How to grow and scale culture the Reddit way

We recently hosted the People and Culture team from Reddit in Berlin. In a fireside chat, Katelin Holloway, VP of People & Culture and Farah Kassam, Director of Talent Development shared why culture is important, how HR can grow and scale culture in a high-performing environment, and how culture ties in with performance management.

Holloway joined Reddit in early 2016 as their first executive HR hire. She recruited Kassam and together they grew the People & Culture team, built the new culture of Reddit, and nearly quadrupled the employee count from 75 to 270.

It was an inspirational evening packed with insightful knowledge and actionable advice. Below are our key takeaways with links to see more on each topic. And if you can, take the time to watch the whole fireside chat – it’s well worth it.

To grow and scale culture, don’t focus on the “what,” but the “who” and the “how”

More and more companies are focusing on being intentional with their company culture. But what exactly do we mean by culture (18:54)? Holloway argued culture is about the “who” and the “how.”

“It’s who you’re working with, having that value set alignment and making sure how you’re working together feels good. The ‘what’ doesn’t matter,” she said.

The first step toward establishing culture was to build the foundation (11:54), which focused on getting to know people and building trust. Frameworks were developed from the ground up – from identifying what Reddit employees called themselves to their values to how they wanted to achieve business goals. 

To maintain the newly established culture during company growth, Kassam shared that bringing recruitment in-house also played a crucial role.

“We want to hire people who understand who we are. And I want to be upfront about our challenges and company trajectory,” she said. That’s why, she added, “hiring people who aligned with who we want to be, and building trust and relationships between new and existing employees,” were key components.

We all know trust is important, but how do you build trust (47:30)? The speakers offered three pieces of advice.

Holloways’ first recommendation was to listen and adapt. She shared that she spent the majority of her first three months at Reddit connecting with its then-75 employees through conversations as well as through surveys. 

Event attendees asking question's to Reddit people team.

The second tip was to honor the history. “Hear the history and document it. If you don’t have a written history, as new people come in, you either run the risk of repeating past mistakes or making people feel their work was not valued,” Holloway explained. “Instead of coming in and telling people this is what our values are going to be, it’s about integrating and having a genuine appreciation for what has come before.”

Lastly, Kassam emphasized the importance of following through on what you say. Build trust through your actions, after making sure these actions are appropriate and aligned and people are on board with them.

There are three layers of culture, two of which organizations must be more intentional about

Holloway outlined three layers of culture (27:20)

  • External identity: who you are to the outside world (your brand, company mission, and values)
  • Operational identity: how you will accomplish your mission and values
  • Who we are as people: the human stuff (your feelings, how you talk about feedback, how you celebrate wins and mourn losses, etc.)

Often organizations only focus on the first layer, touch upon the second, and overlook the third. Holloway warned that not cultivating all three layers of culture creates a blind spot. It’s not just to provide some T-shirts and stickers and be done with it. The reality is, culture happens and evolves with every new hire – with or without your permission. To truly grow and scale culture, organizations have to be intentional about all three layers.

Holloway encouraged organizations to put frameworks and guideposts in place, so that employees can do the right thing, have the right conversations, and treat each other in a way that aligns with what the company values.

“The companies that are able to harness feelings and experiences, have leaders that say ‘we want a little bit more of this and a little less of that’, those are the ones that have a successful culture,” she said. “The more you can harness these unspoken values and dedicate resources to be shepherds to your staff, the better you’ll be able to get through hard times.”

Reddit takes an intentional approach to building company values. They have values that are core to the business and aspirational values that act as a guiding light for where they want to grow. They also believe value sets should reflect what the company needs for the here and now.

“A lot of companies establish values and those are the values forever,” Kassam explained. “What I love about Reddit is that there’s an acknowledgement about the human experience and the fact that we’re always changing. We change our values if it gets to a point where they’re not useful for us anymore. Not because they’re bad, but because they’re not helping us get to where we want to go. If the direction has shifted, we have to adjust to that (23:10).” 

Embrace and support your subcultures

No matter what the overall company culture is, there will always be subcultures – be it by team, circumstances, or interests. Holloway elaborated with a Reddit analogy (42:53)

“It’s like the Reddit front page, where you find your news, your cat memes and that’s really great. But to really dig in and be engaged, you must have your home,” she said.

Organizations have to acknowledge that not everyone, especially as you scale, is going to have the same interests. Embracing subcultures is therefore important from a social and tactical perspective. At Reddit, “one of our subcultures is parents, and we call our children ‘Snoolings’ [named after the Reddit alien]. Knowing I can go and connect with other parents makes me feel like I can fit in and relate outside of my function,” Holloway explained.

So how can organizations effectively support subcultures? Acknowledge and leverage subcultures, and be intentional in your support. One example Kassam shared is that Reddit offers a company-wide orientation as well as orientation in separate teams. People want to feel connection and there are different ways to connect. It’s up to the organization to create productive opportunities to maximize those.

Performance management is about aligning needs

At Reddit, Performance Reviews are used as checkpoints for fit (32:37). There are two axes for a “convergence of desire”, Holloway shared, the employee’s needs on one and the company’s needs on the other. 

The attendees at Small Improvement's event with Reddit.

“These two axes align perfectly for approximately 90 days. Then all of your weird dysfunctions come out while the business needs are changing,” Holloway explained. “The reality is both [axis] are shifting constantly. So as People and Culture leaders and in coaching managers, our jobs are to make sure these two things intersect as perfectly as possible in the most graceful way.”

Kassam further stressed that performance management should be an ongoing conversation. Regular check-ins help make sure there are no surprises and allow people to adjust and manage expectations.

Want more wisdom from Holloway? Check out her insights from our San Francisco panel discussion on “Helping Managers Become Better Managers.”

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