Mike is the Chief Builder of Awesome People at his consulting firm, Multiple Hats Management, where he works with organisations through Learning & Development, management, facilitation, and unconscious bias consulting. Mike’s expertise comes from years as a learning and development leader in the Silicon Valley, most notably and most recently at Facebook, where he helped the company create, define, and build its famously awesome culture. Mike is the author of a new book called This Is Now Your Company: A Culture Carrier’s Manifesto.
You can listen to the conversation on iTunes, Acast and other podcasting apps. What follows here are excerpts from our conversation with Mike, edited for length and clarity.
Agnes Uhereczky: May I ask you Mike to tell listeners a little bit about yourself and your passion? What gets you up in the morning?
Mike Rognlien: As you mentioned, my new book, This Is Now Your Company, has been recently published which I wrote after my 6,5 years experience at Facebook. One of the things that has been consistent throughout my career is that I worked in the learning and development (L&D) space. What was really interesting about the work at Facebook - and every other company I worked for - is that they changed in size considerably between the time I started working there and the moment when I left. For instance, when I left Microsoft they had about 100 or 105 000 employees, after which I went straight to Facebook where they had only 1700 staff members.
"Hire great weirdos and manage them well."
What my drive was is that I really wanted to see if it was possible with a good group of people to build a company the way that I’d always wanted an organisation to function. I was keen to see if we could build it from the ground up using some of the skills that eventually I finally ended up writing about in the book. I advocate, and feel passionate about, for everyone to be an owner of their career and the culture of the organisation where they work. I also feel strongly about everyone being clear about who they are, what their identity is and for them to try to be that person 24 hours a day instead of being one version at work and one version everywhere else.
One significant factor that inspired me to write the book was the number of people that would come to visit Facebook and then they would ask about the culture of the company. This, particularly at Facebook, was similar to other tech corporations: the organisational culture of these tech giants is so important part of the entire structure that it attracts people to wanting to work there. So, I decided to write about the things that I think we did really well and that other companies and people could do themselves.
Agnes Uhereczky: You mentioned both Microsoft and Facebook. These are really big and iconic companies that most of our listeners familiar with. What happens when somebody goes to work for one of these iconic tech companies? Do new employees get “sucked in” easily? Is it difficult to maintain your sense of selves in this strong identity group?
Mike Rognlien: This is one of the key things I often talked about when I was doing employee orientation, because it is one of those events that has a disproportionate impact on how people see themselves in relation to the company. What we told people on their first couple of days and weeks was: You are joining a company that is filled with thousands of people; but what we emphasized was that they needed to be themselves still, as we did not want them to adopt an identity, or a specific ways of doing things. We really wanted them to contribute authentically, which is a huge challenge. Most of the time whether people are asked to do it or not is the “I have always done these things this way in my old job, so when I’d come to the new company I would do those things by default even though I did not necessarily want to” way of thinking. I call this organisational Stockholm syndrome in the book. What we really wanted to highlight and express to people on their first days was that they would get a sense very quickly of how we get things done, and that we want them to add to that, and want them to be themselves in the process.
I think one of the things that make companies suffer is that people come in from the outside and assume that there is an absolute right or wrong way to get things done, and that’s their job to figure out which one is which one. If you try to be innovative and constantly try to raise your bar should not just only mean that you can accomplish it at your company, but the way through which you can accomplish it is equally important. And that is what culture is. It is the sum total of how everybody contributes to get things done.
Agnes Uhereczky: There have been lately a lot of articles in the media about Silicon Valley having diversity issues to a certain degree. These articles also claim that the Valley becomes an echo chamber. Do talent only arrive from a selected number of companies and talent pools? Is this something that you also experienced?
Mike Rognlien: I think, to a certain extent, there is probably a large echo chamber in the Silicon Valley. It is partially because there is so many people working on such similar things across so many different companies that if you are not watching for it, it is certainly possible to create an environment where you reject anything that isn’t pre-determined to fit a mold. One of the things that I had the chance to work on when I was there melds the topic of identity and diversity. We also built a class on unconscious bias. What we really wanted to work on was increasing the type of diversity that we had in the company, and also making sure that once those people were there they were able to be themselves and be successful in contributing ways that was authentic.
"It is a constant big experiment in the Silicon Valley in every sense."
The interesting thing from an authenticity perspective, I think, is that everybody struggles with it. I think even if you look at people that are in the majority group, there is still a significant unspoken pressure in any cultural group to have people behave in a certain way that’s familiar. And, one of the things we tell people is that: we really do want you to be yourself; whatever that means.
At the same time, and I wrote about this in the chapter of multiple identities, it doesn’t mean that nobody is ever going to ask you: hey, why do you dress like this. Because if it's significantly different than what people used to, our brain is going to notice it, it is going to stand out and we will raise an eyebrow. What we try to do is to create an environment where everyone can behave in a different way, and about which people can have a meaningful discussion.
Diversity and inclusion is such a huge beast of a topic even in itself. But I think when you bring that many people together - for instance, Facebook doubled its size every year when I was there, we went from 1700 when I started to about 21 000 when I left - in an expanding and global environment, you also have to give yourself room to either make mistakes or move a little bit quickly and then get feedback and slow down. It is a constant big experiment in the Silicon Valley in every sense.
Agnes Uhereczky: We believe at the WorkLife HUB that in the creation of well functioning and inclusive company we have to break the mold of the ideal worker model which is a uniform, artificial persona that we create when we go to work. What is your opinion? How someone can live his or her authentic self at work and at home?
Mike Rognlien: For me it just never been in my approach to try and be one person at work and one person outside of work. It is just too much mental energy. One of the things that I told people when they were visiting executives at Facebook, or I would speak at conferences, is that there is a significant business ROI to encouraging people and allowing them to be themselves at work. The amount of time and energy that people, who aren't giving their authentic selves, spend to constantly mental switching is just not sustainable. This is what I was talking about at Facebook: instead of spending that really precious mental energy on identity switching, your focus should be on using that energy to solve real business problems. The reputation that you will build for being able to do that will far exceed any value you might think you are getting from being 3 or 5 different versions of yourself at work.
Agnes Uhereczky: One thing that I picked up on what you have just said before was also the issue of not treating employees like children. If this New World of Work is about something then it is about recognizing that people are adults and they here to do a great work, so organisations should focus on removing all the blocks that stop them from it. What do you think about this?
Mike Rognlien: This is such a fundamental part of the book because one of the things that I have found over and over again is that the biggest block is not the company nor the manager, it is the individual him or herself. This often comes up at classes that I facilitate. One of the first comments I hear is: does my manager do this really well, or, does the company do this properly - sort of comments. Our initial reaction is to deflect and give away all of our influence to other people because we tell ourselves that it is going to be impossible for one person to really drive. But you don’t have to drive a strengths based culture for the entire company just to pursue yours.
What my book encourages people to do is to say that every behaviour, thought, decision or action combined is what a company culture is. At the end of the day what I wish people would focus on more instead of worrying about compliance is IMPACT. If people focus on utility and impact more than compliance and regulation those companies just naturally going to perform better in the long term. However it is not going to be easy or painless, but ultimately worth it.
Agnes Uhereczky: If I could ask you Mike to give one advice to a CEO based on everything you learnt in the writing process of the book what would be your key advice?
Mike Rognlien: The biggest piece of advice that I would give to any C-level executive is to create a culture in which everybody acknowledges their ownership role. The clients that I work with now often have a natural inclination to look at themselves first - in some cases exclusively, both from the level of executives and employees - if they are bringing me in to influence a change. One of the things that we did in Facebook really well, which was not a secret, was that we expected that everybody was going to own their role and nothing at the company was somebody else's problem to fix.
To the benefit of the listeners let me highlight one more inspirational quote from another author, Joseph Grenny, who co-wrote the bestseller Crucial Conversations: “Every company reinvents its culture every day by the decision they make the ways that they get things done and if you don’t like the way your culture is today make different decisions tomorrow”. This certainly can start at the C level, but everybody has to own it.