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Building an “Us First” Attitude

“You can accomplish anything in life provided that you do not mind who gets the credit. Harry Truman”

In the past, the bulk of my work has centered around me as a individual. My paychecks were largely tied to my success (commission-based work). There were charts sent out on a weekly (or even daily) basis that showed how I ranked amongst others. Everyone constantly knew where they stood amongst their peers.

On one hand, this encouraged competition. Anyone that has a single competitive bone in their body is somewhat upset if they aren’t near the top of the list. In times, the comparisons were certainly motivating. Other times, they created animosity amongst coworkers and hurt the team moral.

Since I started working with the folks at Automattic, I was immediately impressed by the lack of the “me first” attitude. Despite having a large team distributed across the country with varying levels of knowledge and expertise, everyone I came in contact with had a very different approach towards success. Instead of focusing inwards on the individual, it was largely an “us” mentality.

Of course, the cohesive culture originates from many choices including hiring the right people, organizing the team correctly, structuring compensation, evaluations, etc. This “us” mentality is reinforced in the evaluation of success. Rather than looking at the success of workers on an individual level, the team was measured as a whole based on a variety of metrics including:

  • Tickets outstanding
  • Response time
  • Customer happiness
  • Overall team productivity

Instead of the animosity present in typical “me first” roles, there was a general cohesiveness amongst the team. Everyone wanted to work together to accomplish team goals rather than just focusing on their internal objectives. That’s not to say that Automatticians don’t have personal goals. Sure they do. I worked hard with my mentors to set weekly objectives to measure success. However, the important aspect is how those objectives affected the team as a whole.

The “us first” attitude is a big reason I was drawn to Automattic in the first place. While many folks see a distributed team and think solitary and lonely, the fact that very few employees work alongside their coworkers on a daily basis (in a physical sense) causes us to focus more on connecting as a group. When you don’t work in the same office as your coworkers, you have to collaborate more and keep open lines of communication. For instance, as a collective team at Automattic, we have daily goals that are publicly available. Everyone has the option to select their individual part to contribute. We also have a lot of transparency into the inner workings of other teams. Despite working as a Happiness Engineer, I can see what the folks are working on for the next Jetpack release (a popular stats feature) or what themes are currently being developed. The transparency and constant communication keeps the team atmosphere alive despite having everyone scattered across the world. In fact, I’d argue that the scarcity of direct face-to-face interaction encourages Automatticians to communicate more effectively through other methods and cherish the few moments of direct interaction.

Building the Culture

I certainly don’t pretend to have all of the answers on how to build the cohesive team nature I described at Automattic. I wasn’t part of the initial development of the team from the ground up, and I’ve had limited exposure to the culture. On another hand, I’ve been fortunate to work in four very different atmospheres over the past few years, and I can say with confidence that Automattic is vastly different than any culture I’ve experienced yet. Overall, here are some aspects that I feel has made Automattic so successful and can help create a “team first” atmosphere in any situation:

  • Daily Team Goals – Whereas the individual stats reports I alluded to above largely encourage competition amongst coworkers, team stats reports remind everyone that they’re playing for the same team and not just trying to score the largest paycheck for themselves. Competition isn’t all bad. There are certainly some benefits to seeing how you stack up compared to others, but at times, the numbers can be discouraging and even cause paralysis, where employees are too glum to act. In past leadership roles, I was largely concentrated on the overall team performance. However, I doubt my employees shared the same viewpoint. If I had to guess, they were likely focused on their own success (who can blame them). Although the focus will shift depending on the job, I think the manager plays a crucial role in guiding the definition of success for the team as a whole.
  • Communicate Openly – I was always bewildered by management that made decisions behind closed doors and leaked little to employees other than bare basics. Sure, certain details are on a need-to-know basis. However, members of the team should be privy to information around the company whether that’s details concerning company performance or something as simple as knowing what projects other teams are working on. Having the transparency between leadership and customer-facing employees creates trust and allows the employees to respond openly and honestly to inquiries. In the past, I always tried to remain open and honest with peers and employees I managed. However, I wouldn’t say that I always asked for feedback after a decision had been made (either right away or a few weeks down the road). That feedback would likely have been extremely helpful when making future decisions.
  • Provide Options for Communication – Not one single person communicates their thoughts and ideas in the same manner. By limiting staff to few methods of contribution, managers are effectively limiting team input and the amount of ideas that get brought to attention. Instead, encourage multiple outlets for communication. At Automattic, we converse mainly through IRC (Internet Relay Chat), Skype, and P2s (a series of internal blogs). However, in certain cases, employees may opt to use Skype video calls, phone calls, or coffee meet-ups. Similarly, encourage employees to take advantage of a variety of methods including face-to-face and more anonymous means of providing feedback.┬áThis is one method I wish I would have explored more when I was managing a team of personal trainers. Although we did have comprehensive evaluations (including written, in-person, and anonymous feedback sessions), providing other opportunities for feedback could have been helpful in uncovering insights into the team.
  • Give Employees Complete Power – One of the most surprising things I’ve noticed since joining the Automattic team has been the amount of power given to new employees. From the first day I was hired, I was given the same power and abilities as folks that had been in the job for 3+ years. Talk about pressure! Rather than limiting folks in terms of what they can and cannot do, Automattic focuses on giving full power to the right folks, and by the right folks, I mean individuals that fit with the company culture and attitude. If you get the right people on the bus (to steal from Good to Great by Jim Collins), you don’t have to worry about where it’s headed. You just trust that employees will make the right decisions. I wish I could say that I fully trusted all of my employees to make the right decisions all the time. Unfortunately, I can’t. Part of the responsibility for that lack of trust falls on the employee, but the large part falls on the employer.

There are a ton of aspects that make Automattic special. I won’t even pretend that I understand them all after only a few weeks working with the team. However, I can say that those few weeks have been different than any other work environment I’ve experienced. Have you worked in a great team atmosphere in the past? What separated that cohesive atmosphere from other individualistic environments you’ve been a part of?

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