Several years ago, as HubSpot began to scale, the company’s leadership focused on making sure its growth did not send its culture careening off the rails. The marketing software firm decided to embrace an unusual approach.
“[We thought] about our culture truly as a product,” explains Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot. “How would I develop this if it were a product? What would be most important? What kind of customer feedback would we care about? How would we make sure it had a point of view?”
The result was a 128-page Culture Code deck that outlines exactly what makes HubSpot tick. Since being shared publicly, this slide deck has been viewed over 3.9 million times. More importantly, it serves as a yardstick that helps HubSpot ensure it never loses its heart (literally, as you’ll see shortly).
So, I sat down with Katie to find out how HubSpot defined, built, and adapted its Culture Code. Our conversation became a recent episode in my 21st Century HR podcasts. This series, which I launched in February, examines modern people practices, doing deep dives on topics ranging from job postings to performance management, from diversity and inclusion to pay transparency. In this episode, we explore how the HubSport Culture Code impacts every aspect of the employee experience.
Document your company’s culture to illuminate your values and guiding principles — and to create a map of where you are and where you want to go
Codifying your company culture is about more than just putting your current culture into words. There’s an aspirational element to it too. By outlining who you want to be, you can start defining the values and actions that will help you get there.
HubSpot’s Culture Code deck makes no secret of this: “[This document is] part who we are and part who we aspire to be.”
Still, there’s a fine line between aspirational and unrealistic.
“Matching the rhetoric to reality in culture is so hard that very few companies do it,” Katie says. “It’s still aspirational for us every day.”
To ensure the code is more than just pretty words, HubSpot outlined seven overarching tenets that the company tries to live by. These include a commitment to autonomy and a love of challenging the status quo.
Another core tenet is transparency. That’s actually what drove HubSpot to make the Culture Code public in the first place.
But that doesn’t mean transparency is always easy. “[I was surprised by] the number of people who actually didn’t want us to share it with the world,” Katie recalls. “They felt, very much like your grandmother’s chili recipe, that this is something near and dear. And what if our competitors copy it?”
To build trust among its employees, HubSpot helped them understand that what makes the culture special is not what they say about it. It’s what they do as a company — and sharing the Culture Code was part of that.
“Think of your culture as a living, breathing product,” Katie says. “Every leader at HubSpot bears the responsibility for making sure that they think about their team’s culture and their contributions to our overall culture as a product.”
Gather employee feedback but remember that you can’t please everybody
As you would with any new product, HubSpot gathered feedback from users (in this case, leaders and employees) before rolling out its code. But the company avoided focus-grouping the culture to death and losing what made it special in the first place.
“I love employee engagement in getting your culture code right,” Katie says. “It’s been critical to our success. But it’s really important that people know there were employees who didn’t agree with every single thing that was in it when it launched. There are still employees who don’t agree with every single element of it.”
This is one of the trickiest aspects of creating and refining a culture code: finding the right balance between giving employees a voice and not trying to please everybody. Odds are, something that everyone can fully agree on is actually quite bland.
“I’ve never seen a CEO,” Katie notes, “who says, ‘We want to attract average people with average interests, with average passion.’ If you’re doing your culture code right, it’s as important for the people it keeps out as those that it draws in. And so, as a result, you actually have to be willing to have a point of view.”
With this in mind, HubSpot’s Code clearly outlines the five core values it looks for in employees, along with examples of what these values look like in practice. HubSpot wants people who are humble, empathetic, adaptable, remarkable, and transparent. In short, it wants people with HEART.
These values won’t speak to everyone, and that’s OK — HubSpot isn’t trying to hire everyone. Codifying your culture in a way that’s actually reflective of who you are is what will help you attract the kind of people you want to hire.
Your culture has to evolve, so find people who will make it bigger and stronger
HubSpot isn’t afraid to make adjustments to the Culture Code as the company grows and evolves. While most are minor, some are more foundational — like the decision to change the E in HEART from effective to empathetic.
Katie says they don’t want to change the code constantly and risk confusing employees, but they’re also comfortable with the idea that it’s not set in stone.
This mind-set also helps HubSpot steer clear of one potential pitfall of having a strong culture: using it as an excuse not to hire people who aren’t like everyone else on the team.
“If you do have a really strong culture,” Katie says, “one of your ethical obligations as a leader is to make sure that having a strong culture isn’t an excuse to hire for sameness. Saying that is one thing; you actually have to walk the walk on training people how to think about that.”
HubSpot’s Culture Code explicitly calls out the difference between a culture fit and a culture add by saying: “Our best people don’t just fit our culture, they further it.”
“When we first launched the culture-add component, that was aspirational,” Katie admits. “We weren’t quite there yet on enforcing it.”
HubSpot provided training for those involved in the interviewing process on how to ask questions tied to the company’s core values and what evidence to look for. If a candidate tended to brag, for example, they might clash with the company’s core value of humility. This might be a valid reason to reject them, as opposed to a vague feeling that they wouldn’t fit in.
“How can you, as a recruiter,” Katie asks, “push back if someone says, ‘Nah, Lars just wouldn’t be a good fit to our team. I just didn’t see it.’ That’s not a good reason — you need to provide a specific example.”
Everybody can see your Culture Code, so you’d better live up to it
As you start to develop your own Culture Code, you’ll also have to decide whether or not to make it public. But public or private, make no mistake — people can see whether or not you’re acting on it.
This is another instance where it helps to think of your culture as a product. Just as consumers use online reviews to guide their purchasing decisions, today’s candidates can use social media to find out what your culture is all about and whether you live by it.
“Right now, if someone wanted to tweet, ‘Does anyone know anyone at HubSpot? What’s it like? Do they live true to their Culture Code?’ — they don’t have to come through me for that,” Katie points out. “On any platform, they’re likely to get a response.”
One way that HubSpot focuses on living its values is by tying promotion decisions back to the Culture Code. The company also offers peer bonuses every quarter, asking employees to nominate team members who demonstrated a core value.
“In addition to getting a note and a nice surprise,” Katie says, “you’re getting feedback on how you actually embodied one of HubSpot’s values on a day-to-day basis. It really empowers all of our employees to not just see that behavior but also reward it actively and to call that out.”
Create, iterate, and embody
Ultimately, while documenting your culture is important, it can never be a one-and-done process. Constant iteration and action are essential for a Culture Code to become more than just words on a page.
“Creating the Culture Code was incredibly hard,” Katie says, “don’t get me wrong. But living it every day is the hardest work that we do collectively as a leadership team and as a company. [The code] makes it, frankly, so much easier to prioritize thinking about culture day to day as a business priority — and [is] part of our competitive advantage at HubSpot.”