When Ciara Lakhani started as Head of People & Culture at Compass, she didn’t have a desk. The 84-person (with an additional 100 independent contractors) real estate tech startup was bursting at the seams in its two lower Manhattan offices. So she sat in the only area where her computer screen would be private - a couch beside the office pool table.
As the company’s first HR hire, her responsibilities were simple — own culture, performance management, talent acquisition, compensation, and everything in between to turn Compass into “a real company” and facilitate its aggressive goals. “The executive team was mainly focused on extreme growth, and it was my job to make sure we had the people and processes in place to make that a reality.”
During her three years, Compass exploded to more than 400 employees and 1,700 independent contractors spread between 31 offices in 8 cities, while raising two rounds for a combined $135 million (as of December 2017, Compass has raised a total of $308MM). Now, as VP of People at Dashlane, she’s building a professional People function to ensure the company maintains its engagement and values across its Paris tech headquarters and New York commercial and operational teams.
In this interview, Lakhani explains how Compass kept its identity and edge despite its staggering growth. She also discusses how she formalized the company values that became pillars of recruiting, onboarding, and performance management; overcame the obstacles of being the company’s first HR hire; monitored team health and happiness; and fought off nostalgia among tenured employees.
First, get your story straight
Lakhani spent most of her early days in one-on-ones with each manager and executive, as well as organizing 10-12-person focus groups. She wanted to know how employees interpreted Compass' goals and priorities, what they liked about the company, and what could be improved. These early conversations unearthed a range of opportunities, and her challenge shifted toward prioritizing by impact and difficulty to implement. But first, the company had to be aligned, starting at the top.
During her initial one-on-ones with her peers on the leadership team, she noticed each executive had a “different idea of what we were trying to do as a company… if each person had a totally different idea we certainly weren't moving the most efficiently or effectively toward a common anything.” She worked to start socializing the idea of creating a company mission statement and company values.
The idea of a mission statement and values was initially met with resistance. Some executives, veterans of Goldman Sachs, Bain & Company, and McKinsey, viewed the exercise as emblematic of the big-firm bureaucracy they were hoping to escape with Compass. But with time, Lakhani was able to get buy-in by showing that even tenured employees were eager to formally align in mission and values.
A company-wide survey and thorough analysis later, her team had distilled the data into four distinct values, to be integrated into everything the company did - from interview questions to a revamped performance review process. “We needed to make these real. We didn’t want to just print a poster and leave it.”
Compass’ Core Values
Talent & Agility
Collaboration & Diversity
In a perfect world, teams have time to implement changes and new processes slowly. But that’s not life at a startup. Before the values list was finalized, Compass had acquired a small brokerage in D.C., and Lakhani had to spend time at the new office focused on onboarding and change management. “You had to build things at the same time” as the company was growing at breakneck speeds, which required both prioritization, and flexibility.
By the end of her first year, Compass had launched in four more cities. It was the beginning of an aggressive multi-year expansion, making values and culture alignment all the more essential.
Make transparency a habit
“You can quickly get lost in a startup, and everyone is so busy around you you’re wondering ‘what is this, why am I here, and what am I supposed to be doing?’”
As she saw from her one-on-ones with the executive team, it’s incredibly difficult for fast-moving companies to keep everyone on the same page and wouldn’t get easier with hundreds of new hires in dozens of satellite offices. Whether with weekly hiring classes or tenured employees, Lakhani made it a priority to weave transparency into everything she did at Compass. But that didn’t come without challenges.
Compass’ leadership “came from these big banking and consulting organizations where there wasn’t transparency, so perhaps they weren’t sure what it looked like, but I kept bringing them feedback that people really wanted it, that it was important,” she said. Benchmarking against top tech firms also proved to be a powerful persuasion tool. By referencing the processes, culture, and performance metrics of “companies we want to be like and admire,” she was able to build trust and momentum.
By 18 months, the leadership team had finalized a mission statement and began sharing company-wide OKRs. Shortly after, teams started building dashboards to highlight how each core department was progressing toward their goals, and the CFO began releasing financial updates. All-hands meetings were scheduled monthly. To prevent the meetings from turning into stale status updates, teams would present interesting or challenging problems they were addressing.
To be most effective, Lakhani felt transparency needed to start on day one. She and her team built out a thorough 90-day onboarding process, designed to support managers and get new hires “up to speed quickly and make them feel like part of the community.” During onboarding, managers would set 30, 60, and 90-day benchmark goals, new hires would go through Respect & Inclusion and Real Estate 101 training sessions, and the People & Culture team would facilitate strategic (and social) introductions and lunches with the leadership team.
Develop health monitors
Given the speed of growth and change at Compass, it was important for Lakhani to use qualitative and quantitative data to measure the pulse of the company and identify areas for improvement or iteration.
One method she implemented was an annual engagement survey which allowed Compass to benchmark responses to a core set of questions against other highly engaged tech companies such as Airbnb, Lyft, and Slack, as well as add custom questions to track progress against key People & Culture OKRs.
Lakhani and another executive also created culture committees, groups where one employee from each function would come together for a six-month engagement, identify an aspect of Compass’ culture they wanted to focus on, and build their vision with the help of the executive team. The committee was an opportunity for employees to drive and champion culture, and identify what aspects of the culture was most important to retain or nurture.
Accept and embrace change
“There’s almost this zeitgeist around people expecting that it is very tough to maintain your culture, that you’ll turn into the big, evil culture you didn’t want to work for. So people have a lens where they’re looking for that and expect it to happen, the same way people are nervous about ‘I’m getting old’ - it’s inevitable, and they don’t like it… some startup employees seem to feel the company is someday going to get old and be corporate, and that’s terrible. So they are always watching for it.”
Every startup fears growing at the expense of losing its edge — the palpable energy, speed, and agility that separates them from the established, plodding firms they aim to unseat. With clear values, health monitors, and transparency initiatives, you can maintain the sense of purpose necessary to prevent lethargy from setting in.
As for the proverbial nostalgic employee, Lakhani was less concerned than you might expect. “That’s a human thing, the same thing that makes people say ‘when I was growing up’... someone always thinks it’s different from when there were five people in the room. They always think it’s becoming more formal. They think HR is there to make it more formal.” By involving employees in the culture decision-making and driving process, and challenging people to come up with pragmatic ideas, Lakhani was able to comfortably separate well-founded concerns from routine reminiscence that inevitably emerges at any fast-changing company.
As the first HR hire at a young company eager to scale, benchmarking against similar sized startups and firms famous for their culture was invaluable for getting buy-in from her peers. The simple tactic was key to many changes, from large initiatives such as performance reviews and mission statements to small touches such as changing her department name from Human Capital (inspired by Goldman Sachs’ HR department) to a much more welcoming People & Culture. “It was a lot more popular internally, that was an easy win.”