Creating employee engagement through culture and job design

When 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

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