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I recently attended the SaaStr Annual event in San Jose and attended a panel session with Amanda Lannert, CEO of Jellyvision, talk about how she has developed the culture and scaled the company to over 400 people strong.
Jellyvision develops software that “makes learning and decision making delightful” by helping millions of employees understand their benefit options. The company, headquartered in Chicago, was founded in 2001 and has won numerous workplace awards including the Chicago Tribune Top Work Places 2015 & 2016, CityLight’s Lighthouse Award Winner and Moxie Awards.
Lannert took over from the founder Harry Gottlieb when the team was around 40 people and has built an impressive culture based on the foundations that Gottlieb instilled in the business. We sat down to discuss her approach to developing, embedding and scaling company culture.
In the interview, Amanda and I discuss:
- Why, contrary to most companies, you won’t find the company values written down anywhere
- Why Jellyvision hosts Spirit Week during the busiest time of the year
- Why there is a company mantra, not a mission statement
- How the company approaches diversity and inclusion – and why, even though they are held up as a poster child for diversity, Lannert is constantly striving to improve
- The idiosyncrasies of the culture, from working in pajamas to receiving personalized emails from the people who interviewed you
Bretton Putter: Thanks for sitting down with me Amanda. Can you give me a sense of theculture at Jellyvision?
Amanda Lannert: The first thing I want to point out is that although I am the CEO of Jellyvision and I have been here since the beginning, I am not the founder. I always want people to know that our culture is the brainchild of our founder, Harry Gottlieb. Harry was intentional about the culture from day one. He started the business with the vision that you could run a company with the same principles that came from his summer camp, of all things: friendship, kindness, honesty, collaboration and good intention. He was hugely influenced by that experience and believed in applying those principles to a startup and commerce.
Putter: What does culture mean to you?
Lannert: To me, culture is not an idea or an ethos. Culture is behavior. It is what you do, what you don’t do, what you celebrate, what you don’t tolerate, how decisions get made, who has a voice and who has a vote – all of those kinds of things about how business gets done.
One of the most significant changes as you start to grow is that the initial symbiosis you had as a smaller organization begins to fall away. In the early days, you want to work with people who have a working style like yours, or a sense of humor like yours, or a mindset like yours. Eventually, you begin to care more about competencies and behaviors.
For better or for worse, startups (particularly in the earlier stages) are mainly birds of a feather, comprised of people very similar in age, disposition, sense of humor and motivation. On the one hand, this is great because it enables you to move quickly, be aligned and have each other’s backs when you’re working 15-hour days, which you often are in the beginning. However, the second the company begins to grow and to fundamentally build product that is valuable to lots and lots of people, there is a dramatic need to start getting different perspectives, different backgrounds, different ideologies, and different orientations at the table. At that point, you can begin to think, “What are the things that bind us? What are the cultural values that continue when we have grown beyond the group of like-minded people?” Then you can grow to 20, then 50, then 100, then 250, and then 400, which is where we are now at Jellyvision.
Putter: How does culture change as a business grows?
Lannert: As you start to grow and vertically integrate, you need to develop institutional capabilities around communication and transparency. You have to think a lot about recruiting: whom do you bring in, how do you market the company, how do you vet talent, how do you create ways for the wrong cultural people to self-select out? You don’t want people to merely fit the culture; you want people who can make the culture better. Otherwise, you are just standing still.
Coaching, growing people, and parting ways thoughtfully have become increasingly important as we have grown, and as there is more capacity for these to be deliberate processes. At Jellyvision, we spend much time thinking about whom we bring in, how we train them, and how we set expectations. We think about how we measure performance, how we create transparency and accountability for both them and us. We also think a lot about how we offboard people. We focus on ways to have honest conversations around underperformance, and how to coach in those situations. When a company is small and there’s underperformance, there’s minimal coaching that happens. You part ways because you don’t have time for underperforming people. As you grow, you have a bit more leeway to make sure that people get a chance to grow and to get the feedback they need on their own terms.
Putter: Adaptability is critical as a company scales. How adaptable is Jellyvision as a company?
Lannert: We are continually evolving and improving. Our onboarding has probably changed more than any department in the last year. For a company with 400 employees, the process during the first 90 days is incredibly curated. We have spent a ton of time learning how to create confidence and competence quickly, because of the annual seasonality of our business and because of our growth rates.
The process starts from the minute someone accepts the job offer. Once a candidate accepts, everyone they interviewed with sends them a welcome email. The moment of taking a job offer is a real moment of anxiety for people. It comes with butterflies and excitement and a bit of worry, so when the people who interviewed you tell you that they’re so happy and they can’t wait for you to join, it is perfectly timed to help reduce the anxiety. It allows people to stand by their decision and feel good about it. Then, when the person starts, we give them a schedule for their first day that tells them what they are going to be doing, usually for the first two weeks.
We have also significantly adapted our recruiting process. Up until we hit the 400-employee mark last year, we had a three-part recruiting process which started with our job descriptions. We would write wordy, humorous, earnest job descriptions to curate cultural alignment and would post our vacancies everywhere.
The second part of our old process was an audition, which allowed candidates to not just talk about their talent but to show it. Now, you could say, “that has nothing to do with culture,” but the key is that humility is a significant cultural value here. So the people who think they’re too good to do our auditions spare us by opting out of the process. There are a lot of really, really talented people here who are also humble who will also do the work to cross their t’s and dot their I’s and get stuff done. The process of showing off your talent is, in fact, showing off humility and love of craft: another important cultural value.
The final part of the process was large group interviews where everyone had a vote and a voice about who got hired.
That process worked well to get us to 400 employees, but we have changed the process in the last year because we wanted to start attracting more diverse people than our approach was yielding. We decided to humanize the process by using a dedicated outbound recruitment team so that instead of posting ads and passively waiting for people to apply, we now actively call people and talk to them about the opportunities at Jellyvision. Our recruiters have had extensive training and truly understand how to be successful here, what makes people happy here, and what sort of people thrive here. They go out and contact people who may never have even heard of Jellyvision, people who have not seen a job description and who certainly are not leaning into working with us – very different people than we used to attract. Our recruiters can articulate the positivity, work ethic and jokiness that are central to our culture; they do the work that our job descriptions used to do around communicating not being boring, about being eager to please and being incredibly helpful. (On that note, you might find those descriptors annoying – if you’re a huge jerk. If you are a huge jerk, you shouldn’t work at Jellyvision.)
The second thing we changed in our recruitment process is that we grant much more autonomy and authority to hiring managers. That is great for diversity and it also encourages a bit of cultural evolution, team by team. It’s important to note that the fundamental company values do not change, but I believe that the expression and behaviors around them have to evolve. Jobs evolve, people grow and the expression of our values evolves. We are open to that. Where we used to give everyone a vote on a candidate, now the hiring manager is the CEO of the search, which allows for an even more robust and diverse candidate pool and a healthy and diverse way of getting things done.
The third thing we changed sounds like it would kill our culture. We went from looking for people who were fun to work with to looking for people who have specific competencies and behaviors. To ensure cultural alignment, we story-tell like crazy in the way we interview, the way we answer questions about Jellyvision and the way we talk about ourselves on the website and in PR. At the end of the day we’re only as good as the people we have had, have now and will have in the future.
Putter: You said that you have fundamental values that do not change, but the behaviors expressing them can vary. Given that, how do you ensure you are hiring consistently? Does that mean that the values are open to interpretation?
Lannert: They are. Many our policies aren’t written as policies; they’re phrased in terms like, “Use good judgment.” Part of that good judgment involves interpreting the values. In the hiring process, we spend a lot of time trying to get people to let their guard down and show us who they are so that we can determine if they’re a good fit.
It might help if I clarify what I mean by values. One of our values, believe it or not, is ‘Embrace happy surprises; style points matter.’ That is a bizarre thing to have as a core value but it’s indicative of the fact that we create experiences not just for users but also for our customers, employees and people in the communities we are based in and part of. When we were a smaller company, we used to have new people stand up and introduce themselves and have the whole company make an orange juice toast. However, as we scaled, we learned that it is tough when you onboard 40 people in two weeks to do something like this organically. A new tradition evolved: at the end of an employee’s first day, and again at the end of their first week, when they get ready to leave the building, they get a standing ovation as they walk out the building. It starts with their team and ripples out of the building as they go.
So why do we do it? Because at the end of your first day you have probably come from the height of your power at your last job to the bottom of your power at Jellyvision. You’re tired, you’re emotionally exhausted, you probably need to pee and you’re completely confused. Through the ovation, we are saying, “We get it. It will get better. Thank you so much,” but we do it in a surprising and hopefully lovely way.
Putter: The companies values aren’t mentioned anywhere on the website. Was that a deliberate decision?
Lannert: We don’t share them on the website, and as the leader, I decided not to put them up on the wall either. Nor do we print them out and give them to people. However, I do go over them during our new hire presentation with all new employees and they come up organically once or twice a year, too. It’s not that our values are private – but they are personal to the business and our people, and I don’t want to advertise them to a broader community where people with no connection to Jellyvision whatsoever can pay lip service to them. I don’t want people to be able to walk into the business, talk about the values and create the perception that they understand us. Instead, you come to understand them by being here. We don’t want people rehearsing for interviews by learning them verbatim if that makes sense.
I’m aware that there are so many best practices that say that values need repeating, but for me, it’s more important that when I cover them, people feel them. I want us to aim for a visceral head nod of recognition, where people say, for example, “Yes, we do that: we speak and tell the truth with kindness.”
Putter: What else do you do to inform, embed and reinforce the values?
Lannert: Well, we do a lot of different things. We tell the Jellyvision origin stories a lot – we have several weird holidays where we specifically weave those in. We have ways we give and receive feedback evolve over time but are based on the days when we were little. We are giant celebrators and the way we have done that has developed from saying congratulations, to having a gong, to using a Slack channel where people could celebrate particular victories. Again, the expression is always changing but the core values around gratitude, celebration, recognition and not taking ourselves too seriously do not change. The values are simply in the people at Jellyvision and they express themselves in all kinds of exciting ways. One of our values is, “Take the work seriously, but never ourselves,” and another is, “Be fundamentally humble, hard-working and eager to please.”
Out of this, what emerged is that during the busiest time of the year – we are an annually cyclical business – our people put something together called Spirit Week, which is designed to communicate that there can be moments of levity and joy and frivolity, even when things are incredibly busy. Having Spirit Week when we do would be like a tax accountant doing it at the end of the tax year – it makes no sense! However, during Spirit Week, people send little notes to each other, they show up in pajamas and do other quirky things. The specific rituals change day by day, but they’re all based around gratitude for what we have, appreciation for and recognition of coworkers, not taking ourselves too seriously even while we’re fixing 1600 customer’s issues. Millions of people rely on our work to give them good advice; we may be doing it wearing pajamas. That kind of thing goes on at Jellyvision all the time.
Putter: Who came up with Spirit Week?
Importantly, it wasn’t me and it wasn’t the founder. It was likely our then-Director, now our Vice President of production, but I’m not exactly sure. People like to give CEOs all the credit for culture, but it just isn’t the case when your business is operating at scale. For sure our founder is the father of our culture, but the maintainer and evolver of it is everyone here. The specific rituals and elements that define a culture change, but that does not come from the top down.
I understand it’s vital for me as the CEO to lead by example and that I have responsibility for the culture. I know that it’s important to story-tell around core values, to reinforce the values and so on, but I also think it would be silly for me to believe that I am the arbiter of culture for over 400 people. Specific cultural invocations are happening based on decisions being made by people I don’t know yet. That doesn’t worry me, because we hire well enough and our leadership is so in tune with the culture that the people making these changes are almost always pretty damn great, which means that their ideas are also pretty damn great, too. I am well aware that the people closest to our problems – which is not the leadership team – have the best solutions and the best ideas.
Putter: Does the company have a mission statement?
Well, we kept trying to write a mission statement as we started to grow. We had read that this was something companies do, but for us, it always felt very formal and corporate – and not very much like Jellyvision. It never inspired a feeling of true vision in a way that made us all go, “Yeah!” My two creative officers decided to forget mission, to forget the statement that goes on Slack and everybody’s desk, and instead to talk about something that is at the heartbeat of every decision in the business, that’s in the pulse of how we get through every day. Instead of talking about a mission, they focused on a mantra, and this came easily: Be helpful. It clicked. You hear everybody talk all the time about being helpful. It might seem anti-climactic to some people; they might say, “What’s that about? Just be nice?” But it’s a lot harder to be helpful than most people realize. In fact, our mantra is fundamental to how we operate day in and day out. It has three components.
One: You have to listen and care. It’s about being very outside of yourself. It’s about serving the interests of others. Being helpful is for someone else.
Two: You have to be smart. Being truly helpful requires wisdom, perspective, intuition, dot connection and problem-solving skills.
Three: It requires a bias towards action. There is some action almost always required by helpfulness.
If we do those three things well and we put outstanding product plans underneath them, I think we can continue to build a really valuable business – an inspiring, important business.
Putter: What does the company do about rewarding and recognising when the values are lived?
Lannert: We are a vocally grateful company. We do shout outs for every key initiative. We reward with compensation, 360-degree feedback and a culture of gratitude. We allow teams to bring to bear their rituals and practices and specific shout outs so that managers can constantly communicate what great behavior is and what going out of your lane and absolutely killing it looks like.
Another huge part of how we do recognition here is that we allow it to be by department, leader by leader, as well as through initiatives coming from the top. For example, our engineers have something they call the participation trophy – something that’s passed around to a new winner each month. There’s a very heartfelt message behind it: either someone has done something great, or has solved a huge problem. Our sales department does a shout out every month by highlighting who had a killer month and why.
Leadership will also call people in who have just made a killer contribution to the business and will personally thank them and give them a cash bonus. This bonus is not like a public cookie. We don’t do a formal or public ‘employee of the month’ award for a few reasons. If there’s more than one exceptional performance, we want to be able to call them all out rather than creating a race for who gets the gold star that month. It would be best if you did not want to be employee of the month for the month. You want to be at the top of your game all the time.
Putter: What do you do in terms of learning and development?
Lannert: We take that very seriously here, and we have made massive strides over the last couple of years in this area. The ethos around L&D starts with admitting how we want to get better and talking about how it’s going. It’s not just having structured training programs. There is an earnest intent there and a lot of investment and muscle behind it.
Our people tend to be lifelong learners and it’s important to them to feel like they’re getting better and growing. For example, HR and our corporate centralized L&D team works on things like manager training, unconscious bias training and interview skills – things that are cross-department. Individual departments have budgets and opportunities for people to learn on the job, to go to events and conferences, and to go outside of Jellyvision to learn. Our leaders are a work in progress and we talk about that. I am at conferences all the time, read and share books all the time. We set personal goals for ourselves and share them.
We recently implemented a funding initiative, too; we now match dollar for dollar up to five hundred dollars for education. If you are learning and investing in your education, we’ll match you halfway, even if it’s not for specific on-the-job training. It’s not quite right to call it a tuition reimbursement because it’s not just for tuition; it is for people who are paying off student loans, college or grad school, but it’s also for people who want to take a class on anything. If you take a class on basket weaving, or CPR, or anything else you’re eligible for the education- matching scheme, because we are a company that wants to encourage lifelong learning.
Putter: Do you measure anything outside of the traditional company metrics?
Lannert: We absolutely do, in quite several ways. We do twice-annual employee engagement surveys that measure the company as a whole, each team, and the level of general satisfaction across a number of metrics. We get a ton of feedback through the survey. Then we share the results very transparently with the team and make plans to address concerns and to get even better in the areas where we are rocking.
Because the company is growing so quickly, we invent new departments all the time, so we have got to continually be asking, “Is what we’re doing working now?” At the end of every company meeting and newsletter, we ask for feedback, and all leadership – not just executives but also the VPs and Directors of Jellyvision – read the verbatim feedback comments from each company meeting presentation and newsletter. It’s essential to us not just to look at numbers but to understand the verbatim feedback. Our people know that we do that. They know that if they put in a comment, positive or negative, it’s genuinely going to be read by leadership. We won’t necessarily act on everyone’s feedback, but we will read it.
Putter: Speaking of transparency, how transparent are you at Jellyvision?
Lannert: As transparent as possible. We share our business and financial data, the fruits of board meetings, what’s going right and what’s going wrong. We share almost everything except for salaries. We don’t publish performance reviews of people who aren’t new, and we don’t talk about HR issues. However, we will talk about what sucks as quickly as we’ll talk about what’s great.
Putter: How do you approach performance reviews?
Lannert: Everything we do in terms of feedback, surveys, pulses and performance reviews is about getting feedback in real time. If you do annual performance reviews, you do not get or give enough feedback. We do monthly written feedback between managers and employees in both directions: every employee does written feedback to their manager about how they think it’s going against OKRs, and their manager feeds back to them. We invest in HR systems to make this as easy as possible, with things like trigger alerts, so that you can look and see the communication over time, the performance over time, and what you said over time. It’s a quick way to reflect quickly so that you can be more focused and successful moving forward.
Putter: How do you approach diversity and inclusion?
Lannert: I see D&I as a work in progress, not a ‘to do.’ It’s a muscle that has to get worked, stretched and flexed over time, and we will always have an opportunity to be better. To that end, we have special interest groups, we do unconscious bias training, and we recruit for diversity. We source candidates from under-represented groups and we have created a referral program to encourage people to reach outside their networks and refer talent in. We publish diversity statistics every quarter so that people can see what the composition of our company is by leadership level. Inclusion is much more subjective and therefore much harder to measure, but it is something that is covered in the employee engagement survey I talked about earlier. We comb through that data and engagement by gender, tenure, race, department and so on. We look at all of those groupings for patterns, highlights and lowlights accordingly.
We are held up as a poster child for diversity, but I don’t necessarily think Jellyvision does it better than most. When we look at our data we have an excellent representation of gender at all levels of the company; happening to be run by a female CEO helps, I think. However, we do not have the racial diversity that matches our city or is reflective of the population of the towns in which we work. We are conscious of and concerned about the lack of racial diversity compared to where we draw talent from, and we think a more racially diverse workforce would behoove us, our product and our customers. We are always trying to analyze where any unconscious bias is preventing us from being where we want to be, and striving to be a workplace where everyone can grow and thrive.
Putter: What’s the best thing about Jellyvision?
Lannert: What is best about Jellyvision now and in the future is our people. We are an employer of choice because we have employees of choice and I think the best way to continue to grow culture is to try our best to hire thoughtfully and methodically, to lead with trust and when things go wrong to hold individuals and not the whole company accountable for bad judgment. Our people are always looking for new ways to strengthen our culture, we do company days and our teams come up with their own initiatives that include Mustache Day, Dungeons & Dragons events, Holiday Gift Giving, cool events like learning to DJ, office yoga and we have our own band!
April 16, 2019 at 11:10AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs