The Culture Interview with Glenn Hilton

Glenn Hilton

Over 20 years ago Glenn Hilton founded Drupal development house ImageX Media in Vancouver, BC. ImageX is now a full-service digital experience agency specializing in enterprise Drupal development with offices in Canada, Ukraine, and Brazil. Glenn is an open-source entrepreneur and the President and CEO at ImageX.

How big is your team today?

In Canada, we’re a team of 35. We’ve got 18 team members in the Ukraine and we’re starting to grow our team in Brazil. We should be over 10 team members in Latin America by next month.

How do you define organizational culture at the highest level?

I see our culture as the DNA of our company. Boiled down, it’s who we really are and what we stand for. And at ImageX our culture is all about finding people that believe in our core values and want to live them out each day. People that want to work in a company that they’re proud of and that allows them to have the freedom to express themselves and use their skillsets to accomplish things that will allow them to make a difference working alongside the types of people and clients that they admire.

If you could create the ideal organizational culture with no restrictions like cost or time what are the first three things that come to mind for you?

  • Create (an) awesome spaces for people to work
  • Give people the freedom to be who they really are
  • Launch and sustain programs that promote and integrate core values
 
Creating an awesome space for people to work and build relationships is important. In your home you need to have that space and you also need to have that in the office (for those that are still able to work from there). For our clients in the digital realm, we’re trying to create experiences for them because in today’s world and the challenges of the pandemic with all the different things coming at us, it’s great to be able to create an experience where you feel like you can still connect in meaningful ways.

We need to create those experiences and spaces for our teams to connect too. We need to consider how different personality types prefer different environments. Where some might flourish in an open office others might need more privacy. Some people are totally good to be fully remote and work from their own space at home while others may really miss real-life interactions. We need to set them up for success and help them learn how to optimize it or adapt so that they’re able to connect with their team members. We’re all learning on that front.

Build a culture that gives people the freedom to be who they really are. Allow your people to act on their capabilities and strengths. A great company lets individuals be leaders in their area. We want to live by the Mastery, Autonomy, Purpose mantra. We want to ensure that our team members feel that their opinions matter, they are validated and empowered, protected and that the organization is going to go to bat for them. They trust leadership and we trust their leadership. A great culture is transparent and does what they say.

Finally, truly living our values is so important. We’ve got them posted up on our walls but having our values on the wall isn’t meaningful, unless they’re actually lived by our leadership; permeate through our methodology and day-to-day processes, and drive how we hire people. Our values are powerful and they make our culture sticky. It is one of the things that make people love our company.

We recently held our quarterly “State of ImageX” meeting. In that meeting, the leadership team runs a presentation with a video to kick it off. In that meeting, we hit on all the key areas of our organization. At the end, we opened things up for team members to share and it was so encouraging. Team members shared some heartfelt feedback including, “this is the best company I’ve ever worked at”, “I love this company”, and more voices chimed in, in agreement. It was spontaneous and refreshing, but it didn’t happen overnight. It happened because we’ve been committed to hiring team members with our values and culture in mind and running the company on those values.

How big was your team when you first started thinking about organizational culture?

It was about ten years ago. I read the book, Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh from Zappos. He had his 10 core values in there. When he described his culture, I was like, oh my god, that sounds amazing.

I was in Chicago at the time that I was reading the book and I came across the section where they talked about how they provide incredible customer service and though they sell shoes you could really call them about anything you want. The longest sales call they ever recorded was 8 hours and I don’t remember if the person even bought any shoes. So I thought I’d give it a try myself so I picked up the phone and I called Zappos and I said, “Hey, I’m in Chicago and I’m hungry. I hear they’re good at deep dish pizza in this town, do you have any suggestions?” And boom, right away the Zappos employee pulled up a couple of different spots and told me a cool place to eat. I was like, “awesome, thanks so much!” I just wanted to try it out to see if they actually train their people, like they say they do. I knew I wanted to build an organization like that.

How about when setting an organizational vision for your team?

Nailing the right vision can be challenging because it’s got to grab people. But it can’t be too out there either as it’s got to be based in reality. A great culture without vision can cause employees to disengage. They need something bigger than themselves, perhaps even bigger than the organization that they can attach themselves to, be inspired by, and strive for.

When we started ImageX, sky was the limit, there was still a lot of blue ocean out there. But over the years as competition grew that’s the water has gotten a whole lot more red. I remember when I first saw that MarTech diagram with 5000 different options on it. Just look at the CMS space alone, it’s amazing how crowded it’s become. And when you narrow it from CMS to just get down the Drupal realm, that’s really exploded over the years too. There are literally hundreds of specialized Drupal development shops we compete with today.

So when you layout the blueprints for your company, you really want to try and target your vision for where you can find blue ocean as best you can.

If you were advising a new entrepreneur today, when would you advise them to begin working on organizational culture? What are the first three things you’d recommend that they do?

I’d encourage them to work on their core values right from the get-go and start their organization by formulating those and getting their values clear so that they don’t have to go through the mushy period of time of figuring that out and recognizing when you are hiring people that don’t align or fit. I would get them to sit down and work on their vision and figure out where they want to go as an organization and what will draw somebody in and make them go, “Dang! That’s something I want to get on board with.” Finally, I’d encourage them to sit down and work on their leadership model. How are they going to provide leadership to their team? How are you going to use your time? There are a lot of different ways to use your time as an entrepreneur and it is your most valuable asset. I’d make sure they read Michael Gerber’s book, The E-Myth Revisited. It’s an awesome book for any entrepreneur.

In the E-Myth, one of the stories presented is about Sarah. Sarah runs a pie-making business and she used to bake all the pies and she was kind of the technician and she did a great job of baking the pies, but she could never get past baking the pies herself. She needed to get outside of her business and start to make a plan and determine how much time she should be spending on leadership, vision, culture, recruiting, marketing and sales.

When you’re first getting up and starting, you have to wear so many hats and you may love baking the pies but if you keep doing that then your business may not grow like you’d like. We all love making the pies because it’s fun and it’s why we started, but to grow our business we may have to stop making the pies. I loved designing the pies I mean websites for my clients. I had the hardest time stepping out of that. I want to go back to it all the time because it’s so fun. If I was still making the websites my company wouldn’t have grown anywhere near where we’re at today.

When you first started out at what point in your company’s growth/size did you hire your first dedicated People + Culture/HR team member? How did you know that that person was the right fit for you?

I’ve read that the conventional wisdom is one HR person for 100 employees, but have also heard some companies hire one when they hit 20. In 2013 as we started to grow rapidly. We grew our team size by 100% in a year from 15 to 30 team members and that’s when I hired my first team member devoted to human resources.

I think you can really get by though by hiring a part-timer if you’re a small company or going to an agency for part-time help. For our business, the recruitment and retention of your talent are just as important as sales and delivery, if not more, because you’ve got to bring in the right people. If you are handing that off, you need someone you really trust to be able to make the hard decisions. In the early days, I handed off the recruitment decisions too early, before I’d learned enough about it. Some hires might be extremely talented and successful in their role but can bring all sorts of cultural challenges that are costly in the long run. I am still involved in recruitment decisions today as it’s such an important part of organizational success. I try to get in at least one interview for each new hire.

Today, we have a Director of HR and they are amazing and I completely trust them with everything related to HR for our organization and we have a fantastic recruiting, HR, and admin team as well. They are all really critical to our success.

As your company grew past the point where everyone reported to you how did the challenge of cohesive culture evolve and change?

I began to develop a leadership team and layers developed as we grew. If I look at our COO, he’s 10x better than I am at that job. I used to do almost every job in the company, so I know what I am good at and not good at. His superpower is keeping everything running and all 50+ plates spinning. If it was me my anxiety levels would be going through the roof if I had to manage half the things he manages. So I need to move out of the way and let him do his job. It’s the same with our EVP of Business Development and our CTO. They are just fathoms better at what they do when I owned that aspect of the company. So now I just try and support them and just keep focusing on the things that are important to keep consistency and strong engagement throughout the organization.

What were the top things you are dealing with around People + Culture today?

I have about 10 direct reports now and it’s all about meeting with them weekly and keeping my finger on the pulse. My job is to keep them motivated, positive, inspired, supported, and to help get blockers out of their way. I jump in when there’s an opportunity to help in any area of our business. Sometimes it might mean I have to work more than the norm, but I’ll do it so they know I’m there for them and have their back so they won’t feel overwhelmed. That support goes a long way and team members feel like the CEO stepping in and helping them. That’s meaningful and I am glad we aren’t so big that it’s not possible.

The competition for top talent these days has really stepped up. We’ve had multiple team members picked off by large multinationals. It’s very challenging to compete with double salary offers, signing bonuses, and other things that a small agency may have a hard time competing on. It’s been especially challenging since COIVD started as there are always new challenges coming at you whether it’s a competitor poaching your top team members or a client who has had to reduce their services due to the impact of the pandemic on their business. It’s a time for resilience and our team has been working above and beyond to find new opportunities and I’m proud of them for it!

What are some of the things you’ve done that have worked to retain your top talent?

It’s all those simple things that make the biggest difference: sticking to your values, living those values, supporting employees through thick and thin, listening to their ideas and acting on them, putting together a career path and helping them on it, give them the chance to utilize their gifts on a grander scale, at a team meeting, at a meetup, or at a conference. I had one team member tell me that even if they were offered a truckload of money they wouldn’t leave. That meant a lot. It tells me that the work we are doing is making a difference for our team.

Tell us a story about hiring a team member where they had a less than ideal experience with your organization. When did you know it wasn’t a fit? What action did you take?

We hired a team member who was incredibly talented, but they didn’t fit with our culture. They didn’t align. They also didn’t agree with our core values. Their organizational style didn’t sync with our organizational culture and even though they were a strong producer, their behavior did not work in any way for our team. We had to agree to have a straightforward conversation and we honestly discussed what needed to change. Over time, it didn’t change and we agreed to part ways. The pace with which we dealt with that challenging scenario also impacted other team members who saw our hesitancy to take action as not aligned with our values. I learned a lot from that experience. It helped me avoid a lot of potentially challenging scenarios.

Hiring is kind of like dating in that we want someone who has had enough experience to know that we – our values and our company – are right for them. With each new role and employer, we learn more about our personal working styles and what will suit us best. That’s why it’s so important when we project who we are as a company that we are very clear about what our values are, what we’re all about, and what our culture is like. When potential hires know what they want because they’ve had enough bad and good experiences that are important. They look at our organization and they know it’s what they are looking for. I love that. That’s exactly what I want in a new team member, an alignment of values.

What’s the most challenging part of your job as CEO today, as it relates to People + Culture?

Keeping an even keel and keeping the enthusiasm, confidence, and positivity, always at the forefront, while balancing it with authenticity, genuineness, and transparency. If you share too much you can create all sorts of problems because you can identify the risks and though you can see them, if you start pointing them out to your people then they may start to really fret about them. This can get overwhelming for them and they may not know how to deal with them. It’s really one of the trickiest things as a leader. Additionally, sometimes you don’t know the answer on how to deal with some of these things. It’s like being a parent… There is no owner’s manual. Sometimes you have to fake it until you make it and give your team the sense that you know exactly where you’re heading. This was actually one of the most difficult parts of being a CEO to me. Sometimes I felt a bit like an imposter. I never received any formal training in business. I’ve never been to art school, I never wrote a line of code, but I’m heading up a 60 person web development agency now. I’d actually anguish about it at times wondering if I should spill the beans to my team or not that I’d had a week of sleepless nights and didn’t know if we could make the next payroll.

I remember I watched a movie called U-571 where Matthew McConaughey was a navy captain and there was this scene where he got scolded for telling the crew he didn’t know what to do and I remember thinking, that captain is totally me!

Basically, he says, “Guys, I don’t know what we are going to do here but I am going to figure it out.” Afterward, in a private conversation, the captain’s more experienced chief officer said to him “This is the navy where a commanding officer is a mighty and terrible thing, a man to be feared and respected. All-knowing and all-powerful. Don’t you dare say what you said to the boys back there again… ‘I don’t know.’ Those three words will kill a crew, dead as a depth charge. You’re the skipper now, and the skipper knows what to do, whether he does or not.”

When I saw that I was concerned as that’s not the type of leader I am. It made me feel like I’m not the right guy for this job. I’ve learned that I can be who I am with my own style and that I don’t need to have all the answers all the time. I’ve learned to surround myself with good people that are better than me in the areas that I’m not as strong, and that I need to focus on doing what I’m really good at! Then I tend to really love my job! I’ve learned to lead with a bit more balance. Sometimes I hold back on sharing certain things that I may be pondering if I feel like maybe it will get our people off track. It is such a fine line. Your team is always evaluating what you are doing and saying. Anytime they are seeing any duress or stress they’re picking that up off of you. When you are identifying and pointing out risks, they amplify it. You are in this bubble all the time and you have to be wise. You have to figure out how to stay positive, competent, enthusiastic, keep your team energized, going forward, battling, and keep driving them towards that vision.

I’ve learned that sometimes I need to take things outside the organization to my mentors and external experts to share and use as a sounding board with some of those things that aren’t best suited for the team. I connect with my mentors, other CEOs and share what I am dealing with. I’ve actually found a lot of solace in that. I used to be a part of a Drupal agency network of competitors and we would meet and share everything together. I can remember hearing things like “I’m not CEO, every day I just want to quit”, or “If any one of you gives me $10 I’ll sell you my company today”, or “I think I put five years on my life for every year I put into this business”. Hearing these things from my peers was music to the ears. It was so refreshing to find others that have walked in my shoes and know how hard it is to run an agency. Some of these guys are some of my best friends today. I’d encourage everyone to find and build a network of people that do what you do and share your heart with them. You will get 10 fold back beyond what you give.

What were the most significant changes you’ve seen in the HR/People + Culture space in the last 20 years?

I can remember bringing an HR consultant in, in the early days and we started to change to align with what they were telling us. That was one of the biggest mistakes we made: applying traditional corporate HR culture to our tiny startup/tech company culture. That’s the first thing that comes to mind for me: the end of trying to take and implement what others are doing rather than building your own culture.

It used to be that there was a specific way to do everything, but we’ve now realized that each company is unique, and things will be done differently depending on our values. For example, in traditional offboarding, when an employee leaves your company, you need to make sure they sign a release form, have all their equipment shut off within an hour, and walk them out of the building. At my company, we don’t treat people like that. It was just weird. That’s not the way I want to operate or treat people. After working with that consultant and implementing that it was clear after the first time it was executed that I’d made a mistake by letting someone from outside my company dictate how our internal processes would work without knowing our company, our culture, and our values.

When you think of poor organizational culture what are the first three things that come to mind?

  • They don’t care about their people.
  • They plan deadlines on Mondays so you can work through the weekend.
  • They don’t really listen to their people and only pay lip service/pretend to listen.
  • Get it done. Who cares about quality.
  • It’s all about getting those billable hours or filling the order regardless of quality
  • Work-life balance is not something that’s known or understood.

Thank you so much to Glenn Hilton for sharing so extensively and bearing his leadership soul for the betterment of others. Glenn always amazes me with his candor, honesty, and transparency. We can all learn a lot from Glenn. Thanks again!

Kemp Edmonds

Kemp Edmonds

Canadian Workplace Culture Lead

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