COVID-19 has inevitably caused all CEOs and company leaders to adapt quickly and find new ways to operate their business. It is now clear we will be living with COVID for some time and as we return to the new normal leaders need to continue to innovate to maintain a positive company culture as we continue to navigate the Covid pandemic.
I recently met with Ning Wang, CEO of Offensive Security (OffSec), a fully distributed cybersecurity training and certifications company with employees in over 30 countries to discuss their strategies and practices in this area. It is welcoming that Ning begins with a company’s greatest asset, its employees.
Ning Wang, CEO of Offensive Security (OffSec),
Wang “Every company has its own special characteristics, employee composition, culture, and values. Sometimes leaders take someone else’s solution and apply it to their company and then are surprised when this approach doesn’t work. The truth is every company’s culture is unique — you need to find the approach that best fits your company. One way to do this is to listen closely, actively, and often, to your employees,
Using a variety of ‘active listening’ techniques including anonymous surveys, town halls, and AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions, with team members either asking questions openly or anonymously to give Wang a good feel for what her people care about the most. A hot topic, particularly around a return to the office:
“Many companies need to decide if they will return to the office, keep operations hybrid, or go completely distributed. While no decision can please everyone, it is best made by listening to the employees. OffSec was mostly distributed prior to COVID, but with in-office operations in one location. We ran a survey to solicit input from all employees in that location before we decided to become a fully distributed company.”
Another form of insight employed by Wang is to embrace that life and work are truly intertwined.
“When employees work from home, especially for those with school-aged children or younger, it’s difficult to separate work from home life, and even more so when employees can’t set up a separate, dedicated work space. Your employees may be working in the living room, kitchen, or bedroom while the rest of their family life goes on. You should expect that these employees will have distractions and interruptions of all kinds during the day, which they have little control over. We should not make our employees feel bad when this happens. We should expect it, and incorporate it into our planning and scheduling.
The most important thing when you have enough people working from home is that the communication methods must change. This means written documentation, processes, details for tasks, dependencies, clarity on vision, strategy, plans, schedules, and deadlines become much more important.
“To paraphrase the author Brene Brown, “Clear is kind.” Being clear about expectations is a form of kindness. It allows people to focus fully on the task at hand, rather than being distracted by clarifying vague communication. We have weekly summary emails written by the entire executive team informing everyone of the prior week’s key activities, the upcoming key activities/events, concerns, good vibes, etc. We hold monthly company calls, starting with a few minutes of meditation to remind everyone of the importance of mental health, then we discuss company vision, strategy, performance, key milestones, and cross-functional knowledge.”
Wang also ensures she records and archives important company communications so anyone can find them and retrieve them easily. As CEO, she holds weekly agenda-free office hours, providing an opportunity for free-form discussions about anything people express an interest in, and holds regular ‘fireside chats’ on topics promoting continuous learning of various skills and knowledge.
“Our teams also engage in virtual team-building activities, including games and other engaging activities that are not directly work-related. We have many chat channels on hobbies and physical fitness programs. We constantly try out employee suggestions for new activities.”
Company culture and company values can be aspirational and abstract, but defining and living with them clearly requires concrete examples.
“In a recent podcast David Friedman, author of Culture by Design, said that to make a company culture come alive, companies should identify a list of fundamental behaviors and then ritualize and practice those behaviors on a regular basis. At OffSec we try to both talk the talk and walk the walk.”
It is not surprising perhaps to learn that OffSec is a mission-driven company with a culture underpinned by five values developed ‘bottom-up’ during a company all-hands a number of years ago: family, passion, integrity, community and innovation.
“The strongest value for us is family and we practice this value when we know a person has a personal challenge, the other team members go out of their way to make sure that employee puts their personal needs first, ahead of work. We cover for each other to provide this support.”
By putting her employees’ passions before company needs, including allowing employees to leave a role even if short staffed, to move to a new role the employee is passionate about, Wang is developing true trust with her employees.
What is impressive about Wang’s approach is a realization CEOs are also human, and make mistakes too: “My CEO style is to be authentic and vulnerable. I find that being true to who I am and by being vulnerable – proactively sharing my worries, concerns, and apologizing when I make mistakes – has allowed me to build real trust with not only the leadership team but with many others across the company. Knowing the ‘company vibe’ is very important, but harder to achieve when a company is remote. I spend a lot of time talking over video to employees in the company, to learn more about their lives, if they are happy at work, to give them a chance to ask me anything, to solicit their feedback and suggestions for how I, and the company, can do a better job. This has led to some good actionable suggestions which we have put into practice.”
It is clear when you trust your people, show up as a ‘real person’ even as the CEO, team members will open up and tell you what they really think. The kind of open communication from a CEO truly drives and lives the company culture in a relatable way through their daily actions. This will influence and inspire everyone in the company to behave in ways that similarly reflect the company culture.