Episode 28

The do’s and don’ts of scaling from dozens to thousands of employees — McKenna Quint

In this episode with McKenna Quint, most recently Head of People at Plaid, she unpacks the unique people challenges when aggressively scaling, including decoding data, when to pull from existing playbooks, and looking for your first people leader.

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Transcript

McKenna Quint: [00:00:00] There are aspects of the Google experience that are just very Googly. Like I can't tell you the number of startups that I've talked to you. They're like, oh yeah, we have a five point rating system on our performance reviews. And I'm like, why, why is your talent that differentiated? Like you have 50 people in your company, how are you rating them on a scale of one to five?

And also how are you paying them that differently? Like where's that money coming from? So there are definitely aspects of it that I think a lot of people have copied and pasted that they should be very wary when they copy and paste. And they should think about the context under which Google build those things and not emulate it.

Brett Berson: [00:00:45] Welcome to in depth, a new show that surfaces tactical advice, bounders and startup leaders need to grow their teams, their companies, and themselves. I'm Brett Berson, a partner at first. And we're a venture capital firm that helps startups, like notion, roadblocks, Uber, and square tackle company building firsts through over 400 interviews on the review.

We've shared standout company, building advice, the kind that comes from those willing to skip the talking points and go deeper into not just what to do, but how to do it with our new podcast. In-depth you can listen into these deeper conversations every single week. Learn more and subscribe today@firstround.com

today's episode of in-depth. I'm really excited to be joined by a mechanic. Quint McKenna was most recently the head of people at plaid and she previously built and led the people team at the self-driving car company, cruise automation. She's currently a talent consultant and seed stage in back. McKenna calls herself a glutton for punishment.

She's particularly attracted to startups that are in the messy, ambitious scaling phase of the company. So in today's conversation, we focus on the people, challenges that inevitably crop up when you're going from a couple dozen employees to a couple thousand as all here in this interview, McKenna has a really unique point of view on this problem.

Set. She's a former operator that approaches people problems with a slant towards analytics and frameworks. We start by discussing when startups should draw from established playbooks in the people space versus when they should start from first principles. She also dives into the details of bringing her data mindset to the people's space, including designing a sophisticated attribution.

Next, she tackles some of the questions she gets most often from startup founders, including whether the company should introduce levels, what to look for in your first people leadership and how to approach performance reviews. Totally. We dive into a larger conversation about the roles that companies play in today's employee experience from the company cultures that she most admires to the evolution of uncomfortable conversations in the workplace, and what pieces of the Google cultural revolution she's ready to leave behind.

During this conversation, she references a few different books and articles that were particularly impactful for her development as a people leader. And we've included the links to them in our show notes. Today's conversation is a must listen to for HR leaders, of course, but also for folks that startups across the org that want an inside look at what's top of mind for people leaders today, and the systems behind the scenes that powers startups to reach new Heights.

I really hope you enjoy this episode. And now my conversation with McKenna. Well, thank you so much for doing this with us. 

McKenna Quint: [00:03:56] I'm very happy to be 

Brett Berson: [00:03:57] here. I thought maybe we could start by broadly exploring the topic of company scaling and people scaling, and then we can kind of go, go down a bunch of different paths.

I'd be interested in starting by maybe talking about what are the things that you've seen happen over and over again. When you scale a company from dozens of people to a thousand or 2000. So 

McKenna Quint: [00:04:19] I have basically made every career choice based on whether or not a company is going through an ambitious scaling phase.

I don't know why these are the types of things I'm attracted to. I think I just must be a glutton for punishment, but from co to, to cruise to plod, I've been with companies that have grown really, really quickly. And so a lot of what I have worked on and is in my playbook is how to build things that can scale very quickly or being able to figure out when's the right time to knock something down and rebuild it.

And within the people function in particular, there are various different. Milestones where it makes sense to have certain things in place. Like when, you know, you hit 50 people, you're going to need some managers. So you're going to need to make sure you've identified the right ones. They know what they're doing, and you need to know how to train them.

When you get to the point where you need to have managers managing managers, you have to have a new set and level of expectations and supports and all that. So there are certainly some infrastructure, things that look the same from place to place, kind of similar, all are on recruiting. Like you need to be able to have a repeatable process for identifying the right talent, evaluate weighting them and getting them converted and working at your company.

So some of that stuff, some of that scaffolding tends to be the same, but. Even with the companies that I've worked at scale can look very different. And so really the devil is in the details with how you implement it. So for example, at cruise, it was in R and D mode. The entire time I was there, once fundraising was done, you didn't really have to worry about revenue too much growth was then able to be planned well in advance.

So we always knew three to six months into a 12 month period. I knew how many people I was going to need to hire and what the people programs are that I needed to have in place to be able to support that scale. But the unique part of that challenge was like the. Space that it was in and the insane competition that we had with other AAV companies for a really small pool of highly motivated and highly capable ML talent.

And so that was like one unique piece of how to identify and attract those people that we had to figure out. And the other challenge of that scale was we had to build out a really large contingent workforce that was co located like in our offices who needed to figure it out. How to make the experience that those folks had as consistent as the experience of a full-time employee.

So those were some of, I think the unique challenges at cruise and at plaid, we do have revenue and the focus is more on building out the maturity of its profile and then choosing what new products to build and how to get traction in them. And we had to navigate through COVID where growth couldn't be planted advanced, and you had to take it week by week, month by month, and build an, a ton of flexibility in particular to our recruiting team, to be able to.

Scale up and scale down, hiring as quickly as we needed to. So those are some examples of like, even within companies that kind of look pretty similar from the outside, just how different some of the people challenges could be. I feel like one of the most frequently cited examples of when not to stray from a playbook is, and when it comes to manage your training, like when, you know, you have managers, you need the manager training and all that.

Yeah. I think one of the things that I've always found very interesting is when companies overturn those assumptions. And I heard a story of over at Pinterest where they knew they were going to go through a very insane growth period within one of their product lines. And there was going to be a lot of growth and they were expecting, you know, average turnover.

And when you did the math on average, someone would have like maybe two to three managers in a single year. And instead of focusing on training up those new managers, like one would think you would do with that repeatable playbook, they thought, you know what, why don't we just focus on empowering? The individual contributor is to navigate that framework.

So they invested a lot in the other side of the training playbook. So, yeah, I think it's just a lot about the business context and just paying attention to the unique challenges there to make sure your playbook isn't getting rusty. 

Brett Berson: [00:09:03] How do you think about the problems that need to be fixed now versus yeah, it's kind of fine.

It's not that big of a deal because there's always an unlimited amount of effectively broken things or things that you could work on. 

McKenna Quint: [00:09:18] Oh yeah. I think that is one of the harsh realities that anyone realizes when they join a company, that's either like going through that scaling period or has gone through it and never looks all that great.

Under the hood. They might have fancy websites that have beautifully articulated employee value propositions, but if there was a little bit more funky on the inside, the way that I have always. Try to approach this as one, making sure that you have the right ear pieces in place and you're listening and all the places that you should be listening, whether that's through pulse surveys or your HR VPs who are sitting in on various team meetings, you're just getting, as you know, a people leader, a lot, a lot of information and.

Then it's up to you to figure out, okay, now that I have the ability to do these really broad sweeps and get as much comprehensive information about what's happening in the company as possible. Now I have to make sense of it. Now I have to identify which of these things are problems to solve now, and which of these things are problems to solve later?

I think the way that I've differentiated. A lot of those things is having frameworks for identifying whether things are emerging trends, mature trends or past trends. And you can build out certainly these frameworks with your HRBP team who are some of the most frontline people out there. And you can say, okay, these types of things that are happening, maybe these would be easier.

These would be P one. These would be P two type things. And we'll take a look at all of those things that happen over the course of every month. We'll reflect on them and we'll say, okay, where are these things? Issues? Is our attrition risk pretty high with this team or not? I feel like if you have all of the right things set up, you're not going to make any dire mistakes.

If you're finding the problems after they've happened, you're really not doing your job. Your job is to make sure that the problems don't get past the point where they can't be addressed. So I feel like in figuring out what's just a cough, cause there's dust in your throat, or what's a cough because sickness, it's really just having the right listening pieces in place, gathering that information all the time and making decisions on it, on the fly.

And also making sure you understand, like, okay, what are the basic things that I, as a people leader need to be worried about? I need to make sure I have identified the roles that the company needs, that I can identify the people to fill those roles. I can build that talent, or I can buy that talent. And then I have to keep and develop that talent.

And if all of those things are going right, then coughs can be assumed to be things with Dustin the throat. But if one of those things is wrong, then you're in a bad place. 

Brett Berson: [00:12:13] In terms of being somebody that's more analytical, I'm curious. What's the other data that you saw run your part of the business on?

Like, what are the top 2, 5, 10 pieces of data that you're constantly looking at and maybe what are you looking for? 

McKenna Quint: [00:12:29] So pretty early on at cruise, we built out a fairly robust predicted attrition model and our predicted attrition model had a bunch of things in it that companies probably only the size and sophistication of like Google were thinking about based on what you've typed in is your home address.

And our HRES, we're going to calculate your commute. And we're going to multiply that by the number of times you have to come in during the day. And we're going to correlate that to what we think is your tenure, because we think that basically your commute means you can only last at this company, like two years based on other data that we've gotten from other companies.

So that's. Has always been something that building out kind of a more robust attrition model is something that I have always done and always paid attention to because I think there's the shifts in that model can be very interesting to look at other pieces of data that I tend to look at. I think maybe the more interesting part is how I shift looking at different metrics based on like what the challenges are.

For example, earlier this year, you know, pod fundraised, and we were able to attract a ton of talent and our offer except rates, which is typically a metric that I look at, you know, was doing well. And I thought, okay, that's not the metric I need to be looking at. I need now to be looking at some of the information that we're getting from.

Feedback scores and evaluation and time to hire and making sure that all of the metrics that indicate the quality of our process, that those are the ones that I ended up looking at. So I don't know if there's like one or two that I always look at besides target to actual with recruiting and attrition, but there's a lot that'll gather and look at just below the surface and shift my focus based on what the evolving context of the businesses.

Brett Berson: [00:14:26] Can you talk more about how you designed this attrition model or what are the inputs or how do you use it on an ongoing basis? 

McKenna Quint: [00:14:33] Yeah, there were a number of different things that we ended up looking at predominantly from information that we just had in our HR system. So it looked at people's commute. It looked at whether or not they had made an important life transition.

Did they get married? Did they have a kid? One of the things that I think. Companies like Google that have done extensive research into organizational science have taught us is that there are certain psychological moments in one's personal experience, as it relates to the company that impact whether or not they'll stay or they cause pause and reflection.

When was the last time that someone had gotten promoted, have they received multiple needs improvement, performance scores? There was so much data that we looked at. And it basically was just trying to figure out is there's something happening at work or is there something happening outside of work that we think is going to cause you to evaluate whether or not this is a fit.

So should we have a conversation with you about that to make sure we're aligned, right? Because if we're not aligned, then I want you to go find something that's better. We should have that conversation early. Or is there something that could potentially make you unhappy? And we predict the, you would a trip six to eight months from now or something like that.

First of all, it's, it's kind of creepy science, HR systems hold a lot of information about people. So you need to make sure if you're going to build something like this, that your employees know that this is something that you're putting together, who is actually going to see the data and how they're going to use it.

So if you're thinking about building anything like this, just make sure that it's something that you're very open. 

Brett Berson: [00:16:24] And so did you tend to leverage this information more on an ongoing basis? Or you hire someone in the mental model would be like a customer health score or you're like, oh, this customer may churn.

Let's go focus on that. Or was it used in some other way? 

McKenna Quint: [00:16:38] I'm mostly focused on retaining people. So mostly focused on, okay. Is there something, again, happening in this person's experience that would warrant what we call a stay interview or a conversation that we have with you that basically asks all the questions that you would in an exit interview, but it's far more useful because you do it when you're there and you can ask them questions like, Hey, are you happy here?

What are some of the things about this experience that you would change? If you could, what are the ways in which we can support you better in your role? It was really designed to be able to figure out you're growing at a really high pace. And you have a lot of busy people. How can we figure out who to prioritize those conversations?

Yeah. Besides the folks that you might more typically go to, which would be like your top 10% talent or your senior leaders. This is a model that helps you figure out if there are other folks that should have those conversations. 

Brett Berson: [00:17:35] Are there other tools or rituals, practices or frameworks a bit similar to what you designed with this attrition model that maybe are a little bit different or weird or not talked about for early stage companies that you've implemented or operationalized over the.

McKenna Quint: [00:17:52] One of the things that I don't think it's hard to overinvest in from a people function is that analytics mindset and the tools that can enable some of these things to happen. They're really, really helpful when you're growing really quickly because that data can help you figure out what to prioritize.

But I think that's certainly something that is a tool that is important to implement early. Another thing that I don't know if it's a tool to implement early, but maybe like a mental model to think about is, and I forget someone tweeted about this recently and I'm not going to properly credit them though.

I should, if I figured out who it is, we can credit them. But someone tweeted about how. It's an old school way of thinking about people as a percentage of your overall head count. So you shouldn't have like one HR person for every 75 or a hundred people. That's like what's on the Sherm website or whatever.

And that is something that I've absolutely tried to stay away from. I think there are some aspects of the people function that can be viewed in that way and is how many companies would evaluate them. But there are so many different types of teams underneath the people function that need a more dynamic operating model recruiting needs to be based on your head count growth.

Your learning team should be based on your specific model and strategy for what learning means to your company. Your HRBP team should have a different model based on the complexity of your organization. Right? It shouldn't be like one HRBP for every 250 to 300 people or whatever it should be. How complex is your operating structure?

Are you in one geography or 15? Are you functionally aligned or are you business unit aligned or are you a weird mix of both? If you're like a platform company. Right. So one of the things that I've also, I think brought is just a different way of thinking about how the companies I work in cannon should invest in the people function so that it's not viewed as this holistically back office operations function.

That should be a certain percentage of head, but. 

Brett Berson: [00:20:05] That makes sense. It's the concept, that context is perhaps the most important thing. And many of these things are quite nuanced and are in service of some sort of outcome that you're trying to create. 

McKenna Quint: [00:20:15] Yes. Yeah, for sure. And they're just depending upon how you think about your people function, you could think of it as just a service function.

That's one way to think about it. I don't think that's the right way. That's not a company that I would join, but there are different teams under the people function that are not just operations focused. And so making sure that you have different operating models and ways of thinking about head count and using those teams is important, 

Brett Berson: [00:20:41] sort of the service function.

Isn't the right mental model. What in your worldview is. 

McKenna Quint: [00:20:46] The most common HR organizational structure now is the three-legged stool. So it's part service part center of excellence and part partnership. I think Deloitte is come out with a slightly different version of that, but I think it's kind of all hovering around the same thing, which is parts of the people organization should be service aligned.

If you have a question about what's in your paycheck and how much got deducted for what, there should be a service for you to understand that, but there's also an aspect of it that is partnership focused. And so that is a kind of talked a little bit about from the HRBP perspective that needs to be built out in a different way, based on the.

Type of partnership that needs to be done. And based on the complexity of what that partnership is, so kind of similar to how you might structure any team that works on different types of accounts that might have high complexity cross-sells or upsells, right? You would staff that differently than you would a more traditional.

Management team. And then, like I said, for learning or for what might be a center of excellence, companies can take really different strategies with learning and it can be based on a business need, like Intel and GE built out business leadership development programs. And it was based on the number of GMs that they needed.

And so the number of people to build what that training needed was what that learning team needed. Airbnb uses a model where their learning team focuses both on internal, as well as like external education for hosts that can't be viewed as a percentage of your head count that has to be looked at as what's happening in Airbnb's case with a host.

So I think it's just making sure you'd know what the function of each of those teams are and yeah, making sure that the operating models right size. 

Brett Berson: [00:22:48] When we started chatting, you were mentioning that you orient and tend to be more operational and business oriented, as opposed to maybe some more the orientation of other people leaders.

Can you talk a little bit about that and maybe how it relates to the ideas that you were just sharing? 

McKenna Quint: [00:23:03] Yeah. I say this because one in talking to many other founders, just by virtue of the companies that I've worked at, I often. Founders and advisors and investors calling me and asking me questions. And a lot of them say, I want to hire a people person.

And I want you to tell me if I should hire someone with an HR background or someone who's been an operator and can move into HR. And I think what they want to hear from me is like, oh, you're an operator who moved into HR. Tell me what I suspect, which is this is a good profile to hire for. And I say it is certainly something, it being an operations focus experience in an analytic mindset, someone who understands what it's like to be in the business and understands common mental models and frameworks that are used, that stuff is important, but you have to have someone who understands what they don't know.

And certainly if I could rewind my own experience, I think I came into this work with. A lot of humility and networked and ask people who worked in HR, like who are the best people to learn from, how do I do this? Where are the tools who are the mentors that I need and was able to amass that very quickly.

But one of the things that I really don't do so well, and that certainly is a risk with hiring someone who is an operator, analytical is managing the organizational psychology of a company is really tough. And that is what people who have HR backgrounds are trained to do. So. Well, I think a lot of the leverage within the people function that has yet to be realized, can be found by hiring operations, focused people on analytics, focused people, especially as we move to remote work, which is something we can talk about too.

That is a background that you certainly need to hire for, but it can't be at the expense of like not hiring people who have been in this discipline and understand it really well. That's why I kind of still still like Lazlo box model of hiring a third, a third, a third. It was a third consultants, I think a third analytics focused research focused folks and a third HR practitioner.

So I like having that back. 

Brett Berson: [00:25:26] When you talk about organizational psychology, can you expand on that dimension of the role and the process? 

McKenna Quint: [00:25:33] Yeah. I think one of the things that a lot of the people who I have learned from in the people space is just how people work together in groups and in systems. And that is a discipline that people that people learn.

And it is a really important one for anyone who is in this field to understand, especially in growing companies where feelings of how to manage the company's approach to conflict is very important. You have a conflict avoidant culture, you have like a conflict, aggressive culture and people who understand that that's a basic concept and organizational psychology are going to be really fast to figure out what the company is and what it needs, and therefore, how to train people to operate effectively within that.

And I don't think that all folks who come from an operations background really understand that that's a huge part of this work and making sure that. A bunch of people can work really, really well together. It's just not something that I certainly learned. It was something that I, I had to learn. 

Brett Berson: [00:26:40] And so what did you learn about that?

Or what are the most important, maybe high-level concepts that show up in the way that you run your sort of side of the business. I 

McKenna Quint: [00:26:50] think one of the ways in which it kind of shows up is in one of the qualities of people, leaders that I think is really undervalued, which is the question you asked me, especially for companies that are growing and that is in your people leader.

I would look for someone who is really good at storytelling, because I think one of the things that I've learned certainly about startups is that the one constant in startup is change and humans are not awesome with change. Like change makes us deeply uncomfortable. And so if you have someone who with an HR degree learned about change management, or has the innate ability to understand.

How people feel when they're confronted with change or uncertainty and how to tell them a story about how it's going to play out, how they can use that opportunity to their advantage. Someone who is telling this story from a place of having seen it before, or kind of knowing the ending is like a really comforting thing.

So some of them I have certainly learned in my experience is that the value of being able to tell those stories, which in another language is being able to manage change. They're kind of one in the same. That is a really important quality to making the scaling experience of a company. One that's not scary.

One in which growing pains aren't bad, but they're a thing that happens that we deal with that I think is incredibly, incredibly invaluable. Are 

Brett Berson: [00:28:28] there things that you've done or. Ways that you've practiced to get better in this specific dimension, given how important it is. 

McKenna Quint: [00:28:36] Yeah. And for me, maybe this comes with like the ritual of annual planning to the extent that you can annually plan.

And if you can't, well, then that's another story you can tell. But one of the things that we definitely did a cruise is when we knew we were going to go in one year from 500 to a thousand, we're like, okay, Here's where we are now. Here's the end of our story next year and where we need to be. Now, let's figure out all of the changes that have to take place and how we want to go about making those changes and why those changes are important.

And in every change that we make as a team, let's invest very heavily in the communication around that. That is something that I definitely have been annoyingly, annoyingly, stubborn about with everyone that I've worked on. I'm like we have to have crisp communication campaigns that tell a story. And the reason I care so much about that is because part of the storytelling is bringing people along and making sure, like, they feel like they are not just a part of the journey, but they're able to co-create the journey with you.

So, you know, if you're going to be rolling out levels, making sure you understand. Why you're doing that, what the value of them are, what the drawbacks of them are, where the discomfort of them can be and inviting people into that conversation, but ultimately knowing really knowing your why, and knowing the story is, has been really, really helpful.

Brett Berson: [00:30:09] Can you think back over the past few years of like an example of a crisp storytelling campaign or something that went well to better illustrate the idea? 

McKenna Quint: [00:30:18] So, one thing that we did applied when 2020 was happening and we were showing up to our desks and logging in, and maybe having Twitter on the one side and email on the other and watching the horrors of everything that was happening outside, and then having to deal with getting back to someone on email and okay.

What do you as a company do to make that experience. Manageable for employees. And so we launched a campaign around civic engagement, where we said one of the things that we want to make sure you're able to do as an employee is to express your ability to impact change. Because sitting in front of a computer and watching things go horribly wrong is not a good feeling.

We want to make sure you feel empowered to where you can take action. So we told people that is why we wanted to do that was how we wanted to support them through the year, as well as, you know, a variety of other things, increasing our mental health program. And all of that, we said, we will host a series of learning sessions where if you're not involved civically, we can teach you how to be involved civically.

We can teach you ways to participate. We will tell you what it's like to go volunteer at the polls. I will people who have done that and can share that information with you. We have created specific days that you can take off that are just as dedicated to civic engagement and they're called civic engagement days.

You can go in and you can use them to read books. You can use them to protest. You can use them to do whatever you think is the way that you want to participate. And so we started that campaign in the second quarter of 2020 and ran it through the end of the year during election season. And so that was, I think, one example of a campaign where it ran long enough and was packaged in a way where there were a lot of different ways in which we were allowing people to get involved both through education, through time off and through the continuity.

So 

Brett Berson: [00:32:35] in adjacent idea, when you start talking about that is kind of an interesting one about how do you think about the roles and responsibility of a company. And what does the company responsible for, or what are the boundaries or what are the areas that accompany doesn't need to get involved with, or it doesn't need to support an employee?

McKenna Quint: [00:32:54] This is an interesting one. I think this is an interesting one, especially because of some of the companies who have come out with more specific stances on this. I have my own personal views. If I was a founder, here's how I would build the company. But I think one thing that I would want to be universally true for any company is how you define how you support employees should be very clear to employees from day one.

And I don't think it always is. And I think that we found that through. Some of the reactions to Coinbase and to base camp where employees came in with their own definition of what they wanted their experience to look like, and that didn't end up being what happened. And so one of the things that I think is interesting is we signed this contract when we joined a company and it says, pure title, your job you're going to do.

And here's the rules you're going to follow. And here's what we're going to pay you for. And that's it. And that's like the agreement that you enter into with the company, but there's this other agreement that's not written down that. Probably more important and it's what are the company, his beliefs, when it comes to how you participate in this company and how we support your whole self or ask you to check it at the door.

And so that's kind of like the culture contract, the implicit culture contract that people. Don't sign, but kind of agreed to on both sides. And the interesting thing that I think in reflecting on it, Coinbase is whether or not you agree with their stance, they made their contract clear. After some friction, they decided to make it clear.

And I think that is a good thing. That's going to be regardless of whether or not you agree with it again, now people know what they're signing up for and they didn't before. And I think that's something that companies can certainly learn from. The other thing that I think employees can learn from is make sure you are really looking at all the signals.

The company is giving you. And in a case like base camp, if you're not getting equity in a company, you're not an owner, you're not a stakeholder that they're going to prioritize. So when push comes to shove and your voice doesn't matter, that's something that through the signal the company was giving you, maybe you should have realized my personal personal view is I believe that.

Companies have a responsibility to make work the best it can for people to get the best out of people. And I believe that companies can and should be spaces where we work hard to have tough conversations and to allow people with differing views to bring their whole selves and to do so respectfully.

And if we choose to ignore that in the workplace, I just think it's going to make us less good at interacting with our customers and relating to them. So I think it's worth the hard work of creating those spaces and having uncomfortable conversations at work. 

Brett Berson: [00:35:54] So if you were to start your own company and you were to create your own contract, that everyone were to sign before they join, is that sort of what would be in it or, or are there other things that you would really want to communicate before somebody came and joined?

McKenna Quint: [00:36:10] Oh, I feel like probably a, B a book. So 

Brett Berson: [00:36:13] what are the chapters? 

McKenna Quint: [00:36:15] The chapters first one, like performance reviews, how they work, who makes the decisions? Do you have forced curves or not forced curves ratings or no ratings? All of that's upfront because I want you to know exactly how you're being evaluated.

And I want you to feel comfortable with it because that determines your pay at the end of the day. And that's something you should care about. So that certainly would be in my cultural contract. The other thing that we would be in the cultural contract is the ways in which the company communicates, like, do you have an open communication structure?

Can anyone start a slack channel? Can anyone slack anyone? Or are there sort of more strict things in place that would make it such that the sort of voices at the company are not as flat as they could be when it comes to decision-making? How do you make decisions? Who's in the room, how far up the chain or down and across our decisions distributed.

I feel like those are just a couple of the things I wouldn't want in my culture book. And now every people leaders rolling their eyes because they're like, no, don't make me write this. 

Brett Berson: [00:37:16] If those are a few of the chapters. So how performance reviews work the way in which a company communicates. The way in which decisions are made for maybe each one of those, or maybe we could pick one of those, if that's sort of the chapter heading what's some of your thoughts or, or the things that you've learned about those topics that might show up as you were explaining what your philosophy or methodology is with each of those.

McKenna Quint: [00:37:39] Yeah. So for performance reviews, I definitely think it would be. Oh, gosh, this is quite a debate in the people space. I don't know. Maybe this is like the me being too business-y but I would, if I'm starting my own company, I'd say, Hey, we have ratings. Here's how they work. And here's why we use ratings. And I would make sure people felt comfortable with that framework and with all of the ways in which we gather feedback, the competencies and other things that we evaluate people by.

And make sure people felt comfortable with it. So I would tell people why I think ratings are here to stay, or at least for me, because I think they're the best that we have in terms of making things feel fair and objective and clear. I feel like the best article about this is one that Lori Goler and maybe Adam Grant wrote about how ratings aren't dead.

And based on some of the studies they've done, people believe less than no ratings than they do in ratings. I'd put that down. I'd also put down like what's in the evaluation framework and why. And one of the things that I really really care about being a female leader in this space is here are all of the things, things that we take into consideration when it comes to being evaluated.

Here are the competencies. Here are the technical competencies of your role that you're evaluated on. Here are the cultural competencies that you're evaluated on. And here's how we think about that from the perspective of what has historically been more gendered ways of looking at performance evaluation.

So I'd be like, here's where glue work shows up in that you are rewarded for those things. So that would be on my contract in terms of communication. I think this is why on that is both what we offer. Do you, as well as what we ask of you, which is we'll have open communication frameworks. Anyone can say any thing to anyone else at any time.

And. Because it is a relatively unregulated environment. Here are some of the rules of engagement. Everything must be respectful. If you have constructive criticism, we ask that you give it to the people directly, not behind their back and not in groups, those types of basic things. 

Brett Berson: [00:40:05] And what about clarifying?

McKenna Quint: [00:40:08] That I think it would be. It's going to look different at different stages of the company. And here's generally how we think about it. Companies have Amazon has their type one type two decisions to the best of my ability. I would create a very simple, simple framework where this type of decision requires input from these people.

And this type of decision does not, obviously those decisions kind of get more complex as you scale. Maybe you have different financial triggers that you have to hit to get a decision made at a certain level. But I think I would just be very clear that in general, we want decisions to happen by the people who have the most information needed to make that decision.

And so wherever possible, we will make that we will strive to make that the case and where we have to change will always tell you when we're changing and why we're changing. 

Brett Berson: [00:41:05] I think you should write it. It's going to be a wonderful read. A few minutes ago, you were talking about one of the things that was just as transformative for you as you've gotten into all of this people were, were different mentors that you've had the opportunity to spend time with or people that you've learned from.

I thought it would be interesting maybe to talk about maybe some of those people or some of the key ideas or insights that you've gleaned that have been super influential in the way in which you think about this. 

McKenna Quint: [00:41:33] Well, I will start out with saying that I'm a nerd and I read a lot. And so a lot of what I have gleaned is not coming from people but books.

So I guess that's cool for the other introverts out there, but I feel like I've been reading about company cultures for a long time, even before I got into this work. And I've, there are so many different examples of ways in which leaders have built their companies in unique ways. Like. When I was a kid going to Disney world was like the coolest thing in the whole world.

And then as an adult to realize how ingrained the concepts of imagination and creating a dream world were to this company, like they named their employees, cast members and like customers were guests. Like they took that really seriously. And I think that's so interesting to me, another book that I had read, not even thinking it was going to be a culture book, but just reading it because a family member of mine was sick at the time was the book on the Mayo clinic and their philosophies around service and like the soul that needs to be involved in that and the ways in which they structured their teams and had really transparent conversations about medical records was just really interesting.

Also no incentive pay. They just have base salaries, which I think is interesting. They have a physician CEO, like I feel like there have been so many. Things that I've read that I've taken bits and pieces from over time that have inspired me. There have definitely been a couple of people that I've worked with.

One was a leader at Cruz who came from Amazon. And though I know Amazon is kind of a controversial company to talk about in terms of culture. I think one of the things that you have to admire about them is how much their company culture aligns to their business principles. I think that they're just one of the most stunning examples of just being consistent in who they are from the way that they manage their cash to the way that they manage performance.

So that's been very interesting to me. I've been lucky enough to have been able to talk to Patty McCord at Netflix. Who's just like, God, if there's someone who. Has made me feel like it's okay to be an operational leader and to lean into the things that are my strengths and to not worry that I'm not good at some of the things that other people leaders are good at.

She's just been remarkable, remarkable in that space and then Lazlo doing what he did for HR. And I think is, yeah, there's lots of people. I feel like that I've, I've been mentored by Kaitlyn Holloway. God would not have survived my first two years. New jar, if it wasn't for her. 

Brett Berson: [00:44:23] Were there specific things that you picked up from 

McKenna Quint: [00:44:26] her?

Yeah, mostly is this problem normal because she had seen a number of different companies go through scale. And when you're first going through the experience of leading the people function, it feels like every problem is a P zero. It's on fire problem. And so she was very helpful in helping me figure out which things are normal in which things are things to pay attention to, and also support I've loved all of the founders that I have worked with and for and consulted for, but founders are their own breed of people.

And it's very helpful to, especially in the people function, have folks to lean on and to support when you challenged 

Brett Berson: [00:45:12] it sort of what you shared gets said at an interesting idea of the way that cultures of one company influence the cultures of the next generation of companies. And there's often one or two companies that have an outsized impact and probably the last generation, at least in the bay area.

It's good. And I'm curious, is that good or bad or something that's fine to happen organically, or you need to pick and choose. And a lot of it happens, it probably happens for a few fold, but one is just the cross-pollinization of talent. And so if you take Google, for example, if you look at most thousand person startups today, there's probably one or two people that have come from Google on their leadership team.

And so just by definition, if we agree that people influence the culture heavily, you sort of see that, but you also have the, in the case of Google. Yeah. Particularly interesting as they single handedly shifted norm about what a company is responsible for, what a company should provide. And some of it is by virtue of they invented.

Uh, cash printing machine. And so you also have these odd peculiarities where you have companies that are adopting cultural norms from Google that don't have the same business model. And I think that's, what's so elegant about the comparison between Amazon and Google and they just have such wildly different cultures in that actually intuitively makes sense because their core business at least historically was quite different.

And so I'm curious how you think about that and do you manage that? Is that a good thing? A bad thing. 

McKenna Quint: [00:46:42] Neither it's an opportunity. I think there's one thing that I can not thank Laslo enough for, which is like, he made it cool to be an HR. He made it cool. All of a sudden it was just this shitty back office compliance thing.

And now it's a thing that people are considering this to be a function of more leverage and of more interest to them than they otherwise had. So I feel like what he did to put it. HR kind of into the spotlight. That is nothing but good. But the shadow that Google's people philosophy has created on the valley in particular is huge.

And I think there's a number of good things about it. I think Google was a company that invested in DNI early in loudly. And I think that required a lot of other people to follow suit and that's just inherently a good thing. There are aspects of the Google experience that are just very Google-y like, I can't tell you the number of startups that I've talked to.

They're like, oh yeah, we have a five point rating system on our performance reviews. And I'm like, why, why is your talent that differentiated? Like you have 50 people in your company, how are you rating them on a scale of one to five? And also how are you paying them that differently? Where's that money coming from.

So there are definitely aspects of it that I think a lot of people have copied and pasted that they should be very wary when they copy and paste. And they should think about the context under which Google build those things and not emulate it. And I think one of the things that a lot of the conversation around employee experience has centered on are a lot of the things that Google made true about the employee experience, which is, you know, at one point they had like a concierge where you could like roll up and get your laundry done.

That is what employees ended up asking HR teams for and the nature of teams delivered those things. And all of a sudden the conversation about the employee experience became not about, am I learning? Am I getting paid well? What perks do you have? And so that is something that I think Google's definition of the employee experience is one that I think companies should be careful to redefine themselves in the context of, for sure perks, just don't motivate and retain people in the way that Google didn't have to.

That wasn't Google's retention strategy. That was a marketing strategy. So, yeah, I think there's definitely parts of the Google shadows that people should be wary of. I think just as one anecdote, I don't think there's like anyone more valuable to hire than someone who worked under him at Google, because the amount of experimentation that they did and the amount of things that they learned about what it takes to be a good manager, how people manage through change, like two years at Google under Lazlo.

And when he had the PI lab set up is like 20 years of HR experience is just so valuable. Another thing that I think is interesting. Now is forever startups where Facebook and Google pay this much. And I have to compete with them if I want to get the talent. And then it got a little savvier and they figured out, you know, how to differentiate their value proposition.

How to market themselves as a company where you could get things done and have an impact and see that impact. And they were able to attract talent that way. And I think the really interesting thing that's shifting now is because of how much funding is going into startups and how many startups there are now Facebook and Google, and all those companies were the market makers previously.

But now we're seeing like the power dynamic shift a little bit, and those are the companies that are being the startups are the ones who are like pushing larger companies to hire more remote, to consider compensation, to be based on the value of the role versus the cost of labor in any given location.

And it's, it's so interesting to talk to people at some of the larger companies. There's like, they're like, whoa, we're feeling so much pressure as we're doing acquisitions. And even as we're just going out to market and trying to get the best talent. So it's interesting to see now the power dynamic shift a little bit towards starter.

Brett Berson: [00:51:00] One of the things you just mentioned is this kind of confusing word, which is employee experience. So I was curious how you define it or maybe how it's maybe misdefined or, or what it means in different cultures or different companies or different contexts. 

McKenna Quint: [00:51:15] Yeah, I think the most like universal definition that I have found to be true about employee experience is that it is now acquainted with things like happiness and perks.

And I think, again, that's part of the Google shadow, and I think that in order for us to be competitive in attracting and retaining talent, we kind of leaned into that a little bit too much in. I wonder often if it's we overreacted to the market and gave people what they said they wanted and not what they needed.

I think one of the things that I think is the most important part of the employee experiences, just like doing the basics, right? Because no amount of perks is going to solve for whether or not you have the environment in which you can do your best work. No perk is going to solve the problem of you not getting the feedback to get better at your work.

No perk program is going to make you feel good about contributing. If there isn't just strong recognition systems in the company to do good work perks, don't make you feel like you're paid fairly and competitively. And so I think that it would behoove all of us to just. Remember what the basics are that people need.

Like we went so high up on Maslow's hierarchy of needs in the people function. I almost think we just need to get back down to basics and make sure we're doing the basics as well as we could when 

Brett Berson: [00:52:44] it's sort of the med ideas that you've been sharing is the importance of context. And even at the very beginning, when we were talking about, when you go to first principles versus where you can do a little bit more copy and paste.

And so I thought it might be interesting if let's take one of these topics that come up all the time, like performance management, a founder reaches out to you. I'm sure this happens all the time. Like we have no performance management or a 25 person company, and we're, we're doing it for the first time.

What is the process of creation or invention of that thing? What would that look like for you? Like what are the inputs that you would need to help accompany? Not just download Google's performance management and rating system, but actually build the right thing for the company. 

McKenna Quint: [00:53:29] So this comes up more with levels.

Then it comes up with performance reviews. So I'll talk about levels because if I had a dime for every founder that called me and is like, do I really need to implement levels? I feel like I'd be, be doing pretty well. So the thing that I tell founders, when they ask me this question is like, you don't have to do anything, but you have to be aware of the environment in which you're operating and your job is to attract and get the most out of it.

The very best people for the business at any given time. And that is a mandate that exists within a market. You pull talent from the talent market and the talent market understands that there are these things called levels and the talent market assumes that levels include certain concepts about pay certain concepts about titles and that they mean certain things at different companies.

And a lot of people want them to be portable from company to company. And so you have to understand what people want when you're trying to decide if you need levels or not. What I ask people to think about is like, levels are. A lot of different things, first of all, they're called levels, but it's often a set of competencies by which you are evaluated in your role.

It's often a progression of how those competencies get more complex or show more technical depth over time. Sometimes those are associated with titles sometimes that is associated with pay. And so there's a lot of things you're talking about when you're talking about levels. So let's just make sure we know what we're solving for, because often it might just be comp often it could just be titles and often it could be where people think they are in their career.

So I ask people to think about that. And one of the things that I have definitely learned is like the worst mistake I made was. Making that leveling structure more mature than the business actually needed it to be meaning I didn't need all nine levels for the engineering organization of a company of 50.

I wasn't hiring people who had 30 plus years of experience. I was hiring mostly early to middle career people. So why did we have that framework? Was it for the purpose of showing individuals that we could hire principal engineers at some point, if that was it, it certainly didn't do a good job of telling that story.

So then people thought there was just four more levels and no one ever would attain in the company. Right. So. Yeah. There's a couple of ways in which I think you need to really know what it is that levels are and how they're best implemented with the company. A couple of things just to add on to that.

If you're a smaller company go simpler far, far, fewer levels, you can add more as time goes in. You can't take them away as easily. To understand where you are on the great title debate. Do you believe titles are free or do you believe titles come at a cost and make sure that that's something that like you're clear about internally and you're clear about with candidates when they come in, when it comes to compensation, if you don't want levels, okay.

Then you need to have a really clearly articulated way of telling people how you're deciding, how they're going to be paid. If it's not based on the competencies they display in their role or their years of experience. And it's based on something like impact, then you have to have a really good framework for telling people what the impact is.

And that's a complicated, complicated thing. So the point being start more simple than you think that you need to, and don't just copy and paste Google's levels. You'll be sorry. 

Brett Berson: [00:57:23] If that's something that founders have reached out to you about in great frequency, what are other things that founders that are starting to scale, reach out to you and maybe sort of what's your most common answers for those handful of things that you hear about all the time?

McKenna Quint: [00:57:38] A lot of it is I'm ahead of people. What do I look for? So that is a question people ask perhaps the same question, but start to collated by someone with a different set of beliefs is, do I really need to hire the HR people? Or can I just focus on recruiting now, which is another, I feel like common question that I get.

And when it comes to hiring sort of your first head of people, a lot of folks, you know, ask about the qualities to look for and the questions to ask. And I think for me, the two most undervalued qualities is someone who's. Both scientific and empathetic. Someone who can, you know, engage with the analytical and logical parts of the people function as well as the emotional and psychological cause while what you need to build day-to-day is operational the way that employees feel about it and the way that they react to it.

And the way that you build trust with them is something that is equally as important. I also tell them people who can tell stories is something to look for people often ask, should I have a recruiting focus leader or a people focused leader? And I tell them, I don't really think it matters. You just need to have someone who understands what the entire employee life cycle looks like and how talent acquisition, talent development, and talent management all work together as one operating system for the company questions that I.

Offer the, they ask people leaders. One of them is how you do headcount planning. Well, which is probably more for the mature companies. But head count planning is a funny one because it involves a lot of different teams. It involves finance. It often involves operations teams involved with people, teams for fiscal planning, for goal planning and for workforce planning.

And so making sure someone understands that head count planning is part of a broader company planning system and a bigger question of how do I know when and how to invest in different areas of the company. I think that shows you that you have someone who understands how all the parts work together, which is really valuable.

Another thing that I always always tell them to ask the people leaders is what did you disagree with your CEO on? And what'd you do about it? How did you resolve the disagreement or did you. And I think one of the things that's interesting about different people's answers to that question is just the frameworks that they build.

Are they solely focusing on what's right for the employees or what they feel is right for the employees? Do they lead from a place of people, first principles? Are they able to balance that with the needs of the business? Do they bring their arguments with data or do they solve for things in a different way and making sure that you are able to disagree really well, and I think is important because he will disagree with your CEO, for sure.

And then finally the last question. I asked them to ask, like what HR leaders think the role of the people function is because I think people leaders knowing what the value of the function is, and being able to articulate that really clearly not just means that's a strong people leader in my mind that I think, again, someone who sees themselves as responsible for building a culture that aligns with business goals and being aware that it's not just a service function, not just risk mitigation, not just being an advocate for employee needs, knowing that it is more than that is important.

Brett Berson: [01:01:23] One of the things that I just thought about as you were talking about this topic of headcount planning is I'm endlessly interested about the question of how many people you need to do anything inside of a company. And my current thinking is that it's so wildly in precise. And that all the incentive structures are designed for everyone to ask for an amass, the largest headcount possible.

How does every company not bloated by like 30% because of the way that head count planning works. Oh, 

McKenna Quint: [01:02:07] yeah. So maybe another good question to ask people. Leaders is like, what do they think makes a healthy organizational structure? Because one of the things that you definitely need to do as head count planning begins to be a thing that your company focuses on is making sure you have structures in place to understand where when and how blow can exist, because yet all your leaders are just going to want more people all the time, unless there's reasons for that.

To not want to. So one of the things that I think can be helpful is like really basic metrics. What's your IC to manager span. Does that make sense for each of the domains that you have or are you going nuts there? What is the composition of your head count? Do you have a balance of more senior to more early career individuals so that there is an, a.

Appropriate balance of the type of work that needs to be done. And some of the needs that the organization has for there to be mentors and guides. So I think there's like just basic healthy organizational ratios that you can hold people accountable to. Another thing that I think is important is every time anyone comes with a headcount ass, you have to ask them like, what are they going to do with those people?

What's the incremental value that those additional people are going to provide? What are they not going to get done? If those people are not hired. And I think any leader should be able to, to articulate that. So I think there's things you can put in the process that even as you're growing in the earlier stages can be helpful to fighting bloat as companies grow.

Brett Berson: [01:03:44] Maybe to wrap up, you talked about this a little bit, but as somebody, that via experiences is quite curious. And you mentioned a lot of the reading that you do about cultures. You highlighted a couple of these, but I wondered if there are others, the companies that you've studied or admired the cultures that they've built that are not what everyone talks about in Silicon valley, which is like Google and Netflix and Facebook, and maybe any little insights or things that stuck with you as you learned about them.

Well, 

McKenna Quint: [01:04:13] one interesting example that I've come across recently that I feel like is a pretty unglamorous. One is Costco just with what they have placed. Is there a minimum wage and some of the employee sentiment within the company? I feel like that's a company that feels like it chooses to do right by employees in an environment where not many companies are choosing that because they just have decided to treat that labor differently.

So I feel like Costco from the perspective of like doing right by their workforce is a good one. Southwest airlines. I dunno. I feel like that's one of the more, again, elegant examples of like, Inside out of alignment around customer centricity, with the way that they consider their employees, their customers in the way that they run their customer service organization.

I feel like that's a good one. And then, yeah, I think Patagonia is one of the. More prominent activist brands. I feel like they've just always been really clear about who they are and who they aren't and what their purpose on this earth is. I love let my people go surfing and it's just such a great book.

And I heard on Lars Schmidt, who's just a fantastic person in the people's space, trying to help build the next generation of people, leaders. He interviewed the CSRO of Patagonia and they're hiring for the first time. So I don't know why anyone wouldn't want to go work for them, but yeah, Patagonia is another good example of a company that that's inspiring.

And then I think every day that I meet with the earlier stage startups that get excited about some of the ways in which the next generation of companies is hoping to evolve our conversations around 

Brett Berson: [01:06:02] culture. Awesome. Well, that is a great place to end. Thank you so much for spending the time with 

McKenna Quint: [01:06:06] us.

Yeah. Thank you for having me.