Culture Leader Spotlight Series: Holly Grant & Teagan Russell

Welcome to our Culture Leader Spotlight Series, where we talk to innovative leaders in HR and People about their work in culture, inclusion and employee experience at large.

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We spoke with Holly Grant, VP of Operations, and Teagan Russell, Operations Coordinator, at LTSE, an innovative company that’s creating a long-term focused stock exchange. Their experience spearheading people practices at the fast-growing organization gave us invaluable insights on building a culture that lives out the mission of the company.

What are your roles at LTSE?

Teagan: I’m the Operations Coordinator. I’ve been with the team since September. I do a lot of the administrative work for the company to manage our two offices. I’m a heavy participant in our internal Ops team, and I’ve been overseeing our Diversity & Inclusion initiatives at the company. My most recent projects as of late have been rolling out our diversity survey and our 2019 diversity roadmap. I’m also a part of our customer development team as well and help with those initiatives.

Holly: I’m our VP of Operations - I oversee Operations at large, as well as Finance at LTSE. I joined the team in early 2016 as the fourth employee. I’ve worn a number of hats over my time, but I’m currently leading our internal operations team and sit on our customer development team. We’re organized in cross-functional teams at LTSE. We have five teams that are really interdisciplinary.
That’s helpful. Just to kick off, can you talk a little bit about how you think about company culture and what that means to you?

Holly: I would describe culture as a company’s lived values. It really shows up in how employees make decisions and what kinds of behaviors we reward at the company. It’s not something that’s fixed - it’s a living, breathing thing that needs to be protected and managed over time.

I definitely agree - culture changes, especially when you scale. I know LTSE has grown quickly, can you talk a little bit about how culture has shifted?

Holly: The real backbone of the culture hasn’t changed that much, but certainly the way we communicate internally has to make sure we’ve preserved the DNA of the company. And we’ve thought a lot about internal communications tooling: what communication devices are we using? What type of norms do we need to create to make sure that, for example, our cross-functional teams are operating with some level of consistency but still have the freedom to run in the way that the team leader sees fit. When do we operationally draw hard lines, and when do we allow people to bring their creativity and infuse something with their spirit and vision? So that’s been the dance of scaling all along.

I’m curious to see what your thoughts are on measuring success when it comes to establishing culture and having a place where everybody feels like they belong. Can you talk a little bit about how LTSE measures that?

Holly: Absolutely, yes. So we rolled out our first engagement survey recently to establish a benchmark that we can measure against in the future.  We have a number of regular check-ins where we can take an anecdotal pulse on how everyone is doing - one is our 360 review structure that includes the self assessment and a place for the 360 feedback. As part of that self assessment, we give the employee an opportunity to share what’s working for them and what’s not working, both with the manager-to-direct report relationship but also more broadly. Then we have some regular weekly practices like Town Halls and communication back and forth with Slack where we’ll hear people posting things like, “Wow, this is the first time in my professional life where I’ve been able to take a real vacation” or “When I had to go and take care of a family member who is sick at the last minute,  I trusted that I could drop everything and that the team would be able to continue functioning without a hitch”. So I think those moments are really powerful and some of that sharing happens in Slack.

What really defines the culture at LTSE?

Teagan:  We see our culture in three ways: collaborative, adaptive and transparent, and I would argue that it’s very authentically transparent. We have a lot of open Slack channels. We try to get all of our employees to communicate on those versus direct messaging so that way when these important conversations are happening, everyone’s in the loop. I have never been at a company where these conversations are happening so openly and I really appreciate it, especially given our size and our stage. It’s really refreshing. We also prioritize work/life integration, which Holly briefly touched on about being able to take vacation and being able to step away when you need to. I hate the word work life balance - I feel like whenever anyone says that they don’t really have it!

I think a lot of the trend nowadays is for companies to think about integration rather than balance. You mentioned keeping lines of communication open through Slack channels and more. At Five to Nine we really value community building aspects of culture. Curious to see what you found the most engaging types of community building experiences for LTSE?

Teagan: We do a few things regularly like Town Halls. Our CEO makes it a priority to join almost all of them. It’s very much the entire team, unless they’re on PTO, on it. It’s in the format of “ask anyone anything” which is really wonderful. We do regular “eat and learns” - we say eat and learns because half of our team eats breakfast and half of our team eats lunch! These highlight both external and internal speakers around a theme, whether it’s around diversity and inclusion or giving and receiving feedback. We have four Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that meet or communicate regularly. We also just did an optional book club, and experimented with an offsite. We hope to do another one in the future. We just started doing some team meals with the hopes of getting people away from their phones and computers to not only hear what people are working on, but also hear what is going on in their lives outside of the office. It’s too easy to cater a lunch and hope everybody gets fully unplugged. We know everyone’s at a different spot, so we want to make sure we have a variety of things to try to meet them where they are.

Holly: And the one thing that I would add is because LTSE is a mission-based company, we have a channel called “why this matters” where we post about experiences or research articles that really talk about why we need to transform the financial markets. And everybody on our team is coming at it from a different lens, whether they’re a past policymaker or a past banker or engineer. It’s really neat to see how our mission shows up in our conversations with customers, allies, advisors, and that’s something that certainly brings our team together.

That’s awesome. It sounds like you have a lot of initiatives going on and that you’ve really instilled many practices that bring people together and are able to transmit that mission to each employee.  Have you found any sort of challenges in trying to implement sort of the mission and the value statement of LTSE and carrying out how employees live that out?

Holly: Yes, I would say that just the biggest cultural challenge in general is that you’re in the business of human beings who have different interests and different ways of communicating. And so what we try to do with the portfolio approach is meet people where they are and try to find new ways to bring people together. For example, when we did our offsite we always like to do retros after the fact and understand that what really worked here and what didn’t work. What I noticed in reviewing the results is that some of the most meaningful sessions for some of our employees were the least meaningful for others, but on balance it was a really positive experience. So making sure that we solicit input from a number of different stakeholders is important when we’re trying to put a program together and create a varied experience so that everybody has really amazing moments over the course of that day. And that’s really the philosophy behind cross-functional teams because really the whole company is a customer of the culture. Not everybody in the company can be on the internal ops team, but we have really strong representation across the business, so people can represent different points of view and share a different lens on something.

How does this approach manifest in recruiting?

Holly: We just overhauled our hiring practices actually in the last six months because we wanted to look at the research around best practices to assemble a really cross-functional and hiring committee. So the stages of the process are defined upfront. There’s always a hiring manager responsible for leading that process. We rely on Google Hire as our candidate tracking system to make sure that people have access to the basic set of materials on the candidate as well as our own feedback. We’ve been experimenting more and more with the two-on-one interview format to make it a better use of time for the candidate, but also to have more perspectives on each candidate and the feel is more of a conversation rather than an interview and Teagan actually join the team not too long ago, so she can talk first hand about what her process was like. We’ve adapted the Rooney rule to make sure that we have more representation at the onsite interview stage of underrepresented candidates. Those changes from, who’s on the hiring committee to the ways that we’re consciously diversifying our hiring pipeline, have resulted in tremendous outcomes. I think it’s been a better experience for our employees who get to participate.

Teagan: I think the biggest thing is that when you’re interviewing, t’s very much a full-time job and very taxing. I remember when I was interviewing at LTSE, it was very refreshing that I didn’t have to do a project and have to spend basically a full week of my time giving a potential employer my work for free. On the technical side we do have an engineering project and there is a brief writing project, but it’s nothing like spending days and days with the potential that you still won’t get this job. So I’m so grateful that we have implemented a different type of hiring because it just leaves a much better taste in my mouth then past experiences interviewing at companies.

Absolutely, I think recruiting is so important when building the right kind of culture.  Holly, you mentioned trying to diversify your candidate base, and Teagan you mentioned the Diversity & Inclusion survey and ERGs. I’m just curious to see if there’s any sort of other practices or thoughts around how to foster inclusion.

Teagan: So as I had mentioned earlier, one of my big projects is working on our D&I roadmap, so we’ve been doing a lot of work to continue to diversify our group. Inclusion is tricky, because a lot of times it’s recommended to run an inclusion survey with demographic information attached. But because we’re such a small company, it kind of takes away the anonymity of it. I’ve been looking at is doing an inclusion survey, but not necessarily having that be attached. We’ve also been looking at bias training. And one of the exciting things about this roadmap is once it gets to a slightly better point, I’m going to hold an optional meeting where anyone in the company who wants to join is able share what they think of the initiatives. So there’s a lot of opportunity to make everyone feel like they have a seat at the table versus a Human Resources department rolling out these initiatives and hoping that they work.

Holly: And the other thing that I’d add there - one of our core beliefs about creating an inclusive culture is that you need to empower decision makers at all levels of the organization. People who are not the majority, which is unlike what a lot of tech looks like, need to be empowered to have decision-making and budgetary authority. And so we operate with a delegated authority models. We use DRIs as essentially the term to describe who has the last say on any one initiative and that is I think a really key piece in having people feel like they can make something their own or even broker a new relationships with a team outside of our organization who may support us in any way.

More broadly, what sorts of other trends do you see out there in managing a company culture?

Holly: Well, one thing we’re actively doing now is using a service called Tequitable. They offer a third party ombuds service to support anyone in reporting incidents of bias, harassment or discrimination. So say you’re someone who experienced something and you’re actually not sure how you feel about it. You can go and read stories that may match the experience you had or schedule time to talk to an ombudsman, a neutral third party, about what your options are. And that platform is accessible by any of our employees. It’s anonymous and it walks you through the whole complaint process if you did want to file something more serious, but even if you just wanted to have a conversation about how to resolve a conflict or approach someone about something that makes you uncomfortable, you have that resource.

Teagan: When I was doing research on Diversity and Inclusion, not only at Series A companies but at larger, more established companies, a lot of the initiatives start at making sure that the pipeline for candidates is diverse and holding people accountable. As the company continues to grow,  there’s mentorship and sponsorship as big trends, but in larger, more established companies. I’d say that it’s a lot about not only getting great talent but also keeping them, and make sure that people are happy wherever they are.

That’s super interesting, I’ll have to look into Tequitable. To finish off, what’s your favorite story that captures LTSE’s culture?

Teagan: So we have an open office, which I feel like at times can be distracting, but I really enjoy it because it leads to collaboration. Holly and the person that sits next to her are very much thought partners and are constantly talking back and forth with each other, bouncing ideas off of each other. I think that this lends itself to transparency of these conversations are happening in the open and anyone can join in. But it’s just nice to see that even though these two very busy people are trying to get their work done, they never hesitate to lend a few minutes to a colleague to help talk through a problem. Sometimes it moves into the conference room because it’s a little distracting. But anyone is welcome to join in the conversation!

Holly: And I would say another key moment for us is - we were at a real fork in the road in terms of where we were going as a business and there were a number of us on the phone talking through the pros and cons of one decision versus another. And there was just universal agreement that we would not compromise on our core values of existing and it was this really wonderful moment where there was no hesitation. Everyone showed up and then we were able to move on quickly and I, at that moment I felt really proud to be working for this company. Of course I joined because I am proud to be here, but it just reaffirmed for me why I’m here and the mission that we’re working towards.