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Caroline Lau
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Caroline Lau
May 21, 2020

Intentional & Explicit Culture, Part 2: 3 Tools for Creating a “Center that Holds” on a Fully Distributed Team

This is Part 2 of a 3-Part Series. If you missed our last post, click here.

Remote First = People First

It was 2014, and our CEO (Chas) and CTO (Frank) had been working side-by-side in New York, NY on the beginnings of Aptible. They were ready to grow the business and found a talented Product Designer to join. The only challenge was that said Product Designer lived in San Diego, CA, and he wasn’t planning on moving any time soon. Could an early stage startup successfully get off the ground with over 2,000+ Miles between its founding members?

The answer, we’ve learned, is a resounding yes. Not only did we hire that Product Designer (Skylar), but over six years later, he’s had an outsized positive impact on the business and now leads our Design Team at Aptible. Throughout that time, he’s also gotten married, had two children, and moved cross-country (not once, but twice)! Today, Aptible is proudly “Remote-First,” with fifty team members based in forty cities across North America. In retrospect, had we not prioritized people over geographical centralization since our earliest days, Aptible would be a completely different company today.

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The Aptible Team at our Virtual Onsite, May 2020

We're passionate about building a diverse team of talented people who accomplish great things together, regardless of where they are. We know that our ability to achieve our mission is contingent on ensuring our team performs at a high level and making Aptible the best environment to support that kind of team. We can’t control what’s happening outside of Aptible, but we can be certain that we have a greater chance at long-term success if our center holds. This means that the core of Aptible—our team and its culture—must be strong, through every phase of growth.

But how do you create that center when there’s technically no center at all — no headquarters, and practically no physical assets? We believe it begins with being intentional about the culture we're trying to create, and taking the time to explicitly articulate what we mean by "us". Here, we share three tactics for scaling culture on a rapidly growing, distributed team.

This is Part 2 of a 3-Part Series:

  1. Values, Pillars, Themes: Define the Behaviors You Care About Most

  2. Values Interviews: Identify People Who Amplify & Add to Your Culture

  3. Communications Architecture: Establish Norms for How You Come Together


Part 2 | Values Interviews: Identify People Who Amplify & Add to Your Culture

At Aptible, we believe that culture isn’t created through shiny offices and unlimited perks, but by building a team of people with whom our values resonate. That’s why we actively seek teammates who demonstrate alignment with the behaviors and skills we care about most — and make the difficult decision to let go of those who don’t.

To be clear, “alignment” here doesn’t imply that our personal values completely align with Aptible’s Values, nor does it imply that they are objectively superior to any other set of values. What we are seeking in prospective teammates is a willingness to commit themselves within the context of work to our mission to build trust on the internet, as well as the way in which we seek to pursue it as a team.

We believe that alignment with Aptible’s Values doesn’t imply a homogenous culture, either, but rather a dynamic one. We know that there are an infinite number of ways in which our colleagues can embody them, and celebrate the fact that each person will shape our culture with their own unique perspectives and experiences. This is how you scale culture on a rapidly growing, distributed team.

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Aptible Team Members (From Left to Right): Albert Wong, Sarah Veirs, Chris Gomes

To this end, we incorporate a “Values Interview” into the recruitment process for every single open position at Aptible. Regardless of where the open position sits within the organization, no hiring decision can be made at Aptible without a Values Interview. Assuming that a candidate has met or exceeded our expectations for role-related knowledge/skills earlier in the recruitment process, a successful Values Interview is a strong indicator that they’ll receive an offer from Aptible. Here’s how we’ve built a Values Interview Program at Aptible, and how you can, too.

Establish a Structured Interview Process

We conduct Structured Interviews at Aptible — which means that we use the same methods to assess candidates who are being considered for the same role — because research shows that they can be predictive of candidate performance. For each open position, we use the same interview questions, grade candidate responses on the same scale, and make hiring decisions based on consistent, predetermined qualifications.

Structured Interviews ensure that any variation in candidate assessment is a result of the candidate’s performance — not because an Interviewer has higher or lower standards, or asks easier or harder questions. We’ve also found that they create a better experience for candidates.

Draft Standardized Interview Questions

Unlike other stages of our interview process that focus on role-related knowledge, the Values Interview is a discussion focused on a candidate’s motivations and alignment with Aptible’s Values. After co-creating three “Core Values” — Pillars, Cultural Tools, Operating Frameworks — our People Operations and Leadership Teams developed a bank of 2-3 behavioral questions for each.

A behavioral question looks at how a candidate has handled a specific challenge in the past, and usually starts with phrases such as “Tell me about a time when X”. For the Values Interview, we intentionally avoided hypothetical questions, which evaluate how a candidate would handle a challenge they may not have encountered yet, and often begin with “Imagine that...” Why? Behavioral questions help us reveal a candidate’s patterns of behavior. And the more those patterns of behavior sound like Aptible’s Values, the more likely they’ll succeed at Aptible.

Create a Scorecard & Calibrate Assessments

To ensure that our Values Interviewers pull from the same bank of questions, we created a reusable scorecard within our ATS (Applicant Tracking System), Lever, as well as a supplemental template for notetaking in Google Documents. It’s critical that Values Interviewers maintain a record of well-documented, comprehensive feedback of candidate answers, so that all members of the Hiring Team can easily review and evaluate responses.

To provide Values Interviewers with additional guidance, we’ve documented examples of what “Good” and “Poor” responses look like. We encourage discussion and calibration among Values Interviewers, so that they’re increasingly confident and consistent in their assessments, as well.

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A (Redacted) Snippet of our Values Interview Scorecard in Lever

Train Cross-Functional Interviewers

Our Values Interviews are currently conducted by members of the Leadership and People Teams, but we’ve just launched a robust training program that will give any Aptible Team member the opportunity to lead a Values Interview. Our vision is to build a diverse cohort of participants who can provide candidates with insight into multiple disciplines across Aptible. We want every team member — irrespective of function, role, and seniority — to feel like an owner and an active participant in the endeavor of building the Aptible Team.

Trainees of the Values Interview Program are required to complete self-guided training modules, shadow Values Interviews, conduct mock Values Interviews, and be shadowed by an experienced Values Interviewer.

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A Snippet of the Self-Guided Portion of Values Interview Training in Lessonly

Trainees will be evaluated for their ability to effectively conduct a Values Interview and develop an understanding of whether a candidate demonstrates the behaviors and skills we care about at Aptible.

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A Snippet of our Scorecard for Values Interview Program Trainees

In Summary

We’ve been conducting Values Interviews at Aptible for almost 2 Years now, and we’re still refining and reinventing how we conduct these conversations every day. Based on feedback from our Values Interviewers and Interviewees alike, we’ve overhauled our bank of questions, expanded upon our shared understanding of what good responses look like, and modified the agenda and flow of these calls over time.

But the utility and importance of these conversations endures: By creating space for candidates to engage directly with Aptible’s Values, we’re able to identify the people who are not only likely to succeed in their individual roles, but are motivated to help strengthen the core of Aptible — our team and its culture.

Checklist: Create your own Values Interview Program

  • Establish a Structured Interview Process
  • Draft Standardized Interview Questions
  • Create a Scorecard & Calibrate Assessments
  • Train Cross-Functional Interviewers