Subtle choices you make early on in a business can influence the entire direction of your company. Nowhere is this clearer to me than in OnDeck's culture.

My main goal has always been openness. As we tried to codify this culture last year, we realized that the most important work had already been done--small decisions made over the years had helped establish a kind of openness that you can't create overnight.  

Here are the three most important decisions I made:

Give up the corner office

The classic model of a company owner or CEO is one of the corner office, with trophies and comfy leather chairs for people to sit in. About 10 years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit City Hall in New York City, and immediately noticed that the mayor at the time, Mike Bloomberg, didn't have an office. He had parked his desk right in the middle of all of his staff members to work side by side with them all day long, running one of the biggest cities in the world.

From our startup offices to our now bigger space, we've always maintained an open structure. Although it's tempting to carve out office space, I, along with everyone on our management team, sit in an open-plan office, where we can hear and see what is going on in the business constantly. This helps sends a strong message that everyone in the company needs to be accessible and visible, and getting out of your silo is encouraged. Nothing makes me happier than seeing people from several different departments huddled around someone's desk, solving a problem together.

Be open to bad news 

How you react to bad news sets the tone for your entire company. Inevitably, in any business, there will be problems, misfires, and challenges that crop up. When someone tells you something that ruins your day, your first instinct might be to lose your temper or rush to assign blame. Instead, try something counterintuitive: Take a deep breath and actually thank the team member for sharing the bad news with you.

Being grateful for receiving the bad news enables you to create an environment where your team will be more comfortable sharing information with you. And making sure potential problems can be brought to the surface quickly will ultimately improve your company.

Be transparent (you aren't running the Kremlin)

Secretiveness breeds paranoia and idle speculation about the company's plans and ambitions. Openness creates a team that is much more aligned about the vision of the company and better able to execute on it.

Holding regular all-company meetings is a great way to uniformly educate your team. In the early days of a company, these meetings might be held every week, and as you scale, you can probably move to quarterly. Whatever the frequency, the important point is to keep a regular schedule.

We have found that certain communication elements matter a lot. First, be crystal clear on what you are trying to accomplish as a company. Telling your team what is going on and what the strategy is will connect people to your company's mission as well as engender their trust. I've shared great news and difficult news in our all-company meetings, and these forums help everyone understand collectively how their day-to-day efforts contribute to a larger goal.

Second, make your all-company meetings feel more like a dialogue and less like a monologue. We have found that an open Q&A at the end, in which anyone can ask any question he or she would like of any member of the management team, works well to make the meetings authentic. And when people leave the meetings, they are more likely to mirror the openness they've experienced.

Building a culture of openness can happen organically or through the explicit choices you make as a manager. In our case, it was a little bit of both. No matter how it comes about, a culture of openness will help your company avoid silos, surface problems faster, and keep the team aligned to the company's goals.

Published on: May 20, 2014
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