What makes a great culture and how do you keep it?
Being a great leader involves not only being aware of your company culture, but figuring out ways to make it better and stronger the larger you scale. Whether you lead a team of one or one hundred, it’s imperative to know exactly what you and your company stands for at all times. Can you describe what creates your work culture? What words would you use to characterize your ideal workplace?
DeLisa Alexander is the Executive VP and chief people officer at Red Hat, a company that does $2.4 billion in annual revenue by offering open source software solutions. In this role, she leads the acquisition development and retention of talent, and works to enhance the Red Hat culture. I recently interviewed DeLisa for the LEADx Podcast where we discussed open-source company and openly transparent work culture. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Not everyone is familiar with the concept of open source. Can you explain that?
DeLisa Alexander: I'd love to. I used to think of myself as an open source evangelist when I was practicing law for Red Hat. Open source is a totally different way of creating software than is typical. In the typical way, what people do is they write code and then they protect that code using a copyright law that really makes it impossible to share the source code outside of special licenses, so there are no modifications allowed, there are no additions, there's no use at all without a license. That is a proprietary model that has worked very well for many years because it protects the intellectual property and it protects the investment, right? That's the theory.
In open source development, you take copyright law and you flip it on its head — we call it copyleft — and it requires sharing, so anyone can see the code, anyone can improve it, anyone can create a derivative work, but then what's required if it's distributed, is that it needs to be distributed with that source code so that anyone else can take advantage of that innovation. What we believe, and what we find to be the case, is that with many eyes on this code, without boundaries of licensing and companies, you have a lot of additional innovation and challenges and creativity that can be brought to the particular problem that's being solved. So what we find are it's rapid innovations, rapid change, a very powerful technology that must be shared.
Kruse: How do you make your money with open source? What’s the business model?
Alexander: That's business model innovation, which we also did. We had to figure that out. It wasn't clear at first how we would make money. In fact, I think we tried selling magazines and mugs for a while. That was not beautiful.
But eventually we figured out, you know, how do you add value beyond the code? The code is something that's available to the community, so what can Red Hat do that's different that you can't get from the community? What we found is that companies, enterprises that would like to use open source software because of the benefits of open source also found that they didn't want to support it themselves in an un-enterprise-ready version and so what we do is we harden it, we test it. Then we have partnerships with software vendors that provide the most important enterprise applications and also hardware vendors so that our software can be used in an environment that requires security, it requires business critical systems to always be up. Then of course, we've got support around it as well and the constant innovation, so that's the model that we've used in the subscription model. At that time we created that model it was very, very unusual for a software company to have a subscription based model for the services provided and we were not charging a fee for the software.
Kruse: You've been recognized for a great workplace culture. What's unique about your culture and how have you scaled it?
Alexander: The culture is rooted in open source, so I've described a little bit about open source, but the two kinds of values of the community that I'll highlight are transparency and meritocracy.
Meritocracy is all about the best ideas being the most valued and not because it's the best idea from someone with a title, but because it's the best idea, so our culture is really rooted in the values of the open source community because 1) We hire a lot of great people that are working in the communities every day, and 2) We are working in those communities every single day, and so luckily for us there's a constant reinvigoration of those values into our culture. What that results in is an open exchange in transparency that accelerates innovation and agility, and that's what makes us an open organization, that’s our definition of that.
Because we believe our culture is a big strategic advantage for us, we do think about this a lot. One of the great things that we've done to be able to maintain the culture is to have a lot of our people that we hire come through referrals, which we have a program called the Red Hat Ambassador Program.
Almost 50% of our hires come from that program and that helps us to cultivate our culture, but once we're interviewing people and whether or not they've actually been a referral or not, what we're testing for in the interview is whether or not they're going to be able to be really effective in our environment. A lot of that has to do with influence versus the hierarchical approach. What we found is that most of the time, we do a pretty good job of figuring out whether or not someone's really going to be a fact of the environment, but even if we do that, once they get here, we needed to provide support for them to be effective over the long-term, and so we did a couple of things to help with that.
The first thing that we did is we spent some time really discovering, by talking to people around the globe, what it is about leaders at Red Hat that make them really different. We asked the question using an appreciative inquiry approach. You know, on our best day, what do Red Hat leaders do that's the same as you might find at other places and what do they do that are really different? We didn't legislate it. We didn't have any preconceived notions about exactly what we would discover, but over a period of many months, we kept hearing the same stories and the same words over and over until we finally felt comfortable saying, “Okay, we're putting this in writing. It appears we have come to a conclusion and discovered how we would describe what makes us really different and special,” so we could describe it to people with words that can help them to be more effective in the environment. We called that our Red Hat multiplier.
Kruse: Give me an example from the Red Hat multiplier, what are some of those words or skills that were identified?
Alexander: Sure. I would say the first one that I would describe is transparency, and transparency means sharing as much information as you possibly can with as many people who have an interest in it versus hiding information and data because perhaps information and data give you power. That would be an example. New collaboration, working effectively across boundaries, and then meritocracy, really valuing the best ideas. So connection, trust, transparency, collaboration, and meritocracy are the five key words that we use to describe what Red Hat leaders are doing when they're on their best day. We also have these descriptions that describe overuse of that powerful behavior and under-use. For example with meritocracy, you could use it as an excuse just to be rude, right?
Or you could do it in a great way where you're sharing value. We put these behaviors and we actually have them in our leadership competency model with these behavioral descriptors so that people can see, on our best day, and we have different proficiency levels so that you can see overtime how you can progress your ability to be effective in our environment. What we found is that even when we have those descriptions written out, people will come onboard and still not know how to make decisions in a way that reflected what people expected in the open source world and so we're still having some backfires. I could tell a story about that if you'd like.
About three years ago, we were having one of those moments where we were having this debate. As a software company, you might expect that we could create all of our own software and it'd all be open source, everything that we would use internally would be open source. Well, no. That's actually completely impossible given what's available in the market and given what we are providing is not every single possible piece of a software that a publicly traded company would need to use, right?
But it didn't matter that those are the facts. There's still a debate all the time about our internal technology use and it was becoming very distracting at one point. I was very concerned about it because we do have such an open exchange. It could be really distracting to people who are focused on getting their work done to be watching a debate about technology really raging, right? So I thought, “Why do we keep having this conversation over and over again? Isn't there something that we can do to help people make decisions in a more transparent way so that the debate doesn't have to happen, and we don't have to keep going back to this?”
I pulled together a SWAT team and said, “Hey, you smart people who are brilliant come up with an approach that we can share with others of how, on our best day, we have made decisions in a way that people understand the criteria for the decision, they can refer back to it, they can contribute to it, they can find the bugs, and that we can end up in a place that's far better than the initial probably hypothesis of what the decision should be?” The team worked together and then they applied that practice to the decision at hand, and voila, a much better decision was made and so we created what's called the Open Decision Framework. It's on GitHub. We've posted it there. Other companies have now taken that framework and they've modified it to use it themselves in a way that works for their environments, but at the end of the day, now we have behaviors and we have processes described. On our best day, this is how you can be super effective and an open organization like Red Hat.
Kruse: With your experience and what you've seen at Red Hat, does it feel right that about 70% is tied back to the manager?
Alexander: Absolutely. As a company and as a team, for example, we try to help foster an environment and then foster people who are leaders. At Red Hat we expect everyone to be a leader. Not everyone is a manager, but it takes a really special person who's committed to being a manager to be effective as a manager, so there's a difference there.
Kruse: Do new managers go through some kind of boot camp? Do you have training programs?
Alexander: Yes, we do. We do have training programs and we've worked our open source principles into our training programs, as that's a big way of scaling our culture.
Kruse: What advice would you give to a first-time manager?
Alexander: That's a great question. I actually had a good friend ask me this question about two weeks ago. She came to me and said, “I have an opportunity to begin managing the team I'm currently on. I'm so worried though about becoming ‘the boss.’” I was like, “Okay, stop right there. Let me help you with a really easy mindset shift. You're not the boss. You are the catalyst for your team. Help create a meritocracy where every one of the people on that team can be at their best, understanding their strengths, helping them to close their gaps, and helping them to come together as a diverse team, leveraging those strengths under a shared vision. Your job is to help everyone be their best and to create the best team. It's not about being a boss. You just shift that mindset and think how energizing that would be to go into work every day thinking about, ‘How can I help everyone be at their best?'”
Kruse: How do we start getting more women into tech?
Alexander: Given the coverage, it makes it seem pretty daunting, doesn't it? I think the conversation that's happening right now and the transparency is incredibly important, so while it is difficult to hear these stories, it's so important that they're coming out and that we have a conversation about it. At Red Hat, I'm super proud of the things that we are doing as the open source leader, that we are acknowledging our role and how important it is for Red Hat to take a leadership position in challenging the status quo. Now first of all, I want to acknowledge that where we are right now as an industry and even as a world, right? It's not just this industry.
There are many different industries that suffer from the same syndrome. It's a system, right? It's a whole system of things that are creating this outcome, so changing that system will take more than one company, and so all of the companies that are having the conversation, even the media coverage highlighting this is important to change that system. What Red Hat has been doing that I'm really proud of, a couple of things I would highlight, and I would challenge every company to be thinking, what are the one or two things that you can do to make a difference? All of us together can come together to make a difference, and Red Hat has been implementing a couple of things.
One, we know it's really important that we create role models of women who are participating in technology and also particularly in open source, and there's not a whole lot of role models out there. Role models are really important for girls as they're thinking about what they want to do and we know that sixth grade is about the time that girls start to turn off—in the US, at least—from the idea of STEM being their area. I have a 16-year-old daughter and it dismays me every day that she will not even consider focusing on math in the future or technology, but that's another story.
Kruse: I've got two teenage girls and they've excelled in math and science but they have no interest in STEM either.
Alexander: So this is part of that system. Like, what is it that's creating this culture where girls just aren't interested in that? They don't really understand what the opportunities are though. I think that's part of it, so the role models where women and girls in school can share their passion with girls, and with other women who are in the technology industry and considering opting out, right? We think that's critically important, so we created an award called the Women in Open Source Award, and there's an academic award winner and a community award winner. This is our third year.
It's a peer nomination process, so Red Hat does not pick. Red Hat does not participate or pick, but the community makes the nominations. We do help to narrow down the field and then we put it out to the community to vote, and these women are selected by the community. Now we're highlighting them so that there are more role models, and overtime I expect this to be more of a program and to be something that does make a difference in girls' lives. These women are already making a difference in girls' lives, which is really exciting and it's great that we can play a role in highlighting what they're doing.
I'm really proud of that.
Kruse: What would be your advice be to any new employee at Red Hat?
Alexander: Well, it's particularly because of the world we're living in today, where it's volatile and rapidly changing and uncertain, that world requires, I think, a set of behaviors and mindsets that are really open and high potential, so I'll highlight a couple of them. First is the idea of being curious, standing in curiosity as much as possible to learn as much as possible, but also to avoid being judgmental. What I find frequently is people believe that they've got all the facts and they kind of set their own view and they have a judgment, and that judgment can be completely wrong because they had not stood in a curious spot so they can fully understand the perspective of others, and then come back to really thinking through how they want to come down on an issue, so standing in curiosity is critical in the world.
Then being receptive. What I mean by that is being open to feedback about your own performance, making it safe for others to share feedback so that you can be constantly learning how to be more effective. I find frequently, again, that people get in their own way because they're not open to feedback, and particularly girls, they just don't get solid feedback because it's not safe. People don't make it safe, right?
Being curious and receptive to feedback, but that requires you to cultivate your own personal resilience because getting feedback and not always standing in judgment means that you're going to hear things you don't always want to hear, and so being able to be resilient is, I think, the third factor in being high potential.
Kruse: I like to challenge our listeners to become 1% better every single day, so give us a challenge.
Alexander: My challenge to you is to understand how to generate your own energy. Understand what you're passionate about, what your strengths are, and where your talents lie. If you really understand yourself and then spend more of your time doing things that give you energy so that when you leave your workplace and you enter in the other facets of your life, you can be at your best.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.