In this episode, we learn how one company (Unbounce) has scaled their business by cultivating an authentic people-first culture through inclusive leadership. Visit thriver.com/podcast to listen to the episode.
Kelly Alexander: Welcome, everyone. I’m Kelly, the Senior Manager of customer support here at Thriver. Joining us this week is Leslie Collin, VP of people and culture at Unbounce, to discuss how companies can create an impact through a people first approach. Thanks for speaking with us, Leslie. I’m going to start by giving you the opportunity to share a little bit more about yourself and your role at Unbounce.
Leslie Collin: Thank you so much for having me to chat about my favourite topic, which is people. As you mentioned, I’m the VP of People and Culture at a company called Unbounce. I’ve been with the company for just over seven years and overseen the growth from around 30-40 people all the way to 235 people today and about 300 by the end of the year. I am extremely passionate about creating work environments where people get to do the best work of their careers, and where work is a fulfilling and positive piece of their life in their world. I can’t wait to dig in and talk a little bit more about all of those things!
Kelly Alexander: What a journey you must have been on from those early days to today! Maybe you can start by taking us through what people first means to you.
Leslie Collin: For me, and encouragingly I feel like I share this with more and more HR professionals, founders, CEOs and executives, people first really means putting the people at the front of your business. And when I say the people, I mean the people that work for you and your customers, but also really understanding how humans create success. The traditional business model focuses on making sure shareholders or owners are content and happy. But how we and how I believe every company should look at business success is by focusing on supporting our people.
People first is reflected in your business health metrics. Treat your people well, and they will treat your customers well too. Your business will thrive.
That means giving them the tools, resources, materials, or whatever they need to be successful within their role so they can learn and grow and do the best work of their individual career. They will then in turn support customers in the types of products that they build and in using the product. The end result of that combination is business success, dollars, revenue, growth, and cash flow increase. People first is reflected in your business health metrics. Treat your people well, and they will treat your customers well too. Your business will thrive.
That’s the core of the business philosophy. In addition to that, I believe that work does not have to be a detractor from your life. Work should have a positive impact on your life. Most of us have to go to work to make a paycheck. That’s a reality. But it’s not a bad thing to say that yes, we can find fulfilment, have interesting colleagues and have fun at work. Individuals should be enabled to have that experience through their workplace, as well have an impact on the wider world around them as a result of social giving through diversity, equity, inclusion initiatives, environmental initiatives, or whatever the company’s passion and the individual’s passions may be. I really, truly believe that companies have the opportunity to elevate the impact that individuals have by putting their desires, growth, and goals at the front of everything that they do.
Kelly Alexander: It sounds like being people first is really just making sure your people are happy.
Leslie Collin: It is! When it comes down to it, happy people create happy customers, which creates business value.
Kelly Alexander: Absolutely! And what kinds of methods or tools would you say are needed to ensure genuine and authentic communication between teams?
Leslie Collin: I think genuine and authentic communication is always tricky. I think communicating from day one really well what somebody is signing up for when they join a culture, whether it be very people first or not, is important. Loudly proclaim that that is the business philosophy (or not). Communicating expectations from day one has always been really, really important. It’s interesting and extremely rewarding but challenging. At the same time, there’s a different agreement in a people first, empowered workplace.
What I mean by that is when you are in a workplace that has top-down management ideas, work is kind of served up to you. These are the deadlines, these are the deliverables, go do it. It’s very straightforward what your role is and it’s very straightforward what your deliverables are.
But how is success measured when you work at a collaborative, people first and empowered organization? Working in that environment requires an agreement that as part of this culture, we are co-creating together, every single employee has a voice and a say in the work that they do, and that those voices will be elevated. So when it comes to communication and keeping people aligned, the first step is really understanding how you communicate what we’re all working on and setting a direction. You want to set a clear vision of what the future looks like and allow individuals to have their own voice and their own ability to choose the path to get there in the best way possible, without dictating.
So really clear communication around where we’re going and why and how each person connects to that is critical in this type of environment. Without it, you will have a lot of people going off and working simultaneously, but maybe in slightly different directions, which will work for a little while. But then as soon as a year or two years goes by those directions which began as somewhat aligned but slightly off will be miles apart. You don’t have as much efficiency and effectiveness in getting to where you want to go. That could slow you down a little bit.
Kelly Alexander: I think that aligning directions really comes down to understanding different people’s strengths, and how everyone can complement each other and work together. That’s something I look at as a manager on my own team to make sure we understand that we all work differently, and to understand how we can work together but still maintain our differences. So, you definitely hit the nail on the head there for sure.
Let’s talk a little bit about inclusive leadership. I know that’s something that you’re really passionate about. Can you get into the meaning of inclusive leadership a little bit more, as well as maybe offer some tips or changes that a leadership team would be able to make to be more inclusive?
Inclusive leadership starts […] from a grounded philosophy that diverse perspectives bring successful outcomes.
Leslie Collin: Absolutely. Inclusive leadership starts with the idea that everybody has a voice. It starts from a grounded philosophy that diverse perspectives bring successful outcomes, and the more diverse perspectives and the more input that we can have with a project strategy, outcome or initiative, the stronger, more well vetted and considered the outcome will be. And that is truly at the heart of everything we do at Unbounce. It is embedded into our values and our philosophy of how we do business: Our values are to be CARED for. CARED standing for courage, ambition, being real or open and honest, empathy, and diversity. Diversity is at the heart of what we do, and it is our way to be the best at what we do.
If we are building products with as many voices in the room as possible about our direction and strategy, we’re going to come to the best outcome. If we have an environment where everybody feels comfortable and safe to have their perspectives voiced and known, we’re going to get to that best outcome both internally for how we grow as a company and for the products that we build and how we support our customers. Ideas and creativity, vision and innovation are the meat of success, especially for tech companies like Unbounce. So enabling your individual people to have their ideas known and creating platforms for those ideas to actually bubble up and surface and eventually maybe make their way into the product or our way of doing things is how you differentiate yourself. Your people are your differentiator as a business. You need to attract talent, to retain talent, but also to be successful in everything that you do.
To achieve inclusive leadership, you have to start with that understanding. It’s vitally important that senior leadership teams actually focus on it. I’m very lucky that inclusive leadership is a priority of our CEO and of our president and our entire senior leadership team. Together, we make sure those conversations about making an impact are happening from step one at the company. And if they aren’t happening in a company, trying out something like what we call ShipIt Day might help. This concept is quite common in the tech industry. It’s a day where everyone gets to pitch a project and put together a team of people you maybe don’t work with every day. You spend one day trying to build something. It might be a new piece of a product that you’re working on, or it might be completely unrelated, such as “we’re going to build this acronym dictionary because every company has way too many acronyms.” I think we should all be on a mission to use less acronyms in our day jobs! Essentially, ShipIt Day is prioritizing time towards something really amazing and innovative that’s been on your mind for a while, but you haven’t had a chance to get done. At the end of the day, you pitch how far you got.
We have found that this is a way for us to advance our culture and our product. My best example is on Slack where we have a language bot that reminds you to use inclusive language. If you use certain words that may be offensive or ostracizing or detrimental to certain marginalized groups within the organization, a little private tooltip pops up to give you an explanation as to why that word is problematic. Nobody else sees it. It’s just a gentle little nudge to try and spread more understanding and equitable communication across our company. So for me, that’s what inclusive leadership is: really giving everybody that voice to have an impact on how successful the company can be.
Kelly Alexander: I love that and what a great idea! It sounds like such a great way to get the team to be creative together, working with people that don’t necessarily collaborate on a regular basis.
Leslie Collin: It’s so fun! Of course, right now we’re not in the office. But when we were, we had a coffee machine and nobody knew when the coffee was fresh. So, we made a manual coffee timer out of cups that we painted to have hours of the day on it like a clock and you just moved it around when you made the coffee. We’ve done everything. We even built a ski lift chair for a photo booth at one of our holiday parties. It’s just a great way to start injecting ideas and communication into your culture.
Kelly Alexander: For sure! And does the leadership team have any kind of regular check in to make sure that they’re all aligned and things are moving in the correct direction?
Leslie Collin: I’m part of the senior leadership team and we meet on a very regular basis for weekly stand ups but we also have more structured content meetings on updates and certain pieces of our strategy on a somewhat regular basis. We do quarterly learning reviews on how we’re doing as a business. And how we ensure that inclusive leadership and diversity and equity inclusion are paid attention to is we actually have goals on our strategic one-pager placed under a “do your best work initiative.” Representation data is one of our top priorities.
So, we look at how we are doing from a representation perspective for different marginalized groups at Unbounce versus the areas that we employ in. Are we meeting the market? Do we have some work to do to diversify our hiring pools? We keep up to date on those metrics on an ongoing basis.
We also have something called the Pledge 1% that we have committed to, which is one of our top level priorities as an organization alongside our employee retention and our engagement scores. It’s a really wonderful Salesforce initiative. Companies pledge 1% of their time, 1% of their profit, and 1% of their product, to give back to the community. And that is set on the basis that if a lot of companies are able to do that we could have a drastic impact on our world. We’re still working on how we, especially during the past year, can help our people give back their time, because volunteering opportunities and being in the community has become a bit of a challenge.
We also use the Pledge to create focus around diversity and equity inclusion, in particular, and partner with local non-profits in the areas that we work, here, as well as in Germany, where we have an office. Diversity needs to be owned by your CEO or whoever is running the day to day operations at the highest level. They need to be asking the right questions. And it’s a journey to get there. We did not start here.
When we were just 30 people, we were not talking about our diversity metrics or being inclusive. But we were striving to put people first and by the nature of putting people first it means putting all people first. It is a responsibility for any company that values people creating success for their company to ensure that inclusivity is part of the product, or you’ll fall into the trap of creating a culture for certain individuals and not welcoming others.
Kelly Alexander: That’s wonderful. And as you said, it’s not just a one and done type of thing. It’s really got to be an ongoing commitment at the forefront of the conversations happening at all levels. That point leads perfectly into my next question for you, which has to do with scaling the business. We’re really wondering how a people first approach can positively impact the scaling of a business and how Unbounce has seen results from that.
Not building a sustainable delivery pipeline or a sustainable workflow process is a short-term option.
Leslie Collin: Great question! My view of most companies, especially in today’s market, is that it is an employee’s market. People have a choice of where they want to work. And scaling requires people. You can’t do the things with 30 people that you’re able to do in the same amount of time with 100 people. It’s a matter of math; you don’t have the hours to do it. And burnout, through asking your people to work double time, is not a sustainable option. Not building a sustainable delivery pipeline or a sustainable workflow process is a short-term option. You aren’t even building a sustainable knowledge base for your organization, because inevitably, burnt out people will leave. Putting people first means that you will hire people first. You will be an employer of choice if you focus on how people can engage with their work in a meaningful way.
And it also comes down to compensation. Am I comfortable that I am paid fairly? Do I know that I make the same as my colleague? And maybe you don’t need to know what your colleague makes. But the conversation needs to be had about how we pay and this is how we understand the market. And hey, at Unbounce, we’re never going to be paying top tier dollars because we’re a start-up. But we have unlimited vacation days. We have other great time-off benefits to go alongside those vacation days, such as a $1,000 vacation allowance. Every year everyone who takes a vacation gets $1,000 if they take two days in a row. It’s a great perk. But with social media and Glassdoor, and so many tools available for individuals to research an employer brand, you do need to be transparent about these things.
More than that, companies have a responsibility to put their people first and listen and put tools and feedback loops in place. These mean when concerns arise, they are discussed, they are dealt with, we move forward. I think we can all think of companies that have had one individual employee in the past few years who has put out a tweet or a blog post and it’s completely gone viral. In many cases it has irrevocably damaged the employer brand for years after, even major companies. I’m not saying it’s necessary for companies to put people first out of fear. But it is really necessary to understand the importance of putting people at the front of your business. That way, you are creating champions, because as you scale, you’re creating people who are out there advocating for working at your organization and for the product. The best case scenario is you build a product that is so wonderful that all of your employees continue to advocate having it as part of their tech stack when they go and work in a different company, or encourage their friends and family members to have the product or use the service. And you cannot pay for better marketing than word of mouth.
Creating people versus environment will over the long term create a feeling and a confidence in your brand and your product and your services that will encourage people to continue to use them as you grow and scale.
Kelly Alexander: And so inclusion and people first sounds like something that as a leadership team, or as a company as a whole, you really have to be patient to see the results from. It’s not just going to be an overnight change, where you do one thing and that changes everything for you. It sounds like the benefit and growth are the result of a lot of hard work over a longer period of time. Is that right?
Leslie Collin: Absolutely. I think when it comes to inclusive leadership, when it comes to diversity, equity inclusion, it’s all about progress, not perfection. Nobody’s gonna snap their fingers and get it right tomorrow. And the goal is always to be open about where you are, as an organization, open about where you want to be and what your philosophy or desire is, and saying, “Hey, we’re not here yet.” But we want to work towards it.
I’ll give you an example for us at Unbounce. While growing a start-up six years ago, our CEO had his first child. And before that he was a tech CEO working all the time, wearing his hoodies and falling into that stereotype. And he’s wonderful! We have a phenomenal relationship and he and his fellow founders are the reason why we have such a remarkable people first culture because it was built into the philosophy from day one, which makes my job lovely and much easier as the head of people and culture. But as he started his family he came to me because he had realized how different his experience of returning to work or being employed essentially was for him versus his wife, and how difficult that was as a family unit to navigate that.
Now as a CEO, he was in a position to be able to navigate that really well. But he all of a sudden had this lightbulb moment of, “Hold on a second! People are having disparate experiences as employees based on their family situation. What are we doing about it?” So he called me into his office one day out of the blue. And he asked me, “What are we doing about this?” And keep in mind at this time, we’re probably 60 people, 75 people, and we’re growing like mad, hiring 100 people in the next eight months or something like that. And all I can do is keep up with my work at that time. It’s one of those fast growth, really intense periods. And I stopped and I was like, “I don’t know, I have to think about this.” And as somebody who’s passionate about people and equitable treatment in the workplace and in the world, personally and professionally, it was really shameful to say I didn’t have the answers.
So that was where we started. We started with the intention around parental leave and making sure that we are saying goodbye to people really well when they take off on leave and when they come back that we do better in integrating and re-onboarding our parents who have taken time off to start families. That process is important and it has progressed over time, piece by piece by piece.
Our CEO took a pledge through a company here in Vancouver called the Minerva Foundation, which is committed to elevating the participation of women in all areas of work and life, at leadership and at board levels. And as a result of that, we really made public our commitment to doing more. And we revolutionized our recruitment process to be more inclusive to include more voices and more decision makers.
We specifically targeted underrepresented groups within our own company, to partner with associations whose diverse perspectives we weren’t getting to actually help us build that strong product. We started to analyze our pay and put a lot more structure on our pay process to confidently say, “Yes, we can pay fairly.” And then this migrated all the way to reaching gender parity as a tech company in 2019, which is fantastic. We still have work to do in some areas of the company where we don’t have gender parity. We have in the last two years started measuring self-ID identification data so we can dig deeper beyond just gender with pay parity and have done that work for the last year or so.
Last fall we started an initiative called Pay Up for Progress, where we encourage all companies to sign on to make progress against pay parity. And this has all been over five years. It is a constant build, build, build; it doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s making a statement that it is vitally important that we just start and take one small step towards creating inclusive environments and prioritizing inclusive leadership through hiring processes and talking about it at the senior leadership tables.
Kelly Alexander: Thank you for sharing that with us. Congratulations on all of those amazing accomplishments. It’s really wonderful to hear about scaling a business and your experience being with Unbounce from the very early days, all the way up to where you’re at today. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of growth and changes. You mentioned that one example from five years ago to where you are today. Are there any other initiatives that you maybe tried back in those early days seven years ago that you are still doing today? And if so, why? And if not, what did you learn? What didn’t work?
Leslie Collin: Great question. So yeah, we’re definitely still doing things that we were doing back then. But generally, they are modified or I guess, elevated. I’ll actually start with an example of what we’re not doing anymore and something that we learned was not a good idea. We thought it would be great at the time. So back when you’re smaller, and start-up dollars are really tight, you are very, very, very conservative with how you spend money and every purchase is deeply considered, including office supplies. It’s amazing how start-ups kind of thrive through the nickel and diming in the best possible way of “how can we get the most value out of the dollars that we do have to spend when they’re in such short order?” And prioritization becomes really impactful at that time as a result of that as well. We had people asking for headphones, or extra chargers for their laptops. And as we started to grow these expenses, we wanted to incentivize participation in the culture.
And so we came up with this idea of a passport, literally a physical passport, where you could get a stamp for things that you participated in. So, for example, you would get stamps for hosting our open houses or volunteering in the community for an event that we had organized or partnered with somebody. We had a whole bunch of different stamps worth different points. And you could accumulate points and then hand in those points to redeem them for gift surprises. And they went from laptop chargers so you didn’t have to take yours home every day all the way up to a trip to one of our other offices because at the time we had one in Montreal in addition to the HQ in Vancouver and one in Berlin as well.
We thought this was a wonderful idea. It fell flat on its face. Nobody participated. It was way too clumsy and manual. And I think it lasted for about three months, and then everyone just kind of abandoned it and it didn’t work. So that’s something that we tried that was just a fail. It didn’t work at all.
Kelly Alexander: Why do you think it didn’t work? What didn’t work about it?
Leslie Collin: People didn’t need to be incentivized to do the right thing. And the interesting thing is that we had everybody doing all of those things that we wanted to continue. So our thought was that when we grew our culture, we wanted to be intentional about those cornerstones and those pillars of that culture. As we moved from tens of employees to hundreds of employees, we wanted to maintain our values, and our commitment to people, and we thought this would be a way to help do that. Everyone would know it was important.
At the end of the day, hiring people whose values align with yours and contributing to creating that culture is all you need to incentivize people to participate in the way that you want them to. And then we actually got bigger, so we had more money. So we could just say, “Hey, you lost your laptop charger, you need a new one, here’s a new one.” And instead we said, “Hey, if you want to work from the other offices, you can just go, feel free to work there as long as you want.”
And we didn’t necessarily pay for it. But once you’re there, just going to work remotely was a perk, even if it’s in a different time zone. So we didn’t need to incentivize it, even though we thought we did. It’s really the type of people in your culture that are going to help spearhead and carry through those hallmarks of what’s important. Luckily, I love that example.
The things that we still do, though obviously not during the pandemic, are open houses and connecting to the communities that we work in. This has been really successful in Vancouver where we’re based. We have a profile and employer brand much larger than the size of our company. We have a whole event space that we’ve had in every office we’ve been in, that we quote unquote, “rent out for free” so employees can bring in other organizations, nonprofits, clubs, groups, meetups, and give small presentations and that sort of thing. They can bring in any groups that they want into that space, as long as their values align with ours. It’s great for our brand and for smaller companies looking to gain traction; they’re doing great work but it’s really, really difficult and expensive to find space when your budget is limited.
By having this, we’ve been able to, even as a growing start-up that didn’t have a lot of dollars to give back to the community or even resources from a product or materials perspective, give back to the community. We had space. So we have dedicated space as a way for us to get involved with the community and offered that space up with its really great AV equipment. You can have a full mini conference or even a full two-day conference over the weekend. And it’s been a huge differentiator for us to get involved in having a bigger impact on the world around us and a bigger employer brand than we normally would.
Kelly Alexander: It sounds like it’s taking that people first approach from being just employee based to community based and that’s really, really special.
Leslie Collin: Absolutely. In my opinion, the thing you get from working at Unbounce is having a deeper impact on the world and the areas you’re passionate about than you necessarily would have any other way. And this is a good example as to how you can have that impact. And then also supporting your communities turns those communities into champions for you and your product, and maybe finds you potential employees one day.
Kelly Alexander: I’ve got one last question for you, Leslie. And this one is a bit of a fun one. I am always so curious about people’s life paths. I love to find out what people dreamed of doing as a profession when they were a kid, and how they got from there to where they are today. So I was wondering if you would share with us what you wanted to be when you grew up when you were a child? And if you think there are any connections between those childhood aspirations and what your adult career has been?
Leslie Collin: Great question! These are also my favourite types of questions to ask people. So when I was five years old, I decided what I was going to do with my life. Don’t worry. I didn’t know what HR was and I didn’t decide at five I was going to be in HR! But I did decide I was going to be a doctor. I was going to be a neurosurgeon, because I thought that was a really, really fancy doctor. I don’t even think I knew what it meant. But I just learned the word. And I was going to go to university; I knew which med school I was going to go to. And I was five or six when I just decided this was happening. I don’t know why I decided that, I just did. It’s a long story of how I got here to where I am instead. But the piece that remains the same in every career shift or aspiration that I’ve had, is that it’s been focused around people, and how do I help people live their lives in a better way.
So while I did go to university and study pre-med for the first year, wow, I didn’t enjoy it. I was very much not loving it and realized that I was trying to create a vision of my future from five-year-old me. So I ended up switching into cultural anthropology and sociology, which built my interest in people. Then I worked at a law firm for a little while, decided I wanted to become a lawyer, and then a judge, because of the injustice I saw in the world. I ended up deciding not to do that as well, and then found my way into tech where I get to have a deep impact on people’s lives every day. So that’s really the key for me: How do I have an impact on people’s lives? And that’s where I find value. For sure, when I think about the best moments in my career, I think about a couple of emails I’ve been lucky enough to get a few years after somebody leaves Unbounce that says, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember, but we went for a coffee once and I talked to you about my career. And that piece of advice you gave me changed everything. And now I’m in my dream job.” And it’s amazing. That’s what connects my career for me: How do I help elevate people’s experience in their lives?
Kelly Alexander: What a wonderful way to end our little segment today. Thank you so much for sharing that. And thank you so much for joining us. I’ve really enjoyed learning more about Unbounce. What you guys are doing is really having an impact and making that people first approach matter for your employees. And I think everyone has hopefully gotten some little titbits to take away and some great ideas to try at their own company. So again, thank you so much for sharing with us today. If anyone wants to follow you or reach out to you, is there a way that they can do that?
Leslie Collin: I’m Leslie Collin on LinkedIn, which is a great way to reach out. And then on every social media platform, I’m at @lesamatron.
Kelly Alexander: Thank you so much, Leslie. And thanks to our readers. You can all look forward to more thriver episodes coming at you very soon.
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Thriver Podcast is the leading company culture podcast, where each unique episode brings you engaging topics that new hosts and guests will connect on. Learn what drives a strong workplace culture through leadership, diverse experiences, personal stories, and much more.