Lissa Minkin’s first project as VP of People and Workplace at hardware startup Tile was bound to make her an unpopular new face.
The task: quickly and respectfully let go of 30% of her new colleagues.
Following a disappointing holiday season, the company, which makes small devices customers can use to track lost items like keys, was scrambling financially. By the time Minkin joined from startup Addepar in January 2018, leadership had decided to cut 30% of its staff.
Minkin says that she was made aware during the interview process that the company was facing some challenging personnel decisions, but said she didn’t realize the gravity of the situation until stepping in the door on her first day.
“It was awful but I’m glad I was here because I can make sure we treat every single person with utmost respect,” Minkin told Business Insider. “I’ve spent the rest of the time here trying to figure out how to retain the people who were left. We still had a viable business and excellent talent.”
Winning back trust
So Minkin, a human resources industry veteran with experience at Facebook and eBay, set out on the gargantuan task of turning around the small company’s culture to improve employee retention.
First, she said, she went on a listening tour of remaining employees to gauge sentiment and uncover where the problems persisted. She relied on over-communication and transparency, something she says is key to building trust within a workforce of any size.
“First and foremost I answered the Glassdoor reviews,” Minkin said, referencing the popular career reviews site, where employees can leave feedback on management.
“We had some really awful [reviews] when I first got there because people were angry, so I went in and answered every single one. It was a lot of tough feedback for our CEO at the time, so I told him to get up and tell people, hey, ‘I am taking it to heart.’ I give him a ton of credit for that,” she said.
Minkin also said she set up a weekly all-hands meeting with leadership so any employee could ask whatever was on their mind. Giving employees a regular forum in which to hear from executives and provide direct feedback helped cut down on gossip that tends to run rampant in an information vacuum, she said.
“Obviously I didn’t have a ton of resources to work with, but I’m a scrappy person so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work,” Minkin said. “It’s not always about money, it’s really about integrity and communication and transparency and truth and making sure people know where they stand. We wanted to make sure we care for these people, and that drives the business.”
Reforming the culture
By September, then-CEO and cofounder Mike Farley stepped down and was replaced by board member CJ Prober, who left his job as COO at GoPro to become Tile’s current CEO. Although Minkin won’t name names, she said that a big factor in changing the culture at Tile to something more transparent and inclusive involved getting leadership on board with prioritizing the development of corporate culture and values.
“When I came in, the company was much more of a ‘command and control’ culture,” Minkin said. “There was no transparency, no feedback, and it was very hierarchical. Over the past 16 months, we’ve made a concerted effort to change that. If you hire smart people, you should be honest with them and have them help solve problems.”
Minkin told Business Insider that one of the biggest mistakes she’s seen founders of high-growth startups make is deprioritizing culture and hoping that it will “figure itself out.”
“You have to be deliberate about culture,” Minkin said, “It has to be something you talk about at exec staff meetings. You can’t just ignore it and expect it to be good. That’s what I learned at Facebook. [CEO] Mark [Zuckerberg] and [COO] Sheryl [Sandberg] talked about culture every day and what was expected at the company and of us every day. The leadership team has to make it a priority as much as anything else the company does.”