Scaling Company Culture: 6 Lessons from HubSpot’s Katie Burke

How HubSpot scaled culture during rapid growth.

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HubSpot is a marketing software company with an impressive history of growth, but just as impressive as its growth trajectory is the organization’s commitment to building and maintaining a thriving company culture. From the orange-emblazoned walls of their headquarters to the wildly popular “culture code slide deck, HubSpot has leveraged its one-of-a-kind workplace to build a strong employment brand that attracts top talent.
But HubSpot’s company culture wasn’t built overnight. In the early days, co-founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah made a commitment to both business growth as well as the development of an authentic company culture. Their commitment endured the test of time, and after the company’s IPO in 2014, the founders named Katie Burke, a HubSpot veteran, the company’s new Vice President of Culture and Experience. Tasked with scaling the company’s culture across all five HubSpot locations, Burke was the company’s first full-time employee serving in this capacity, and now runs a team dedicated to culture and employee experience. Recently, we chatted with her about the relationship between culture and business growth, and the lessons she’s learned about both along the way.

How do you scale culture as your business grows?

#1 – Take culture seriously.

Building a strong company culture can help you drive growth, but only if approached strategically. “One of the main reasons why culture initiatives fail or tend not be viewed with seriousness is because they often lack a core business metric,” Burke explains. And, according to Burke, the only way to do that is by making culture relevant to actual business objectives. “One of the mistakes I see people making over and over again is trying to convince their C-level team to ‘do culture’ just because it’s ‘fun’,” she continues. While aspects of culture are certainly fun, it’s not about just an activity or a seasonal initiative. “You have to make a business case for culture. Explain why it actually matters to the business and show how it ties to core business objectives,” she says.

#2 – Connect culture to metrics.

It’s tempting to think that things like “culture” can’t be measured. The truth is, if you want to build a culture that attracts and retains top talent, you have to establish success metrics. Do you want to boost employee retention by a specific percentage? Attract more candidates for job openings next quarter? Improve employee happiness? Great. Document all of these goals, and then base your culture-building activities around hitting them. At HubSpot, Burke launches an employee happiness survey every single quarter. “The last employee happiness survey we did got 764 responses and I read every single one of them,” Burke says. After reviewing the data from the survey, it informs her goals and activities in the months that follow: she creates related action items and folds them into her broader plan for quarterly success. This allows her to proactively address employee feedback, provide tangible goals for culture work, and ensure that employees feel engaged in shaping the company culture.

#3 – Write it down.

One of the first projects Burke worked on at HubSpot was helping to market the Culture Code that co-founder Dharmesh Shah created. The 128-slide deck—which has almost two million views since it was shared in 2013—is “part manifesto and part employee handbook.” It outlines how HubSpotters think about everything from business transparency and time-off to how to use the company’s very active wiki (and more). But most importantly, HubSpot’s Culture Code is a clear articulation of a specific vision that serves as a blueprint for the company. “From my perspective, you need to not just make a great employment brand promise, you need to deliver on it,” Burke explains. An articulated culture code or manifesto helps employers understand how much progress they’ve made towards achieving their vision.

#4 – Obsess over employee experience.

Burke relies on HubSpot’s quarterly employee happiness surveys to guide her efforts, but she doesn’t stop there. “I obsess over our employee experience day in and day out, and over how we invest, differentiate, and keep great people who we attract to our brand,” she explains. But as Burke is quick to acknowledge, you’ve got to balance data and business with a personal touch. When HubSpot was named to Fortune’s best places to work, Burke’s team sent breakfast sandwiches and notes to employees thanking them for their contribution.

#5 – Think about culture early on.

With $114M in revenue (2014), HubSpot clearly has the resources to sink into developing their culture. But it wasn’t always that way. When co-founders Shah and Halligan first started out, observations about culture found its way into a HubSpot onboarding document. As the company grew rapidly, Shah saw a need for a more articulated vision for culture in the organization, not just for new hires, but for everyone in the company. That was how the famous Culture Code was born.  “The best companies are deliberate about culture. They design it and defend it,” Shah said in 2013. Today, Burke—and the rest of the HubSpot team—are doing exactly that, and she encourages other companies to do the same.

#6 – Make it aspirational.

When you’re first thinking about culture, there’s a ton of work to do. That’s why culture is partly aspirational—especially in the beginning. Burke advises businesses of every size to ask employees what they want, and be willing to act on what they share immediately. “I think you can do that, and I think you can do that for free. It doesn’t cost you any money, you just have to be diligent and committed to actually acting on what people tell you, and care deeply about it,” she explains.

What can you do to cultivate a winning company culture?

At HubSpot, culture education is baked into the employment brand and the candidate experience, so most people are familiar with it before their first day on the job. However, if you’re not quite there yet as a company, leverage your onboarding process to begin educating about culture. Think about drafting documents similar to HubSpot’s Culture Code and share them with new employees during this time. “If you think everyone knows what your culture is about, ask your newest and most junior employees to explain it in the same way you do. If they can’t, then you’re missing a huge opportunity,” Burke explains. To avoid this, utilize the onboarding process to share your vision for company culture, and make sure people’s expectations and experiences are similar, she advises. With a small investment of time, new hires—and the rest of your company—will start to unify around the guiding principles that will one day form a remarkable culture.
Start cultivating culture when it matters most: during onboarding. Download the Zenefits Guide to Onboarding: The First 30 Days now.

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