One of my favorite business aphorisms is that “business is easy, but people are hard.” And yet, it’s still easy to ignore that wisdom and focus so much on a business idea that the human side of an organization gets neglected.
My company, Thumbtack, began in 2008 with a simple observation between friends: why is it so hard to find a plumber? Thirteen years later, we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. We’ve helped millions of people easily care for their homes by finding and hiring the right service professionals. It’s an accomplishment beyond our early expectations.
But just as importantly, we’ve been ambitious about the people side of our business. We’ve grown to over 1,000 employees and have won multiple “great place to work” awards. Over the years, I’ve learned that a fundamental part of being a company leader is establishing and defending your company culture.
Creating a culture worth having
I didn’t know it at the time, but if I had to point to a defining moment for our company culture, it was the first time we did 360 performance reviews.
In 2014, when we still had fewer than 50 employees, we instituted a formal review process. With apologies to my People team, no one loves performance reviews. But we did recognize the importance of written feedback: writing out how people performed against their expectations, to recognize and reward people’s accomplishments, and highlight opportunities for growth. Without thinking too much about it, I opted to share my own review with, well, everyone.
After I did, the entire leadership team followed my lead and also wanted to share theirs. We kept it simple. We compiled our 360 reviews in one document, circulated it first among the leadership team, and then out to the entire company. In this simple act, we wanted to show that everyone, including me, has opportunities for growth and self-improvement.
What really mattered, much more than the specifics of what we shared, were the expectations we set and the norms we established. In building your culture, you need to recognize both who you are and who you want to be.
Good culture is never an accident
We tend to hire what I call “conscientious overachievers.” These are people who are extremely talented and driven, but also battle their own doubts because of their high standards. Which is why that simple gesture of sharing my 360 review and putting aside my own insecurities turned out to be a bigger deal than we originally realized. It normalized the fact that everyone, no matter how senior or high impact, has blind spots, bad habits, and deficiencies, and room for improvement.
As it turns out, improving your work and yourself is actually a team sport. We may get wrapped up in our own needs, but we also need to be there to support our colleagues in their own efforts to improve.
We may have stumbled into a cornerstone practice of our culture, but one lucky break only gets you so far. Cultures are fluid. They grow, morph, and adapt over time. Values are enduring. They guide us in times of change and uncertainty.
Be present and take ownership
This past year, I received two points of feedback in my 360 review that I took to heart.
On the “Love it” side, I got praise for being a champion for our mission. I really appreciated hearing this because one of the most important things I can do is galvanize our team around a shared vision and sense of purpose. We have multiple company meetings every month where staff ask me, and the entire leadership team, challenging questions about our future. It’s our duty to be clear, accountable, and motivational.
On the other side, my “Could be better,” I learned (again) that I was getting involved in too many decisions, to the point that I may be disempowering the talented people I’d brought in to help move us forward. I needed to be more disciplined about not getting into the weeds. I made learning to elevate and scale as a leader—just like we’ve been able to do as a business—my top personal growth priority.
Being a leader means being uncomfortable
Modeling vulnerability, admitting the obvious (nobody’s perfect), and inviting my team to problem-solve together creates buy-in and accountability. That’s what continuous growth means to me.
In the case of sharing 360s, I can see how other leaders may be reluctant to do it. Getting critical feedback stings. Making it available to others is uncomfortable. But I look at it as an essential leadership trait. What I’ve learned from this process is, if you’re afraid to share something, that means you probably should. Besides being open and self-aware, that makes it okay for others to follow your lead. I’ve tried to adopt that as a personal philosophy and put it into practice day to day.
There isn’t any one way to create a strong culture. I’ve learned that if you want to build trust, show everyone you trust them first.
Because if you’re not willing to do it as a leader, why should anyone else?
Marco Zappacosta is the CEO of Thumbtack.