How to Build Culture During Times of Rapid Growth with Mike Rognlien Part 1

What's covered

Join host Tom Griffiths in an illuminating episode featuring special guest Mike Rognlien. Mike played a pivotal role as a founding member of Facebook’s L&D team, contributing to the company's remarkable growth from 1,500 to 26,000 employees. He currently holds the position of Sr. Director of People Development at Lacework.

In part 1 of our discussion with Mike, we delve into topics such as:

  • Cultivating culture amidst rapid growth
  • Embodying company values authentically
  • The collective significance of culture ownership

Gain valuable perspectives from Mike's remarkable seven-year journey at Facebook and throughout his career.

Tune in for this transformative dialogue that promises to reshape your understanding of organizational culture and growth.

About the speakers

MikeRognlien

Mike Rognlien

Sr. Director of People Development at Lacework

For over 20 years, Mike has learned from and taught some of the best (and some of the.. not best) people in the corporate world. He’s taught everything from how to present to how to manage global teams, and a whole lot in between in organizations as small as five people and as large as 100,000 or more.

Before starting his own company, Mike was one of the founding members of the Learning & Development team at Facebook, where he spent almost 7 years building all things learning — onboarding, manager development, hard conversations, and, in partnership with COO Sheryl Sandberg, the company's Managing Unconscious Bias training.

His tenure at Facebook, as a consultant to Microsoft, and at numerous other companies — from insurance to banking to Silicon Valley — taught him valuable lessons in responsibility, ownership and accountability, and the never-ending but rewarding work of building thriving and honest workplace cultures. His extended team, located around the US and in Europe, Asia-Pacific and Latin America, is a sought-after group of expert facilitators and coaches with decades of experiencing building great people and teams.

She is the author of Virtual Training Tools and Templates: An Action Guide to Live Online Learning (2017), The Virtual Training Guidebook: How to Design, Deliver, and Implement Live Online Learning (2014) and Virtual Training Basics, 2nd edition (2018).

TomGriffiths

Tom Griffiths

CEO and Co-founder, Hone

Tom is the co-founder and CEO of Hone, a next-generation live learning platform for management and people-skills. Prior to Hone, Tom was co-founder and Chief Product Officer of gaming unicorn FanDuel, where over a decade he helped create a multi-award winning product and a thriving distributed team. He has had lifelong passions for education, technology, and business and is grateful for the opportunity to combine all three at Hone. Tom lives in San Diego with his wife and two young children.

Tom regularly speaks and writes about leadership development, management training, and the future of work.

Episode transcript

Tom Griffiths

Hello everyone. Welcome to Learning Works Today. Our guest is author, L&D practitioner and thought leader in the world of company culture, Mike Rognlien. 

Mike was one of the founding members of the L&D team at Facebook, where he spent almost seven years building all things learning. In partnership with CO Cheryl Sandberg, they created the company's managing unconscious bias training. He's author of a book, this is now your company, a Culture Carrier's Manifesto, and he is currently the senior Director of People Development at Lacework, helping to champion employee learning and development and manager development.

Mike, thanks for joining us today. We're gonna have a great conversation about all things culture and l and d. But I know you're a man of many talents working on a few different things. Be curious to know, what are you working on right now and what is most exciting to you?

Mike Rognlien

Gosh, it's. It's been interesting. I left Facebook, after a really great almost seven years back in 2017 and started my own company, and wrote the book. Didn't really ever intend to go back into a full-time role. And then at the end of last year, I ran into Jay Parikh, who is the CEO of Lacework and used to be the head of engineering at Facebook and was a client an internal client for several years.

And the stuff that they are working on at Lacework, it's about a thousand-person company. Just, really trying to disrupt the cloud security business and help people really move away from, traditional on-premise type security to cloud-based security. There's tons of challenges that come with it.

And there's tons of challenges that come with building an organization from scratch and The company's about a thousand people. Facebook was probably around 1500 people when I joined back in 2011. They're a pre-IPO company. Facebook was a pre-IPO company. So there's a lot of similarities, but most importantly working with a leader like Jay, somebody that really understands learning and development, really cares about manager and leader development and getting the culture of the organization right.

One of our three company pillars this year is company building, which is what I'm really focused on. So earlier this week, I spent a couple of days onboarding 70 new people and full-time employees, and interns to the company, and really just focusing on getting people culturally acclimated and getting them to take an ownership role in not only what we're building as a company, but how we're building it.

So there are lots of throughlines from my previous experience, most recently full-time at Facebook. And then all of the companies that I worked with as a consultant over the last six-plus years, it's all coming together, and I'm excited to do it.

All one more time.

Tom Griffiths

It's so powerful when, first of all, you've got leadership and a company that recognizes the importance of culture and investing in L&D and someone such as yourself who can come in and has seen the movie before and can really put things in place that set you up for the future.

I'm sure it's a lot of fun and a really hot sector. So congrats to you all for what you're doing there.

Love to talk about the book. It's called, This is Now Your Company, a Culture Carrier's Manifesto. And there are hints of ownership, as you alluded to there, amongst the employee base. And I know that starts for you at onboarding. So I'd just love to hear from you what does it mean to you to be a culture carrier?

Mike Rognlien

Yeah it's funny because when I started. At Facebook 12 years ago, the job that I was hired in to do really was to be an internal l and d consultant to the engineering org. Which almost immediately evaporated as soon as I got there because the company was about to start. What really was a vertical growth ramp that lasted the whole time I was there and has continued, going from 1500 or so people when I started to about 26,000 when I left, and they got up to 85,000.

It's mind-blowing. Anything to grow that much that fast is just insane.

Tom Griffiths

Almost completely unique in the history of the world. A few other companies I suppose, have done that, but just that's unreal kind of growth, like you say, vertical. It's amazing. Yeah. Vertical growth.

Mike Rugnlien

And so very quickly it became we've never really developed our managers here, they gave that to me as a side project. The Friday before I started, it was an aside: we're gonna give you manager development. There was a team of 80 people at Microsoft where I was coming from, and it was an extra bit of work for me on the side when I started.

So I took on onboarding, I took on manager and leader development, really building out that capacity partnering with great folks externally that I think we really philosophically agreed with culturally. Marcus Buckingham was a huge partner in that, so much so that when I asked him to write the forward for my book, eEight years later, he is yeah, I owe you one.

I think from a culture perspective I had never worked in an organization whose culture I really felt that dialed into before Facebook. So I didn't necessarily consciously appreciate how important it was to really take care of it.

And one of the things that I quickly realized was like, wow, that it's not just what we're doing that's special. And it was how we're doing it is really what drew me here. 'cause I was perfectly happy in my previous role, I was a consultant to Microsoft. I was living in Chicago. I had a great life, wasn't looking, and then this Facebook opportunity came along, and I didn't really fully realize until after I'd started that the reason that I really said yes to the offer was because I just really liked the way they were getting things done.

I liked the way they conducted the interviews. I liked the people that I met. The questions were really direct, they were really challenging. Just the vibe of the place was amazing. So  I realized pretty quickly that if we're gonna continue on this crazy really vertical growth ramp we're gonna have to be super intentional about this culture, we're gonna lose it pretty quickly. Because my definition of culture that I go into at the very beginning of the book, it's just the sum total of all of our behavior. You can't double the size of any organization or team as we did every 12 months.

The company was twice as big as it was the 12 months prior. If you're not gonna be super intentional about how you're doing it and what behaviors you're looking for and what type of mindset, are you hiring people that take that responsibility seriously or are you hiring people that think culture's the leadership team's responsibility?

I'm just here to get work done. It started like that, and over the first six months and then for the rest of the time I was there, it became a primary focus of my work as a person, but also as I shaped the work of the learning and development team to really focus on those core cultural skills.

Tom Griffiths

It's a legendary culture in many ways. And a few of the mantras have seeped out into tech culture more broadly. Things like, move fast and break things or done is better than perfect. You can tell me how real those were internally, but I was curious how you define the culture at Facebook rather than, defining the term culture.

What was Facebook's culture and how was that written down so that you could then move forward and bring people into that as they joined the company?

Mike Runglien

Yeah, it really was values-driven. And it's one of the reasons why, you know, over the last six and a half years I guess it's been almost six years since I left, most of the companies that I worked with as an independent consultant brought me in because not because they wanted to.

Or that they could replicate Facebook's culture. But what I really advocated for was, dig deep and really figure out who you are as an organization and then optimize everything that you possibly can to be the best version of that. And that was born out of when people would come to visit Facebook, whether it was business executives or political leaders, heads of state, they almost all wanted some kind of tour of the campus. And so I would do that, but then it would turn into, wow, this place really does feel different. What is it that you're doing differently? And it really was values-driven.

Move fast was absolute, it was moving fast and breaking things in the early days and then, A few interns took the site down a few too many times, maybe not, maybe leave the break things part off. Conceptually, what we didn't mean was break the site. What we did mean was, tweak and iterate and break things in this in the sense of, make them better when you fix them.

Being open and being super transparent, Mark did. Several leaders also did regular Q&A, so that anybody in the company could ask any question at an open mic. I think really more than any company I'd ever worked for, we really were, especially in those earlier days, incredibly values-driven.

And I think the reason that those values have permeated beyond the walls of Facebook into other tech companies, including the one that I work at now, move fast, is one of our values is because it really does become a solid easily understandable, rallying cry for people to just constantly evaluate.

If you're sitting in a meeting with a group of people and you're trying to decide on a deadline or a project plan, if somebody says, yeah, we should be able to get this done in six months. You can immediately have that kind of yardstick to say, okay, move fast is one of our values. Is six months moving fast or moving fast enough?

Mark used to say that values were tiebreakers, so if, again, you're sitting in a meeting and one of our other values was to be open. So if we're talking about information that we're gonna share internally and people that you know, maybe come from a different background, that they're used to being more conservative is advocating for not sharing enough, then the tiebreaker is if we really do value being open, Is sharing this level of detail, living up to that value or not.

So I really love that kind of view of it.  I've also found how important it's to help, especially senior leaders, talk about the very real shadow sides of company values. Being, being bold or moving fast, is an excuse to run like a bull in a China shop and mess up other people's projects or be thoughtless or careless, or sloppy.

And when you get to the point where you find like people are saying, I was just moving fast. That's not what we meant. So it's just they always our culture always tended to come back around to these five values that we have. Are we actually living up to them, and are we using them to guide our everyday behavior?

Or, as one of our early engineers used to say, are they just bullshit posters on the wall? And I think whether you work at Facebook or the Navy, or Bank of America or Credit Suisse or wherever the heck you work, Anybody, regardless of what your operating environment is, you can look to those values and those agreements about how you said you were gonna show up and use them as a litmus test to determine how successful or not you're being.

Tom Griffiths

You gotta keep them alive by bringing them into meetings or performance reviews and onboarding. And if you can do that, then it can really manifest in ways that you almost wouldn't expect in a positive way to see those values being lived.

I'd be curious, combining that vertical growth with those values, how did things change as a culture as you scaled so rapidly, and what stayed the same, was the culture able to hold onto those values? And, especially as the team got into the tens of thousands so quickly.

Mike Rognlien

Yeah, I'm smiling because any time I talk about this experience, 'cause you know I've been gone almost six years, but I think back to so many like really critical moments that, that we asked exactly those questions internally.

I remember right after I started again, and I was coming from Microsoft, which was 105,000 employees, to Facebook, which was 15, 16, 1700. And, people would get up, and understandably, 'cause it's all relative, they'd get up and say, I've been here since it was 600 people, and now it's 1600.

Gosh, we're getting really big. Aren't we worried about our culture? And from my perspective, it was like big—are you kidding me right now? More people were in my building at Microsoft than in this entire company. It's relative. I think Mark was really good, especially at teasing out, like, what's the question behind the question?

Because ultimately, once you get to a certain number of people, which is much smaller than 600, you can't know everybody anyway. So what's the real question? The real question is, are we going to get so big that we're going to lose the ability to keep and hold dear these things that we say that we value?

I remember vividly somebody asking that question once, and he came to play that day, and he's our culture is gonna change it. It changes every time somebody comes and goes. Because again, if your definition is that culture is just the sum total of all behavior, anytime you add or subtract people from that equation, your culture's gonna change.

'Cause different people get things done differently, but what they were really intent on and what I think held us. Together for all those years was that our values will not change, our culture will change, and our values won't. So being open and moving fast is going to be different as a 20,000-person company.

It is a 1500-person company, but the value is still the same. And we should still, even as the context around our work changes, if we really do value those things, then we have to continue challenging, challenging ourselves to adapt the way that we get work done, even as the company's growing, which is in many ways where I came in.

Tom Griffiths

The values haven't changed, but how they are operationalized is, of course gonna change when you ten or a hundred x the company. And so being people and doing that consciously is big. Empowering or clear way to do that with people.

Conventional wisdom and I've seen this myself, I hear it a lot from other people, leaders is that certain types of employees are appropriate for certain stages of the company, and sometimes throughout the growth curve, folks from a previous stage or scale might think of themselves as their old guard.

And things are changing, and it's a difficult cultural challenge to bring those along as much as you can while you're bringing in the new skill sets and stage-appropriate folks for later parts of the growth curve. So we'd be curious how you tackled that challenge.

Mike Rognlien

So I think in a couple of different ways.

One is we talked about it, so when, especially when senior leaders, when I'm working with them, usually one-on-one, like in executive coaching, and they'll ask like, how do I keep connected with people in the organization as we get bigger and bigger? How do I make sure that people understand what's going on and the context behind the decisions that I'm making? You have to talk to people.

And once you get so big that the scale of being able to talk to people meaningfully, individually or in small groups, is out the window, then you have to. Hopefully, a good internal comms person can help you figure out how to scale it. And I think we did that really well. Mark still does a weekly Q&A. It leaks a lot more now, unfortunately. But he's been doing that weekly Q&A for 15 years.

Tom Griffiths

So he does it live, or do they submit the questions? How's it working?

Mike Rugnlien

Yeah, he does it live. In the early days when I first started, it was whatever was on the minds of the people that showed up in the room.

Of course, as the company got bigger, they started using their own Facebook as a platform. To get people to vote on questions, and actually, it's really cool. A lot of the stuff that is now in the workplace is their kind of corporate solution for companies that wanna use a Facebook-type platform at work.

A lot of those functionalities and features came from stuff that we realized we needed internally. So he. Every Friday afternoon, what were the most popular questions? We'll make sure to answer like the top three to five and then still leave space for people that are in the room that want to pick up a microphone and ask a question to do, but I think I. That was one of the things that we said, it's really important for him, it's really important for people in the company, even if it's just symbolically to make sure that channel of communication stays open and then it created the expectation, whether it was expressed or not, that other leaders from around the company would do similar things with their own organization.

So I think maintaining, again, being open and being open as a company value was probably one of the things that had served us the most and I think serves most organizations the most. 'cause if you're not, I. You create a vacuum where people will create their own narrative, believe it, and tell themselves that you're the one that told it to them.

You're a rock and a hard place, but I always have encouraged people to err on the side of sharing more information than less. Yeah. Yeah. It's a great example again of living that openness value. And I've certainly found over the years that if you leave a vacuum, people will fill it for you with whatever's in their head, or oftentimes it's a more negative story about a circumstance than the reality.

And being out front as a leader and really clarifying things regularly, not being afraid to repeat yourself on the big things like mission, vision, and values is really important. So it's great. Great to hear how Mark did that. You touched a little bit there on how as you scale, it can be harder to get a group of people in the room and really connect at a smaller scale.

One of the huge features of the workplace these days, of course, is distributed or hybrid work. I'd just be curious what advice you have for companies trying to build a strong culture in that environment. It's funny; I'm smiling now because that's one of my biggest challenges right now at Lacework.

Ninety-plus percent of our employees that work at Lacework today were not at Lacework when the pandemic started. So almost the entire company has never worked in a Lacework office. It's interesting because there's a big conversation about returning to work. There is no return to the office.

There is no return to the office for us because almost none of our employees were in an office in the first place when they started. Not that they've never worked in an office before, but they've never worked in an office, at least work. So it's been interesting. It's one of the things that I've really been doubling down on, pulling on.

My Facebook experience, Jay obviously was at Facebook for over a decade, I think 12 or 13 years, and I think there's probably about 10%. Maybe more of our company is also former Facebook meta employees. So there's a certain kind of predisposition and an easy familiarity with tools like workplace, for example, to build an online town square.

I think it's the interesting thing about the conversation about being in the office versus being out of the office. Being in the office is not a guarantee that you're gonna have a good culture. 'cause I don't know about you, but I've definitely worked in companies during the pandemic that it was like, this place sucks, right?

And we were right face to face, all sucking together. Being in an office doesn't guarantee that you're gonna have a great culture. And being remote or virtual doesn't mean that you're gonna have a bad one. But I think it's, like I said earlier if as you're growing, you have to be intentional about culture.

And I think as you're remote and distributed, you have to be extra intentional about culture 'cause. Every organization has a culture, whether they work at it or not. 'Cause again, it's just how we get things done. So my challenge to our leadership team, and frankly to everybody in the company, as I said, I just did onboarding this week for almost 70 people, some of whom were remote.

If this place is great, the next time we do an orientation, thank you you've helped contribute to it. If this place sucks in two months, when the next group of people comes in, it's partially your fault. 'cause that's what culture is. It's ownership, and I think, jarring people out of their complacency.

That culture is something that just is either an executive or a leadership team's job or something that I, as an individual, can't really influence. I think I'm just naturally inclined to disabuse people of that notion. And do so in a very personal way. I talk in the book, and I talk in orientation every time.

I really hated passive aggressiveness in the way that we were passive-aggressive in how we got work done at Microsoft. But I went to every meeting before the meeting. I was just as quiet in the meeting that mattered as everybody else was, which necessitated several meetings after.

I had to reconcile that even though I wasn't necessarily scheduling all those meetings, I was certainly attending them. And so we have a philosophy. From an IP perspective, when you join Lacework, empty your backpack. Leave any IP that you worked on or created at a previous company. Leave it at the door.

I've introduced the culturally, I want you to empty your backpack. Like I want you to bring good ways of getting things done here, but I want you to also be mindful. A, this isn't the company you used to work at, so you can't just copy and paste without some nuance. And there are probably things about that organization that wasn't great that even if you didn't like them like I didn't like passive aggressiveness.

If that became the culture that you were used to and you got used to operating in that environment as I had. You're gonna have to leave those things at the door because if you don't, unconsciously, you're gonna recreate them here. And just never getting tired of having that conversation and delivering that message.

Tom Griffiths

So having folks almost unlearn what they've learned in the past to be able to adapt to the culture that you're intentionally trying to create. And also, it sounds like really emphasizing this idea of ownership upfront so that they. As soon as they're part of the company, take responsibility for their part in yeah, creating the culture for future joiners.

That's great. You mentioned values earlier as a way to really codify what you know, the essence of the culture is, and that's definitely the most important part, but I'm just curious, in a distributed world, do you have any other sayings or rules of thumb or kind of communication guidelines that go beyond the values that really do try to instill like how we get what work done here?

Mike Rognlien

Yeah, a hundred percent. And every organization does, especially; there's one of the things that I've really enjoyed, reflecting back to this new leadership team. I've worked with Jay and a couple of other senior folks because we've all worked together in previous companies.

But one of the things that I like reflecting back to them is their own, like pithy sound bites. The other wasn't a value at Facebook, but of one of the posters at Facebook that everybody really found resonated with them and is certainly a part of our vernacular at Lacework, it was a picture of a rocking horse, and it was on a red background, and the rocking horse was black and it, on the riding on the poster said, don't mistake motion for progress.

And we talk about that all the time. Are we just running in place and looking busy, or are we actually moving the ball down the field? And there are phrases like that don't mistake motion for progress. That I think I. Really not just, be open or move fast, but it's, it becomes another way of looking at are we just churning out a bunch of stuff or are we actually moving things forward?

Being an L&D is a perfect example of motion versus progress. Like I always tell people, I work in a learning and development department, not a training department. A training department, to me, is a group of people that just churns out content and delivers programming, whether it's the most important, whether it's the most culturally relevant, it's just we just crank out classes, and we measure our success by how many people attend them and how many classes we have, whereas with a learning team, To me, a learning and development team is much more focused on what is the kind of business-critical, culturally critical, culturally relevant skills that people need to have, and are we relentlessly focused on providing those things and constantly swatting away?

Somebody comes to you and says, oh, our people really need to know how to negotiate. Really, does everybody in the company need to know? Or is it just your team? Because if it's just your team, here's some money to bring in a speaker, buy a book, or go to an external conference.

It's really imperative that learning teams not get sucked into this notion that if I just keep cranking out content, I'm adding value. It really is because that's motion. It's not necessarily meaningful progress, especially in this economic environment. I don't have an endless budget.

I don't know anybody that has an endless budget. Even in my halon days at Facebook, there was still an upper limit to how much money we could spend on different things. So prioritizing what is the most important and ensuring that we're not just looking busy but actually doing the most useful stuff.

Things like that. And many leaders have different kinds of catchphrases that they just drop that become mantras. And that's certainly one of 'em that I'm happy to see make the jump from my previous org to my current one. Yeah, it's cool because, obviously, it ties back to the value of moving fast, but it gives you, like you say, a mantra that you can use in meetings or individually to check your thinking.

And makes it even more real and manifested. So it sounds like people brought those themselves as their phrases, and then a few of them stuck and really helped that we're certainly gonna go deep on L&D and the effects that can have on culture in a moment. But just to round out on culture, as you mentioned, times are tight these days with budgets being cut.

For many companies, headcount is being reduced and going through reductions in force.  And so that obviously has an impact on the culture. I would love to know your advice for people managing culture through a headcount reduction and coming out the other side.

I think it's not a completely different conversation than the one that you have when we're gonna double in the next six months. Because I think, ultimately, the question is, what is it that we collectively value about how we get things done here? What is it that makes the way that we get things done unique?

And whether our team is 50 people, or five people, or 105 people, I. Again, if we value the things that we say we value, then those shouldn't be impacted significantly by the size of the team. I think one of the things that I've seen that does work that is really helpful is to continuously maintain that dialogue about how are we getting things done?

Is it still working? I think that was one of the things that. Interestingly, on both sides of the beginning and the end of Covid, I guess it's not ever a hundred percent over, but since the beginning of Covid where everybody had to go remote, and then wherever we are now, wherever the organization is with coming back.

One thing that really stuck out to me was that I felt like people were just trying to do the same thing in very different circumstances. Okay, everybody's gonna have to go remote. How will we ensure that we have the same amount of face time with each other every day?

How are we gonna make sure that we have exactly the same number of meetings instead of saying, This is a completely different way of working. Take some time and talk about do we need the same number of meetings? What type of FaceTime are we gonna have? Since we're losing the kind of serendipitous conversations that happen at the proverbial water cooler, how are we gonna, how are we gonna stay connected with each other?

Just in terms of talking smack sometimes, like sometimes you just need to blow off steam. Are we doing those things? And I think the initial, my initial take on it was that a lot of companies and organizations were just like, let's just try and do everything exactly the same way as we did when we were all in the office.

So the same thing I think applies when you're going from a larger team to a smaller one, is not just assuming that you're going to be able to, or necessarily want to, or need to do the same type or amount of work that you were doing before. And like I said, you, your culture, you have a culture whether you're intentional about it or not.

So, my bias is always to say if I can have influencer control or something, I'm gonna go ahead and choose that option then. Oh, I guess we'll just wait and see what happens. And I think people often feel it would be disrespectful or insensitive to say, okay, we were 12 people a week ago, and now we're eight.

What are we gonna do now that these other folks are gone, but they're gone? Whether you talk about 'em or not. And the work is gonna change whether you talk about that change or not. A lot of times, my advice to people is that thing that has the potential to grow from a baby elephant to a giant one.

You have to pay attention to and say those things, and we need to talk about that before. We don't have a choice but to have to talk about it. Talking about it explicitly, hearing people out, and agreeing on how to go forward, and those sound like.

Tom Griffiths

The right questions to be asking. I'm curious tactically, who would you want in those conversations? Is that like an executive leadership team-level conversation? Do you do focus groups with frontline employees? How do you actually enact those conversations at those crucial times? I think it's both. Every organization that I've worked in has done some type of, like, an employee engagement survey.

Mike Rognlien

We just finished one of the two times a year that we do it. At Lacework, my question and my challenge to people is when you listen to how people talk about the results from those surveys. 'cause I think whether it's intended or not, whether it's explicitly stated or not, I think a lot of times those org health surveys really become report cards on management.

How do we feel about management and leadership? How confident are we, management and leadership gonna do something with the results of this survey? Those are important questions to ask, but frankly, if I'm not an executive, I work here too and have a vested interest. And if we say, for example, we have too many meetings.

There are just too many meetings in this team. It hampers us. We're not able to get a lot of stuff done. We need to have fewer meetings. Then I go back to the example that I used earlier in my previous life. Before I took ownership of that stuff, I would've just been like the meeting's on my calendar, so I gotta go.

Now it's more, if we as a team have rated ourselves low because of the number of meetings we have, then we all need to put our heads together and make some decisions about the right number of meetings? And is it maybe it's not the wrong number of meetings, but maybe it's the wrong attendee list.

I think it has to be everybody. The other thing that I tell people is if you're gonna wait for managers and leaders exclusively to implement changes based on feedback like that, you're almost begging not to be successful. 'cause we outnumber them. Most companies have a lot more individual contributors and rank-and-file employees.

Then they have leaders, so when you add up, again, if you really believe as I do, that culture is the sum total of all behaviors. We are contributing more to the culture in terms of our behavior than they are 'cause there's just more of us. So all of that stuff always needs to be a partnership.

There should be somebody, ideally the most qualified, the most passionate, the most able, who can drive those conversations. But I don't think that they produce meaningful tangible long-term results if you don't have involvement from everybody. Or certainly representation of all the different groups of people when it comes time to make decisions.

Tom Griffiths

The theme of ownership comes up. Everyone is part owner of the culture.

Mike Rognlien

I'm a broken record here. I will not vary. I think it's right, and how great does it look to leadership if someone's taking an initiative themselves to say, hey, there's something that isn't working as well as it could over here in our culture.

And I'm looking at our values and thinking, and this is how this is something we could do to get closer to those values. It reflects tremendously well on that person and obviously great for the company as well. 

Tom Griffiths

And more likely to get done.

Mike Rognlien

Again, don't mistake motion for progress.

If we want something done, then the person that is the most passionate, that is the most committed to it, and is the best at corralling other people to join their cause is the person that you want to lead it. And I don't care what level on the org chart they are. In a truly, the other thing that I think permeates across tech, Facebook certainly didn't invent it, but tech companies really like to see themselves and, ideally, be relatively flat organizations.

If you look at it Facebook as an example in other companies as well, on the downside of this growth and really shrinking the company, where are they shrinking it the most? They're taking out a bunch of people in middle management. Not that mid-level managers can't be useful, but I think in every organization that I've worked at, the middle layer of management tends to be where this type of progress dies.

Because people on the lower end of the totem pole think there's nothing that we can do. People at the more senior ends of the totem pole are like people in the middle will take care of it. They're just not set up for success. And I think instinctively, when you look at the organizations who are making reductions at that middle layer of management, I think that's why.

Tom Griffiths

What's your view on how to actually take out middle management and maintain sensible spans of control so that people aren't overwhelmed by a bunch of new direct reports? 'cause suddenly there's half of as many middle managers. How do you actually do that? 

Mike Rognlien

I think I think you have to reverse engineer.

Like why did we put so many middle layers of management in place in the first place? And I think much of it returns to how you set goals. How you decide what work needs to get done. I. One of the things that I know that we looked at, or there were two types of people that I automatically screened out when I was interviewing for.

Bringing people into not just Facebook but into any company. I'm not a volunteer either, but that's not the first reason I'm showing work every day.

The second is Empire Builders. People that just want to accumulate headcount— 'cause they also tend to be the most ruthless when it comes time to make cuts. Because they're like, I've got all these people, I'm gonna look really great if I'm the one that kind of throws half of the bus to lay them off.

Of course, never. No, VPs will be harmed in this layoff-type mentality. So I think it's looking at those exact same things on the backend, like how far we have drifted away from the work being acted upon and decisions being made as close to the outcome as possible. I think that was another philosophically important thing to us at Facebook.

We don't want a bunch of people involved in decisions that should most easily and best be made as close to the work as possible. So I think looking at how are you setting goals? How are you dividing up the work? And really, honestly, what is everybody's role, and why do you need so many middlemen or middlewomen or middle people in the first place?

Tom Grffiths

I think a lot of it comes back down to how you set goals. Yeah. Yeah. No, that's great. Great advice. Speaking of Antipas in management, I've just got one last question. In this segment, I've seen you talk about this idea of managing by meme. And so, I'd love to have you explain that a little bit and how do you avoid that?

Mike Rognlien

Well, so to me, managing by meme is just reading through LinkedIn and looking for whatever trendy thing other people in other companies are talking about and then saying yes, let's do that here. I used to say this all the time earlier in my L&D career. For example, this was one of my really big pet peeves a couple of years ago when companies would the CEO, especially of smaller companies, but there were some mid-level companies as well, where the CEO or the COO would get on LinkedIn, bring their giant soapbox with them and say, we are so proud to announce that our employees can work from wherever on the planet they wanna work and whatever hours they need.

And like we're here for work-life integration and blah, blah, blah. And, of course, it would get thousands of sweet likes and shares. And the whole time, I'm thinking, shouldn't you actually have to make that policy work before you celebrate yourself? Shouldn't you have done it for six months and then instead of saying we're going to do it, say, "Hey, six months ago, we made the decision to let our employees work from anywhere on the planet. And here's what we've learned, and here are the pros and cons, and it's really worked for us. Reach out if you'd like more info." But that's not what we did. It was we got very big into announcement culture.

Which becomes managing by meme. Shoot, like Airbnb announced that their employees can work from anywhere. And if we wanna compete with Airbnb for talent, then we have to do it. And nobody bothered to ask. Did it actually work? Did it scale? Did our culture, is our culture as good as it was when we weren't doing that?

Are we over-pivoting employees? The same thing happened. I remember vividly a pretty heated internal debate at Facebook that I think I might've even started. I certainly fan the flames of it. If I didn't start it where we were announcing we're gonna open a massage parlor on campus, and it's gonna be the video arcade and the ice cream shop.

And I'm like, at some point, When does this end? Because we're gonna create a bunch of entitled monsters who don't know how to do anything for themselves and frankly don't feel like it's their job to, and that's exactly what happened. And so now a bunch of tech companies are like slashing benefits that they really shouldn't have ever created in the first place because they were managed by me.

They were just looking at what other people were doing. Putting very little, if any, critical thinking into what this will mean for us, and it is gonna work here? Is it gonna help? Is it gonna make it worse? You, they don't print retractions. Like, I haven't seen anybody on LinkedIn. We probably shouldn't have gotten so far ahead of our skis, but yeah, y'all have to come back now 'cause that didn't work.

Yeah, I counsel leaders on this all the time, and myself as well. Don't get sucked into something that sounds really leave the trends to TikTok. And instead managed by like absolutely. If you see something somebody else is doing that could make this a better place to work, improving not only our employees' quality of life but our product or market position. Then do that and partner with people who will have to implement it and make it come to life effectively.

Otherwise, you're the executive version of somebody who's posting the same eight bars of bad choreography on TikTok. It's the modern-day equivalent, like you say, of going to a seminar, coming back, and telling everybody to do something.

It's I saw it on Facebook. I saw it on LinkedIn. Now suddenly, it's gotta be right for us versus miracle. Yeah. Thinking from first principles, what's unique about us? What are we actually trying to achieve? And let's solve the problem in front of us.

Tom Griffiths

So thanks for calling that out. That's awesome.Tune in for Part 2 with Mike Rognlien.

Episode transcript

Tom Griffiths

Hello everyone. Welcome to Learning Works Today. Our guest is author, L&D practitioner and thought leader in the world of company culture, Mike Rognlien. 

Mike was one of the founding members of the L&D team at Facebook, where he spent almost seven years building all things learning. In partnership with CO Cheryl Sandberg, they created the company's managing unconscious bias training. He's author of a book, this is now your company, a Culture Carrier's Manifesto, and he is currently the senior Director of People Development at Lacework, helping to champion employee learning and development and manager development.

Mike, thanks for joining us today. We're gonna have a great conversation about all things culture and l and d. But I know you're a man of many talents working on a few different things. Be curious to know, what are you working on right now and what is most exciting to you?

Mike Rognlien

Gosh, it's. It's been interesting. I left Facebook, after a really great almost seven years back in 2017 and started my own company, and wrote the book. Didn't really ever intend to go back into a full-time role. And then at the end of last year, I ran into Jay Parikh, who is the CEO of Lacework and used to be the head of engineering at Facebook and was a client an internal client for several years.

And the stuff that they are working on at Lacework, it's about a thousand-person company. Just, really trying to disrupt the cloud security business and help people really move away from, traditional on-premise type security to cloud-based security. There's tons of challenges that come with it.

And there's tons of challenges that come with building an organization from scratch and The company's about a thousand people. Facebook was probably around 1500 people when I joined back in 2011. They're a pre-IPO company. Facebook was a pre-IPO company. So there's a lot of similarities, but most importantly working with a leader like Jay, somebody that really understands learning and development, really cares about manager and leader development and getting the culture of the organization right.

One of our three company pillars this year is company building, which is what I'm really focused on. So earlier this week, I spent a couple of days onboarding 70 new people and full-time employees, and interns to the company, and really just focusing on getting people culturally acclimated and getting them to take an ownership role in not only what we're building as a company, but how we're building it.

So there are lots of throughlines from my previous experience, most recently full-time at Facebook. And then all of the companies that I worked with as a consultant over the last six-plus years, it's all coming together, and I'm excited to do it.

All one more time.

Tom Griffiths

It's so powerful when, first of all, you've got leadership and a company that recognizes the importance of culture and investing in L&D and someone such as yourself who can come in and has seen the movie before and can really put things in place that set you up for the future.

I'm sure it's a lot of fun and a really hot sector. So congrats to you all for what you're doing there.

Love to talk about the book. It's called, This is Now Your Company, a Culture Carrier's Manifesto. And there are hints of ownership, as you alluded to there, amongst the employee base. And I know that starts for you at onboarding. So I'd just love to hear from you what does it mean to you to be a culture carrier?

Mike Rognlien

Yeah it's funny because when I started. At Facebook 12 years ago, the job that I was hired in to do really was to be an internal l and d consultant to the engineering org. Which almost immediately evaporated as soon as I got there because the company was about to start. What really was a vertical growth ramp that lasted the whole time I was there and has continued, going from 1500 or so people when I started to about 26,000 when I left, and they got up to 85,000.

It's mind-blowing. Anything to grow that much that fast is just insane.

Tom Griffiths

Almost completely unique in the history of the world. A few other companies I suppose, have done that, but just that's unreal kind of growth, like you say, vertical. It's amazing. Yeah. Vertical growth.

Mike Rugnlien

And so very quickly it became we've never really developed our managers here, they gave that to me as a side project. The Friday before I started, it was an aside: we're gonna give you manager development. There was a team of 80 people at Microsoft where I was coming from, and it was an extra bit of work for me on the side when I started.

So I took on onboarding, I took on manager and leader development, really building out that capacity partnering with great folks externally that I think we really philosophically agreed with culturally. Marcus Buckingham was a huge partner in that, so much so that when I asked him to write the forward for my book, eEight years later, he is yeah, I owe you one.

I think from a culture perspective I had never worked in an organization whose culture I really felt that dialed into before Facebook. So I didn't necessarily consciously appreciate how important it was to really take care of it.

And one of the things that I quickly realized was like, wow, that it's not just what we're doing that's special. And it was how we're doing it is really what drew me here. 'cause I was perfectly happy in my previous role, I was a consultant to Microsoft. I was living in Chicago. I had a great life, wasn't looking, and then this Facebook opportunity came along, and I didn't really fully realize until after I'd started that the reason that I really said yes to the offer was because I just really liked the way they were getting things done.

I liked the way they conducted the interviews. I liked the people that I met. The questions were really direct, they were really challenging. Just the vibe of the place was amazing. So  I realized pretty quickly that if we're gonna continue on this crazy really vertical growth ramp we're gonna have to be super intentional about this culture, we're gonna lose it pretty quickly. Because my definition of culture that I go into at the very beginning of the book, it's just the sum total of all of our behavior. You can't double the size of any organization or team as we did every 12 months.

The company was twice as big as it was the 12 months prior. If you're not gonna be super intentional about how you're doing it and what behaviors you're looking for and what type of mindset, are you hiring people that take that responsibility seriously or are you hiring people that think culture's the leadership team's responsibility?

I'm just here to get work done. It started like that, and over the first six months and then for the rest of the time I was there, it became a primary focus of my work as a person, but also as I shaped the work of the learning and development team to really focus on those core cultural skills.

Tom Griffiths

It's a legendary culture in many ways. And a few of the mantras have seeped out into tech culture more broadly. Things like, move fast and break things or done is better than perfect. You can tell me how real those were internally, but I was curious how you define the culture at Facebook rather than, defining the term culture.

What was Facebook's culture and how was that written down so that you could then move forward and bring people into that as they joined the company?

Mike Runglien

Yeah, it really was values-driven. And it's one of the reasons why, you know, over the last six and a half years I guess it's been almost six years since I left, most of the companies that I worked with as an independent consultant brought me in because not because they wanted to.

Or that they could replicate Facebook's culture. But what I really advocated for was, dig deep and really figure out who you are as an organization and then optimize everything that you possibly can to be the best version of that. And that was born out of when people would come to visit Facebook, whether it was business executives or political leaders, heads of state, they almost all wanted some kind of tour of the campus. And so I would do that, but then it would turn into, wow, this place really does feel different. What is it that you're doing differently? And it really was values-driven.

Move fast was absolute, it was moving fast and breaking things in the early days and then, A few interns took the site down a few too many times, maybe not, maybe leave the break things part off. Conceptually, what we didn't mean was break the site. What we did mean was, tweak and iterate and break things in this in the sense of, make them better when you fix them.

Being open and being super transparent, Mark did. Several leaders also did regular Q&A, so that anybody in the company could ask any question at an open mic. I think really more than any company I'd ever worked for, we really were, especially in those earlier days, incredibly values-driven.

And I think the reason that those values have permeated beyond the walls of Facebook into other tech companies, including the one that I work at now, move fast, is one of our values is because it really does become a solid easily understandable, rallying cry for people to just constantly evaluate.

If you're sitting in a meeting with a group of people and you're trying to decide on a deadline or a project plan, if somebody says, yeah, we should be able to get this done in six months. You can immediately have that kind of yardstick to say, okay, move fast is one of our values. Is six months moving fast or moving fast enough?

Mark used to say that values were tiebreakers, so if, again, you're sitting in a meeting and one of our other values was to be open. So if we're talking about information that we're gonna share internally and people that you know, maybe come from a different background, that they're used to being more conservative is advocating for not sharing enough, then the tiebreaker is if we really do value being open, Is sharing this level of detail, living up to that value or not.

So I really love that kind of view of it.  I've also found how important it's to help, especially senior leaders, talk about the very real shadow sides of company values. Being, being bold or moving fast, is an excuse to run like a bull in a China shop and mess up other people's projects or be thoughtless or careless, or sloppy.

And when you get to the point where you find like people are saying, I was just moving fast. That's not what we meant. So it's just they always our culture always tended to come back around to these five values that we have. Are we actually living up to them, and are we using them to guide our everyday behavior?

Or, as one of our early engineers used to say, are they just bullshit posters on the wall? And I think whether you work at Facebook or the Navy, or Bank of America or Credit Suisse or wherever the heck you work, Anybody, regardless of what your operating environment is, you can look to those values and those agreements about how you said you were gonna show up and use them as a litmus test to determine how successful or not you're being.

Tom Griffiths

You gotta keep them alive by bringing them into meetings or performance reviews and onboarding. And if you can do that, then it can really manifest in ways that you almost wouldn't expect in a positive way to see those values being lived.

I'd be curious, combining that vertical growth with those values, how did things change as a culture as you scaled so rapidly, and what stayed the same, was the culture able to hold onto those values? And, especially as the team got into the tens of thousands so quickly.

Mike Rognlien

Yeah, I'm smiling because any time I talk about this experience, 'cause you know I've been gone almost six years, but I think back to so many like really critical moments that, that we asked exactly those questions internally.

I remember right after I started again, and I was coming from Microsoft, which was 105,000 employees, to Facebook, which was 15, 16, 1700. And, people would get up, and understandably, 'cause it's all relative, they'd get up and say, I've been here since it was 600 people, and now it's 1600.

Gosh, we're getting really big. Aren't we worried about our culture? And from my perspective, it was like big—are you kidding me right now? More people were in my building at Microsoft than in this entire company. It's relative. I think Mark was really good, especially at teasing out, like, what's the question behind the question?

Because ultimately, once you get to a certain number of people, which is much smaller than 600, you can't know everybody anyway. So what's the real question? The real question is, are we going to get so big that we're going to lose the ability to keep and hold dear these things that we say that we value?

I remember vividly somebody asking that question once, and he came to play that day, and he's our culture is gonna change it. It changes every time somebody comes and goes. Because again, if your definition is that culture is just the sum total of all behavior, anytime you add or subtract people from that equation, your culture's gonna change.

'Cause different people get things done differently, but what they were really intent on and what I think held us. Together for all those years was that our values will not change, our culture will change, and our values won't. So being open and moving fast is going to be different as a 20,000-person company.

It is a 1500-person company, but the value is still the same. And we should still, even as the context around our work changes, if we really do value those things, then we have to continue challenging, challenging ourselves to adapt the way that we get work done, even as the company's growing, which is in many ways where I came in.

Tom Griffiths

The values haven't changed, but how they are operationalized is, of course gonna change when you ten or a hundred x the company. And so being people and doing that consciously is big. Empowering or clear way to do that with people.

Conventional wisdom and I've seen this myself, I hear it a lot from other people, leaders is that certain types of employees are appropriate for certain stages of the company, and sometimes throughout the growth curve, folks from a previous stage or scale might think of themselves as their old guard.

And things are changing, and it's a difficult cultural challenge to bring those along as much as you can while you're bringing in the new skill sets and stage-appropriate folks for later parts of the growth curve. So we'd be curious how you tackled that challenge.

Mike Rognlien

So I think in a couple of different ways.

One is we talked about it, so when, especially when senior leaders, when I'm working with them, usually one-on-one, like in executive coaching, and they'll ask like, how do I keep connected with people in the organization as we get bigger and bigger? How do I make sure that people understand what's going on and the context behind the decisions that I'm making? You have to talk to people.

And once you get so big that the scale of being able to talk to people meaningfully, individually or in small groups, is out the window, then you have to. Hopefully, a good internal comms person can help you figure out how to scale it. And I think we did that really well. Mark still does a weekly Q&A. It leaks a lot more now, unfortunately. But he's been doing that weekly Q&A for 15 years.

Tom Griffiths

So he does it live, or do they submit the questions? How's it working?

Mike Rugnlien

Yeah, he does it live. In the early days when I first started, it was whatever was on the minds of the people that showed up in the room.

Of course, as the company got bigger, they started using their own Facebook as a platform. To get people to vote on questions, and actually, it's really cool. A lot of the stuff that is now in the workplace is their kind of corporate solution for companies that wanna use a Facebook-type platform at work.

A lot of those functionalities and features came from stuff that we realized we needed internally. So he. Every Friday afternoon, what were the most popular questions? We'll make sure to answer like the top three to five and then still leave space for people that are in the room that want to pick up a microphone and ask a question to do, but I think I. That was one of the things that we said, it's really important for him, it's really important for people in the company, even if it's just symbolically to make sure that channel of communication stays open and then it created the expectation, whether it was expressed or not, that other leaders from around the company would do similar things with their own organization.

So I think maintaining, again, being open and being open as a company value was probably one of the things that had served us the most and I think serves most organizations the most. 'cause if you're not, I. You create a vacuum where people will create their own narrative, believe it, and tell themselves that you're the one that told it to them.

You're a rock and a hard place, but I always have encouraged people to err on the side of sharing more information than less. Yeah. Yeah. It's a great example again of living that openness value. And I've certainly found over the years that if you leave a vacuum, people will fill it for you with whatever's in their head, or oftentimes it's a more negative story about a circumstance than the reality.

And being out front as a leader and really clarifying things regularly, not being afraid to repeat yourself on the big things like mission, vision, and values is really important. So it's great. Great to hear how Mark did that. You touched a little bit there on how as you scale, it can be harder to get a group of people in the room and really connect at a smaller scale.

One of the huge features of the workplace these days, of course, is distributed or hybrid work. I'd just be curious what advice you have for companies trying to build a strong culture in that environment. It's funny; I'm smiling now because that's one of my biggest challenges right now at Lacework.

Ninety-plus percent of our employees that work at Lacework today were not at Lacework when the pandemic started. So almost the entire company has never worked in a Lacework office. It's interesting because there's a big conversation about returning to work. There is no return to the office.

There is no return to the office for us because almost none of our employees were in an office in the first place when they started. Not that they've never worked in an office before, but they've never worked in an office, at least work. So it's been interesting. It's one of the things that I've really been doubling down on, pulling on.

My Facebook experience, Jay obviously was at Facebook for over a decade, I think 12 or 13 years, and I think there's probably about 10%. Maybe more of our company is also former Facebook meta employees. So there's a certain kind of predisposition and an easy familiarity with tools like workplace, for example, to build an online town square.

I think it's the interesting thing about the conversation about being in the office versus being out of the office. Being in the office is not a guarantee that you're gonna have a good culture. 'cause I don't know about you, but I've definitely worked in companies during the pandemic that it was like, this place sucks, right?

And we were right face to face, all sucking together. Being in an office doesn't guarantee that you're gonna have a great culture. And being remote or virtual doesn't mean that you're gonna have a bad one. But I think it's, like I said earlier if as you're growing, you have to be intentional about culture.

And I think as you're remote and distributed, you have to be extra intentional about culture 'cause. Every organization has a culture, whether they work at it or not. 'Cause again, it's just how we get things done. So my challenge to our leadership team, and frankly to everybody in the company, as I said, I just did onboarding this week for almost 70 people, some of whom were remote.

If this place is great, the next time we do an orientation, thank you you've helped contribute to it. If this place sucks in two months, when the next group of people comes in, it's partially your fault. 'cause that's what culture is. It's ownership, and I think, jarring people out of their complacency.

That culture is something that just is either an executive or a leadership team's job or something that I, as an individual, can't really influence. I think I'm just naturally inclined to disabuse people of that notion. And do so in a very personal way. I talk in the book, and I talk in orientation every time.

I really hated passive aggressiveness in the way that we were passive-aggressive in how we got work done at Microsoft. But I went to every meeting before the meeting. I was just as quiet in the meeting that mattered as everybody else was, which necessitated several meetings after.

I had to reconcile that even though I wasn't necessarily scheduling all those meetings, I was certainly attending them. And so we have a philosophy. From an IP perspective, when you join Lacework, empty your backpack. Leave any IP that you worked on or created at a previous company. Leave it at the door.

I've introduced the culturally, I want you to empty your backpack. Like I want you to bring good ways of getting things done here, but I want you to also be mindful. A, this isn't the company you used to work at, so you can't just copy and paste without some nuance. And there are probably things about that organization that wasn't great that even if you didn't like them like I didn't like passive aggressiveness.

If that became the culture that you were used to and you got used to operating in that environment as I had. You're gonna have to leave those things at the door because if you don't, unconsciously, you're gonna recreate them here. And just never getting tired of having that conversation and delivering that message.

Tom Griffiths

So having folks almost unlearn what they've learned in the past to be able to adapt to the culture that you're intentionally trying to create. And also, it sounds like really emphasizing this idea of ownership upfront so that they. As soon as they're part of the company, take responsibility for their part in yeah, creating the culture for future joiners.

That's great. You mentioned values earlier as a way to really codify what you know, the essence of the culture is, and that's definitely the most important part, but I'm just curious, in a distributed world, do you have any other sayings or rules of thumb or kind of communication guidelines that go beyond the values that really do try to instill like how we get what work done here?

Mike Rognlien

Yeah, a hundred percent. And every organization does, especially; there's one of the things that I've really enjoyed, reflecting back to this new leadership team. I've worked with Jay and a couple of other senior folks because we've all worked together in previous companies.

But one of the things that I like reflecting back to them is their own, like pithy sound bites. The other wasn't a value at Facebook, but of one of the posters at Facebook that everybody really found resonated with them and is certainly a part of our vernacular at Lacework, it was a picture of a rocking horse, and it was on a red background, and the rocking horse was black and it, on the riding on the poster said, don't mistake motion for progress.

And we talk about that all the time. Are we just running in place and looking busy, or are we actually moving the ball down the field? And there are phrases like that don't mistake motion for progress. That I think I. Really not just, be open or move fast, but it's, it becomes another way of looking at are we just churning out a bunch of stuff or are we actually moving things forward?

Being an L&D is a perfect example of motion versus progress. Like I always tell people, I work in a learning and development department, not a training department. A training department, to me, is a group of people that just churns out content and delivers programming, whether it's the most important, whether it's the most culturally relevant, it's just we just crank out classes, and we measure our success by how many people attend them and how many classes we have, whereas with a learning team, To me, a learning and development team is much more focused on what is the kind of business-critical, culturally critical, culturally relevant skills that people need to have, and are we relentlessly focused on providing those things and constantly swatting away?

Somebody comes to you and says, oh, our people really need to know how to negotiate. Really, does everybody in the company need to know? Or is it just your team? Because if it's just your team, here's some money to bring in a speaker, buy a book, or go to an external conference.

It's really imperative that learning teams not get sucked into this notion that if I just keep cranking out content, I'm adding value. It really is because that's motion. It's not necessarily meaningful progress, especially in this economic environment. I don't have an endless budget.

I don't know anybody that has an endless budget. Even in my halon days at Facebook, there was still an upper limit to how much money we could spend on different things. So prioritizing what is the most important and ensuring that we're not just looking busy but actually doing the most useful stuff.

Things like that. And many leaders have different kinds of catchphrases that they just drop that become mantras. And that's certainly one of 'em that I'm happy to see make the jump from my previous org to my current one. Yeah, it's cool because, obviously, it ties back to the value of moving fast, but it gives you, like you say, a mantra that you can use in meetings or individually to check your thinking.

And makes it even more real and manifested. So it sounds like people brought those themselves as their phrases, and then a few of them stuck and really helped that we're certainly gonna go deep on L&D and the effects that can have on culture in a moment. But just to round out on culture, as you mentioned, times are tight these days with budgets being cut.

For many companies, headcount is being reduced and going through reductions in force.  And so that obviously has an impact on the culture. I would love to know your advice for people managing culture through a headcount reduction and coming out the other side.

I think it's not a completely different conversation than the one that you have when we're gonna double in the next six months. Because I think, ultimately, the question is, what is it that we collectively value about how we get things done here? What is it that makes the way that we get things done unique?

And whether our team is 50 people, or five people, or 105 people, I. Again, if we value the things that we say we value, then those shouldn't be impacted significantly by the size of the team. I think one of the things that I've seen that does work that is really helpful is to continuously maintain that dialogue about how are we getting things done?

Is it still working? I think that was one of the things that. Interestingly, on both sides of the beginning and the end of Covid, I guess it's not ever a hundred percent over, but since the beginning of Covid where everybody had to go remote, and then wherever we are now, wherever the organization is with coming back.

One thing that really stuck out to me was that I felt like people were just trying to do the same thing in very different circumstances. Okay, everybody's gonna have to go remote. How will we ensure that we have the same amount of face time with each other every day?

How are we gonna make sure that we have exactly the same number of meetings instead of saying, This is a completely different way of working. Take some time and talk about do we need the same number of meetings? What type of FaceTime are we gonna have? Since we're losing the kind of serendipitous conversations that happen at the proverbial water cooler, how are we gonna, how are we gonna stay connected with each other?

Just in terms of talking smack sometimes, like sometimes you just need to blow off steam. Are we doing those things? And I think the initial, my initial take on it was that a lot of companies and organizations were just like, let's just try and do everything exactly the same way as we did when we were all in the office.

So the same thing I think applies when you're going from a larger team to a smaller one, is not just assuming that you're going to be able to, or necessarily want to, or need to do the same type or amount of work that you were doing before. And like I said, you, your culture, you have a culture whether you're intentional about it or not.

So, my bias is always to say if I can have influencer control or something, I'm gonna go ahead and choose that option then. Oh, I guess we'll just wait and see what happens. And I think people often feel it would be disrespectful or insensitive to say, okay, we were 12 people a week ago, and now we're eight.

What are we gonna do now that these other folks are gone, but they're gone? Whether you talk about 'em or not. And the work is gonna change whether you talk about that change or not. A lot of times, my advice to people is that thing that has the potential to grow from a baby elephant to a giant one.

You have to pay attention to and say those things, and we need to talk about that before. We don't have a choice but to have to talk about it. Talking about it explicitly, hearing people out, and agreeing on how to go forward, and those sound like.

Tom Griffiths

The right questions to be asking. I'm curious tactically, who would you want in those conversations? Is that like an executive leadership team-level conversation? Do you do focus groups with frontline employees? How do you actually enact those conversations at those crucial times? I think it's both. Every organization that I've worked in has done some type of, like, an employee engagement survey.

Mike Rognlien

We just finished one of the two times a year that we do it. At Lacework, my question and my challenge to people is when you listen to how people talk about the results from those surveys. 'cause I think whether it's intended or not, whether it's explicitly stated or not, I think a lot of times those org health surveys really become report cards on management.

How do we feel about management and leadership? How confident are we, management and leadership gonna do something with the results of this survey? Those are important questions to ask, but frankly, if I'm not an executive, I work here too and have a vested interest. And if we say, for example, we have too many meetings.

There are just too many meetings in this team. It hampers us. We're not able to get a lot of stuff done. We need to have fewer meetings. Then I go back to the example that I used earlier in my previous life. Before I took ownership of that stuff, I would've just been like the meeting's on my calendar, so I gotta go.

Now it's more, if we as a team have rated ourselves low because of the number of meetings we have, then we all need to put our heads together and make some decisions about the right number of meetings? And is it maybe it's not the wrong number of meetings, but maybe it's the wrong attendee list.

I think it has to be everybody. The other thing that I tell people is if you're gonna wait for managers and leaders exclusively to implement changes based on feedback like that, you're almost begging not to be successful. 'cause we outnumber them. Most companies have a lot more individual contributors and rank-and-file employees.

Then they have leaders, so when you add up, again, if you really believe as I do, that culture is the sum total of all behaviors. We are contributing more to the culture in terms of our behavior than they are 'cause there's just more of us. So all of that stuff always needs to be a partnership.

There should be somebody, ideally the most qualified, the most passionate, the most able, who can drive those conversations. But I don't think that they produce meaningful tangible long-term results if you don't have involvement from everybody. Or certainly representation of all the different groups of people when it comes time to make decisions.

Tom Griffiths

The theme of ownership comes up. Everyone is part owner of the culture.

Mike Rognlien

I'm a broken record here. I will not vary. I think it's right, and how great does it look to leadership if someone's taking an initiative themselves to say, hey, there's something that isn't working as well as it could over here in our culture.

And I'm looking at our values and thinking, and this is how this is something we could do to get closer to those values. It reflects tremendously well on that person and obviously great for the company as well. 

Tom Griffiths

And more likely to get done.

Mike Rognlien

Again, don't mistake motion for progress.

If we want something done, then the person that is the most passionate, that is the most committed to it, and is the best at corralling other people to join their cause is the person that you want to lead it. And I don't care what level on the org chart they are. In a truly, the other thing that I think permeates across tech, Facebook certainly didn't invent it, but tech companies really like to see themselves and, ideally, be relatively flat organizations.

If you look at it Facebook as an example in other companies as well, on the downside of this growth and really shrinking the company, where are they shrinking it the most? They're taking out a bunch of people in middle management. Not that mid-level managers can't be useful, but I think in every organization that I've worked at, the middle layer of management tends to be where this type of progress dies.

Because people on the lower end of the totem pole think there's nothing that we can do. People at the more senior ends of the totem pole are like people in the middle will take care of it. They're just not set up for success. And I think instinctively, when you look at the organizations who are making reductions at that middle layer of management, I think that's why.

Tom Griffiths

What's your view on how to actually take out middle management and maintain sensible spans of control so that people aren't overwhelmed by a bunch of new direct reports? 'cause suddenly there's half of as many middle managers. How do you actually do that? 

Mike Rognlien

I think I think you have to reverse engineer.

Like why did we put so many middle layers of management in place in the first place? And I think much of it returns to how you set goals. How you decide what work needs to get done. I. One of the things that I know that we looked at, or there were two types of people that I automatically screened out when I was interviewing for.

Bringing people into not just Facebook but into any company. I'm not a volunteer either, but that's not the first reason I'm showing work every day.

The second is Empire Builders. People that just want to accumulate headcount— 'cause they also tend to be the most ruthless when it comes time to make cuts. Because they're like, I've got all these people, I'm gonna look really great if I'm the one that kind of throws half of the bus to lay them off.

Of course, never. No, VPs will be harmed in this layoff-type mentality. So I think it's looking at those exact same things on the backend, like how far we have drifted away from the work being acted upon and decisions being made as close to the outcome as possible. I think that was another philosophically important thing to us at Facebook.

We don't want a bunch of people involved in decisions that should most easily and best be made as close to the work as possible. So I think looking at how are you setting goals? How are you dividing up the work? And really, honestly, what is everybody's role, and why do you need so many middlemen or middlewomen or middle people in the first place?

Tom Grffiths

I think a lot of it comes back down to how you set goals. Yeah. Yeah. No, that's great. Great advice. Speaking of Antipas in management, I've just got one last question. In this segment, I've seen you talk about this idea of managing by meme. And so, I'd love to have you explain that a little bit and how do you avoid that?

Mike Rognlien

Well, so to me, managing by meme is just reading through LinkedIn and looking for whatever trendy thing other people in other companies are talking about and then saying yes, let's do that here. I used to say this all the time earlier in my L&D career. For example, this was one of my really big pet peeves a couple of years ago when companies would the CEO, especially of smaller companies, but there were some mid-level companies as well, where the CEO or the COO would get on LinkedIn, bring their giant soapbox with them and say, we are so proud to announce that our employees can work from wherever on the planet they wanna work and whatever hours they need.

And like we're here for work-life integration and blah, blah, blah. And, of course, it would get thousands of sweet likes and shares. And the whole time, I'm thinking, shouldn't you actually have to make that policy work before you celebrate yourself? Shouldn't you have done it for six months and then instead of saying we're going to do it, say, "Hey, six months ago, we made the decision to let our employees work from anywhere on the planet. And here's what we've learned, and here are the pros and cons, and it's really worked for us. Reach out if you'd like more info." But that's not what we did. It was we got very big into announcement culture.

Which becomes managing by meme. Shoot, like Airbnb announced that their employees can work from anywhere. And if we wanna compete with Airbnb for talent, then we have to do it. And nobody bothered to ask. Did it actually work? Did it scale? Did our culture, is our culture as good as it was when we weren't doing that?

Are we over-pivoting employees? The same thing happened. I remember vividly a pretty heated internal debate at Facebook that I think I might've even started. I certainly fan the flames of it. If I didn't start it where we were announcing we're gonna open a massage parlor on campus, and it's gonna be the video arcade and the ice cream shop.

And I'm like, at some point, When does this end? Because we're gonna create a bunch of entitled monsters who don't know how to do anything for themselves and frankly don't feel like it's their job to, and that's exactly what happened. And so now a bunch of tech companies are like slashing benefits that they really shouldn't have ever created in the first place because they were managed by me.

They were just looking at what other people were doing. Putting very little, if any, critical thinking into what this will mean for us, and it is gonna work here? Is it gonna help? Is it gonna make it worse? You, they don't print retractions. Like, I haven't seen anybody on LinkedIn. We probably shouldn't have gotten so far ahead of our skis, but yeah, y'all have to come back now 'cause that didn't work.

Yeah, I counsel leaders on this all the time, and myself as well. Don't get sucked into something that sounds really leave the trends to TikTok. And instead managed by like absolutely. If you see something somebody else is doing that could make this a better place to work, improving not only our employees' quality of life but our product or market position. Then do that and partner with people who will have to implement it and make it come to life effectively.

Otherwise, you're the executive version of somebody who's posting the same eight bars of bad choreography on TikTok. It's the modern-day equivalent, like you say, of going to a seminar, coming back, and telling everybody to do something.

It's I saw it on Facebook. I saw it on LinkedIn. Now suddenly, it's gotta be right for us versus miracle. Yeah. Thinking from first principles, what's unique about us? What are we actually trying to achieve? And let's solve the problem in front of us.

Tom Griffiths

So thanks for calling that out. That's awesome.Tune in for Part 2 with Mike Rognlien.

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