Introduction

Hey there, I’m Dena – Drift’s Chief People Officer.

I want to talk to you about books, and not the kind you can pick off a shelf or read on your smartphone.

Let me explain. I always tell people who are in a transition or moving to a new job to look for the “right book.” Find a company that adds to the “novel of you” and that you, in turn, can add to the “novel of the company.” I found the right book with Drift and boy… the pages are turning FAST!

I am getting my Ph.D. in Drift. We all are. At Drift, we bring a spirit of learning to everything we do. We approach learning as both students and teachers, and are eager to share our discoveries with each other and our customers. We attend monthly lectures from some of the most amazing Drift advisors on the planet. Reading isn’t optional; it’s part of the curriculum. As I said, it’s like a Ph.D.

We do this because we’re building an enduring company — a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The feeling of excitement about what’s happening here is palpable. It propels us to sharpen our skills and push the boundaries every day.

But even boundary pushers need guardrails for success. That’s why Drift created what we call our Leadership Principles. Our Leadership Principles exist to make those decisions a little bit easier for everyone. We think of them like a toolbox we can use to make the best choices, get unstuck, and move as fast as possible. They’re the guardrails that steer our actions.

To succeed, we believe we have to focus on the customer experience above everything else. However, staying focused on the customer takes more than just words. It takes the entire company making tough decisions every single day – and making them quickly.

And I want to share these principles with you because I know Drift is not alone in our desire to build something extraordinary. A key part of developing these principles has been to bake them into our day-to-day experiences. We live and breathe them every day. Every new hire is introduced to these principles on Day 1 – they’re built into onboarding and long-term development programs, and all team members have development “playing” cards featuring our 8 principles. The idea (and practice) here is for everyone to use them in conversations with their managers to help identify strengths and areas for development. We use them to reinforce the behaviors that contribute to our success. They’re built into how we recognize milestones from the week, with virtual high fives, emojis, and shout-outs in Slack.

I hope it can be a jumping off point to help you craft your Leadership Principles. I may still be getting my Ph.D. in Drift, but I’m excited to share what we’ve learned along the way.

Dena-Upton-sig

Dena Upton
Chief People Officer, Drift

Put the customer at the center of everything you do.

We make decisions to solve our customers’ problems. Period. Not to get the company short-term wins. Not to respond to a competitor. No matter your role, put the customer at the center of your decisions instead of yourself or your team. Spend time every day getting to know the customer a little bit better than you did yesterday.

To succeed, we need to understand the customer’s problems and goals so well that we can anticipate their wants before they do. We need to constantly seek their feedback and ensure they never have to ask for help. We need to earn their trust through daily action. When everyone is focused on the customer, the impact is real and visible. The chance to make that impact drives us.

In B2B, the experience is typically everything but customer-first.

Many of us focus our message on the product – telling the buyer how amazing it is, how fast it is, and how it will solve all their problems. Then we force people through lead forms, funnels, gated content, endless emails, and countless other friction points – instead of treating these potential buyers like real people. We’ve forgotten how to have actual conversations.

These processes were built for a world that no longer exists. In fact, they were built for later. Fill out a form, give out your email address, and someone will get back to you, later.

That worked when businesses had all the control. But this is the age of the customer – the age of Uber, Netflix and Amazon. And that means the customer has all the power. And they’re more ready than ever to switch to a competing product if they don’t find value in yours. That’s why our first Leadership Principle switches the focus from lead generation to customer success and experience.

You can see this commitment to the customer illustrated in our logo – it symbolizes bringing people together. Our logo serves as a constant reminder to do everything we can to put the customer first, to support them and help them be successful.

Create a culture of respect and trust.

We all do our part to maintain a culture of inclusion, respect, and trust. When a problem happens, we go to the person who can fix it instead of complaining about it to someone who can’t. We celebrate each other’s wins with excitement and enthusiasm (and maybe a few train whistles and gongs). We respect different opinions and embrace the fact that we’re not all the same. By doing that, we create unity.

Unity isn’t about consensus – it’s about working together to solve problems for our customers. It’s not about completely eliminating problems and conflict. It’s about handling them in a way that doesn’t divide us.  

When we complain about a problem to someone who can’t fix it, negativity spreads. When we take a problem up to the person who can fix it, positive action happens. Positives go up, negatives come down. That’s the recipe for unity. When we follow it, we’ll create a culture where all of us can do our best work. We’ll build a safe place where everyone can move fast and grow.

Your number one job in a startup is to hire great people.

Your next job is to connect those people. Why?

Because the employee is reflected in the customer experience. Whether you have three employees or 3,000, the way you treat your employees will become a mirror for how your employees treat your customers. So to bring customers into your world, you need to start with a connected, upbeat company culture of respect and trust.

If you do things every day that connect individual and organizational objectives (more on this in our fourth Leadership Principle), growth comes naturally.

Practice extreme ownership.

We take extreme ownership of our results, both the successes and the failures. We never point the finger or make excuses. We take it upon ourselves to understand the mission and believe in it. If you don’t understand the mission, it’s on you to get clear and ensure your plan supports it. Ask questions and speak up if you need clarification. This is our mission, but we’re all responsible for our own understanding. 

Extreme ownership isn’t trying to do everything yourself. It’s pulling the right people in when you need feedback and support. Extreme ownership isn’t going rogue. It’s keeping your team informed, sharing results, and presenting a solution when they fall short. By owning your results, you get to decide the path you’ll take to achieve them. Everyone should have the chance to do fulfilling work that brings them a sense of purpose. Extreme ownership makes that possible.

Autonomy is something we talk about a lot at Drift.

In our early stages, we knew we wanted our employees to be capable of running the company if needed and to jump right in with minimal guidance. Because in the startup world, the one thing you can count on is that things will change. Since then, autonomy has become one of our core values.

But this type of environment doesn’t work without the right people. By allowing the team freedom to build and self-organize, you’re at risk of someone:

  • Holding onto their ideas and products emotionally, which leads to bad decisions.
  • Showing up when they want, because they can.
  • Getting into the unhealthy habit of trying to control others (or worse, resenting others’ success).

To solve for this, you need to cultivate an environment that supports accountability and transparency. This plays out in two key ways:

  1. Owning our decisions. Can employees make decisions now and ask for forgiveness later, versus always asking for permission?
  2. Acknowledging our mistakes. Here’s the catch to having ownership: being fully accountable. When something’s not working, confront it. Then quickly move on to Plan B.

It’s as simple as that. No excuses. No one else to blame. It’s all about the individual, owning both the problems and the solutions to those problems. That’s what effective leadership looks like no matter what you do or what level you’re at.

Have a bias for action and deliver daily results.

We ship daily, and we don’t just mean software. Across the entire company, everyone is taking action that drives results every single day. We make things happen before we make them perfect. We believe every project can be broken down into small, daily wins. Over time, those small wins help our customers take massive leaps forward.  

Shipping every day helps us start the customer feedback loop as quickly as possible so we can learn how to improve. It lets the customer see that we’re always listening and making changes based on their feedback. It gives our ideas oxygen. It’s our #1 competitive advantage.

Shipped is better than perfect, but that’s not an excuse for being sloppy or a shortcut around our high standards. When we ship every day, we’re honoring a commitment to our customers to constantly improve. But shipping every day is only possible when we have a bias for action. If you’re in a meeting and haven’t heard anything actionable, leave. If you’re wondering whether you should pursue a deal, pick up the phone and make the call. If you’re thinking about trying something new, try it. When you’re taking action, we will always support you.

“We focus on things that are useful. And we ship ‘em fast.”

That’s what we tell every candidate we interview. But it isn’t until their first week at Drift that new team members understand what fast really means. We ship at a pace most people find unusual.

Slower approaches to launching products are broken.

At Drift, we wanted to differentiate on speed.

We measure our performance by the consistency with which we ship work that’s valuable to customers. It’s the only way we’ve been able to grow 10x faster than other companies. At most companies, a website redesign could take three months. At Drift, we operate a hypergrowth speed. Which means we find a way to do it in days.

You might be wondering how it’s possible to push that sort of limit. But you can too. Here’s how:

Ship small.

Shipping small to ship frequently can solve a great many challenges, especially in software. At Drift, our engineering team starts each morning with a “Slack stand-up,” where we write out a list of specific goals for the day (which helps focus on what not to do as much as what to do). But this applies to any business: break big problems into small ones and lock in deadlines. A productivity hack that we’ve adopted is Big Rocks vs. Small Rocks. Every week, employees make their own to-do lists – a short list – to identify the most important tasks or “Big Rocks” for the week. Big Rocks take priority. This method helps us lay out a plan of attack to make sure we’re accomplishing the most important tasks first.

Ship with what you have.

We work in small teams across the organization. This forces us to seek out shared understanding of customer problems, minimize the scope of our solution, and proactively validate our ideas (more on this in Principle #7). No borrowed resources. Limited meetings. Just us and the customer.

Ship before it’s perfect.

Don’t worry about doing a perfect job every time. We think it’s more important to get things in front of the customer, even before they’re fully set, to make sure we’re on track and keep pushing the pace. Ideas need oxygen; the only way to learn is to get them out there. So when in doubt, our CEO David Cancel says, just ship it.

Show your work.

We communicate early and often about the wins we’re creating for our customers, then show visible progress daily on Slack and weekly in our company-wide Friday Show & Tell.

It may seem counterintuitive, but even at this cadence, it’s not unusual for folks to go the extra mile to ship thoughtful and valuable work – in fact it’s the norm. This is the side effect of working on a well-understood problem within a small team and owning your work end-to-end.

Seek feedback, not consensus.

We seek feedback to get to the best idea, not to create agreement or consensus. We believe consensus creates average ideas, average speed, and average results. We don’t vote on ideas or decisions. The best idea will never sound like the best idea to everyone, so we validate with the customer instead of committees.

Moving forward without consensus feels uncomfortable – that’s why we work in small, distributed teams that make it happen as naturally as possible. Every project and task has a directly responsible individual (DRI) who owns decisions and values the best idea over social cohesion.

If you’re seeking feedback, don’t let disagreement slow down progress. If you’re giving feedback, trust the DRI to make the best-informed decision. If you feel like the team is driving toward consensus, speak up and keep each other accountable. It’s better to let the customer tell us an idea is wrong today than to win consensus and find out it’s wrong next week. Seeking feedback over consensus frees up everyone to move quickly and avoid red tape.

“How do you handle internal communication?”

We get asked this question all the time.

Our answer?

Internal comms is one of the few things that can have a huge impact on everyone at a company. There’s an infinite number of channels competing for our attention. It can be a lot. It can get overwhelming. And (I think we all know this) over-communication can slow things down.

No one wants that. So we try to be mindful of what and how we’re communicating. If it’s urgent, by all means we’ll use synchronous (real time) messages to communicate. But if it’s not urgent, we’ll send asynchronous (non-real time) messages, like email and audio and video messages. And let’s not forget conversations that take place face-to-face or over the phone – these are not only effective, but they also help cut through the noise.

There’s a few other strategies we have in place for effective communication at Drift. We limit meetings, show our work, and give teams and individuals full autonomy over what they work on. In other words, we seek feedback, not consensus.

How we do it: We make as few people in charge of decisions as possible – in most cases, just one person. We pick a directly responsible individual (DRI) and give them the autonomy to make that decision. A group of people can offer their feedback; suggestions, ideas, tweaks, but the DRI decides which add value and then makes the call. Then they move forward.

Don’t get us wrong… it’s important to get team input. That’s where the feedback element comes in. While only the owner is close enough to the customer to make the ultimate call, we do bring other points of view into the loop.

Yes, the perspectives of your colleagues are valuable. But they are just pieces of the greater puzzle. 10x ideas – the ones that really move the company forward – are the ones that can’t be created through consensus.

So, trust your instincts. Others may disagree, but if you’ve given your decision the thought and analysis it deserves, you can be confident in your action – no matter the outcome.

Push for high standards.

Our standards should make us uncomfortable. When comfort creeps in, we acknowledge our goals aren’t big enough and we raise the bar. We apply high standards to everything – whether it’s a new feature, a new hire, or event swag. No matter how big or small something seems, it contributes to the sum total of our brand. And we want to build a brand customers love.

When you have high standards, you obsess over every detail. You never settle for “good enough.” You ask the hard questions: How could we take this to the next level? What would 10x-ing this look like?

In everything we do, we ask ourselves: Have we raised the bar?

The reason is simple: we’re trying to build a once-in-a-lifetime company. Which means we need to put out the best of everything.

At Drift, we know our best work is done when we’re being real and human and authentic. That’s what builds trust.

So when we push for high standards, we’re pushing for authenticity in all we do. We’re finding ways to bring out who we are already.

This is part of the reason we’re so fired up about two forms of content in particular: audio and video. We love both formats because you can’t fake it. Once you hit record, you have to really be you. On top of that? You can show empathy for customers because you can see their faces, hear their tone, and read their body language – and they can do the same with you.

Stay scrappy and frugal.

There is no entitlement here. We work like we have something to prove. We don’t always know how we’ll make something happen, but we do know we’ll figure it out. We do more with less, and invest in our customers over ourselves. Creating the best product at the lowest cost will always help our customers. Staying scrappy and frugal will help us do exactly that.

Scrappy means we keep pushing even when no one is watching. It means we stay hungry through the inevitable ebbs and flows that come with fulfilling a mission as big as ours. Scrappy means we just go – we don’t wait to have everything figured out before starting. Scrappy keeps us frugal. We analyze every expense with a simple question: Will this help our customers? If it matters to customers, it’s probably a good investment. If it doesn’t, it deserves scrutiny.

Staying scrappy isn’t just about being lean – it’s about the character of our entire team. It’s the quality that will help us topple any challenge we encounter, regardless of resources or circumstances.

The four most powerful words you’ll hear from a new hire are: “I’ll figure it out.”

If you can find someone who you can trust to say that and follow through on it, you’ve found a true asset.

In Drift’s high-performance culture, there’s not much tolerance for things that don’t work – even if they sound great in theory.

Scrappiness wins the day, because when you ship as fast as we do, you learn fast that resourcefulness goes a long way.

It’s about getting creative. We don’t wait for our manager to tell us what to work on – we take initiative. We don’t start from scratch – we use what’s been successful before and iterate on top of that. And instead of making a big investment to tackle an important project – we get started quickly and work with what we have.

Because at Drift, we’re building a $10B company. The only way we will get there is being mindful of each $1 we spend. And being mindful of how we spend our time.

Be a curious learning machine.

We bring a spirit of learning to everything we do. We seek wisdom so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel whenever possible. We approach learning as both students and teachers, eager to share our discoveries with each other and our customers. We can’t stay comfortable or get stuck in our ways. Learning keeps us in motion.

Be curious. Read, listen, and capture your learnings often. Ask questions. Feel comfortable admitting you don’t know something. Put your ego aside. Have conviction, but be willing to let go of something in light of new information.

If we’re all learning as individuals, we’ll pull the entire company forward with us. We have the opportunity to get better on a daily basis.

The last (but certainly not least) guiding principle embedded in our company’s culture is to always be learning.

It was inspired by a quote from one of David Cancel’s favorite leaders, investor and philanthropist Charlie Munger:

“I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up, and boy does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.” – Charlie Munger

At Drift, we don’t hire skills – we hire people.

Intelligence and experience are valuable, yes. But a scrappy person with a hunger to learn can easily adapt to our culture. We’re obsessed with getting better every day, whether it’s through bookspodcastseventsmentors, or role models. It’s part of our DNA.

Here’s what you want to learn about:

Your customers

All that matters is building around the customer. In other words, build a feedback loop into everything you do.

Yourself

Acknowledge what you don’t know. Make mistakes. Always reflect on what went wrong. Then use that insight to take a better course of action when the problem pops up in the future (because it will). But don’t put pressure on yourself to make big strides. At Drift, we’re big fans of the Kaizen approach, which is centered around getting 1% better each day.

Your industry

The market you are in is constantly changing. To excel, you need to keep up with those changes and make learning a priority.

Your competitors

We’re not suggesting you become competitor-driven. But done right, competitor analysis can give you a sense of what works and what doesn’t. To win, you’ve got to learn faster than everyone else.

If you take nothing else from this Leadership Principle, let it be this: Comfort is the enemy of growth.

Momentum is everything, and hypergrowth only happens when you’re learning and constantly pushing your boundaries and capabilities.

Final Thought

It’s your turn.

At high growth companies, there are so many things that compete for our attention and resources. It may feel a little unorthodox to spend time crafting principles like these.

But that’s exactly why you should consider doing it.

At Drift, we live and breathe these principles every single day. Because we know they’re helping us achieve our mission: to become the new way businesses buy from businesses.

When you take the time to identify what’s important to your people and to your company, it’s not only easier to make everyday decisions, but it helps you make progress towards your long-term company vision.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Dena-Upton-sig
Dena

How do you build an enduring company?

You have to build an enduring culture first. Find out what principles can get you there.