Reddit VP of People and Culture Katelin Holloway talks about building culture at Reddit, and her time at Pixar and Klout.
(Edited for grammar and syntax)
Julie Rogers: Welcome to the Culture First Podcast. I’m Julie Rogers, the head of people at Culture Amp. I am here with David Ostberg who is our Director of Insights. We have a special guest today. Super excited to welcome Katelin Holloway, who is the VP of People and Culture at Reddit.
Katelin Holloway: Thank you. I am very, very honored to be here.
Julie Rogers: Super excited to have you. Katelin, you have this really amazing history and background. It all has landed you in the people and culture space. Can you talk us through where you have been and how you have gotten to where you are today?
Katelin Holloway: First of all, thank you for thinking it is interesting. I found it to be very challenging, and a lot of soul searching. But the short version is that I have always been a little bit lost in my career. I have always really enjoyed the things that I have done, and wasn't really sure of what I wanted to do when I grew up, so I was very fortunate to have people in my life that supported exploration. I literally have done almost every job out there. From picking produce, to being a first grade teacher, high school teacher. I worked in the stock market for a hedge fund firm for a number of years. I worked in advertising. I was in law enforcement. I have made 3 citizens arrests. I have done it all.
David Ostberg: What did you do in law enforcement?
Katelin Holloway: I was the fingerprint girl. I did the live scans.
Julie Rogers: Wow.
Katelin Holloway: Yeah. It was very exciting. I was also the police chief's assistant. It was Humboldt County, so that's interesting.
Julie Rogers: No kidding.
David Ostberg: Lots going on up there.
Julie Rogers: Different type of law enforcement.
Katelin Holloway: Yep. I have always aligned with the misfits, and in Humboldt if you work for law enforcement you are a misfit. I had done a lot of things. Like I said, I was always really happy in the things that I was doing, but I was missing some sort of, I don't know. I was looking for some sort of finality that was like, this is it. This is why I wake up in the morning. After I was in finance I moved over to advertising thinking that was what I wanted to do. I had gone to school for graphic design and English composition. I thought advertising was it. I watched my grandfather grow up Mad Men style, and thought this is a scene for me. I can be a hard hitting woman. This is where I'm going to find my thing. It took all of three weeks in advertising before I was like, oh this is not my scene at all.
Julie Rogers: Culture first?
Katelin Holloway: Absolutely, yes, but a culture that I was not feeling very welcome in. Very strong culture, and I think that is the interesting thing about culture, is that it happens whether it is intentional or not. That was my first real discovery of, “oh, right”. Everything is going to be different, and you are going to have to find the space that feels good for you. My grandma describes it as, "Every pot has its lid." If the lid doesn't fit, the water is not going to boil. Like I said, it was like my third day, and I was like yeah, not boiling. Not my pot. I am not your lid.
That was when I turned to my husband - we had just gotten married - and I said, "Are you okay if I take some time and space to figure myself out?" He said, "Absolutely. Do what you need to do." Amazingly supportive. I began to apply to a number of different places that I viewed as creative. I just wanted to be a part of a creative culture. I want to be somewhere that sparks innovation, and somewhere hopefully will trigger something in me to say, "This is it. This is your thing." I went on Craigslist, and I looked, and I found a number of different things. I was looking for film studios. I was looking for publishing homes. I was looking for galleries. Anything. anything that I deemed to be creative. I found a blind posting that linked me back to Monster jobs, again, very old. That was a thing at one point.
I applied. It was a film studio, but it didn't list the company name. It was for an administrative assistant. I thought, well, start at the bottom, earn my stripes, be in a place where I would have maximum exposure to people, different ideas, different roles, and different functions, and maybe I'll figure myself out. I applied. I got a phone call, and they revealed that it was Pixar, and I said, "Oh, now I'm nervous. I wasn't really nervous before." I talked with this woman for an hour. We had a lovely conversation. At the end of it she said, "I hate to tell you, but we've actually already filled the role. I just had to post it for compliance reasons, but we love you, and we'll keep your resume on file." I thought, I'll never hear from you again, but thank you for your time. It was an honor just to even have a conversation. I went back to the grind in advertising. Kept my head down, and 8 months later I got a phone call. It was this woman. She said, "We're ready for you." I said, "No shit." Oh my god. You kept my resume.
David Ostberg: That never happens.
Katelin Holloway: Yeah. I was shocked. She said, "Well I am happy to welcome you to the team, but I have to tell you it's not a very glamorous position." I said, "Lady I'll clean the toilets. It doesn't matter. I will do anything." And she said, "Okay, you'll be an assistant to an assistant basically." I thought well how fancy. Assistants have assistants, okay. I went in as a director's assistant. What I found when I showed up was that I was actually supporting the team that supported the executive staff.
I happened to start the week of the Disney merger acquisition. The other assistants voted me as the lowest woman on the totem pole and they said, "Okay, these guys are doing a three-month note session on the merger, and helping to protect the Pixar identity through that process, and talking through how we are going to handle this so that the staff feels good, and Disney feels good." I said, "Okay. I can take notes. I'll transcribe." They said, "Basically, don't speak until you are spoken to. This is a note taking session. You are there to transcribe." I said, "Okay. I can do that. No problem."
Julie Rogers: Wow. What an opportunity to learn though.
Katelin Holloway: I had no idea what I was walking into. I sat in a room for three months. It was what they called the “6-pack”. There were six men, and they sat at a table, and they more or less wrote the book 'Creativity Inc.' Live, in person. Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, and three gentlemen from Disney. They talked through the fundamentals of what culture is institutionally. That was the first time I was really exposed to the idea of an intentional culture. Building something from the ground up that was done with thoughtfulness, that was done with business goals and objectives in mind, and also with belonging, right? And having this real true sense of identity.
For them, that was their most sacred belief, storytelling. To go into this massive company and retain who they were was mission critical for them. Listening to them talk about things from workplace design, where the bathrooms would be in the new building, so that they would inspire creative conversation, and innovation in the hallways, and the notion that good ideas can come from anywhere. They wanted to create space where the chef would be interacting with a producer, would be interacting with a production assistant, would be interacting with someone that was editing. When you work for a larger company you lose that.
Listening to them talk about what was important to them, and how they wanted to share and instill their values in not just the employees going into this merger, but also to share that with the Disney employees, and how to bring them into it. I did not even know at the time how critical of a moment that was for me in my career. About a month into it, we became more and more friendly. At one point they were discussing something that had to do with gender. They were making a decision actually about where and how a restroom would be, and if it would be gender neutral. It was a silly conversation. Ed Catmull stopped and he looked at me, and he said, "This actually feels really uncomfortable for six men to be discussing this. Katelin, as a woman, do you have thoughts on this?" I was young, and didn't know much better, and I said, "Permission to speak freely." Thankfully they were very accepting of my feedback, and were curious for more, and we began a dialog.
It was right place, right time, and I was allowed to share my thoughts on how things felt from the ground up. I sat through the rest of the note session for the next two months, and like I said, we became very friendly. What they discovered was that I had a way of imparting and sharing what was going on in this room with the other employees. In a way that made it feel very magical to them because I was having a magical experience. They more or less gave me a golden ticket and they said, "You can do anything you want at the studio as long as you keep telling stories. Folklores. How we share what is most important to us. You sat there. You listened for three months, and you heard all of the things that we think are most important."
It was fascinating to learn about the value of folklore internally, and how storytelling can really change and impact the way work affects people, and how they engage with one another. I was at the studio for five years. I did everything under the sun for them. I worked in post-production. I worked with the talent, the voice talent. By the time I left I was working with the story team, the story department helping the writers and directors, and the story board artists craft tales, and thought that I found my new passion, which was funny because I did, I just kind of had mislabeled it.
I had taken on a mentor at Disney who was a children's book writer and author. She helped take me under her wing, and I thought, this is what I am supposed to do. I am supposed to write stories for children. I got a book deal with Simon and Schuster, and told my friends and family I was leaving the magical kingdom. I said, "My cup is full. I have found my creative inspiration. I am going to write this tween novella coming of age story." Very exciting at the time.
I quit my job. Everybody told me that I was crazy, and everybody told me that I was walking away from a job that anyone else would do for free. Of course that instilled self-doubt, but I was committed at that point. I sat at home for two weeks in front of a laptop, and stared at it, and typed maybe 5 words. I realized maybe I had really screwed up, and maybe I did make this big mistake. What I said was, I went to Pixar to find a creative environment. I went there to find inspiration in people that were storytelling. Maybe it's because I am alone. Maybe I need to be around people again.
I reached back out to my friend who was my mentor at Disney and she said, "Well you know my boyfriend just raised this series B. He has a new office they are moving into, maybe in exchange for some of this knowledge, this fairy dust that you still have on you from Pixar, you can trade some notes and he will give you a desk for a while." I said, "Sure. I will do anything." I went to this brand new office and sat in the middle of SoMa in an empty old hangar. It was an old shoe warehouse. Sat on the floor with this founder. It was my first time in tech. I am sitting across from this kid who had just raised a serious amount of money and hadn't remembered to purchase desks, or toilet paper.
Katelin Holloway: I immediately went to care giving mode. I said, "Oh you need someone looking after things." He said, "Yeah. About those desks, can you get them for me?" I said, "Yeah. This is something we should do. I am happy to help. I'll write here, and I'll be a part of it, and watch your team grow." That was the company Klout. That was my introduction to tech and it took all of two weeks before we just agreed I should probably just be here full time and commit myself. I haven't written a word since then. Not a single one. But, again, right place, right time. Joe Fernandez was our CEO and founder there. I was employee 21.
David Ostberg: What did you see? What was your experience there in terms of helping build the culture or influence the story telling to drive that?
Katelin Holloway: That was, I think, the most exciting and appealing part of doing it. The actual position that he needed filled was everything that was operational. Everything non tech. Finance. HR. You know, benefits administration, assistant to the CEO, office management. It was everything, and things that I had done 10 years prior in my career. Nothing glamorous. Like I said, toilet paper buying, but the opportunity that I saw, and the opportunity that I felt there, was this group of rag tag kids.
I mean children who were brilliant, but had no cohesiveness. They had a camaraderie from building something together, but they still were so young and the development of not just the business and the product that they were building, but in their togetherness. When you start out as a few friends in a basement, and then suddenly you're staring down the barrel of 30 million dollars, things change. And they change fast. The frameworks and being able to apply the things that I had learned at Pixar to a very small group, was fascinating to me. I thought oh, I can test here. I started my A/B testing. I started my, "What do you think about this?"
The whole first quarter I was there I did a series of interviews with people. I said, "Okay, who are you?" I went through all 20 employees, and what I realized is they had no sense of identity. They didn't know how to address one another as a group of people. They had, like I said they had community and camaraderie, and product building, but it didn't expand beyond the computer. It didn't expand beyond the code. I would ask them to describe themselves. By getting them to talk about who they were and how they were operating, you know, how they mourned losses. How they celebrated wins. What success looks like. How they were trying to build the team. What makes someone right to work at Klout. Pots and lids. How do those fit together here? It was interesting.
The more they started to think about it, the more it became intentional, the more they began to formulate this. I remember very clearly, it was my 90-day mark, and I was talking with a young engineer who was employee number three. He said, "You know, we're pretty gritty." He was the last one I had gotten to. He said, "We're pretty gritty. We kind of don't fit into many molds. We're kind of like outlaws," and he goes, "But we're Klout-laws." I said, "That's it. That's who you are."
Julie Rogers: That's the identity.
Katelin Holloway: Yeah. Through a series of exercises after that, then we established our values and all of these other frameworks that help people find that belongingness where they say, "We can be a million different shades of who we are, but at our core, when we come together we are Klout-laws. This is what's okay, and this is what's not okay, for us here in our house." God I had a ball. It was amazing. We grew that team from, like I said, I was employee 21. We grew it up through 130, 140 through acquisition. I stayed with that gang for four years, so to watch them to develop and grow together, was easily one of the most rewarding experiences in my career to date.
One, because they didn't have any preconceived notions of what things should be. The pressure was not there to adhere to somebody else's culture, ideals of who they were. And two, I think we got really lucky in that we were able to attract people that had a very similar alignment in their value set, in their goals, and the things that they were trying to do. Where they were in their career life cycles, and where they were in their own personal journeys hit. We had no idea how lucky we were.
Julie Rogers: Do you ascribe that to luck? Or because when you are actually looking for someone to join in and be a culture add, I don't like to think of it as culture fit because I see that as being we just want a lot of people who are like ourselves, rather than people who are going to add to our culture. When you were growing in Klout, how were you bringing those people in? It's hard for it to be just lucky. There must have been something intentional going on. What were you doing?
Katelin Holloway: I will admit; the early days it was not intentional because we didn't know. We didn't know who we were enough. When I say, "We were lucky." I think that our core, the foundational people that we hired that are influential leaders internally, whether they were actual managers or not, or directors or not, or sitting on the executive staff or not, the people that were most influential in the way we defined ourselves eventually, we actually just got lucky.
After that, however, (I think that I was probably six months into my journey there) the team had grown so fantastically that I had given away a lot of hats. As I was giving away my hats, I was like first is facilities. Get this out of here. I do not want to think about toilet paper. Next one, finance. You do not want me touching your numbers. Trust me. Out of here. What I realized that I was left with was the HR hat. I didn't, I would say that I'm not classically trained. I, at that point, had not been certified in anything. I didn't know, I was doing things out of instinct, and what I had seen, and the things that I had learned, but I was like no kidding? HR. Okay. This is a thing.
The company supported me to get the education that I needed to have the confidence to go in and make strategic decisions, and be compliant, and all of the things that people need to be in a People Ops role. The part that I was most drawn to was this notion of how do we intentionally build this now? How do we identify who we think will bring something new to the conversation that will make us better? I am with you. The cultural fit interview got a bad reputation four or five years ago. It caught on in that it was something that was important, but then people had kind of mistranslated it.
Julie Rogers: Yeah. The beer fit.
Katelin Holloway: Exactly. We challenged ourselves to be more intentional about it. We actually looked at micro cultures amongst the team. I said, "Okay, if we're building the product team, what view point are we missing here?" The intention behind building a diverse culture actually, in my experience, is do you actually want to create something new. You want to appeal your product to more people. By having more viewpoints at the table that represent a potentially broader world, you have someone representing things that are different than you. There was a theory that I was playing with when I was at Klout about the different definitions of diversity.
I think that the easiest bucket is demographic diversity. These are the things that you are born with. The things that are fixed. The things that you don't necessarily have a choice in. Where you were born? Who you were born to? The color of your skin. Your gender. Your gender identity. These things. Your ability. Whether you are physically able to do these things or not. Those are check boxes. Those are things that are critically important to bringing different perspectives because that definition of diversity actually inspires and informs your experiential diversity. Those are the things that you have a little bit more choice in. Of course, like I said everything about who you are and how you came into this world will inform your experiences. The level of education that you may have access to. Religion. These experiences that you have. Your relationship. And like I said, your gender identity.
All of these things kind of grow with you as your journey unfolds. Your demographic diversity informs your experiential diversity, but really there is a third bucket that people don't talk about frequently, and that's the cognitive diversity. That is because of the first two things, you solve problems in this way. You think about things in this way. By being a little bit more open in your idea of what different is, or why you are seeking different, that will change who you actually attract.
The demographic diversity is easy. That is a numbers game. It's a sourcing game. It's where you are going out and finding your candidates. It's how you're engaging them. It's a matter of filling a funnel. The other half of this that people tend to neglect, or maybe, not intentionally neglect, but the part that is critical to support the diversity that you're bringing in through your recruiting processes is actually the inclusion part. When people talk about diversity inclusion initiatives, they go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other.
If you bring in people that have different background and have different life experiences, but they don't feel welcome, or you haven't created a space for them to feel safe, they will fall out. It does no service to either side. At Klout, this was my first time getting to play and theorize with this. Okay. Let's look at the table. Who do we have in the room? What viewpoints are represented? Like I said, you go through each bucket of diversity and say, "Okay, what are we looking at here for demographics? What are we looking at here for background, education? Oh my goodness we have all Stanford business school people here, maybe we need a hustler. Maybe that will change things." Thinking about the way you have micro cultures within a team, and how diversity will effect that, that actually gets you through the cognitive diversity part, which is actually creating a more innovative product. Right?
Julie Rogers: Curious. How do you create that inclusive, or how did you at Klout, create that inclusivity? It's something that we talk about, but in terms of having a set of tools in your back pocket, it's a little harder to put your finger on.
Katelin Holloway: Absolutely. I think that this is a really exciting challenge that I have been working on at Reddit. Since my days at Klout I did a few different things after the acquisition including having a baby. Talk about life changing. Changes your perspective on things.
I wound up at Reddit. Reddit is one of the more fascinating platforms online in terms of diversity, and in terms of the audience that we have. We have an incredible amount of traffic. People that come to our site every day that are seeking camaraderie in their communities.
David Ostberg: Do you mind giving a quick overview of Reddit?
Katelin Holloway: Yeah. Honestly, I am still trying to figure it out myself. Reddit is a deep, deep well of internet. The company is almost 12 years old. Like I said, the amount of traffic that we have, and the amount of people that come through. Most people use Reddit and don't know it. They are directed there either through a link that someone has sent them, or a Google search, or a news article, then they land there. They don't know they're there. And then they take off, but Reddit basically is an online community where there is this element of pseudonymity that other websites or networks don't have.
For example, on Instagram you get to be this very filtered version of you. You get to present your life in a certain way, and the things that you choose to share. You're connected to friends and family that you know. Or you've grown your audience and you're a little Instagram star, but for the most part it's an audience that you choose to engage with. On Reddit you are allowed to be whoever you want to be in any different variety. You can be a part of any conversation. If you are into underwater basket weaving there is a home for you. If you are into weird pictures of cats wearing tuxedos there is a home for you.
The thing that makes Reddit very different from an online community stand point is that you can be every different version of yourself. Whether you are using different screen names, or you are not logged in at all. You can participate in these communities and have very genuine, very authentic conversations with people across the world. From a platform standpoint it's a fascinating challenge. They are approaching community and culture building with the world in a very, very different way.
David Ostberg: I was curious to how the existence and how the interactivity of the Reddit community affects what you do because it has such an influence? Or at least I would assume it has such an influence on Reddit as an organization.
Katelin Holloway: You nailed it. That was why I took the job because I thought, “what does it look like behind those doors?” I know what it looks like out here. The good, the bad, and the ugly. All of it. I know what the world sees. Who is making this? And how are they making this? Very, very self-defined misfits. The underdog story of two kids working out of UVA, hustling their butts off at Y-Combinator to be the first graduate in class. Rejected. On the train back to Boston, back to Virginia, and then got the call and said, "We didn't like that idea, but try something else." Our co-founders, Steven and Alexis, they are true, true ambassadors for not just community and connecting people, but they genuinely believe that human connection can change the world. Their mission and their vision is very clear to them. Protecting their users and their community has always come first for them. I think that that's why they have been around for 11 some odd years.
David Ostberg: You've been there for about eight months. Is that right?
Katelin Holloway: Yes.
David Ostberg: What did you see when you came in and what did you say, like these are some things that I really want to focus on, and here is what I see underneath as the beautiful shining stars that may have been clouded over for a bit that you want to bring back forward, or something that just never existed that you wanted to bring forward.
Katelin Holloway: Absolutely. Like I said, I was initially, I was very happily employed elsewhere when I got the call. I was actually working with a recruiter to fill one of my own executive positions, and she would tell me about this company, but she wouldn't tell me what it was. She would describe some of their challenges, some of their cultural challenges. She kept saying, "I know you have a great network. You've got to find someone for me that can do this, but this isn't a job for anyone. This is not an out of the book HR gig of just come in and make sure things are tidy, and keep the people happy, and give them a few happy hours. This is not that gig. I need someone that wants to come in and really get their hands dirty." I said, "Okay, let me think."
She would tease me with these challenges that the company was having. Things like they have had three CEOs in less than a year. How do you manage that? They've been in the press a lot for different diversity and inclusion challenges. She would share little examples of things. What I found is I was going to bed thinking about these problems, and I was waking up thinking about these problems, and after about a month or so of this I was like, oh my god. I want this job. I don't even know the company.
David Ostberg: She set the hook.
Julie Rogers: She was very good. Very good at what she does.
Katelin Holloway: I thought one, I have to know who this company is. She said, "Oh I'm sorry. It's confidential." I said, "Well I've got a few, I've got a short list based on these challenges. I'm pretty sure I know who it is." She said, "Well you're going to have to come in. You're going to have to properly interview if you want to know." Literally on my car ride to the office she revealed, she said, "It's Reddit." I said, "I knew it. I just want to give Steve Huffman a big old hug."
Steve is one of our co-founders and he had just recently rejoined the team after taking a hiatus and building Hipmunk. Reddit was acquired a long, long time ago by Conde Nast. They spun them out. Steve started this other company and had just made the decision to come back. I had read about it in the news, and the press, and you know the Valley is small. I thought how is this kid doing it? How is he feeling about things? At the very least I want to go and give him a high five and tell him he's got this.
It took all of 5 minutes. I sat down across the table from him, and I knew. I knew that it was my home. Like I said, the challenges that the company presented on day one were very real. They didn't hold anything back. Like I said, they had had three different administrations come through in less than a year. There were some people that had been working for the company for 11 years. There were some people who had worked there in the very beginning, and had left, and then had returned. So my first day, our very first employee actually rejoined the company alongside me, which is a fascinating challenge. Then when we talk about the culture fit thing that happens as companies do, there were different pockets of tenure. Of people that were hired that were bought and sold into a very different value set, and so to me that was the exciting challenge, was to say, "How can I find cohesion here for these people? How can I help them re-identify who they are and establish this new chapter together without dismissing or discrediting 11 years’ worth of building?" For me, that was the hook. That was the this is the challenge of a lifetime.
I talked with Steve, I talked with other members of the leadership team. I started talking with the staff. What I discovered is that every single person is a loyalist at Reddit. They are deeply committed to the product, to the community, to our users, but they really didn't know one another. They had a very, very difficult time separating the identity of them as Redditors on the platform, with Reddit Inc. The company, the corporate, the brick and mortar, who we are. I took out my old Klout playbook and I said, "Great. I'm going to talk to people. Tell me about you. How do you identify yourselves? What do you call yourselves?" Redditors are users. Are we also Redditors as people? What do we call ourselves? Who are we now? What are our values?
I went through the exact same process that I did at Klout, except for now I'm dealing with a group of 70 people, not 20 people, and like I said, having the different backgrounds that they had, and the different values that they were bought into, that they were committing to, were so, so different. But, like I said, the common thing was that they all deeply cared for our users. That's the stuff that you can't build. That's the stuff that you can't buy.
I was like, okay. We have a good foundation. We can do this. By having a series of conversations with people and helping us to identify. We actually had an identity workshop where we took a half day, and I made people tell me stories as a group. I did it very intentionally as a group versus at Klout where I had talked with people individually. I needed to get the old, the new, the in between, all of the different tenures in a room to hear the founders talk. To hear some of the first engineers talk. To hear someone that had joined within the last year that hadn't known Ellen Pao from a previous job.
I needed everyone to hear the same stories, and to participate, and add their color to their identity. It was a full half day, just kind of jam session. It was awesome. People that had been at the company for five, six, seven years had never heard the story of how Steve and Alexis had met. They had never heard the story of Snoo, our little alien logo friend, and why and how that came to be. That is when we started to become a community. That is when our new chapter started.
Julie Rogers: What have you done with those stories? I mean that in itself, and we're actually going through a somewhat similar process at Culture Amp with values and action. We have our values, but what is it like to actually live the values, and the stories of people living the values, and the stories of people not living the values? What do we do with these stories once we have them? Because that's the gold right there. What have you done at Reddit with the stories in order to, I guess keep the stories coming as more people come in, as more people have stories, have experiences, but also share those outward with future Redditors? People that are coming into work with you and also people in the community.
Katelin Holloway: Absolutely. That's the fun meaty work that we are working on right now. The easiest solution is being able to pay those stories forward to new hires through onboarding and orientation, so making sure that the best stories, the real ones that have the meat on the bone stories, those all get baked into a different part of our orientation and our onboarding. Our onboarding is a week long process, and we have each of our executive staff have a portion. We’re talking about the different ways in which you will engage and interact. But I have each one of them weave a particular story that demonstrates a value, or is an important historical moment in our company's history so that it's all built in, and baked on your first week. Outside of that, kind of coming in, we are 140 people now, like I said we started when we were 70, so we are an entirely new group of people together.
Luckily for us, half of those people now have gone through onboarding so they get it. The first 70 were in the room when we had the initial conversation, so that was just getting us to par. Now we are talking about the different ways in which we can demonstrate these stories in ways that live and breathe outside of your first week. I actually have a funny story from Pixar that for me, really illustrates the importance of storytelling, and how it can be really, really effective in use. I remember hearing this, and it was a water cooler conversation. This was not an official we are going to sit you down and tell you about our values, or tell you a story to instill some sort of either fear or inspiration in you, but it was a water cooler story. It was over a sangria at 6 o'clock on the patio.
We were in performance review cycle, and someone was talking about salary adjustments. You know people were nervous about if I was going to get a raise or not. Not I, but everyone was thinking about themselves. Am I getting a raise? Am I not? I don't know. Am I going to be graded fairly? Someone said, "Oh well, you know about Jimmy right?" "No. Who's Jimmy? What did he do? Did he not get a raise? Did he get a bad score?" They said, "No, Jimmy used to be an IT guy. He was really early on here."
Jimmy had access to everything as you do when you're in IT. That's a high security role. You have access to a lot of things. Well Jimmy and his boss, they got into a big fight one night. They were arguing. It got loud and aggressive, and Jimmy couldn't handle it anymore. He walked out. I quit. I'm out of here. Jimmy went home that night, was so mad, that he was like you know what? I'm going to get you. I'm going to get you Pixar, and he e-mailed the entire staff everyone's salary. He displayed for everyone in a spreadsheet. Top to bottom. CEO to janitor.
Everyone's salary was revealed. That night the team was paralyzed. No one talked to one another. No one picked up a phone. Because they were like holy crap. Jimmy just really gave it to us, and we don't know what to do with this information. I don't want to acknowledge that I've seen it, but God, I've seen it. I can't un-see it. They were petrified to come in the next day. What was the executive team going to do? What was leadership going to say? How were they going to address this?
Everyone expected a big company meeting on their calendars in the morning. Everyone expected a retracted e-mail at the very least. Delete. Un-see. They walked in, and there was nothing. Breakfast as usual. Coffee as usual. Everyone got to their desks, and there was a t-shirt on the back of everyone's chair. It simply had their salary printed on it. I don't know how they pulled it off. But then at lunch people put on their shirts because they didn't really know what else to do with them.
People were walking around, they were looking, and they were talking. They were saying, "Oh, that makes sense. Oh no kidding?" What happened was, at lunch they said, "We're glad that you all are enjoying your new shirts. As you look around the office today, you look around the studio, if there is anything that seems out of place, please let us know. We very much believe in our systems for assigning salaries, and if you see something that looks off, come and talk to HR. We are up here all day. Come and chat with us." Do you know how many people came and complained? One. One person, who actually was getting underpaid. They adjusted his salary on the spot, and it was never spoken of again.
I don't think Jimmy exists. I am pretty certain that that never happened, but my God was that a powerful story as an employee. Because guess what? Now I believe that your systems to set salaries and to assign bands to people, and to assign them fairly without judgement exists, and guess what? I am never complaining about my salary ever. What they were doing, they were building trust. Like I said, I don't know if Jimmy is a real person or not, but it was hyper effective. I am telling you, from that moment, I was like what are these stories that I can then share and bring when we really say, "We are requesting your trust in this value that we have." Or, "We are demonstrating that this is how we live them."
That's the exciting part of my work right now, is I am trying to find those nuggets. Trying to figure out the ones that are already organically happening, and then the ones that I can kind of help dove tail in a little bit of finesse, and a little bit of extra storytelling to make them a little bit more impactful or sticky. Other things that we are doing, an issue that I identify at Reddit when I first came in was there were a lot of people that were so loyal to the product, but were actually really unhappy in their work, and just in their experience, they just needed to permission to go. They knew they were unhappy. Their friends knew they were unhappy. And it had nothing to do with anyone else. This is like a simple pot lid scenario of hey where I am in my journey now no longer fits where this company's journey is, and that's okay.
I gave a talk in my first introduction. I let people know that we were all going to have other jobs. This is not your last job. With luck this will not be your last job. You should all aspire to great and amazing things. I think that they really expected me to come in and say, "We are going to stay. We are going to do this. If anyone quits it's a failure. It's a failure on you. It's a failure on the company." No. This only works if we fire on both cylinders.
To help people feel permission we established a new slogan which is, "Once a Snoo, always a Snoo." We ultimately identified ourselves as Snoos. That's our little alien logo. Once a Snoo, always a Snoo. We established an alumni program for people to come and still feel connected to the product that they built, and then we also made a hall of Snoos. The gone but not forgotten. Doesn't matter if you are there for two weeks, or two years, or 11 years, you have had an impact on our product. By people feeling that they still could be connected to what it was that we were doing, even if it meant that they were somewhere else, that gave them a lot of spirit. It gave them a lot of heart.
David Ostberg: That's really powerful. Giving them that connection. Yeah, like you said. That permission.
Katelin Holloway: Yeah. I think being honest and real about career life cycles and company life cycles is an important thing. I think that's something a lot of companies don't do because they have this top line metric of you can't have attrition over X percent. It's like, if it's right for them, it's going to be right for the company.
Julie Rogers: The little things all add up, for sure. This has been eye opening. You are a fabulous story teller, Katelin. Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us today.
Katelin Holloway: Of course. Thank you for having me. This was fun.
Julie Rogers: Thank you. And thank you to everyone for listening to the Culture First Podcast. If you are curious about what we do at Culture Amp you can find us on Cultureamp.com. If you would like to join our people geeks community, you can find us on PeopleGeeks.com. And if you are looking to join the Culture Amp team and become a camper as we call ourselves, we are hiring. Check out our careers page. Thanks.
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