HubSpot's Katie Burke Cracks the Company Culture Code

Sarah Steimer
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

​What? Katie Burke was tapped for the role of vice president of culture and experience at HubSpot.

So what? Burke's efforts have gained accolades, but she consistently asks herself what comes next for the company.

Now what? Creating a positive company culture is less about perks and more about transparency and connection with employees.

​March 1, 2017

When HubSpot's co-founder proposed Katie Burke become head of company culture, it sounded to her like a shortcut to unemployment. Instead, Burke continues to hold down both her job and what she calls "radical transparency" at the tech firm

Company culture is a buzzword. It can evoke images of free coffee and ping-pong tables. HubSpot’s vice president of culture and experience, Katie Burke, contends that a strong company culture is less about perks and more about transparency and diversity. Her organization has received ample recognition for its company culture efforts, but she continues to ask herself: “How else can HubSpot step up?”

Q: Being in charge of company culture is a huge marketing role. How long have you worked at HubSpot and how did you get into this role exactly?

A: I’ve been at HubSpot for a little over four years. When I first started at the organization, Hannah [Fleishman, HubSpot’s recruitment marketing manager] and I were running internal and external communications. We did that through our IPO. That was the biggest day in the company’s history. We spent a lot of time with the executive team setting the tone for employees that the IPO was not the finish line, but the starting line. For us, the best days of HubSpot were to come.

Oftentimes that [message] is something people say but don’t actually execute or invest in. Dharmesh [Shah], our co-founder, the author of "The HubSpot Culture Code," asked me to go to dinner shortly after the IPO and suggested that I take over the culture team as a full-time profession. I said, “That sounds like a great way to be unemployed in a year,” because so few companies have a dedicated culture organization. The reality is, it was the ultimate sign to our organization that not only were we not thinking of the IPO as the finish line, we were going to double down on culture during a time when most companies take their foot off the gas of focusing on what their organization stands for.

Q: What did this new position mean for the company as a whole?

A: The creation of that role did a few things: One, it sent a really strong message to our employees and our candidates about how seriously we took this. Two, it gave me the opportunity as someone coming in with fresh eyes toward how we think about people, to think about opportunities for innovation and improvement. For example, one of my passion areas is creating space for women in leadership. ... Now we have a robust women’s network in all of our locations. We have been able to double down on what’s working, eliminate programs that weren’t and create a culture that scaled with us as we grow, versus reminiscing about the good old days. I feel very lucky to have been a part of this transition.

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I will fully acknowledge that it wasn’t part of my grand master career plan. It’s a testament to the company that they were willing to put someone from a marketing role into a people role, and one of the coolest things about our culture team right now [is] it has folks with a hospitality background, people with a marketing background, people who came from a content background. One of the benefits of a nontraditional team is you build nontraditional programs and get some great dividends from that.

Q: There is an assumption that company culture means whether or not you allow dogs in the office or beers on Fridays. How accurate is that?

A: Most people think culture equates to perks. We feel the exact opposite. What I always say to people is that it’s the people that work here and the problems they get to solve on a regular basis on behalf of our customers that make our culture remarkable. The perks are just a byproduct of that environment. One of the challenges that relates to the marketing world is that perks are sexy to talk about. But the core of why people come to work every day is because of the autonomy they get to do their work, the transparency of the information we provide here at HubSpot—those are the real things that make someone love their job on a day-to-day basis. You can’t buy your way into the heart of employees with perks. Nor can you dazzle them. Really smart, remarkable people want to work with colleagues who they really admire in an environment that challenges them. That’s kind of the core of what a company culture is about.

Q: How would you describe an ideal company culture?

A: A culture of a company is the environment that defines and informs how employees act on behalf of customers and how the company hires, retains and grows its people. You know you’re doing culture right when it’s not posters on the wall, but rather fundamentally informing how the everyday employee makes a decision. One of the things I love about Facebook is one of their core tenants as an organization is that nothing is somebody else’s problem. The reason I like that is if, for example, I am an intern on their finance team and I see an issue in our numbers, rather than saying that’s someone else’s issue to solve, I know that I’m empowered to fix it. It actually informs how I behave on a day-to-day basis. That’s when you know your company culture is working, when people don’t just understand what your company stands for, they understand how they could or should behave in a tough situation to solve for the customer, to help the company grow, that sort of thing.

The second you think you’re perfect is the second you’re disrupted and the second you get it wrong. One of the reasons humility is one of our core values at HubSpot is we don’t ever believe anything is done or perfect. Every time we get an award for our culture, the next day I come in and think, what are three things we need to do differently in the next six months to hit the gap on what we’re doing well. The reality is that candidates see all the awards you win for great places to work, but so do your competitors. They’re going to up their ante and say, next year we need to be here. By the way, your employees see it and expect you to do better next year. The best company cultures are highly iterative and highly humbled. The things that worked for us two years ago are not the same things that work for us now. If we’re not constantly evolving, we’re missing the point.

Q: You’ve written about making feedback the cornerstone of your culture. Do you think too many companies try to dictate the culture without including the employees in that conversation?

A: Absolutely. If you try to create your culture top-down, you miss valuable context. You also get a snapshot of what you think your culture should be, rather than a reality check of what your culture actually is. Most companies do employee surveys once a year. If you think about the last time you had a problem or a challenge at work, it wasn’t a year ago—chances are it was a lot more recent. Having an annual survey usually means there’s anywhere from 12 to 14 months between employees giving feedback and the company actually responding in any way, shape or form. [Employees] have no idea how you responded, no sense of what the results were beyond [their] own feedback, and by the time the company got around to publishing it, [employees] forget what [they] complained about. 

Each year, HubSpotters participate in the JPMorgan Chase Corporate Challeng

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We do quarterly feedback because we believe that dynamics change just like an organism. Companies are living, breathing entities that change and evolve over time, so it’s imperative to get an understanding of what’s going on in the minds of employees. Even the most humble, involved and on-the-floor executives do not see and experience the same challenges as employees on the front line, making feedback from the front line critical, not just to understand what’s going on in your business, but to actually fix it.

Q: You said you do these surveys quarterly, but let’s say there was some sort of a shake-up in the C-suite or you move offices, do you add another survey or do you have another way of getting immediate feedback?

A: When there’s a shake-up, the bigger issue is when we don’t talk about the elephant in the room. What most people do when that happens is take a survey but redact all the information about the executive who left or the change that was made and just refer to it in vague generalities. We try to go the exact opposite way. HubSpot prides itself on being radically transparent. When your company is changing the most is when you need to lean into transparency with the greatest tenacity. When we go through any sort of shift or change, we not only prioritize surveying employees shortly thereafter, but we also over-prioritize both the communication on the initiative and our willingness to answer questions about it.

Surveys are critical, but they’re just one ingredient. Ultimately, surveys are passive tools; they’re often done online. It’s important that you are willing to meet employees where they are and actually talk about what’s going on in-person. That human face is critical, especially when change is evolving. People want to know that you see them, hear them and you’re willing to speak to what’s going on in the company, versus entirely going through your PR, IR or legal team to do so.

Q: HubSpot has received culture commendations from Fortune, The Boston Globe, Glassdoor and others. Is there something about the culture at Hubspot that these organizations took note of?

A

: It comes down to two things: One is transparency. It’s usually at our size that companies back off of transparency. The most important thing about transparency for us is defaulting to sharing pretty much everything. As a public company, the natural inclination would be to hide things from public view, or at the very least, the question we always get is whether our interns or co-ops get access to that data. The answer is absolutely yes. When we’re willing to be radically transparent, we send a message to our employees that we trust them. We think that they are remarkable, trustworthy and dynamic enough as individuals, and we’re going to treat them like adults and expect that they’re going to do right with this information. By the way, that transparency, if you’re someone who’s interested in becoming a founder or entrepreneur, is going to help you by osmosis become a better leader. To think about challenges or problems, to learn from failure throughout the organization. Transparency is a key part of tha

The second thing is just our focus on culture. Awards are, from my perspective, a lagging, not a leading indicator of culture. The awards we’ve received are a direct result of the hard work we put in well before that. Our VP of engineering, Eric Richard, spent a full day with one of our support engineers understanding what she was hearing from our customers about challenges with the product or challenges with their day-to-day business. After doing that, he left her a handwritten note saying, “I just want to thank you for all the work you do on behalf of our customers,” along with a gift card to her favorite restaurant. At most companies, the VP of engineering sits on a throne and talks to people only when he or she feels like it, so the fact that we have leaders on our team that don’t just think of culture as someone else’s job, but as a core ingredient of what they do every day—that’s honestly what most of the awards are a direct result of.

Q: What’s interesting to me about that story is that he knew her favorite restaurant. Anyone can shoot out a thank you note, but is personalization what takes the company culture a step further?

A: To your point, most praise is arbitrary and generic. I want people to leave HubSpot with real clarity around what they’re doing well and feeling noticed and appreciated for what they do. One of the hallmarks of the culture team at HubSpot is that we want to draw as much from hospitality as we do from human resources. If you think about the last time you stayed at a wonderful resort or had a great experience going to a spa or retail location, it’s often the personal touches, not anything expensive, that make a difference. People see you for who you are. Extracting those personal details is something we really try and make a hallmark of how we recognize folks.

Q: Can you give some examples?

A: One of the things we did in December was a program called Random Acts of HubSpot. That program was designed just to be able to raise your hand and say, “Hey, my colleague Hannah is doing an amazing job and I know this thing she likes.” Or, “She’s a huge fan of elephants,” and we will send a personalized card on an elephant notecard. It’s not about the expense, it’s about the thought that goes into it. We allowed any employee at any level with any tenure at any location in our organization to nominate people. We try to do programs like that that combine personal touches with allowing anyone in the organization to participate, and we find that makes a big difference.

Q: How does culture affect the way a company is able to market itself to the best candidates for a job?

A: It used to be that companies could manage their external employment plans with things like brochures or trade shows. For example, you’re a candidate, I’m a recruiter, Hannah works with me at HubSpot and if you want to get direct feedback from her about what it’s actually like to work here—not the rhetoric but the actual reality—you would have to go through me as the recruiter. I have all the control and you’re sort of left to your own devices to guess whether you’re making the right choice.

With the advent of both social media and Glassdoor, no longer does the recruiter have all that power. The dynamic has fundamentally changed. Candidates have more power, more context and more information than ever to make their decision. As a result, your employment brand used to be what you said, and now it is what you do on a day-to-day basis to deliver on your promise. When we think about employment brand, it’s not just about creating a great job website, but it’s about making sure that whatever is on that website, whatever is on our Glassdoor page is really indicative of the experience people will get when they come to HubSpot, and it’s really illustrative of what we value, what we care about and some of the great work our employees on the ground are doing.

Q: How were you able to showcase employees’ experiences?

A: Hannah helped pioneer a program where we had folks put on GoPro cameras and actually show their day-to-day life, end to end. You’ll see one of our designers kissing his daughter goodbye. You’ll see one of our product designers in Dublin kissing his partner as he heads out the door and his partner waving goodbye to him. You’ll see our team in Japan taking the train and what it looks like going into our new space there. The idea was to remove some of the production value, but add more reality. You’re going to see a lot more content like that. We tried to get creative and more dynamic. 

The blog on our career site is dedicated entirely to telling employees’ stories and/or adding tremendous value to the candidate experience. I don’t know if you’ve ever done a video interview, but I find them super awkward and I’m pretty extroverted. We had our recruiters put together a full post with examples of how to do a good video interview. If you’re just coming out of college or university, it’s incredibly helpful.

We really invest in telling stories. Not just about how many awards we’ve won or great employees that got promoted, but about the day-to-day of working here and how to get your foot in the door. We spent a lot of time closing the gap between rhetoric and reality and invested an inordinate amount of resources into being transparent for candidates about what it’s really like to work here.

Q: What can candidates do to learn about company culture before they go on an interview?

A: Your goal isn’t to say that you would fit in, the goal is to say you would add to our culture. I like people who challenge us coming in the door. For example, we had a new hire who came in who asked what our plans were to get more female candidates in the door and get more female leaders. I like people who challenge us right off the bat and understand what we’re working on, what we prioritize and what we care about.

I love when people read our blog and consume our content on a regular basis. People focus far too much on understanding what people look for in a candidate and not enough time actually researching the nuts and bolts of the business. I always love when people look at our past earnings call and just get a better sense of where we are as a business and what that looks like.

I recommend investigating more informal sources. I love when people have done things like checked out old SlideShares that our co-founder Dharmesh [Shah] put together, or his blog on start-ups so they understand how he thinks about business and talent. I love it when folks have attended our inbound conferences and seen one of my colleagues speak about their experience. I also love when people take the time to reach out to someone who’s on the team they might be joining and/or to read their content from a peer perspective. Blog content, social, business results, the company’s Glassdoor page are all great places to get information and context if you’re a candidate.

A HubSpot employee taking a break in an office nap room.

Q: You mention that it’s more about being able to add to, rather than fit in with, what already exists at the company. Is there ever an issue where culture turns into conformity?

A: That’s a real challenge. One of the things we did early on in HubSpot’s culture was talk a lot about autotomy as it relates to things like unlimited vacation. Unlimited vacation is definitely a core part of working at HubSpot, which is fantastic. The reality is that if you just lead with unlimited vacation itself, it sends the wrong message about what we’re actually looking for and what we prioritize. One of the things we started doing was profiling different types of folks and how they use autonomy to build their work around their life, versus the other way around. We talked about new parents coming back to work and how they’ve optimized their schedule to work for both their job and their family.

Another thing we’ve altered recently under Hannah’s leadership is our job descriptions. If you say, we want someone who fits in here and you use a lot of acronyms to confuse people, it sends a message that you want people to conform. We started redoing all the job descriptions so we make it abundantly clear that if you’re a lifelong learner, open to challenging us, open to challenging the status quo and an interesting dynamic, you would be a great fit here.

Everything from your job description to your job site to how you handle the candidate interview experience can send messages about how you value diversity of thought and perspective. Like many top companies, we’re learning by being there and have some room to grow.

Q: Speaking of diversity, the political climate lately hasn’t always promoted a difference of opinions. Do you see this affecting company culture at all? Is that something you’ve had to stop and consider how to approach?

A: It’s something we’re starting to approach already. The best candidates in the world recognize that the research is abundantly clear that diverse teams perform better. People forget, often, that there’s a business imperative to make diversity a top priority. For example, we’re building a global customer base of marketing and sales customers around the world. Those customers expect that our team and our leadership reflect the diversity of language, thought, perspective, gender and age that they represent as well. We have an obligation to do it, but it’s also the right thing to do for our business, our brand and our team.

If you’re a person who’s mission-driven, chances are you care about what’s going on in the world, and you have a deep concern for the people you work with. We have more and more candidates asking what we’re doing about diversity and how they can be part of the solution, and that’s exciting. It’s out there and frankly I think most tech companies, if you’re not thinking about it, you’re behind the curve. 


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Author Bio:

 
Sarah Steimer
Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA's magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.
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