Lucinda Pouw, Senior Director of People and Culture at Secfi shares her 3 key learnings on building a scalable culture @Secfi
The Culture Factor: How Secfi captured and grows its international team Culture
Founded just 5 years ago, Secfi has grown into the leading partner for start-up employees that helps them unlock the benefits of working at promising start-up’s. A journey that has led the Secfi team through rapid growth, up’s & downs and gave rise to a very internationally orientated yet close knit team culture. Time for a chat with Senior Director of People & Culture Lucinda Pouw to share some learnings.
Hi Lucinda, first of all: what does Secfi do?
Secfi helps employees of startups & scale up’s to benefit from the equity plans their employers offer. For many employees of these companies, being able to benefit from the value creation they work hard for is a big driver. But being able to actually partake in stock options can be quite difficult. Secfi helps employees understand, maximize, plan, and provide cash to unlock the value of their stock options. We provide a digital platform for equity planning, 1:1 financial advice as well as financing products that enable employees to own a stake in the company they help build. We have been doing this since 2017 and have supported more than 30.000 employees working for companies like Airbnb, Palantir, and Doordash. We are working with a team of approx 80 professionals, based in both San Francisco, New York, and Amsterdam.
How would you describe Secfi’s Culture and where does it originate from?
Secfi has had a very international DNA from day 1. So we’ve never had a Dutch or an American Culture. Hiring internationally gives us access to a broader talent pool. Because of the fact we’re hiring people from different backgrounds, who don’t necessarily have a finance background or a clear understanding of equity, we keep ourselves sharp in building a simple solution for a very complicated problem. Our employees have always been a good mirror of the type of client we’re serving; smart, start-up builders and new to equity.
From the start the Secfi culture was in large part an expat culture. People come from very different backgrounds and moved to a new place where they often did not know many people. This made the team both very diverse AND also very close-knit and family-like. Including a pretty strong sense of looking after one another.
Did your Cultural Values evolve organically or was it intentional?
The idea to intentionally build an international team also made it important to define certain cultural values in an early stage. Having such an international and diverse team, we simply couldn’t just assume that we shared a certain ‘normal’ implicit understanding on what we can expect from each other. So everybody -both in leadership and the broader team- felt a natural need to get explicit about our values, put it to words and prevent blindspots. I am convinced this really has been a blessing. Many young companies only focus on capturing their company when they are already growing rapidly and their culture becomes hard to maintain. I’m really happy we started doing this so early on.
How did you approach defining your Cultural Values?
For the first version we got together with the whole team (about 25 back then) to put our values on paper. This really made everybody feel like a co-owner of our values. But to new hires, it was a bit more difficult to understand what these values meant in daily collaboration. So we really made an ongoing effort to sharpen the wording, make them more consistent in meaning and provide examples of daily behaviors.
Later on, when the company grew from ‘family-stage’ to ‘company-stage’, we made another bigger revision of the values. This time with the clear intention to not fall into the trap of -unintentionally-growing a more corporate culture. As Secfi, we work in a very dynamic, ever-changing industry. So we really consider it to be crucial to capture and empower a culture that values risk taking and flexibility. We put those values at the heart of our overall people strategy and personal growth plans. We want to make sure we do not to grow into a Culture that leans towards conformity and control.
‘Having such an international team, we simply couldn’t just assume that we shared the same idea on what to expect from each other’
In the last few years, Secfi has seen rapid growth but also had to take a step back at times. How did that impact your Culture?
Yes we have indeed seen ups and downs. At some point we almost doubled the team in a short period. Of course, in such a growth-spurt you also attract a different, somewhat more risk-averse type of people. And indeed, when we had to scale the team down later indeed some cultural differences between the initial group and the ‘second’ group became apparent.
Overall I think that this tough period actually made our Culture stronger. Hard periods are a significant stress test for your culture and communication strategy. I am happy that we did not shy away from hard decisions. But what has been the most challenging is balancing out full transparency and offering stability in a very challenging phase.
Looking back, I think we did make mistakes and compromised transparency for stability. Our biggest lesson was that we have to be realistic in how much stability we can offer in an early stage start-up. We got better at explaining what was going on and why certain decisions had to be made. By being super transparent, honest and really facing all the questions the team had we build a lot of trust within the team.
How do you & your People and Culture team steer the development of the Secfi Culture? And what are your ambitions?
First of all, we follow no specific HR methods or dogma’s. We really try to figure out what works for us. We focus on truly living our Cultural Values as a team. We do this by putting our Secfi Cultural Values at the heart of the entire People and Culture journey. So our values are a big part in hiring decisions where we provide hiring teams with interview guides to help them assess cultural fit. The values are the backbone of how we have shaped growth-paths within the company, how we do performance evaluations and peer feedback.
Secondly, we also spend a lot of time promoting and facilitating self-reflection, by offering 1-1 coaching to all Secfi team-members. I think self-reflection is crucial for any strong culture. Regardless of what type of culture you have, you need people to feel safe and able to reflect on their own contributions to the culture as a whole. We really do what we can to create a culture where people can say: ‘I screwed that up, now let’s try that again’.
My ambitions? I think we still can make our onboarding flow even more culture driven. And make welcoming a new member to the team not a ‘HR-process’ but more of a Cultural Ritual the entire team can partake in and add to.
What 3 key learnings would you share with other People and Culture professionals?
Learning 1: Define early
Because of our international DNA we defined the values that make up Secfi’s culture early on. But I would really, really recommend anybody to take the time and put your culture to words before you feel your culture might already be under pressure. It is so worth the investment: it provides such guidance in decision making and involving your team in the process is fun and gives so much energy.
Learning 2: Cultivate ‘self-reflection’
Like I said, regardless of what culture-type best suits your business goal: any healthy culture is built on people that feel safe AND feel responsible to reflect on their own contribution to the culture as a whole. Set the right example by showing self-reflection as leadership. Self-reflection is about recognizing what feels true versus what is actually the truth. Take responsibility for your own emotions and impact on other people. Help and support the ones that are willing and able to reflect on themselves. And let go of people that simply can't or won't.
Learning 3: Address these 3-levels in your values (individual/company/world)
Depending on the goal your company has, you should define your unique set of cultural values. But I think it is good practice to make sure your entire set of values addresses what you aim to accomplish on 3 levels: On the individual level (‘how do we want to develop ourselves?’), on the company level (‘how do we want to work together’) and on the broader impact-level (‘what do we aim to accomplish in the broader world?’).