A Million Little Moments Series
Company culture is not fully in your control. As owners, HR directors, and culture champions we can make nudges and suggestions to how it is shaped, but ultimately, culture is made up of a million little moments happening all over your workplace — — from private Slack channels to one-off interactions between the CEO and an intern. What do those moments look like? How can we make leadership choices that give us more of the moments we want and less of those we don’t? The Million Little Moments Series is an exploration of successful, often enviable, companies in Orlando and the million moments that have shaped them.
At the intersection of Orange and Central in Downtown Orlando, a nearly 4 story tall sign featuring a blasting off rocket hangs on the corner of One South Orange Ave. A trailblazer as Orlando plants a flag in it’s tech scene, the 80 person strong Launch That has seen an incredible amount of success. And if you speak to the employees, they’re truly happy to be called Rocketeers. As an HR professional, I’ve kept a close eye on what they’re doing (even stealing an idea or two), so I was particularly excited to get an even closer look.
David Palombo is Launch That’s President & COO having started at the company as an intern, although we hardly touch on that amazing fact. Before speaking, David warned me that he could talk about culture for hours, a point made proven when he showed up with an extensive list of notes himself. (A culture nerd’s dream.)
David: “Culture is about a lot of little moments. And I think sometimes leaders make the mistake of thinking they can intentionally create or control it. I think that once you kinda release that and have humility around that, I think that helps you.”
I didn’t tell him to say that. As you can see, we were already off to a great start.
Around 2013, Launch That was sunsetting a large project that didn’t quite go as planned. Communication was getting more difficult with a growing team, roles and responsibilities needed to be more defined, and, overall, maybe things could be better. It became clear to their leadership team that now was the time to start putting intention into what the company would become over the next several years.
David: “We had a very flat sort of organizational structure. And we were at that critical level of 35 to 40 people where it was hard to get some of these communication efforts in. We brought in a leadership coach. She worked on uncovering some issues that were rising within the organization and we started to invest in our leaders and coaching them. We provide that leadership coaching to our managers and use that as a foundational piece of how we grow.”
Two important things stood out to me here. First, Launch That was not afraid to go outside their organization to get some perspective. They also trusted and listened to that perspective, which is evident by the tenure of this partner on their team for the last 7 years. Second, the Launch That team recognized that managerial leadership is something that needs to be trained up and, also, isn’t for everyone. As a result, they created very intentional job levels, taking into account where someone would grow if they were on a management track or a contributor track.
David: “It’s always been the case that the workers became managers by necessity and they didn’t have those skills and we grew those skills over time… Us being intentional about management and how we are going to create leaders, and really investing in that middle management group, has been the major intentional piece that has moved us forward from a communication standpoint.”
What David and his team recognized is that they were not able to control everything in their growing company themselves, and as they grew, the most critical component of company success (communication) would require them to lean on other people. To do that they needed a structure for it. They needed to be intentional.
The recognition of the power of communication is a theme in the exploration of Launch That. In fact, I’d venture to say that their million moments live a lot in how they set up communication to eliminate the feeling of “not knowing” or “not being included” in their staff. Take, for example, their Slack channels. A lot of companies have an endless list of channels that get created for groups, sub groups, friend groups, brainstorm groups, project groups and more. Launch That sanctions theirs. This isn’t to say that private chats aren’t happening or they ban fun, rather they make an intentional choice to include everyone in every communication on a designated set of channels.
It’s a smart observation that takes into account human empathy. The greatest amount of stressors in our lives often come from a lack of information. Any time this team finds there is tension in the staff, they look for the gap in communication.
David: “I am wary of any technology that can create silos because I think that whole ‘siloed culture’ contributes to a lot of toxicity overtime. [I’m for] promoting a culture of, ‘Here’s where things are.’ This is really important especially for new team members. Four for five years ago somebody was joining the team and, honestly, even the HR groups at our company were saying ‘You’ll have it figured out in about two years.’ And, you know, that’s just not good enough. Yes, we are a complicated company with a lot of different pieces and there’s a lot going on, but the fact that it was taking somebody two years to really understand it was just too much. That is starting on the back foot. Standardizing your communication channels, finding out where people can have some conversation, making that known, documenting it, creating things that let people know ‘Here’s where you can find something.’ That is a big intentional piece of communication that can contribute to a lot of culture.”
With a structured management team comes a lot more opportunities to listen. If you know me as an HR professional, you know my go-to recommendation for new managers is Radical Candor by Kim Scott. For David, it’s Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. (There must be something in the name Scott.)
David: “I like that framework because it really starts to get you thinking about, ‘How do I get to what’s being left unsaid? I know this person is not feeling great about something but I don’t know what it is. How do I approach that conversation?’ I think that there’s a lot of fear around that. I think especially a lot of younger managers, or first time managers, they look around and they know something is going on but maybe it will fix itself. You have to develop the courage to bring that out and see what happens. Could it be really bad? Yup. But at least you know now and you can move forward with it.”
David’s love of this book’s communication structure, and facing things head on, probably contributes to his wariness of anonymous feedback. He agrees a lot of companies can, and should, lean into anonymous feedback if there is a climate of fear. In these cases, tools such as Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) are great for employees and help leaders look at culture as data. But David thinks there is something to be said about creating an atmosphere of much more open conversation so your company is naturally a safe space.
David: “When you provide anonymous feedback and someone reads it, the natural inclination is to ask ‘Well who said this?’ The conversation is done, it’s closed. It creates this weird effect where you can’t address anything, you can’t start to make progress on something. It can stunt progress in communication. It also creates confirmation bias. ‘I have 20 comments, well this is the comment that speaks to me. This is how they feel.’ Now wait a second, that’s not a full view of the situation. I think initially, when we said ‘We need to talk to the team’ a lot of it was surveys and we found that addressing it was much harder than we realized. What we needed to do was grow leaders in the organization that could unroot problems and start one to one conversations with team members, that could be anonymous or risen when it needed to be risen.”
Transparent feedback at Launch That doesn’t end with middle management. David holds monthly breakfasts with a handful of staff at a time to understand their perspective. For a lot of people in leadership, this activity can be considered time consuming and burdensome. David explains that it’s something he makes time for because it’s important and it’s working. Holding these breakfasts makes the company better and fulfills his role of focusing on alignment, clarity and team support.
Intentionally Clear Expectations
As start up style companies begin to grow, I like to say they shift from their high-school years into adulthood. During this aging, just like people change, so do companies change. The 60+ hour work weeks, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants thrill of a new business has its charm, but after 6 years, the effects look more like burn out. Yet, the expectations of modern, tech focused companies is to maintain the startup feel and deliver on work with innovation and speed. How do you balance the two? One method is to have a constant circulation of young staff, which means everyone is new all the time and you’re often reinventing the wheel. Another is to add a lot more process and structure. But this can suck the wind out of the sails.
Launch That’s approach was to bake the startup feel into a more mature culture. Instead of leaning on burn out, they pumped up the volume on quality work. This resulted in more process, structure and project units. Naturally, those units became more competitive between project teams. They saw employees trying to be the best and taking pride in their work. So, leadership focused on celebrating the diversity of their roles and what was happening in those smaller groups.
David: You go through a period, if you’re so biased towards action, you start creating a bunch of actions and then two years in it’s the same action. It’s like ‘Well, wait a second, we’re creating a little bit of insanity with ourselves.’ If we want to get out of this, what is the solution that gets us to the next 3 years, 5 years? That is the intentional piece.
We migrated from our initial idea of ‘Work hard. Play hard,’ to what our CEO, Gene, says, ‘Be excellent. Celebrate success.’ That’s more of our culture today. And that is the focus of us creating something of quality, being excellent, and celebrating the success of our results instead of being ‘go, go, go.’”
Trajectory of Success
Launch That continues to add the fun into the work, from company wide scavenger hunts to their holiday party. But, as David explains, there have been times where a stranger might walk into the office, see a great work environment with its parties and ping-pong tables, but surrounding those tables was a low point in their culture. He’s honest that there have been ups and down, but the current state of the company makes him proud. Likely due to the leadership level’s focus on the time consuming details.
David: “We’re very results oriented. And still this, [communication], is a focus. The results would not be what they are, if we didn’t intentionally invest in this. We’re on a journey. But, I think this communication piece makes everything you do easier in your organization.”
— — — — — — — —
The Million Little Moments series is created and written by Chelsea Stonerock, a Director of People and Culture in her hometown of Orlando, Fl. Interested in sharing your company culture’s million moments? Email MillionMomentsORL@gmail.com
Launch That’s Professional Training & Coaching Consultant is Carol Hull from Hull Consulting. To work with Launch That, reach out through their website https://www.launchthat.com/contact/.