The business outcome of putting culture first

Katy Steinmetz, San Francisco Bureau Chief for Time magazine, moderated the closing panel at the inaugural Culture First conference. The topic was the business outcome of putting culture first, and Katy was joined on stage by the following panelists:  

  • Elizabeth Wolfson - Chief People Officer, Casper
  • Susan Lee - Head of People, Warby Parker
  • Lucia Guillory - Head of People, Patreon
  • Jon Slavet - CWeO - US & Canada West, WeWork

The panelists discussed how to define company values, the cultural challenges that arise as a company grows, why diversity matters, and more. We’ve highlighted some of the questions and responses from this thought-provoking panel in this article.

Culture First Panel

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How much of putting culture first is a moral imperative vs. a business imperative?


Susan Lee: Our business model at Warby Parker is built on social good and social enterprise. From day one we’ve had the model of you buy a pair of glasses and we give a pair to someone in need. To build a business on that model it's impossible for us to hire a bunch of selfish people and say, ‘this is going to all work.’ We need to have people who genuinely care and believe in the mission of the company and what we're trying to do.

Susan Lee Quote

Jon Slavet: It's a business imperative. I think that each company has to decide for itself how it engages with its community. We believe that culture is not accidental, it’s an output of many things. We see ourselves as moral agents in the world. For instance, citizenship is one of the eight pillars of our culture. We declared that in the next few years we're hiring 1,500 refugees and 1,500 veterans. It's already started, and it’s bringing an amazing energy into the company. So, I think everything starts with culture.

Jon Slavet Quote

Do diverse perspectives help make better business decisions?

Lucia Guillory: As our team has become more diverse, there's a greater interest in understanding the diversity of our patrons and creators on the site. The team wanted to know why our site skews generally more white and to some degree, more male. Getting that diversity on our team highlighted that issue for us and then helped us have the perspectives we needed to think through the challenges that people from different backgrounds and experiences have when they use our site. This helps us make a more inclusive product.

Jon Slavet: At WeWork, we have a unique advantage in some ways. Our customer is actually sitting next to us in the office. They're very diverse and they're very vocal. We bump into them in the hallway and we also have very structured ways to get their feedback. The one big takeaway would be - if you can actually figure out how to share space with your customers you learn a lot.

Susan Lee: I think it comes down to listening and knowing that there are other people out there that are going to tell you what needs to happen. We figured out a way to listen to our employees and customers. We have a gendered shopping experience. You go online you pick male or female. Ultimately this was great for data collection. When you walk into a store, our retail adviser has to decide if you are male or female. We had retail advisers who identified as transgender and those who identified as cisgendered and both groups felt uncomfortable trying to identify the customer. They told us, ‘this is problematic. It's not what the world is about today and it's not who we are as a company.’ The business listened to our advisers and we're trying to fix this.

How does your thinking about culture and the challenges that come with it change as you grow?

Lucia Guillory: One of the things that's changed as we've grown is the shift from developing culture through one-on-one conversations to developing culture through scalable systems. We’re thinking about the entire lifecycle and all of the different touch points that an employee has with the business. For instance, when we think about how we use Culture Amp, it used to be something that we would talk about with our teammates and that would be the extent of it. Now we’ve built it into the way that we interview, onboard, assess performance, and talk through promotion decisions.

Lucia Guillory Quote

Elizabeth Wolfson: We're four years old now with about 500 employees and we're more geographically distributed than when we first started. We also have retail stores, so we have people in the field versus just at the headquarters. We have to think about how we communicate to reach different employee sets. We need a common language to articulate things like our leadership behaviors and our core values.

Elizabeth Wolfson Quote

How much does a company’s culture affect the end consumer?

Elizabeth Wolfson: Out of the 500 or so people in our offices, I'd say about 75 of them are customer experience specialists. They are interacting with customers 100 percent of the time. Whether they’re selling or providing support, the environment they're in has a direct impact. The degree to which they understand our culture and values as a company translates directly into every line of an email they send, how they communicate, offer support and solve problems.


Learn more from the panelists as they discuss:

  • Tackling the growth and geography challenges of putting culture first (The panel’s most up-voted question from the audience)
  • How to choose the words that represent your culture
  • The business case for investing in culture
  • Intersectionality in diversity and inclusion
  • How are you thinking about workplace culture in the wake of #metoo?

Click here to watch the full video

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