This interview with Victoria Ransom, Cofounder and CEO of Wildfire Interactive, a provider of social media marketing software, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant of The New York Times.
Q: Tell me about some of your early leadership lessons.
When I look at my values as a leader and at the culture in our company, they’re really a strong reflection of the values I was raised with, such as hard work and leading by example. I grew up in a really small farming community in New Zealand. Everybody pitched in. Everybody worked hard. We talk a lot about the value of humility at Wildfire, about not getting ahead of yourself.
I also took on leadership opportunities pretty early in my life, and that started informally in the school I attended. There were 30 students, from ages 5 to 12, and a lot of it was the big kids teaching the little kids.
Q: What about some more recent leadership lessons with your company, which has grown rapidly in the last few years?
Yes, we’ve hired quickly — we’re more than 400 people now. I think I’ve learned a lot through trial and error. I don’t believe in hierarchy or creating hierarchy. I believe in earning respect. Nevertheless, I think people do want you to be a leader and they want someone to tell them that things are O.K. One of the things I’ve learned is to just step up a bit more.
Another lesson I’ve learned as the company grows is that you’re only as good as the leaders you have underneath you. And that was sometimes a painful lesson. You might think that because you’re projecting our values, then the rest of the company is experiencing the values. What you realize is that the direct supervisors become the most important influence on people in the company. Therefore, a big part of leading becomes your ability to pick and guide the right people.
Q: Any other lessons?
As the company got bigger, and people didn’t know me quite as well, I started to realize how what you say can have such an influence. You can’t just say things off the cuff anymore, because people take it so much more seriously than you ever meant it. And that can be good and bad. The bad is that you might say something sort of flippant, or you’re trying to be really transparent and honest with the team about the challenges we may have. But that can get passed on down the line and repeated until there’s a panic.
On a positive note, I was surprised to learn how comforting what I say can be to the team, even if I’m not giving the answers. I thought at first that I always needed to be able to give them the solution, but I realized that actually that wasn’t needed at all. All that was needed was acknowledging the challenges, and showing that we’re on top of it and we get it.
And I’ve learned the importance of addressing problems as quickly as possible, because otherwise people start to build things up in their mind, and they talk.
Q: Let’s shift to culture. Did you go through the process of codifying your values?
We did, but pretty late in the game, actually. We tried early on in the company, when we had about 20 employees, to codify our values, but we didn’t get that far, because it felt forced. But as we got bigger, we were expecting a lot of our people — that they could somehow just come in as new hires and through osmosis figure out what our values were. Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them? The values are here already, but let’s make it clear what they are, particularly because you want the new people who are also hiring to really know the values.
Another reason was that we had to fire a few people because they didn’t live up to the values. If we’re going to be doing that, it’s really important to be clear about what the values are. I think that some of the biggest ways we showed that we lived up to our values were when we made tough decisions about people, especially when it was a high performer who somehow really violated our values, and we took action. I think it made employees feel like, “Yeah, this company actually puts its money where its mouth is.”
We also wanted to put in more of a formal procedure for reviews, and if we’re going to review people, let’s be clear about the criteria when we consider whether they are living up to the company culture.
Q: What process did you use, in the end?
My cofounder, Alain [Chuard], and I spent a weekend writing down what we value in our people at Wildfire. Then I literally sat down with every single person in the company in small groups and got their feedback — what do you like, what don’t you like, let’s tweak this. Some companies’ values are really about what the company stands for. We took more of the approach of what we look for in our people. Passion was a very important one. Team player. Humility and integrity. Another was courage, and that was all about speaking up — if you have a great idea, tell us, and if you disagree with people in the room, speak up.
Curiosity was one of them, too. We really encourage people to constantly question, to stay on top of what’s happening in our industry, to learn what other people in the company are doing. The hope was to break down these walls of “them versus us.” Another was impact — wanting to measure whether you’re having an impact at the company. And the final value is more outward-looking, but it was “do good, and do right by each other.”
In the end, it was a much, much harder process than I’d imagined. When I did these sessions with people to get their feedback on the values, most people were really excited. The ones who weren’t inevitably came from large companies who had gone through that process before, and they were very skeptical.
I think the best way to undermine a company’s values is to put people in leadership positions who are not adhering to the values. Then it completely starts to fall flat until you take action and move those people out, and then everyone gets faith in the values again. It can be restored so quickly. You just see that people are happier.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
From The New York Times, January 26, 2013 © 2013 The New York Times All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of the Material without express written permission is prohibited.