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.
In the early 2000s, Full Sail graduate Bobby Jones had quickly discovered he hadn’t found the environment he wanted to work in so he decided to build it himself. A group of a few designers in his garage soon became a small company downtown known as Hydra Studio which, a few years later, led to him signing a lease for a beautiful, open floor plan space in the Plaza as the re-branded Purple, Rock, Scissors (PRPL).
Until recently, that creative space, with its ping pong table, colorfully muraled walls, and skateboard transportation, was part of PRPL’s external appeal to digital marketing creatives and clients of all sizes. Bobby has always been ahead of the culture curve for Orlando, even implementing free breakfast for staff before many west coast companies were doing the same. So, it should be no surprise that before COVID-19 pushed companies to go remote, PRPL had the plans in place to be a fully remote company with a smaller shared workspace a year prior. They just moved out of the Plaza space at the beginning of the summer.
Before launching off into the rich conversation Bobby and I had about culture, I should share that PRPL was my home from 2016 to summer of 2019 as their Director of HR. It’s an experience I’m eternally grateful for, mostly because of things we’ll talk about here, like the autonomy I was given to chart my own course and the opportunities given to employees based on a desire for the job, not just what’s on paper. I think you’ll find PRPL as unique a company as I did and a source of inspiration.
Above All Else: Safety
So, you’re building a new company and you want a killer culture. Where do you start? It could be easy to take off running. Pour a bucket of money into a swanky space with uncomfortable chairs. Make room for a ping-pong table only to find out no one likes to play ping pong. It could be easy to check off boxes of what makes up a “cool” culture and never stop to ask what the employees really need. Perhaps when we are building a culture we forget what it feels like to BE an employee. I know I often find myself so caught up in taking care of everyone else and the business problems that it will suddenly hit me: my anxiety levels are high and my needs aren’t being met. In these moments, what if we put aside our business minded notions of what culture is and we reminded ourselves that, at our very core we are human animals? Just because technology has advanced us doesn’t mean our nature doesn’t come into play.
Bobby: “Yeah you know I got to be honest I never felt safe in a job. I always felt like I was being judged or I felt like I didn’t feel the safety. Like I was supposed to perform a certain way, like I needed to meet a standard of that company that may or may not have been well defined.”
Safety. It’s quite literally the second step in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. How can we expect employees to reach the levels of Esteem and Self-Actualization (where clearly the best work happens) if we’re not even taking time to ask ourselves if we’re meeting their need for job security? Bobby points out that the word culture has Latin roots and quite literally means “to care.”
Bobby: “So many people get caught up that culture is a fun place to work. What kind of perks do they have? Really to me, care is so much more intimate than that. It’s making sure that you’re creating an environment no differently than you would with your family. Our brain is wired in the subconscious. It is constantly asking, “Am I safe? Am I safe? Am I safe. Am I safe?” I can’t just be nice to you one time today and you permanently have safety. It takes a lot of continuous points of interaction to create that element of safety. If you give people a safe environment, literally magic happens.”
There’s a million ways to establish that level of safety with employees. Through this series you’ve seen how strong communication or an easy to find system of “how tos” can establish safety in knowledge. Interviews in casual spaces over a plate of tapas can establish safety in work relationships. But as a leader of a company, Bobby recognized his actions speak loudest and he must act them repeatedly, because safety isn’t a feeling that sticks and can easily be disrupted. In his day to day at PRPL, Bobby recognizes that safety is subtle like “belonging cues”: strong eye contact, energy, mimicry, turn taking, body language, and vocal pitch.
Bobby: “I’m human I make mistakes and I let my emotions get the best of me from time to time, but my goal is always to ‘be humble and care deeply.’ So that looks like listening intently, that looks like giving people a voice who sometimes don’t speak up, and interacting and engaging with those people and asking them, ‘What’s your take on this?’”
In fact, Bobby often keeps an eye out in meeting rooms for the people not interacting and directly asks their opinion. For a brand new Junior Designer, this could be jarring at first, but the long term effects are that the owner of the company wants and respects the opinions of every staff member. Having worked at PRPL myself, it is this mind set that really opens employees up to do their best work because they know they are actively contributing to something and they’re heard.
The PRPL Team
There’s a famous story that’s circulated around PRPL, occasionally told over beers to a newbie at happy hour. Bobby is on the street with an employee, when a friend of this employee walks up and strikes up a conversation. In that brief interaction, Bobby decided this person was PRPL material and offered her a job on the spot. To her credit, she accepted, and that employee has been with the team for 7 years.
Hiring at PRPL is by far one of the biggest determining factors of culture. In an industry like digital marketing, qualifications and talent are undoubtedly important. But at PRPL, landing yourself a job can often have way more to do with what’s not on paper.
Bobby: “I never hire based on a resume, I hire on passion, I hire on energy, and I hire on enthusiasm. I think those things carry you into the second mile, where sometimes a resume is predicated on the idea that ‘I’ve earned a right to work at your company.’”
While qualifications and area of study are important, Bobby believes that some of his best hires have simply desired the opportunity to step up and prove themselves. Importantly, PRPL’s culture supports an environment where a person with drive can succeed independently. Working at PRPL is sort of like jumping into a large sandbox. There are very few limitations. For some employees, that lack of structure can be frustrating. But for others, that level of freedom is what makes the company so appealing.
Bobby: “I think one of the kinds of constant feedback I received from people when they’ve gone on to do really great things [from PRPL] is always, ‘Bobby just handed me the keys. Basically he trusted me and he gave me a giant project right out of the gate. Where another company would have micromanaged me.’ The biggest thing I hear is that I gave people and allowed them to become their best version of themselves by, again, initially creating safety and … belonging.”
Handing over the project keys to a new employee might seem like a risk factor that many CEOs aren’t willing to take, but Bobby believes it’s important to let employees have a shot. And if it’s a miss? That’s ok. In fact, he points out that historically the company has not terminated someone because a project went bad. When he can, Bobby would rather his leadership team empathize that things didn’t go as planned and come up with a solution.
When you hire based on someone’s energy instead of what’s on their resume, you’re making a clear choice that each individual is very important. Finding energy fits that can do the complicated work in a digital agency is like tracking down unicorns. So, it’s also important at PRPL that “handing over the keys” applies to growing and expanding a skill set. There’s employees the company simply doesn’t want to lose regardless of the type of work they are doing.
Bobby: “A lot of times you read a leadership or business logic book and it [says] you hire for the organizational needs versus the [needs] of the people. If someone’s in a role and it doesn’t show to be profitable, if I cut that out immediately and hire for what kind of work we’re doing (and yeah you’re going to naturally progress that way) but to be so regimented and say ‘We haven’t done any of this kind of work, you got to go tomorrow,’ we just don’t run like that.
[We say], ‘Hey, look, we’re not selling that kind of work. Is there anything that you can think of that we do that you’re interested in because we’re happy to train you up. We’re happy to continue to move you in a direction.”
Leaving Room For Change
It might seem in stark contrast to creating an environment of safety, but Bobby readily admits he is an advocate of frequent change. If anything stays the same for too long at PRPL, he is compelled to change it if for no other reason than to prevent the energy from going stale.
Bobby: “There is actually a quote that says, ‘Everyone wants change until change happens.’ We fundamentally believe this next change is scary and big but we are excited about what it’s going to open up. The ability to look at something from a different angle is where the gold is at. And so I think anytime you are comfortable it’s time to make a change.”
There have been times for Bobby, as a company leader, where change decision making caused friction and not every person was on board. This has caused restructuring or large shifts throughout the company. Over time, Bobby has learned to speak up about the changes he wants, even if he’s fearful of that friction. Because the result of making even smaller changes can make a positive impact on the company as a whole months or years later. So he continues to encourage changes to processes even if they seem like they’re currently working.
Bobby: “I remember overhauling the hiring process with Erin (brand manager) and I remember telling Mike and Jim and Brice and a handful of my leaders, ‘Hey I’m going to overhaul the hiring process.’ And they said, ‘Look we’re not even going to hire anyone else.’ That was their exact words, ‘We are not going to be hiring anyone else.’ Erin and I sat in a room and talked about, ‘How can we make an on-boarding experience that people are blown away by? This whole concept of a desk being filled up with their things, everything is perfectly lined up. The attention to detail and care. Now those things are status quo, but when we thought of it, I had not seen a lot of that. And watching the fruits of that over these years set us apart for a very long time from the crowd.”
No offense to that leadership team, but they were wrong. PRPL has done a lot of hiring since then and their on-boarding process makes a big impact on each new hire. It’s another exercise in making employees feel comfortable from minute one. PRPL’s on-boarding takes it to the next level with a dedicated on-boarding website, the signature first day desk and swag set up, orientation presentation, values review, and well organized training sessions.
A PRPL Moment
Let’s be honest, walking into work every day as a leader with full human awareness and empathy isn’t easy. Ok, it’s impossible. We’re going to mess that up a lot of the time because we’re human, too. However, awareness of micro actions such as belonging cues, listening, and establishing safety may have a more lasting impact on culture than more obvious initiatives as they turn into the million little moments across your company. A feeling of safety will translate in rooms leaders are not in through how employees treat one another and clients. It manifests in the work they produce, the language they use, and even how they show up to the office. Being handed over the keys to a project establishes not only trust, but a sense of self worth. Small encouragements of these feelings over time is what will shape your workplace and the people who choose to stay.
Bobby: “I had this humbling experience this last Town Hall. I get it every few years or every once in a while, but I really had it this time, where I was looking on the screen and I saw all these faces and I’m like, ‘All these people chose this company. And it’s so honoring and flattering to know out of everywhere in the world they picked here to come to work. That to me is the best feeling in the whole world and they deserve the best experience I can afford them. Because they chose me and I need to choose them back.”
The A 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
Discover more about Purple, Rock, Scissors at prpl.rs or on their public on-boarding site (onboarding.prpl.rs) and public handbook (handbook.prpl.rs).