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How to build your engineering culture to aim for 100% healthy turnover

This post lists the key insights from this article, from an interview with Greenhouse CTO, Mike Boufford, about his experience at Greenhouse.

From 1 to 60: early-stage recruiting tips for building a team no one wants to leave

“In starting a new team, I had the chance to create a new ‘society,’ and I wanted to be really intentional about building the team that I’d want to be a part of. I thought about all of the things that had made me frustrated enough to move on from prior roles, and tried to build my team in such a way that those same feelings wouldn’t be conjured up in the engineers who joined Greenhouse,”

Rev up recruiting — and plant the seeds of retention

A common mistake early-stage startups make is trying to hire every engineer that passes the technical bar. Instead, work to figure out whether your vision matches what the candidate is looking for. Misalignment between what you’re selling and what they think they’re buying inevitably leads to turnover down the road.

To suss out that motivation, Boufford relied on these two questions:

  • What do you hope will be different about your next role?
  • When you’ve left jobs in the past, what drove you away?

These questions unlocked emotional stories. After hearing hundreds of stories in his conversations with candidates, Boufford noticed a few emerging themes. When engineers were dissatisfied at other companies, they often:

  • Felt unfairly treated or assessed, whether it was about pay, performance, or other forms of recognition.
  • Felt they weren’t growing. 
  • Felt disrespected. It was tough to go into work every day feeling disrespected, whether it’s because their ideas got shot down, they had to deal with an overbearing manager or work closely with an unkind colleague.

The final nail in the coffin for many, Boufford found, was a feeling of powerlessness to make their pain point go away.

“By unpacking why people left other companies, I thought I could reverse-engineer reasons Greenhouse would be a place they would stayIn the early days, if I could lay out a vision of how we’d be different on those very targeted, specific fronts — and in the later years that vision rang true — then we could actually do less recruiting over time, because people would stick around,” he says.

People view candidate conversations as a recruiting tool. And while each is an opportunity to add someone to your team, it’s also a chance to figure out how to nail retention. Uncover what other companies are getting wrong — and make sure you don’t repeat those mistakes.

Diving deeper into the tactical retention strategies that netted zero attrition

Determined to avoid these missteps, Boufford laid the groundwork for Greenhouse’s culture from the start. Here’s a closer look at the tactics that helped him attract top talent and drive down turnover:

1. Establish a culture of fairness and transparency

To address common complaints around a lack of fairness, Boufford set out to intentionally build transparency. “People don’t trust that managers or companies are going to treat them fairly by default, so you have to prove it — and too many leaders forget that,” he says.

Here, he gets granular on how fairness can be woven into every part of the hiring, compensation, and performance review process, sharing examples of how Greenhouse pulled it off:

  • Paint the picture during the hiring process — but don’t overpromise. 
  • Open up on how you think about comp.  Is it more important to reward top performers this year, or to level up the people around you who are underpaid because they were hired at an earlier stage? “I asked around among engineers, team leaders, and the top performers to get their take. Without exception, every single one said it was more important to ensure fairness among their peers. So we set aside about 85% to level people up and only spent about 15% to reward top performers that year,” he says. “I talked about this decision publicly — and repeatedly — to make sure everyone knew how we’d allocated funds that year, and why we thought that was the right approach. And it went a long way toward signalling fairness and cementing trust throughout the team.”
  • Proactively consider emotional reactions. “I have a template for managers to fill out, with details on their team members’ current comp and a number for the next year along with a simple question: ‘How do you think they’ll feel about this comp change?’ I don’t actually need to review the answers, it’s just a prompt to get my team leads to proactively think about it before they have such a meaningful conversation.”

When you’re hiring engineers, make sure they know what they’re getting themselves into, and then work overtime to ensure you meet those expectations. That’s the recipe for getting people to stick around.

2. Solve for stalled professional growth:

In Boufford’s own experience and in hearing from hundreds of engineering candidates, growth was a lightning rod, an area where complaints — and turnover — spiked.

In rapidly scaling startups, personal growth is often put on the back-burner in favor of moving fast and shipping. But even during crunch time, you have to carve out space for your engineers to learn something new — otherwise they’ll look to scratch that itch elsewhere.

Here are the tactics Boufford used to keep growth front and center at Greenhouse:

  • Evangelize the gospel of servant leadership. “At every All Hands and team meeting, I’d tell the engineers: ‘Your managers work for you. If they’re not serving your needs, shout about it. The leadership team is all overhead — our main job to ensure that all of you can work effectively.’
  • Act early — and quickly. “I had biweekly 1:1s with every single person on the team and helped to manage their workload until we were up to 20 engineers. I would find out what each person wanted to learn and the types of issues they wanted to tackle, and then I would act,”
  • Add programming as you scale. “After our Series B, we had to adapt those personal growth tactics for scale,” says Boufford. “As a management team, we tried to offer lots of support as various team members started lunch and learns, formal mentoring programs, peer groups that took courses together, a computer science book club, all sorts of content programming that communicated that their growth was sacred, necessary and supported.”
  • Hunt for spots of sagging personal growth during skip-levels. “I spend a lot of my skip-level 1:1 time on whether or not my managers are meeting their direct reports’ needs,” says Boufford. Here are two questions he relies on in skip-levels: What’s on the growth plan you’ve worked on with your manager for this quarter? Do you feel like you’re improving in the dimensions you care about?? 

3. Create a culture of respect:

Here are two tactics he used to intentionally shape the tone of Greenhouse’s culture as they scaled:

  • Proactively intervene. “I was always clear that there was no room for intentional disrespect”
  • Give your team the toolkit for building respect. “For example, we brought in a communication and negotiation consultant to teach the entire team how to conduct code reviews with empathy and deliver criticisms in a way that would be well-received,” he says.

Swap regrettable for a healthy alternative

“As a manager, when someone on your team leaves, it can feel awfully personal, as though it’s a reflection on you, like you failed in some way,” he says. “But our job is to think about the needs of the people on our team. And sometimes what they need is support in taking the next step on their path. I’d go so far as to say that serving the true interests of the people on your team is always serving the best interests of the company as well. If people leave to do other things, and the story of their time at Greenhouse is one of fairness, respect, growth, and empowerment, then they will recruit the next generation of engineers for us by simply recounting their experience.”

Aiming for zero regrettable attrition is problematic, because it obfuscates the reasons that people leave — and the reasons they stay. Optimize for healthy behavior, not retention at any cost.

Nudging engineers out of the nest: tactics for encouraging healthy turnover

“Given our lack of turnover, I wanted to create a feeling of safety for those who might be thinking about other opportunities. I wanted to remove the fear as much as possible. My main goal was just to communicate that I didn’t expect that everyone would stay at Greenhouse forever, and we didn’t have to pretend otherwise or tiptoe around it,” he says.

On the heels of these talks, here are the additional tactics Boufford leaned on to continue the conversation around healthy turnover.

  • Create safety. 
  • Be a resource.
  • Open up about your own ambitions. 
  • Handle departures well. 

A framework for diagnosing cause of turnover

“The conversation I have with a person that is thinking about leaving mirrors the conversation that I had when I was first trying to recruit them: I want to know what they want to be different from the experience they’re having today,” he says.

When someone is considering moving on, it’s either due to excitement about a new possibility or it’s a symptom of stress. If it’s the latter, I want to better understand the underlying forces driving them away. If it’s the former, I want to do all that I can to support them in their growth.

Here, he shares a few healthy and unhealthy causes of turnover, peppering in real-life examples from his experience at Greenhouse in the hopes that other leaders can use these examples to start thinking about turnover through this lens:

Healthy: “If every departure fell in this bucket, I’d be pumped,” Boufford says.

  • Pursuing a new passion
  • Moving on up
  • Striking out on their own

Unhealthy: In contrast, here are a few causes of turnover that would leave Boufford feeling that Greenhouse needs to do better.

  • Leaving to a parallel universe
  • Team dynamics: “If I were to see subtle hints in 1:1s, exit interviews, or pulse surveys about issues with a manager, feeling treated unfairly, or a problem with a colleague, that would worry me. “
  • Stalled learning:

’Healthy’ vs. ‘unhealthy’ attrition offers a sharper snapshot of what’s really going on in a team — and I hope it’s the direction we all start to move in as we rethink our approach to retention.”

As a leader, I want to make sure my departing employees are running toward something, not away from a problem here.

Lead like your company is a springboard, not a gilded cage

I want this to be a place where people can contribute, learn and, if and when it makes sense for them, leave to go do other great things in the world,” he says. “My goal has shifted from holding onto people for as long as possible, to creating the next generation of leaders that’s going to fan out and make New York an even better tech scene. If this place is a great springboard for talent, we’ll never have a shortage of people who want to come work here.”

8 min​ read

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