Your culture doesn’t actually matter, unless you make it public.

I was recently at a roundtable of executives talking about how to make our workplaces safer for employee mental health. One woman challenged us to, “have the balls to be vulnerable as leaders in front of your team”. And on the way home I realized that not only was she right, that actually it goes further – you have to have the balls to vulnerable in front of your customers. In that spirit, here’s a public blog post about two ways I (we) try to do this at Pickaxe.

– Andrew Grosso

In the last few years, especially since 2020, policies to support mental health and work-life balance have become widespread in workplaces across industries. Obviously you can’t have mental health if you don’t feel safe, so the most important tier of efforts focus on safety, combating bullying and all the isms, and promoting awareness of and accessibility of resources. The next layer is around workplace culture

Why bother?

This is a no brainer. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it helps the bottom line. Any sports fan knows that unhealthy work cultures destroy success. And all successful teams have team members that feel supported for who they are, are challenged, and have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them in their role. That’s true in any work culture as well.

Expectations & Consistency 

For us, one key to a healthier workplace is setting the expectations around communication.  For example, we do expect the team to have Slack on their phone and to be available in case of emergency.  BUT we know that can lead to lack of boundaries so we also have a “don’t slack the team on the weekend” policy.  That way if there truly is an emergency, we know who we can call and reach out to. And if there isn’t, they can have their weekend free and wake up to the messages on Monday.  For me, nights and weekends are often a productive time so I have to use the Send Later function like it’s my default. However, even these policies ask the team to be vulnerable. For them to take a mental health day, or to save a Slack message for later, even if it’s technically “allowed”, is to open oneself up to being perceived as not working “hard enough” or not “focused on success”. So how can leaders make these policies mean something in order to sustain change? By also being consistently vulnerable – with clients, and internally.

Vulnerability with clients

It’s a wonderful thing to create cultural norms around well-being and work-life balance internally. And it’s even better to document those norms, codify them as official policies, and keep our team accountable for following them. But when you work with clients, it’s temptingly easy to throw those policies out the window.

Everyone wants to make customers happy – but sometimes, a client’s desires and timelines can supplant the workplace norms around well-being that we’re supposed to be maintaining. And if our policies are going to actually mean something, we need to be brave enough to be vulnerable and honest with our customers about them.

We do this by walking through our hours and staffing plans during a Ways of Working section in any project kickoff and often during the sales process.  Sharing these policies is necessary for the client – because if clients aren’t clear on how things work, the policies may as well not exist at all! And it shows our team that we’re giving a consistent message internally and externally.

How we do it and how do Customers React?

It’s a little scary to first share this with clients. Who wants to work with partners that say they don’t work on weekends?!  (To be clear, we’ve worked plenty of late nights and weekends. You have to with over 25 Launches under our belt! Also, three World Cups!) And we want to present ourselves as always available, always attentive – reliable in a way that’s almost unrealistic. And that’s why we spent time defining in advance when and why we’ll work outside of business hours.

Having that rubric defined together can be a powerful way to put clients at ease, especially in the sales process. These conversations are great opportunities to discuss how you’ll identify what is and isn’t an emergency and how the team will handle, and how you’ll provide coverage during projects that require off-hours work. Putting in the thought to figure out how these situations will be managed demonstrates to clients that you’re thinking carefully about their needs, rather than simply nodding and saying “of course, we can do that!” And it may be surprising how many customers will appreciate and lean into these boundaries.

Vulnerability with candidates

At Pickaxe, we have a team handbook that we use for onboarding – all new employees go through it, and it’s one of the ways we communicate how things work here. This handbook is written by our employees themselves, and when new employees reach 90 days, they have the opportunity to contribute to the document. “You’re only new once!” is one of our mantras, and we like to take advantage of a fresh perspective to correct mistakes or missing information, so this resource can be as useful as possible.

But to be consistent, we also walk candidates through the onboarding doc during the interview process. Candidates learn how their onboarding works, what a typical work week looks like, and what would be expected of them if they take the job. And how existing employees have thought it important to document things for others.

It’s a set of google slides, it’s not sexy, and it was a little nerve wracking the first time we did it. But it’s important to be candid with potential employees before it’s too late.  They don’t/won’t all like our culture.  But our goal is for every employee who starts to say, “Yup, this is exactly what I signed up for”.

Our core values have always been Accuracy, Empathy, and Utility.  And setting realistic expectations and communicating them is probably the easiest and most important way we meet them. So while vulnerability itself isn’t a core value, it sure as hell is an effective tactic for delivering on them.

Even if it’s scary at first.

“...have the balls to be vulnerable..."

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