The Contribution Culture: How Founders are Scaling the Generalized Job Description

The Contribution Culture: How Founders are Scaling the Generalized Job Description

The Contribution Culture: How Founders are Scaling the Generalized Job Description 1600 900 33Voices

If you ask Daniel Chait what his highest goal is for Greenhouse, he’ll respond by declaring that companies that use the software feel confident and in control of their hiring process.

From sourcing candidates to streamlining the interview process, Greenhouse is a recruiting optimization platform used by companies like Airbnb and Pinterest.

Daniel’s favorite interview question is: “How did you contribute to your organization outside of your job description?” 

The story he shared about his office manager Elon ensuring that the building was up to fire code and working on employee compensation inspired me to reimagine how we build, manage and speak to our teams.

The people who make the biggest difference are the people who find their own problems to solve and solve them without you telling them to.

Daniel on hiring initiators.

One of the benefits of working with a small team is that everyone pitches in to help. Job descriptions simply aren’t prescriptive when you’re working around the kitchen table. 

While it’s an important and natural progression for roles to become more specialized with scale,  specialization shouldn’t come at the cost of the creativity and experimentation that got you to where you are today.  

Whether you’re a team of four or four hundred, it’s vital to cling onto the curiosity and rookie smarts that make the early days so special. 

We’re excited to kick off our summer blog series with Arian Radmand, Brittany Hodak, Liz Wessel, Mike Townsend, Munjal Shah, and Paul Berry explaining how they encourage their team members to work like Elon. 

Arian Radmand, Founder and Director of Engineering at CoachUp

What it all boils down to is focusing on outcomes instead of tasks.  At my previous companies, it was sometimes hard to visualize how one person’s individual contributions affected the overall business.  So when we started CoachUp, we really wanted to make sure that everyone understood the primary business focuses at a high level and could see how their efforts tied in to one (or many) of those areas.

At CoachUp, we have a bi-weekly company meeting where the CEO shares the major initiatives we’re focused on at a high level.  Everyone understands what we’re striving to achieve, so when it comes to individual ‘roles’ at CoachUp, I always reiterate that outcomes are more important than just working in your role.  In this capacity, individuals have a great degree of freedom to contribute in any way they feel necessary to achieve the desired result.

When you start a business, it’s understood that people are going to have to wear many hats and fill numerous roles at once.  The best way to enable team members to contribute to the overall business outside of their individual job is what we like to call ‘smart autonomy’. This involves educating everyone on the team about what we’re trying to accomplish, but leaving it up to the individuals to figure out how to get things done.

Specifically, when it comes to our engineering team, we’ve built our entire development process around this ‘smart autonomy’ principle.  Although engineers are assigned specific tasks to complete, more emphasis is placed on the outcome that the task was intended to produce.  We have a weekly retrospective at the end of every week where team members share what worked and what didn’t work for them.  This environment is often where we make changes to our process to make us more efficient as a whole, as well as where the rest of the team has an opportunity to find out about new ideas / tools / resources that others have used effectively.  It’s a judgement-free zone where everyone is encouraged to share their thoughts, which we’ve found leads to the betterment of the company overall.

Brittany Hodak, Co-founder of ZinePak

​At a startup, it’s critical that all employees feel empowered to share their ideas, because innovation and improved efficiencies can come from anywhere. At ZinePak, we have regular “town hall” meetings where all employees are encouraged to brainstorm openly.​

Mike Townsend, Co-Founder of HomeHero

We have a culture aggressively focused on collaborative creativity across departments (support, engineering, marketing, growth, sales etc). This means that people in various departments frequently contribute ideas and opportunities to improve to others.

We have a “Dream it, Plan it, Do it” culture. Every week we split up into new “Idea Teams” or groups of 3 employees each working in different departments. Each group meets for about 45 mins during the week and shares what each other has been working on. The time is completely dedicated to educating each other about challenges we’re facing and creative apps/hacks we’re using to be more productive. It’s also time to bond with people on a personal level across disciplines normally wouldn’t interact on a daily basis.

We use a Trello board and separate ideas into departmental lists and we actively encourage our team to contribute to other lists. This allows us to capture the best ideas from 20+ people and have conversations simultaneously on over 100 ideas at once.

Creativity requires education and inspiration, having both Idea Partners and Trello Lists give our team the tools to learn from each other and contribute ideas that make us better.  

Liz Wessel, Co-Founder and CEO of Campus Job 

Easy: I don’t hire people who I think will only want to work within their job description. With respect to getting people to feel comfortable sharing new ideas, our team meetings are very open places where we often hold brainstorming sessions or throw out ideas for everyone to ponder about. We’re also huge about one-on-one’s; everyone in the company needs to have a one-on-one with their manager at least once per week, and managers are encouraged to get new ideas and feedback in those sessions.

Munjal Shah, Co-Founder and CEO of Health IQ

The easiest thing to do is to focus your team, each person or each group of people, on a certain metric. Then their goal is to move that number or objective. Usually what happens is that they’ll go well beyond. They won’t just do their part to move it, or what their skills allow. They’ll figure out something else. 

For example, we were trying to move a metric and our statistician was taking some algorithmic approaches. When he said ‘Hey, Let’s go hire an intern to build a whole database,’ which is outside of his job, he went out, got them, and made it happen. 

You should get people goal oriented rather than responsibility oriented. There are no tittles on our website. There are a couple of us who have them because we need them for external reasons but internally we don’t have any. It just says co-founder. Internally, what I have, says ‘This is the person in charge of the quality of our quizzes of the day. Are they an engineer? Maybe. Does that say anything on their job description? No, just ‘You’re in charge of this. You make this thing happen.’ I don’t care if you’re an engineer or a product manager, we cross it over and make it happen.

There’s a technique on new ideas that’s stolen from comedy. If you ever take a comedy class, specifically an improv class, they teach you ‘Yes and,’ and the opposite is ‘No but.’ 

Always ‘Yes and’ the idea. If you say ‘Oh, that’s interesting but I don’t think that will work because of ‘x’’ people don’t share more ideas. It’s really simple. If you say, ‘That’s a great idea, and we could also twist it this way,’ then they share more ideas. 

They teach it in comedy because ‘No but’ is the death of creativity. It’s the death of contribution. People just shut down and stop giving of themselves and their creative energy to the environment. It will literally kill an entire improv setting in one swoop. 

‘Yes and’ is what keeps it going. It’s one of the most important contributions I’ve learned. ‘That’s an interesting idea. What if we also do this?’ 

You’ll always have these people who say ‘I’m the devils advocate. I’m going to say no and point out why that won’t work.’ There’s no creativity that comes out of that. Some people feel that that’s the way they’re going to add value to the world but they just drain energy from a brainstorming session.

Paul Berry, Founder and CEO of Rebelmouse

I have been thinking about this one a lot. As we grow (now at a little over 100 employees) we have more members of the team asking for explicit goals and clear structure. While we do work with them to give clarity to their specific role I also try to talk about understanding implicit goals. 

When I look at my own career I was able to be successful not by asking for specific structures and written down goals but understanding implicitly what I could do to build the business from the role I was in. That really has helped resonate to make each member of the team think about things more as an owner and as a part of a team. 

I recently went through this “light” navy seals training where they had some interesting explanations and revelations from what they have learned through their trainings and process. The most important that stuck with me is the difference from a group and a team – a sales team is actually just a group because they all have individual goals. A real team has one goal together. I heard about a company recently that has defined their culture explicitly not as a family but as a team – where being in the company is being on the starting string for as long as you are a star and fit the team, but not necessarily just together forever as family. While I don’t like to take any of these to their extremes in practice, its helpful to talk about these things in their theoretical extremes with the teams and the leaders here and its something we spend a lot of time on.

The last and I think most important thing is that everyone at RebelMouse knows that they have the opportunity to participate at the idea level of shaping the roadmap, the product and the positioning. It doesn’t matter if you’re a sysadmin or the head of sales, there are no silos when it comes to contributing intellectually across disciplines. We have a global team and a main office in SoHo, NYC, but we never use the term headquarters because we have so many brilliant people shaping the company from the 29 different countries they work from.


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Stay tuned for next Wednesday’s post to learn about the most difficult questions the founders have been asked by investors.