Clarity: The Secret (Engagement) Ingredient

 Mug that says “does this make me look engaged” with engagement ring - Photo by  Jose Martinez  on  Unsplash

Mug that says “does this make me look engaged” with engagement ring - Photo by Jose Martinez on Unsplash

In the tradition of the diamond engagement ring, clarity is essential. The importance of the ring and the perspective on diamonds has shifted, and this is a story about people, not gemstones, but the value of clarity still rings true.

This is a story about a time in rTraction’s history when we tried to engineer our culture without being clear about why. We knew that our culture was important, but we didn’t know exactly what our problem was, so we couldn’t have known how to solve it. We knew that our culture was part of our story, but we hadn’t quite landed on our purpose.

Culture matters. I think we all know that. It matters for a variety of reasons:

  • Most of us will spend at least 90,000 hours at work in our lifetimes, and we want that time to mean something.

  • As businesses, we need to attract the best talent and keep them coming back.

  • The people who join our teams are an extension of our salesforce no matter their roles, and it’s preferable that they evangelize our brands rather than unloading about us on Twitter.

Those are just a few reasons. You may have some of your own.

At some point in your business journey, you’ll likely find yourself wanting to make your culture better. That may be why you’re here today. If you’re a small- to medium-sized business without much in the way of an HR organization, you may start with a blog post from a company you love and the latest TED talk thinking you have all you need to get started. HR pros are likely horrified by this notion, but it’s a fairly common path for a scrappy business with a heart of gold.

We’ve done it... a few times. We’ve started from quite a few blog posts (we’ve had a lot of culture crushes over the years) and TED talks. We’ve worshipped at the altars of Dan Pink and Seth Godin, inspired by their takes on what motivates people and what drives remarkable experiences. We’ve pulled from their inspiration and tried to engineer our culture around what we saw… without first taking a look at whether we were fixing the right thing.

We went through a period of significant growth when this was top of mind. We had grown from about 13 people to about 40 in a relatively short amount of time. We needed to attract top technical talent for a BIG FISH at the same time as we needed to grow our creative and client-facing team to serve our agency work. We built strategies to give a window into our culture so we could attract that top talent. If you were watching and know some of our distinguished alumni, you’d no doubt agree that we did an excellent job of attracting great people to us.

As we grew, we noticed that we created what felt like two different businesses (we later rebranded to reflect the distinction between our offerings). Yet, we threw ourselves into protecting a shared culture between lines of business, and this is where it really got tricky. Both internally and in the community, we had muddied the waters. We weren’t overtly trying to be everything to everyone, but we weren’t exactly clear about who we were.

To try to find that internal cohesion, we wanted to hear from our team. With a nod to the Dan Pink school of thought, we asked what autonomy, mastery, and purpose might look like through a series of discussions so we could figure out how to create meaningful work for the team we had built so that we could make them happy. Based on that feedback, we crafted a thirteen question sales qualification form to ensure that meaningful work was the only work that we qualified. Of course, this made it challenging to close new business, and even when we did, we found that the work still didn’t always make people happy.

I’ve outlined quite a few issues here and would like to pause briefly to say this: we have always had a team of awesome and talented people who do great work and care about each other, and we’re proud of that.

Back to our programming… we found ourselves at a crossroads. In part, it was because the big fish was no longer in our little pond. In part, it was because of that confusion I mentioned earlier. We realized we needed to evaluate where we were to figure out where we were going, and it was quite a journey.

Step one of that was to learn what drove people, and we did that through a series of exercises. We asked the whole team to identify what mattered most to them using a dot democracy exercise wherein our team placed dots on statements that indicated their values. That’s when we realized that we had actually developed three separate cultures within our two separate brands. We had people who cared about money and impact, money and tools, and tools and impact. We had quite the conundrum on our hands, and knew that we had to take a good look at who we were.

Incidentally, we found it easiest to start with who we weren’t. We weren’t a product company. We weren’t necessarily dedicated to a specific sector. We weren’t necessarily chasing the latest and greatest in technology. As you might imagine, that realization revealed to some folks that rTraction was not the company for them. It was painful for us to lose great people, of course.

Yet, we kept digging in to our vision and our messaging. We asked for help. We laboured over it (and continue to clarify as we go). We pulled our team through the process of hearing who we are, where we think we’re going, and how they can contribute.

And a funny thing happened along the way… In the same year as we had lost a substantial portion of our team, we also ended up with the best employee survey results we’d ever seen in the areas that matter most. Incidentally, we built the questions around what autonomy, mastery, and purpose might look like.

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Our sales close rate on qualified leads increased to 70%. Our projects are delivered within 10% of budget. When we check in with our clients (which is each time we deliver), our average rating is 90%. That’s the power of engagement.

Our lesson was that the secret to engagement is clarity. Our opportunity through a challenging couple of years was to take the time to really figure out who we are: an impact marketing company that aligns people, purpose, and work so that organizations can achieve their full potential.

As we continue to become more clear, we help our team to understand where they add value so they can work with autonomy, to master what we all need need to do well in order for rTraction to do well, and identify whether or not we’re working in alignment with our own purpose.

Rachel Berdan