Creating employee engagement through culture and job design

by  Leigh Steere  |  Career Development

mpb-leadchange-sendgridimage2-112013When I hear about a satisfied workforce, I want to learn more about the company. So, I recently reached out to Jim Franklin, CEO of SendGrid. Named a 2013 Top Workplace by The Denver Post, SendGrid has built a refreshing culture around “4Hs” that drive every aspect of how they do business—honest, hungry, humble, and happy. Jim shares his company’s approach to employee engagement in the interview below…

Lead Change Group (LCG): Jim, describe the 4Hs to us in more detail.

Jim Franklin (JF): Honesty is a sense of trust and transparency. We like to say “Trust First Trust” is a reflexive property: you put trust out; you get trust back. We have a high-delegation culture. We need to rely on—to trust—the judgment of front-line employees.

Honesty is also about being respectful but direct, not ducking hard conversations, and confronting brutal facts. We expect this of each other.

Hungry is a sense of high-striving and goal-setting. It’s about taking initiative and stretching to pursue a well-defined end. A lot of what happens at our company is bottom up. Want a new job? Create one.

Humble. What can we learn from others? Even if a manager disagrees with an employee’s proposed approach, we often allow the employee to proceed, even if this leads to making a non-trivial mistake. That’s how we learn.

If you want a high degree of collaboration, everyone in the group needs to be a student—willing to consider divergent opinions, willing to have assumptions challenged, willing to be wrong. Humility is also about giving credit to the team, instead of wanting the spotlight.

Happy. This is a general feeling that things will work out and a sense of being thankful for what you have. I canceled our annual company trip to Mexico. The employee reaction was… “That’s cool. It was great while it lasted. Maybe we’ll do it again down the road.” (The trip is back on, by the way.) What I don’t like is when benefits become entitlements.

LCG: What role do the 4Hs play in employee engagement at SendGrid?

JF: The 4Hs are manifested every day. For example, in marketing, we don’t do search engine optimization on competitors’ trademarks. It’s not illegal, but it’s not Honest either. When a competitor is having a bad day, we are not happy but rather Humbled, knowing that it could just as easily have been our bad day.

Engagement is driven a lot by job design (this is where the Hungry comes in). I like to aim for 2/3 Rising Star and 1/3 Been There Done That. This means that 1/3 of your job you have done previously and are already good at. This is how you pay for yourself. The other 2/3 of your job is something adjacent to what you have done, but is a new skill for you to learn. This kind of on-the-job learning drives a lot of engagement, even though it can be chaotic.

In addition to the 4Hs, we also believe the following factors are important for engagement:

  • Knowing the big idea.
  • Knowing exactly how your daily work influences it.
  • Measuring progress toward that goal every day.

LCG: Suppose an employee is working in the “2/3 Rising Star” mode and finds himself over his head. He took on something that was a stretch, but he had the confidence to give it a shot. Now that he’s in the middle of it, he’s not feeling at all confident that he can deliver what’s needed. How does your company handle a scenario like this?

JF: This is a first H scenario. Be Honest with yourself. A manager may not have expertise in an employee’s job area, so managers have to be trained to encourage employees to self-report when they are in over their heads. We are ok with failure and weakness. We will get you the training, advisors, mentors or other help you need to be successful. This is also very closely related to our Humility value. Our founder said “Help” when he needed a CEO, for example.

LCG: What advice do you have for organizations that are struggling with low employee engagement and need a “turn-around strategy” for improving morale?

JF: That’s a hiring problem. If your organization is grappling with low engagement, the first step is to get clear on your values. Step 2 is to articulate them. Step 3 is to interview (and fire) based on them. Getting values consistency in your workforce will go a long way toward driving organizational health. We carefully screen candidates for the 4Hs. Further, we design the work environment to give employees general direction and then stay out of their way.


Thank you, Jim Franklin, for providing a glimpse into your organization.

If you have questions for Jim, write them in the comments section below. Jim has kindly offered to do an online Q&A here.

Business leaders: How are you doing on the 4Hs? Even if these aren’t a written part of your corporate culture, the 4Hs provide a valuable lens for examining your workplace and your personal approach to leadership.

  • Do you trust the people around you to do a good job?
  • Are there any tough conversations you’ve been avoiding?
  • How far are you stretching yourself to try new approaches and learn new skills?
  • Are you taking the bows yourself or inviting your team to bask in the spotlight?
  • Are you thankful for what you have or grumbling about what you’re missing?


Photo: Courtesy of SendGrid

About The Author

Articles By leigh-steere
Leigh Steere is a researcher, product developer, and adviser in the field of people management. She writes on fostering creativity, employee engagement, and high performance in the workplace. Visit for a free assessment of your management style and tips for managing more effectively.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Tara R. Alemany  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

Nice interview, Leigh! Thanks for participating, Jim.

I’m curious as to where the idea for the 4Hs came from for your company, especially as they apply to employee engagement. It sounds very reminiscent of the parable laid out in Dennis Bakke’s “The Decision Maker.” Although that was a fictional workplace, it sounds like you’ve found ways to integrate the principles into your own work environment, and that’s awesome.

Congratulations on the distinction of being recognized as a top place to work!

Jim Franklin  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

The 4H’s came from the summer of 2003 when I had just been fired as the CFO of Vericept. I needed to find a job and wanted to think of a way to interview prospective management teams/CEO’s. I figured if we had values consistency, then maybe I wouldn’t get fired again. (I had also been fired in 1999 as a VP Sales from Decisioneering.) So I used the conflict that I had had in the past with others to realize that conflict is really just two values systems colliding. From that collision you can learn what your values are and aren’t. I came up with Honest, Hungry, Humble and Smart that summer but we (thanks Dave Fredericks) refined it to the 4H’s in the fall of 2003 at Decisioneering (I had been hired back as CEO).

Jon Mertz  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

Great interview, Leigh, and really appreciate your insights, Jim. Supporting a 4H culture is a great way to lead and develop an organization. At what point in your company history did you define this approach? How did you develop it and gain buy-in from your leadership team? Was there a point in your company growth that triggered a better definition and direction of your organizational culture?

Thank you for your time and insights! Jon

Jim Franklin  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

Culture starts from day one. When I was hired in as CEO to Decisioneering it took about 90 days for people who were not onboard with it to leave. From there we could build a management team, employees, partners and customers who were 4H.

David M. Dye  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

I appreciate the four H model – it is accessible, memorable, and practical. The focus on happiness stemming from gratitude and confidence is refreshing.

Good work and congratulations!

One question I have is how you reinforce the ‘happy’ value? Humility, honesty, and hungry can be demonstrated through behavior. How about happy?

Jim Franklin  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

We require passions outside of work and family. Part of our quarterly review process is to track progress in your passion goals.

Mary C Schaefer  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

What a great interview, Leigh. Thank you, Jim, for participating with us. The four H model is intriguing and it sounds like it’s working! Congratulations on your SendGrid’s honor of being named a Top Workplace in Denber.

Like David, I honed in on the “happy” H. Do you find that different employees define or find meaning in “happy” in different ways? And if so, how does that work collectively?

Thanks again to both Leigh and Jim.

Jim Franklin  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

Absolutely people define Happy differently. What we look for is a passion (with goals) outside of work and family. It is great to have diversity in our passion goals.

Mary C Schaefer  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

Jim, can you say more about “passion goals?”

Jim Franklin  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

Examples of passion goals might be Hike the Pacific Crest Trail, win a ballroom dance competition, or startup an artists’s cooperative for metalworkers. What I like to see is a goal, a plan and measurable milestones to get there. My passion goal for 2013 was to run the Grand Canyon from Rim to Rim to Rim. It took about 5 months of planning and training, but was compatible with my work and family life.

Page Cole  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

Incredible interview! I loved the “2/3 Rising Star and 1/3 Been There Done That” concept! One of the problems I’ve battled in the past is employee burnout/boredom, and I think this approach is an amazing way to address that issue!

Any other tips for addressing burnout with staff?

Jim Franklin  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

The key is to align corporate growth with individual growth. If employees are growing faster than the company, then they will not be challenged and will leave. If the company outgrows the employee, then finding the right role for that employee, whether inside or outside of your organization, is the right thing to do. We invest a lot in employee growth. I call it a contract of employability. For every quarter that you work at a company that I manage, I expect you to learn something new that is a sellable skill that makes you more employable. In early stage companies there is not a contract of employment, but rather lots of uncertainty. Through acquisition or failure, looking for a new role is just part of being in the tech community. I want our employees to have a lot of new skills whenever that time comes.

Chery Gegelman  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

Leigh ~ Thank you for sharing! Great interview!

Jim – Like Page, I tuned into the” 2/3 Rising Star and 1/3 Been There Done That.” I appreciate that you emphasized that it can be chaotic and love the vision! I worked as a mid-level manager in an environment like that and experienced more joy, was more engaged, stayed 4X longer than I had anywhere else and was unleashed to make an uncommon difference and to empower others to do the same. (Although I’m not sure that organization was intentionally practicing your formula.)

Each time I read through your post I get excited about a different part of your message. Hiring and firing based on values and the emphasis on that behavior driving organizational health says it all.

If you were interacting with peers that were inclined to believe organizational health is just a touchy-feely, flavor of the month, waste of time… What would you say?

If you were interacting with peers that were inclined to believe organizaitonal health is just a touchy-feely, flavor of the month, waste-of-time… What would you say?

Jim Franklin  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

I’d ask them to think about where they and their organization spends it energy. Having values consistency greatly reduces the amount of friction inherent in a group of people. It is hard enough in business to get the real issues right that dealing with values conflict is not productive for anyone. At Vericept, I liked to be ‘open book’. Our CEO worked on a ‘need to know’ basis. Neither is right or wrong, but they are different. We had a lot of conflict (hence I was fired) over this issues which really had nothing to do with core business functions such as building product, selling or financing.

Paul LaRue  |  05 Dec 2013  | 

Jim, thanks so much for imparting your culture model to us. Defining in such a simple way really helps keep it attainable for everyone, and clear.

I’m curious … What mechanisms are built into your organization to ensure the 4H’s are adhered to and not scrapped down the road, maybe even by the next generation of leaders that succeed you?

Jim Franklin  |  07 Dec 2013  | 

The 4H’s become part of the DNA of the company. It is the framework for how we hire, onboard, review and terminate employees. We also use the 4H framework when evaluating partners, suppliers, customers and investors. For example, our review process has four questions:
1. What did you do?
2. What are you going to do?
3. How can we help?
4. How are we doing against our values?
This process (thanks to Pat Lencioni) is a great way to reinforce values in a systematic way each quarter.

VS KUMAR  |  06 Dec 2013  | 

Mr Jim Thanks for sharing 4H Model. It is simple. The core for everything to succeed and yet very difficult to master and incorporate as a culture. It requires participation of all and the line managers in particular. We practice these virtues in our Organization. Your article further inspired us.

Centaur Pharmaceuticals, Mumbai, India

Leigh Steere  |  09 Dec 2013  | 

Thanks to everyone for the kind words and hearty discussion.

Jim, we really appreciate your taking the time to share your philosophy and insights with You have provided us all with rich food for thought!

Georgina Stamp  |  10 Dec 2013  | 

A very interesting insight into such a positive organisation and it reminds me of JFK’s famous speech, ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’.

As leaders, it’s a case of simply switching this around; ask not what your employees can do for you, ask what you can do for your employees. With this philosophy in place, a mutual relationship can be formed that creates the foundations for a successful company.