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Using Culture to Fuel Growth: CB Insights and the Four H’s

Kristen Craft on March 22, 2018 · 14 minute read

How do you exponentially grow your company while keeping your culture grounded?

It sounds like a contradiction, yet, that’s the very secret of success behind one of the tech industry’s fastest-growing companies.

In the last six years, CB Insights has gone from just a few million in revenue to healthy 8-figure millions in revenue, growing at a rate of about 100% YoY for the last few years. Despite having raised $10M in funding in 2015, they’ve built their product without touching it. And according to Jonathan Sherry, co-founder and COO of CB Insights, that’s worked wonders not only for their accounts but also for their culture.

Growing on revenue, not VC, means we control our own destiny. Our refusal to light money on fire kept us at the top of our game in 2016, and 2017 was even better. Our balance sheet is stronger than it’s ever been, and our culture is too.

A tech-market intelligence platform with the largest newsletter covering tech, venture, and corporate strategy, CB Insights ticks all the boxes of a successful company. What sets them apart, however, lies beneath the surface.

Evincing the customary cultural aggressiveness purportedly required for startups to “crush it,” CB Insights’ modus operandi rests squarely on four down-to-earth values: Helpful, Hungry, Happy, Humble.

Maybe you could catalog Hungry as a forward-propeller. But the other three values—a mushy feeling and two modesty-promoting attitudes—hardly seem like they could give rise to a hockey-stick growth graph. Yet, here it is.

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From 20ish to over 185 (currently) people in just three years—how’d they do it? By holding tight to their 4 H values—Helpful, Hungry, Happy, Humble—at all times. As Menaka Chang, VP of People Ops at CB Insights, says:

These 4 H’s are used all across CB Insights from who we hire to who we promote to how we train & educate our team. We continue applying and trying to foster the 4 H’s throughout the organization even as we’ve grown.

In an in-depth conversation with Menaka, we got a behind-the-scenes view of how CB Insights uses the 4 H’s of their culture to grow fast, maintaining their sensible and pragmatic culture and work ethos. Their recipe for success comes down to three crucial steps:
  • Recruiting the right candidates
  • Assessing employees to help them grow
  • Training managers and senior leaders to help others grow

Below, we take a close look at how exactly they apply each step and talk about how you can build similar strategies around your company culture to grow fast without breaking your team.

1. Recruiting for Your Specific Culture

There’s a lot of hype around startup culture and what it should or shouldn’t be.

CB Insights, however, has always had a clear plan about what their culture aimed at building:  “a startup for grownups.” Grownups that are—and want to continue being—Helpful, Hungry, Happy, and Humble both in life and at work.

But how do you hire for that? With recruitment being a company’s primary growth mechanism, you can’t approach the matter casually. Without the right people, you can’t grow in the right direction or at the right pace.

Solution: You vet for each and every one of those four values throughout your entire hiring process.

“You can have someone who sounds technically amazing and seem like they would be a perfect addition to the team based on their technical abilities. But then they don’t have the humility to join a team and collaborate with others. So to us, that means that they wouldn’t do well at CB Insights.”

Menaka and her team take team-fit very seriously during interviews. “Our recruiting process is pretty strict,” Menaka says, “and it’s gotten stricter. And that’s what made it possible for CB Insights to maintain the culture that we have.”

We’re not looking for people to fill seats, we’re looking for the right people for the right role.

The “right” people for your team aren’t simply those with good skills. Skills are only half of the recruiting equation. The right people also bring a mentality, attitude, and work ethic that matches the values of your company.

That’s why CB Insights has different interviews that incorporate cultural questions and one interview that even focuses entirely on culture fit. For example, asking a candidate to speak about a time they helped someone else on their team helps evaluate for collaboration, which is one aspect of Helpful. Or asking them to talk about why they want to join CB Insights specifically helps interviewers understand personal motivations, which fall under Hungry.

By scoring the answers to these questions on a rubric of bad, good, and great, Menaka and her team can assess how well a candidate would fit into the CB Insights culture. And though candidates may try to tailor an answer to what they think the interviewers want to hear, Menaka isn’t worried about impostors slipping through.

It’s really hard to fake those 4 H’s across numerous interviews with different members of our team looking for it.

CB Insights’ Glassdoor ratings certainly validate the effectiveness of their recruiting methods as they were recently named #9 on Glassdoor’s list of the top companies to work for in 2018.

You don’t need to guess how happy new recruits would be at your company. When you build your entire recruiting process on the basis of your values, rather than confine culture to a single question, you too will be able to figure out who’d be the best fit and who wouldn’t.

Designing a Recruiting Process around Your Values

For rapidly growing, successful companies that stick around for the long run, recruiting doesn’t happen by chance but moves by design. Careful design.

Here’s how to design a recruiting process that vets candidates for the right fit:

  • Get clear on your core values. What matters most to your team and the way you do your work? Are you looking for people who’ll happily pull weekly all-nighters to push out new features? Or are you looking for people who’ll happily leave the office at six to go walk their dog and have dinner with their families? Document these things well, so that you’re constantly reinforcing team alignment.
  • Have honest conversations with candidates about your culture and values. When candidates understand the expectations, they can assess and consider whether your culture offers the kind of environment they thrive in. Ideally, candidates should be able to read about your culture and values somewhere public, like your careers page. Hiring the world’s best coder for an exorbitant amount of money into a culture they can’t be happy in or thrive at won’t do either of you any good in the long run.
  • Build cultural questions and assessments throughout your entire hiring process, not just the culture interview. For example, does the candidate exhibit creative thinking and initiative in a simulated project with a future manager or do they follow instructions to a T? Depending on your values and the type of role you’re hiring for, both of those scenarios can potentially be positive or negative. The important thing is to know what you’re assessing for.

2. Taking Your Culture Pulse

Culture is not a set-it-and-forget-it mechanism.

It’s a living, breathing, shifting entity that makes its presence felt throughout your entire organization for as long as your organization exists.

Just like anything else living, culture reacts to how you treat it. Neglect it, and it will grow mean and withered. Feed it, love it, groom it, and it will grow strong, happy, and healthy.

That’s why taking a regular culture pulse around your company is crucial for continual growth and success. If the values for which people joined your team are not present in your daily workflow and processes, neither will team members stay present in your team for long.

CB Insights makes sure that new hires begin experiencing the values they discussed during hiring from day one.

Even from onboarding, people are assigned a buddy to help support them so they’re able to see from the beginning, that Helpful, for example, is not just what we’re saying; it’s actually what we’re doing.

Onboarding, of course, is only step one of a much longer trajectory. More experienced team members also need reminders on values as well as reassurance that you’re still operating on those same principles, as flows and processes radically shift and change during periods of rapid growth.

In the early days, Menaka says, it was easy to know what was going on around the company and how team members were feeling simply by talking to various people on the team. Once they started pushing 100 people, however, they needed a better way of checking into the health of their culture. That’s when Menaka started implementing engagement surveys across the team.

“Our engagement survey last year happened at a company level but was dissected on a manager and department level. That way we could see what’s going on, what the areas of improvement are, what teams are seeing, and what teams are feeling in different parts of the organization.”

Knowing how employees feel is only the beginning. The point is to then act on that information with activities that can give your culture that needed care and attention. And, often, these activities have nothing to do with performance per se.

Monthly happy hours, a new hire social every quarter, and bi-weekly team lunches are just a few of the activities that the People Ops team at CB Insights organize to help team members connect and build relationships. Relationships, in turn, help boost employee happiness and collaboration, can spark ideas and connection that feed the team’s hunger for growth and help remind everyone of how amazing their coworkers are.

Though seemingly casual on the surface, these kinds of activities are what help nurture the Helpful, Hungry, Happy, and Humble in every CB Insighter.

Socials and outings, however, shouldn’t be the only cultural activities at your company. Your culture and values should guide how your team performs their work on a daily basis. Performance reviews are a great opportunity for assessing how well team members uphold those values and offer correctives where needed.

At CB Insights, culture assessments are part of the standard operating procedure.

One of the categories that we assess people on are those 4 H’s.

The tricky part in assessing company culture comes in defining which actions, activities, or attitudes exemplify your values.

“Happy,” Menaka explains, “doesn’t mean having a smile on your face. It’s more about having a can-do attitude […] and not always shooting ideas down. Helpful can be someone who’s going to devote the time to really help others learn, to help them do their job more easily, or to just help support the team.”

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Is your culture thriving or dying? It all depends on how much care and attention you’ve been devoting to it—and how much you will devote to promoting good attitudes and habits, starting now.

Creating a Cultural Assessment for Your Team

  • Build your core values into your onboarding. Take an honest assessment of your onboarding process. How does it communicate company values? Does it promote and support them? Where do you see opportunities for improvement? How will you let new hires know when they’re incorporating your values and when they’re not?
  • Set up an engagement survey for your team. This is the easiest and least “threatening” way (both for you and your team) to dive into this assessment. How happy do team members feel about coming to work every day? What things excite them most? What could improve their overall happiness at work? These are all important considerations for making culture adjustments when needed.
  • Assess how your company promotes your values. If collaboration is in your values, do you set up team members with opportunities to work together? If you value a balanced life, are you making sure team members can get home on time? Once you define what attitudes and behaviors embody your values, share them with your team and then (and only then) incorporate them into your evaluation system. Remember culture isn’t something that employees obey but an environment you’re all working in.

3. Training on Culture

People in senior leadership and management positions are your culture beacons.

If they don’t respect and uphold your culture, neither will the rest of your team. What’s more, your team will adopt whatever values your senior leadership projects as your company’s culture—no matter what the values stuck on the main office wall say.

That’s why it’s important to train your leaders and managers on culture, whether they rise through the ranks of your own team or they come from the outside.

At CB Insights, the co-founders still interview every single candidate at the final stage before offering. If your team setup or size doesn’t allow you to do that, the important takeaway from this example is that you need leadership buy-in for successful culture. As Menaka stresses for CB Insights:

Leadership buy-in is definitely there and it’s what made CB Insights culture as successful as it has been.

What you’ll discover as your team grows, especially if at a rapid pace, is that you won’t be able to maintain one monolithic culture across all your teams. Important as it is to preserve and disseminate your culture’s core values, it’s just as important to allow and even nurture complementary micro-cultures to develop within specific teams.

That’s why training your leaders and managers on culture, and on how to foster and grow the particular micro-cultures of their teams, becomes crucial to your company’s growth.

At CB Insights, Menaka uses the results of the employee engagement survey as jumping-off points for manager training. Once the data is in, Menaka shares them with each manager and discusses areas of improvement with them. And it’s not all the same across teams.

“It can be completely different things,” Menaka says. People can express dissatisfaction on “the autonomy of their work, on how well the team is communicating with each other, what kind of information is being shared with everyone. So it’s not just on their own work, it could be more about team dynamics as well.”

Once the manager settles on three-to-five areas that need the most attention, the manager takes those areas back to the team to choose the one or two that they want to fix in the next months. The team will create a plan together on how to implement those changes in the next three months.

Menaka offers suggestions and guidance to help managers steer their team in the right direction as it becomes the managers’ responsibility to follow through with their team’s desires. They’re the ones who must set the right tone, processes, and habits for their team through their actions and decisions in their day-to-day work.

Training managers on how to provide support to teams and helping them apply the company’s culture and values around their specific process can make all the difference between a team that’s doing okay and one that’s growing off the charts.

Approaching Leadership Training

If you set up the right expectations and processes for cultural development with the key people in your company, it will be much easier to spread your culture across your team and maintain it at high levels.

  • Ensure that your leadership team exemplifies your culture. Are founders and top managers acting out the values of the company in their daily work and communications with team members? If not, it may be a good time to have a leadership meeting to discuss ways you can improve.
  • Evaluate the pain points of each team. What do your surveys say about employee engagement across the company and within specific teams? Where do issues show up? You need to have a clear idea of how each team thinks and feels before constructing any solutions.
  • Train managers to design solutions for those points. What does each manager need to pay attention to? What issues do they need to discuss with their particular team? Have them come up with a plan of the one thing they’ll fix next month and the steps they’ll take with their team to get there.

Leading with Your Culture

Culture is not an afterthought or by-product of a team. Your culture is the main guide and driver of your growth.

The sooner you realize that and the sooner you do a thorough cultural assessment of your company, the sooner you’ll be able to lead your team towards exponential growth.

The founding team of CB Insights realized this early on and went all in on culture from the get-go.

“We really feel very strongly about those 4 H’s. They’re a huge part of CBI’s culture and why it’s such a great place to be.”

If you want to grow your company and keep an awesome team with you on the long, upward ride ahead, you need to start leading with your culture—not the bottom line.