it's going to be uncomfortable. Plain and simple. Accepting that up front is the first step. And, unfortunately, expecting something to dissolve on its own or throwing software at the problem won’t fix the issue. Instead, you have to talk about it. Because you cannot remove the human aspect from the workplace, you have to name the issue. I think that's really hard for people to get their heads around, which is why the People function can be crucial in helping navigate those conversations. The more people talk about uncomfortable things, the more they get used to it and accept it enough to push through it.
Myers-Briggs has a concept that they call “the grip,” which explains the impact of stress by personality type. When in “the grip,” one falls into a state of their inferior function, which is usually predetermined by stress factors, causing them to act differently than they normally would due to a high-stress environment. So if you think about fast-growing, rigorous work environments like tech startups, most people are constantly in “the grip” because they're stressed by trying to meet aggressive goals and deliverables. But in order to grow and develop professionally, they have to shift behavior and change. That, in turn, can feel like a real Catch-22. That’s when people look to a quick fix to address their problems.
But, the good news is that we're in control of ourselves and have the power to influence others’ (and our own) behavior! This is why it’s also important to set expectations that change can take time. This simple approach helps people navigate change, because you’re validating the need for change and course-correcting that the quickest way isn’t always the best way.
It’s common knowledge that fast-growing companies will change over time. We assume that since it is such an obvious thing, that we don’t need to talk about it. But we actually don’t address change nearly enough, which can create an element of surprise for employees. One thing that we aim to do at Policygenius is acknowledge and name change. We’re currently a post-Series C company with around 250 employees — and I’ve heard countless times from some of our early employees: “Eek, the culture's changing.” And it’s said with a tinge of concern — automatically equating it to it being a bad situation. Change doesn’t have to be bad. It should be expected at companies that are building and scaling. Honestly, if you're at a growing company that is not evolving and changing, then that's probably more of a concern.
I try to prevent us from getting too settled because it's likely things will need to change anyway. For example, with performance reviews, we've been happily using Lattice for our past four review cycles — and we're on our fifth right now as I speak! But we've tweaked the program over time to meet the growing needs of the company. Last cycle, when we ran performance reviews, we had an extremely high oversubscription rate for specific peer reviewers. We sent around a post-review cycle pulse survey to the company, and one piece of feedback we received was that the forms were too long. So we shortened it. We also received input on providing more context behind the open-ended questions. So we did just that.
We've also changed the cadence at which we run reviews. My first year here, we did them by quarter; my second year here, we did them every four months. And then this year we went back to quarters. Policygenius is changing and our employees’ needs are changing too. Again, instead of forcing a process that doesn’t suit us anymore, we try to remember the purpose and lean into it with change.
The HR function needs a lot of support and alignment to be able to drive business performance through its most important aspect: its people. When investors or co-founders are thinking about how to scale their companies, it cannot be stressed enough the importance of investing in the people function early. And they must find a people leader who is aligned with their own philosophy in running an organization. In addition, if the people function doesn't have enough team members and technological resources to help provide a quality level of service and support to the rest of the organization, then it becomes very difficult to focus beyond the day-to-day of execution-oriented tasks. And herein lies the infinite loop of running a strategic business function, but not having the time to focus on the strategy because we don't have time to think.
Investing in HR as a strategic player early-on can help organizations reduce churn by taking a holistic approach to aligning with the performance of the company. And doing so not only via the well-known aspects of the space (such as hiring, benefits, and reviews) — but also through the behavioral underlayers (like change management, impactful collaboration, and thoughtful communication).
For example, when I joined Policygenius as the 20th hire, I was bestowed an Excel list of all of the projects that co-founders, Jen and Francois, wanted me to work on — such as rolling out performance reviews, building our compensation program, that sort of thing. We absolutely needed those elements in place, but before we instituted any programming, I personally needed to understand the “why” before I could build something meaningful.
So we went offsite to revisit the Policygenius’ mission and values. Jen had already crafted a version of the company's mission and value statement on the website from when we first started shipping product. Part of the criteria for coming up with what we would agree to be our values was centered around broader questions: Do these resonate externally and internally? Can we make tough decisions by leveraging this framework? Will they stand the test of time and scale? Can people relate to them and remember them? In a matter of a few hours, we were able to turn the essence of what was on our website into six tangible values.
For company values to work, they have to be relatable and put to everyday practice. If I'm coming up with performance reviews or compensation philosophy on my own I may have my own opinions, but if I can't tie it back to the values of the company, then it can feel baseless with a bunch of piecemeal processes in place. It is by far easier to build a values-based people foundation for a company early-on, than it is to clean up cultural debt and back into some semblance of what already exists.