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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Building a Great Engineering Culture and Being a Genuinely Purpose-Driven Organisation

Building a Great Engineering Culture and Being a Genuinely Purpose-Driven Organisation

In this double-episode podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, first spoke to Mark Rees, CTO of Xero about creating a great engineering culture in a fast growing Unicorn company.  He then spoke to Heather DeSantis of Publicity for Good about what it takes to be a truly purpose-driven organisation.

Key Takeaways

  • Rapid growth is about scaling technology, scaling teams and adapting the ways of working constantly
  • Engineering standards help reduce friction and enable effective autonomy
  • The distributed work environment demands more of people leaders in terms of their ability to manage people and understand them without seeing them every day
  • Being a product company is all about taking risks and being okay with the fact that you get a bunch of stuff wrong.
  • People can have the power to make a difference, to build companies that not only really makes a difference, where their team members and employees are happy
  • Being a genuinely purpose-driven organization is hard, it requires deep reflection, honesty, vulnerability and introspection from everyone in the company
  • People need to be able to show up as their full selves – not compartmentalized, authentic and transparent, and leaders need to set the example



Introductions – Mark Rees [00:17]

Shane Hastie: Hi folks. This week's episode is a double feature. First, I talk with Mark Rees, the CTO of Xero, about their organization, and how they've grown through COVID and how smart tech starts with smart people. Then I spoke to Heather DeSantis from Publicity For Good about, among other things, how building trust with people exponentially increases productivity. Enjoy.

Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm sitting down across, not too many miles for a change, with Mark Rees. Mark is the CTO of Xero, and we happen to both be in New Zealand, but we didn't get together in person for this, which is an opportunity missed. Mark, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

Mark Rees: It's great to talk to you, Shane. Yeah, it's like... I don't know how many K's it is. It's probably not too many kilometers distance between where you are and where I am, but it's great to be talking to you.

Shane Hastie: Tell us a little bit about who's Mark and who's Xero.

Mark Rees: I'm Mark Rees, I'm the chief technology officer for Xero. So Xero is accounting software as a service platform. So we provide a suite of products to accountants, and bookkeepers and small businesses around the world to help them manage their finances, prepare their tax returns and voice their customers, generally manage their finances. Which we started in Wellington, which is a great, great thing for New Zealand, but now we sell software as a service to... it's around 2.5 million businesses around the world, in Australia, UK, the U.S. So, my job, these areas, I lead broadly all the technology teams and the technology strategy. So, I do a lot of work on engineering culture and duration as well.

Shane Hastie: Xero is considered to be one of the unicorns in New Zealand's economy. You certainly stand out in terms of the size and doing stuff internationally. What happened? What made it happen?

Xero’s Origin Story [02:16]

Mark Rees: That's a great story. So Xero was founded by a Wellingtonian, Rod Drury, it was 14 years ago, I think now. He's a serial entrepreneur. The story is that he was working with his accountant, preparing some tax returns and saw the opportunity of this new wave of technology cloud to smooth the connection between him as a small business and his accountant. And saw this new technology as a great opportunity to transform that, and was really bold in moving quickly. And Xero has been some really great technology innovation, but also some bold moves in terms of listing just after two years, in the New Zealand Stock Exchange. And as you said, one of the rare technology companies to launch on the market like that, and it's grown quickly. Went offshore quickly into the Australian market, the UK market and the U.S. market. And really, it's just grown frenetically since then.

Shane Hastie: As the CTO, you have been deeply involved in that growth, and I'm guessing that growth involves scaling up lots of teams and so forth. How's that worked?

Scaling Technology & Teams [03:17]

Mark Rees: It's one of the highlights of my career, actually. The challenge of scaling the technology, but actually these days more about scaling the teams in the way we work. And the one thing I like most about it is, A, the time you're spending working with people on real impactful problems, but the fact that it's constantly changing. You think you've got a solution that you roll out and it's great for the point in time that you are. But because we've grown so quickly, a year later you have to revisit those assumptions that you had about the way you work and update them for the reality that you are. You're constantly forced to be quite introspective and think about the assumptions you have about the best way to structure these teams, to get them to work effectively, what matters.

So it's really fascinating. And we'll talk about COVID, but COVID is a real point in time to shot in the arm to challenge some of those assumptions as well. But yeah, I love that. And we have a decent size engineering team now. Product engineering is about 1800 people, spread all around the world, but centered in Wellington, Auckland, and Australia, and Canada and the U.S. So getting those teams working well together is a really fascinating problem, study of humanities, study of communication, the study of getting the best out of people, and setting up a system that brings out the best in them and enables them to work well together. And we're really students of that, I think. There's some great emerging thinking that we follow carefully, ideas like the stuff that came out of Team Topologies, and the lean movement and acceleration. Those kinds of thinkings, really, we pay a lot attention to that and the implications for how you structure teams. And the impact it has on the technology you build it as well, which is fascinating.

Shane Hastie: We hear something about Conway's law frequently today.

Mark Rees: Yeah.

Shane Hastie: And yet that's 40 years old.

Mark Rees: I know. Yeah.

Shane Hastie: But it's such a powerful way of understanding. You’ve mentioned Team Topologies, Accelerate and lean, but what are some of the things that, at a practical level, you've done to bring these global teams aligned?

Engineering standards to help remove friction [05:20]

Mark Rees: Well, there's a whole set of things. Actually. I can give you a few examples. One, an engineering centric example, is really just, we've done a lot of work around engineering standards. And I have to say, actually I was skeptical about the proposition of whether this was a good idea to start with, but we've adopted a really experimental approach in terms of how we launched it. It was really just writing down a really clear description of the way we wanted things to work across all our teams. There was massive engagement from our engineering team. I think we had, about 50, 60% of the engineers in the company contributed and commented on this document. It's a lot like the organization's size and relief. When we can reduce so much friction by just statingwith clarity about the way you want things to work.

We've done that. And we've done a series of other standards about how we want engineering and software release and all those things to work. And that just removes a bunch of friction in the way teams work. We want a lot of autonomy in our teams, but I think there's different types of freedom. And in the space there's a freedom that's created because no one said the way it should be. And actually that freedom creates no business value or real autonomy for teams. It's just there's a lack of a standard, like how you approached logging or some really low grade things, that when you say the way you want it to work, you reduce all this friction. That actually frees teams up. Allows them to focus on high value things. So that was a really good intervention we made in a system that's actually been really well adopted and had a really positive impact.

The other thing we did was around information management. We have a team distributed around the world and it's fine when you're all in one place and it's a small team. Everyone knows each other and they know who to go to, to talk and ask about something. But as you get bigger and you scale, managing the connections between people and that information becomes really important. So we created this platform called Ketahi, which is a Maori word about together. So it's basically a service catalog, but also product and people catalog as well. Over the last year, we've had an OKR about driving adoption to that. And getting all the components, and the teams, and Runbooks about how to troubleshoot things all into this one platform. So, people know where to go to find out if something exists and the team to talk to if they want to find some detail about it. So it's a couple of things we've done to really help these distributed teams work together.

Shane Hastie: So let's explore COVID. We're at the bottom of the world. New Zealand's done pretty well in terms of coming through it, but you've got teams all over the place. And even in New Zealand, we had to go and work from home. What happened and how did that go?

The impact of COVID-19 [07:56]

Mark Rees: As you know, probably Wellington and New Zealand in general has been extremely lucky in terms of the impact COVID's had on us. And our business has been really strong and successful during that period. And in terms of staff, we have really different experiences. We have teams in Denver, Manchester in the UK and stuff who have been in lockdown for a long period of time. There's definitely a set of challenges associated with that we can talk to. Our initial response was like, probably most organizations, was really conservative financially. And also a real focus on taking care of the people as the top priority. There's a lot of anxiety, a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen. I think one on one leadership lesson for me is that those moments like COVID you feel a real duty to step up as a leader. And one thing I did is, I drove a lot of connection with my teams, and that comes from a good place in terms of wanting to be present for those people.

But I think as COVID went on longer, you realize that actually that connection, which is good, actually has a price as well. And you end up spawning online meetings for your staff. It could have created stress because people are spending so much time on calls to connect with one another, had to learn from that, and balance that out. Because the connection is really important, but you have to be alive to the fact that this online environment is quite taxing on people. And I think there's some stuff to be learned about how to do that well. But we actually have found the transition to COVID, in terms of the way our teams have worked, has gone really well. The teams that had good practice and good tools, and were mature, well functioning teams, they didn't miss a beat.

They did really well, and teams that are earlier in that journey around their practice, we've helped to support them. But overall, I think we've gone through it really well. And definitely haven't reverted back to the way we were before. So we have a much lower attendance in the offices. We're basically giving all our teams the freedom to choose how they want to work. So we have a whole set of mixture scenarios, some working largely remotely, agreeing a day to come into the office and connect. So that's really positive actually. Like I mentioned before, it really challenges some assumptions. We were largely building an engineering org around a small number of co-located centers. So certainly something the other companies were ahead of us on, probably.

COVID-19 as a driver for brain-gain in New Zealand [10:10]

Mark Rees: That doesn't matter as much as, maybe I thought it would. It mattered in that these fully remote teams are actually really effective and really enabling. That's going to be a bigger part of our future and it really unlocks a lot of talent. One of the biggest benefits from COVID, it's just what... we call this a brain gain. As you know, historically New Zealand suffers from the cycle where our post university people from New Zealand, they travel overseas, they do their OE. They go to Europe, they go around the world and a fair number of them stay over there. And we call that the brain drain, historically.

Mark Rees: So what we experienced through COVID was the inverse effect where, because the environment was good in New Zealand, lots of really talented experienced New Zealanders and Australians returned home. So we've managed to hire some amazing talent through that. In fact 300 or 400 of them, and that's been really great. We're really great in terms of people with fantastic experience from scale, product and tech companies, the Googles and the Stripes and those companies around the world, who have come home and really lifted our capability because of that. I've been in Xero for around, almost eight years. And every year we struggle to hire our product design target. Because honest, it's the only time that we've achieved that, is through COVID. Because of that slew of talent. So that's been really positive actually. I think we're still unpacking the implications of COVID, but overall really positive.

Shane Hastie: In this disparate world where some teams are coming into the office, and teams are choosing to work in the way that works best for them. How do you keep alignment and motivation?

Keeping alignment as teams adopt new ways of working together [11:45]

Mark Rees: I think the key to that is, of course it's great people leadership, that's the key, and probably the greatest amplifier and driver of alignment, and clarity and consistence in a organization, is people leadership and leadership in general. And that's something that we really lean into. And I think this distributed working environment, it probably does demand more of people leaders, in terms of their ability to manage people and understand them without seeing them every day. So that's been a big part of how we focus on that. We have structures in terms of how we communicate and measure strategy and strategy execution through OKRs. So that helps with strategy cascade and communication as well. But I think our leaders, their ability to communicate and do the job of coaching and leading their staff is really critical. And it's something that our CEO really champions, and we’ve leaned into. I have a habit of writing a weekly email on a click tick series of topics.

And I did it before COVID, and I do it because even when we didn't have so many remote teams, we had teams just spread around the world. It's a great way to be present. As a senior leader, to connect regularly, to share what you're thinking about, and share views on a whole range of topics, just that regular connection with these teams around the world, is really important. And that was really important during COVID as well. I really enjoy it because I find the time to reflect and write is actually a good way to keep my thinking straight. And that covers a whole range of topics. I've been writing a series on learning from mistakes and stuff, which is not a new insight, but it's a good thing to reinforce in a product company that's focused on innovating.

But just a whole range of topics and that communication and presence, I think is a really good way to create connection and clarity as well. We're also using video, and then it's more so as well. We've done that as a company. In fact, we've got our company kickoff next week. So we would typically do those in the past as big meetings in the big centers, but it's all as TV show this year. That's not really my natural habitat, but it was quite a fun experience. We had to go into a TV studio, this one was in Kilbirnie of all places. And air mic, and lapel mic, and autocue and cameras. But I think it's just, that's part of the relative, the new way we are operating is that those mechanisms are really important now.

Shane Hastie: For the leader who doesn't have those skills and competencies. How do they build them?

Leaders need to deliberately build new communication skills [14:02]

Mark Rees: That's a really good question. I expect my managers of managers to be working really closely with their teams, their leaders, and coaching them and helping develop those skills. I think there's a whole bunch of stuff that you can learn and develop your style through trial and error. It's a mixture of that with coaching from your manager. We provide a set of learning and development, Managing at Xero courses to help people provide some base skills around it, and coaching as well. I think there's an emerging amount of really great books and literature on the space that you can drill into. I really like the Will Larson books. The new one, the Staff Engineer book and his other books, which is really good. So I think we encourage our staff to read that thinking as well. So it's really a combination of things.

I just encourage people to be really authentic to themselves. I think there are some commonalities to being an effective leader. But there's not one template, you have to embrace who you are authentically, and people will use their personality to land that well. Not everyone has the same approach. Some people are really happy with the rah-rah group presentations, but there's also a subset of leaders who have super effective one-on-one or in smaller groups. So I don't think there's a one size that fits all approach there, and it's more just discovering your authentic style as well, through a bit of trial and error.

Shane Hastie: The trial and error means it's got to be safe to do error. And now we touch into psychological safety, which is a really important topic, but it's almost become a buzzword today. How does it play out at Xero?

Encouraging psychological safety [15:30]

Mark Rees: The Google work, and the New York times article written by it, and Edmondson's book on fearless organizations, which champion all that, I think it has impacted many organizations around the world, including Xero. So then that's something that we try and pay attention to, and try, and through diagnostics, one of the attributes of looking at our teams and understanding where they are. I think it can be a buzzword, but also true at the same time. These things, they get lots of traction and lots of coverage. They can become a cliche of themselves, but I think that doesn't necessarily mean they're not true. And I definitely am one who believes that that psychological safety is absolutely essential for a healthy company, or a product company like Xero. Especially a fast growing company products. Product's all about taking risks and being okay with the fact that you get a bunch of stuff wrong.

I think if you're not doing that you're fooling yourself on it. So building that into our culture, I think there's a lot of leadership involved in that, in terms of creating the space and the permission to people to talk about their failure. It's like culture. There's not one thing you do to create a psychologically safe organization. There's many things you have to do. And they range depending on the context, like the culture you bring to postmortems about incidents, to the way you talk about and celebrate success, but also acknowledge failure as well. I think all those things add up to increasing the psychological safety in the organization. And it's something we try and talk to our leaders about as well, but it's really important to role model from the top of the organization. I think that when you talk about failure, it's really important to acknowledge the different types of failure as well.

There's the process-based stuff where someone misses a step, and maybe you have to diagnose that and look at the Runbooks or the checklists you have to remediate it. And then there's a bunch of failure that comes from complexity in the higher, complexer systems. I think there's a different set of thinking and strategies around how you deal with those and especially in technical jobs. And then there's the, I know some people call it intelligent failure. That's a bit of a funny name, but the failure that comes from taking risks and trying to build new edgy things. And I think treating them differently is really important as well. And we try and think about them differently, and also try and drive that test and refine, product side of things quite aggressively.

Shane Hastie: You mentioned diagnostics, what are they?

Diagnostics to get a view into culture [17:47]

Mark Rees: It's a slightly funny word for something that's pretty straightforward. I think it's just, when I say diagnostics, I mean surveys or tests that you can apply to a group of people to get a sense check or a pulse check on where things are in the organization. There's actually a really good one in the Fearless Organizations book, which is a really great book, which is the academic research behind psychological safety. She talks about a series of questions you can ask in a survey, is a scientifically established way to measure psychological safety. But there's also lots of other ways. That's one of the most challenging parts of my job, is that it's a relatively big team. It's really hard to see, visualize the system. You're tasked with making these decisions that are really consequential, but as we all know, and there's plenty of books about this, digital work is very hard to visualize.

So actually seeing these teams, seeing where they are, seeing their health, visualizing their system so you can make informed decisions about what you should do, is actually really hard. That's a real challenge. So these health checks, or diagnostics, or we call them the turn the lights on, this is the project name to apply to teams to get an assessment of where they are, their health, et cetera. It's really important, otherwise you're just operating in a data free environment. When you're making decisions about change, you should make. And how you're tracking on the work you're doing to improve the way your work.

Shane Hastie: Thanks for that. So what's next.

Guiding culture as the organisation grows [19:07]

Mark Rees: There's a whole bunch of stuff. We're continuing to grow quickly. So there's always the new wave of challenges from getting bigger, and how you organize things and how you change the way you work. I read the Atomic Habits book, the James Clear book, which talks about habits and how important they are and the way you work as a individual. And that metaphor stuck with me as a way to think about Xero. We have to systematize a lot of stuff, because as you get bigger and more complex, have to push them down into the system of the way you work. Otherwise, it just becomes too many things to check off to do. So you have to try and build out that fabric and automation, in the terms... the way you work with technology, but also the way you do everything.

So there's a big focus on how we think about that. We have been purchasing more companies. So that's a whole new challenge, culturally, technologically, commercially, in terms of how you evaluate and how you integrate those. So been doing a lot of thinking around that. People-wise, it's really interesting, but technologically, it's really interesting as well. How do you measure the cost of technical diversity? How do you think about effective integration? So we're doing a lot of thinking about that, and also doing a lot of work around artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Because we think, like most companies that's a critical part of our future. So really drilling into that. And for that area, it's really about industrializing, because accounting software is such a rich area for those tools. It's just building our capacity to do that well at scale as well. And there's a lot to that. I think people fall into trap and thinking it's all about algorithms, but actually it's a lot about engineering and data and engineering. Also a lot of ethics and other thinking you have to apply to it as well. Those are probably three areas, just off the top of my head.

Shane Hastie: It's been fun talking. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Mark Rees: I've got a series of Medium articles and pages that I try and do pretty regularly. If you look, there's a Humans of Xero, to the Medium pages. And I'm one of the authors on there. I've also got my own Medium site as well. So that's probably the best place to contact me. Yeah. It's been really good talking to you, Shane. I've enjoyed the conversation.

Shane Hastie: Thanks very much.



Introductions – Heather DeSantis [21:20]

Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm sitting down today with Heather DeSantis from Publicity For Good. Heather, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Heather DeSantis: Yes, I'm so excited to be here.

Shane Hastie: You and I have met and I got some advanced information, but I'd love to hear a little bit about your story. What's brought you to where you are today?

Heather DeSantis: I am the founder of Publicity For Good, and we are a purpose driven company that aligns with companies and brands that are making a difference in the world. And we're really passionate about ensuring that the world knows about their brand through publicity. And it's so interesting, in that my DNA is being an entrepreneur. I was a Girl Scout until I was 18, and I sold the most amount of Girl Scout cookies every year. So I was that girl at your door, getting you to buy cookies. My dad and uncle were both entrepreneurs, very successful in real estate, building a lot of net worth. And I saw, gosh, people being humble, growing businesses and what that can provide for my family. But my dad and uncle both passed away. My dad actually passed away on Christmas, my senior year of high school.

And when I thought about my future and I thought about legacy, the only thing I knew to do was to become an entrepreneur. And really leave a legacy and create a sense of freedom and impact for my family. And I went on to college. I did an intensive, really studying philanthropy and how businesses can make a difference. And I did an intensive at Georgetown, and that's where I really learned the power that people can have to make a difference, to build a company that not only really makes a difference, but really their team members and employees are happy. That's really where I knew I wanted to create something special.

And it's interesting. I started out at an investment company. I actually got my Series 6, where I would meet with people and talk about their financial goals. But I quickly learned that I had a passion for people, but I really had a passion to be an advocate for causes and stories that I believed in, which is really how I got involved in publicity. And that's really the story and where I got my start. I've been a publicist for almost a decade, which I'm so proud of. I think when you find what you're passionate about in the industry, that you know that you're meant for, you just truly become obsessed with it. Knowing everything, studying trends, being ahead of the curve and just being the best that you can be at what you're doing.

Shane Hastie: This sounds really inspiring and wonderful. And I love the idea of how businesses can make a difference, but businesses have been incredibly disrupted over the last... We're sitting here. It's the end of March 2021. What does Publicity For Good look like in a disrupted world?

Publicity for good in a disrupted world [24:22]

Heather DeSantis: My gosh, I remember when the pandemic first hit, our business, literally in one day, went down to half what we were, from a financial level. And that people were afraid and they didn't want to invest in extra services such as PR. They didn't. So we felt that right away. And at the time, during the pandemic, my husband and I... Literally, our team has always been virtual. So we've been virtual for five years. So knowing how to do Zoom, and connect with people and run business was really normal. But what was interesting is we were actually building our business from a 23 foot Airstream. So that's a very small space to be building a business. So we were greatly impacted from the pandemic. But what I can tell you is when we look back at the end of last year, our business has doubled. We're now almost a full-time team of 30 employees. Last year was our first year that we hit a million dollars.

And I think that grit and that focus came out of survival and wanting to prove it and wanting to make it. But then also knowing that for companies who would continue to forge ahead, and tell their story and about their product, it would be those companies that I believe that would come out stronger than the companies that got afraid, didn't invest and just stopped what they were doing. So from a pandemic perspective, yes, our business, almost overnight, we lost a lot of our clients. But really figuring out our systems, connecting to as many people as possible, working internally, we have been able to scale.

Shane Hastie: So that's actually grown the business through that period. Purpose-driven. I'm going to be the cynic, we've got these lovely posters on the wall in our organizations, but when things get tough, does the purpose still carry through? We care about our people, but we're going to stack rank them and drop the last 30%.

Walking the talk as a purpose-driven organisation [26:33]

Heather DeSantis: To me, it really comes down to two things. Number one, are your team members intentional? Are they the right good hearted people? Are you connecting with your team members on a transparent level? Knowing everything that's going on in their world, knowing that they're fighting with their wife, knowing their struggles, knowing if one of your employees, their wife had a miscarriage. Everything is connected. Personal life impacts business life, business life impacts personal life. So when I say purpose driven, it's how are you treating your employees? What does that look like? Do you have a transparent relationship. For us, we started doing profit sharing. It's not about me. It's about our team members. It's about our clients, and it's really about us really working together. But also having that transparent conversation of, "You're not pulling your weight." But being able to have those direct conversations, and that at the end of the day people are people. And if I get frustrated with an employee, well it's my responsibility, because obviously I haven't explained myself enough or explained it in a way where you truly understand.

So when I say purpose driven, it's about the culture. It's about your team. I know that we have a lot of full-time team members in the Philippines and they have freedom now. Moms can work from home. We have a for good component as a company. But to me it's so much more than financially giving back. Yes, we financially give back. My husband and I give money away privately. I don't ever want to talk about what I'm doing giving back in a big way, because I think you can make a difference privately. But again, I think you have to have a for good component if it's aligned.

It shouldn't be something you do just to get more press or a marketing scheme. Some companies I see though, do add it into their cost of goods. And they're making a difference. If your company is truly making a difference in a local community, and it's helping 500 women find jobs, great, it's helping lives. So I think it really comes down to the intention. Is it pure? How are you treating your team? If you're giving away money to an organization, and you're not treating your team members great, that's a problem.

Shane Hastie:What does this, I'm going to try and wrap this up in a single term, humanistic work culture look like, feel like?

People can show up as their whole selves, not compartmentalised but blended [28:54]

Heather DeSantis: Gosh. It's coming as your true messy self. It's full transparency. It's that when you show up during the day, you can't compartmentalize your life. And that at all times, you're a husband, you're a boyfriend, you're a volunteer in your local town, you're a project manager, you're an IT guy. You always have these hats on at all times. So to me, it's a more blended life. And for transparency for us, on our team calls every single day, we talk about where we were uncomfortable. We talk about where we need support. We give thanks for where we're gratitude. We have book club as an organization, and we have team members that are across the globe, and the U.S. and in the Philippines. And it feels like a family.

And that I know that when I pay my employees, I know that I am funding Amanda to have teepees for her daughter's birthday party. I know that Liberty is able to have an amazing Christmas for her son. We know what drives our employees and all those things. So to me, that's really the big picture, is that it's about our clients. It's about the impact we make. It is about the bottom line, but it's also how as a team do we win? Which, profit sharing, is exciting because we're in the trenches together. It's not just me.

Shane Hastie: How does an organization that doesn't have this culture in place, or maybe not a whole large organization. But let's talk about our audience, a team leader working in the technical space, getting inspired by this idea of let's make this culture better. Where do I start? How do I lead my people along this journey?

Inspiring change in your own part of the organisation[30:41]

Heather DeSantis:  I think it starts with you and the listener. And it's reflecting of how much of myself do I share with my team members. So example, you don't feel good. Do your team members know that? Do they know that your mom is sick? Do they know the other things going on in your life that are impacting how you show up? So if you're going to get on a call with a team and you don't feel good, or you had a bad night or you're struggling, it's showing up and being like, "Guys, I'm not myself today. I don't feel good. I just got in a fight. I'm telling you so you don't interpret how I'm being right now that there's something wrong with you. I'm not okay today. And I'm just telling you that so you understand where I'm coming from."

Heather DeSantis: And I think that's the power. When you start transparently sharing, it allows your employees and your team to share transparently as well. Because a lot of times, performance of team members, there's other issues going on in their life that you don't know about, or they don't understand the why, or they don't understand what you're saying. And it's really a matter of not understanding you. So at the end of the day, I think it follows, it's our responsibility.

Shane Hastie: This sounds great. But I know in many organizations there's an overriding element of almost a fear. How as a leader, do I make it safe? And how do I do this... manage upwards as well?

Influencing upwards [30:29]

Heather DeSantis: It definitely starts with yourself as a leader. And if you have not been transparent with your team, it starts there. So you could start sharing transparently with your leadership team about how you're feeling, what your triggers are. "You guys, you know what, I haven't said anything, but I'm struggling because the team's not performing." Sharing your truth, and then once you feel comfortable, maybe sharing that with your leadership team, it's really sharing with your whole team. And it starts with you. I have found that when I start showing up for internal calls and I'm just transparent, and I share vulnerability from me, that our team members feel safe, that they're not going to get fired. They can be themselves and they can share. Because not every single day is going to be productive for team members. You don't know what's going on in their lives.

Heather DeSantis: And I truly believe that every team member has pure intentions and it's really your job to figure out, maybe it's not a good fit for your culture. Maybe you haven't done a good enough job, really painting the picture for them of what's possible, or even too, maybe they're performing based on their level of how you perceive them. So it's really having those transparent conversations, and so you, the leader starting yourself and maybe journaling, if that works for you, or just figuring out what are your triggers and what have you not shared with your team. So you can really start sharing. It's not going to happen until the founder or the leader does it. And then the pack will start doing that. And then that will really transform.

Shane Hastie: You mentioned that your company has been completely virtual from the beginning. How do you make sure that the safety, transparency, openness really does come through in a virtual environment. I'm guessing, and correct me if I'm wrong, that there's probably some people that you've seen in the Philippines who you've never met in person. Is that the case?

Maintaining culture in fully virtual teams [34:11]

Heather DeSantis: It is the case. I have one of my team members who's been working for me for three years. Our team was actually going to be going to the Philippines this fall. So excited for that. But I would say for us, it's that we have team morning meetings every single day, they're video. In our morning calls, we have time for where we were uncomfortable, what we're grateful for. We share personal wins. We share business wins. We all are really a family. We highlight team members every single day. So team members actually have started making PowerPoints about themselves. And it's fun, they get to share about their passions and who their kids are and about their wife and how they met their wife. And that's really fun to see people on a different level.

We have a book club, which is really fun, and it's just a time for us to connect, and talk about a book and talk about our struggles on a personal level. But when you work, you spend so much time with your team and getting the job done that it's really important to have that as a part of your culture. And then on a personal level, we have one-on-ones with our team members every week. And those one-on-ones, it's about business and performance, but it's like, "Hey Shane, how are you doing? What's going on in your world?" And it's just connecting with you on a human level, in addition to the job and performance as well.

Shane Hastie: If we may, tell me a little bit about some of the For Good work that you've been involved in and your organization's been involved in.

Examples of For Good companies [35:39]

Heather DeSantis: It's incredible. A lot of our companies, vary intentional food brands. So they have certain certifications, whether it's non-GMO or the way the meat is raised is humane. A lot of our companies started out of a mother's need for a product, whether it be a mother who had a husband that was in the military and she couldn't have kids. And she really struggled with the supplements in the market. And then she created this amazing company. And now she has a beautiful family. It's really all these amazing people that have started businesses out of a personal struggle. And then from there, they've added different components. So based on what the cause is that made them start the business, they may add a personal financial give back to the organization. They may partner up with them, really all those things, to even a group that helps veterans get their benefits. We're working with a lot of advocates who are truly making a difference.

Shane Hastie: And as those organizations grow, how do they maintain that focus on the purpose?

Heather DeSantis: On the For Good, I've seen a lot of clients be very intentional about their team culture, bringing on the right people who already have aligned values. For us, and I feel like for the majority of our team members and employees, they work for Publicity For Good because of our aligned values in wanting to have a job that truly cares about making a difference in the world. And I feel like we have that same alignment with our clients, and that they have employees that are like-minded, and that they want to make a difference. And then on a personal level, they encourage their team members to volunteer, and live a full life and just do things that really make a difference.

Shane Hastie: Heather, if people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Heather DeSantis: You can go to or you can find me on social media, @heatherdesantis.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Heather DeSantis: Thank you.


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