How the CPO of Toptal Scales a Thriving Culture, Even as the World’s Largest Remote Workforce

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The Culture Code

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With an active workforce of more than 5,000 people across 70+ countries, Toptal is the largest fully remote workforce in the world. How does it go about scaling and sustaining its thriving remote culture?

To find out, I interviewed Michelle Labbe, the chief people officer of Toptal. Toptal connects the world's top talent in business, design, and technology. Its mission is to enable companies to scale their teams on demand. Toptal has served over 21,000 clients, and its global talent network spans 140+ countries. Founded in 2010, Toptal has never had an office.

Michelle Labbe, Chief People Officer of Toptal
Michelle Labbe, Chief People Officer of Toptal

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. 

Toptal Attracts Top Talent By Hiring Remote-Only

Kevin Kruse: You were remote from day one in 2010. Right now, we're hearing stories about many companies, even Zoom, calling people back to work. What are you doing at Toptal that others haven't quite figured out?

Michelle Labbe: Our founder, Taso Du Val, was looking for engineers. He found them in Eastern Europe, where he needed a lot of projects. Taso was in the States on the West Coast, but there was work that needed to happen overnight and at all times of the day to keep the business going around the clock. He quickly found that by hiring around the world, he could keep the business going around the clock and bring in diverse talent.

One of the things we do is post jobs where you can live anywhere in the world. I just want the best person for the job. We also get rid of the overhead. There's no office. And it's less hierarchical because we're all boxes on a screen.

Toptal Culture in a Few Words: ‘Collaborative, Direct, Helpful, and Challenging’ 

Kruse: How would you describe your company culture in just a few words?

Labbe: The attributes that stand out to me are collaborative, direct, helpful, and challenging. We have our culture page on our website, and we send it to every candidate when they're interviewing to ensure we are a good fit.

Toptal Culture Is the DNA that Runs Through EVERYTHING 

Kruse: What are some of the ways you foster or sustain this culture? 

Labbe: I've been at many companies where you have a culture page up on your website or your wall, but you don't walk the talk. Our culture is the DNA that runs through our organization. We hire for it. We do culture interviews. We review our culture during peer reviews and manager feedback. During those reviews, we even ask employees to rate somebody's contribution to the culture and how they're embracing it. Our rewards and recognition program is built around our cultural attributes. It's how we run initiatives. It's how we have objectives and key results. It's how we run meetings. Our culture is about accountability, and you see it in everything we do. 

Kruse: I want to highlight that you started with: “We hire for it.”

Labbe: I mentioned we send out our culture page to candidates. Some have looked at it and said, “That's not for me.” And that’s valuable for both parties. We're a startup. We move fast. So, the fit has to be right.

Kruse: That's a sign of a great culture. It's a culture that will act as a magnet to draw in people who want to be part of that tribe, but it will repel many others.

Toptal Fosters Culture through Leadership Development 

Kruse: What are some of the ways you develop your front-line managers?

Labbe: We have done much around manager training and continue to do so. This year, for instance, we've launched four different paths. There's an intro to people management for people interested in leadership positions who want to take a closer look at what it entails. We've also built a whole path for newly promoted or new-to-Toptal managers. Just because you are a manager at another company, doesn’t mean that translates perfectly to Toptal. How, for example, do you manage fully remote? We also have manager foundation courses. And we have a manager excellence path to prepare great managers for senior leadership roles. In addition to these paths, we cover specific leadership topics, like effective one-on-ones, how to run a meeting, how to give feedback, the difference between coaching, managing, and leading, establishing trust, and many more. 

How Toptal Measures Engagement: Monthly Pulses, Biannual Surveys, and 360s

Kruse: How do you solicit employee feedback about the culture and engagement?

Labbe: We do monthly, two-question pulse surveys through Slack: How happy are you to work and how likely are you to recommend working at Toptal to somebody? Because we have such a direct and transparent culture, responses are not anonymous. I encourage everybody to tell me: Where are we failing? Where are we falling behind? What's great? Where can we improve? Then I get on our monthly all-hands meeting and share the feedback: “Here's what you all said about what we’re doing great and what we need to fix. And here's what we're going to do about it.”

We also conduct an engagement survey twice per year that’s anonymous in order to dig into the details. Plus, we have 360 reviews where you can submit a review to anybody at any time. 

The Top Skill Labbe Wants to See Employees Exhibit: Owning Their Career Path 

Kruse: What skill or behavior do you wish your employees exhibited?

Labbe: I want to see people own their future and career paths. It's that proactiveness where people speak up, get a mentor, seek advice, and volunteer to work on something that makes them uncomfortable. That’s where growth happens.

Labbe’s Top Book Recommendation for HR Professionals: The Culture Map 

Kruse: What book would you recommend that your colleagues read?

Labbe: The Culture Map by Erin Meyer because it tells you how people think, get things done, and communicate across cultures. This book is especially relevant at Toptal since we are such an international, globally distributed company.

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CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.