Culture Club

Learn how three alumni are fostering their companies' unique cultures.



Tapping Data to Guide HR


Part of making human resources effective at Google is a willingness to experiment, says Jennifer Kurkoski, who earned a PhD in organizational behavior from Haas in 2010. Not number_ballsurprisingly, the search company based on algorithms also relies heavily on data - even in human resources. Kurkoski, who manages Google’s People & Innovation Lab (PiLab), has used both data and experimentation to help drive changes within the tech giant’s workplace - from healthier cafeteria choices to creating a way to build better managers.


Manager Habits


In 2009, the tech giant set out to get a concrete understanding of what made a great Google manager. “There are outcomes associated with good managers that matter,” Kurkoski says. Retention and employee happiness, to name a few.


Through “Project Oxygen,” statisticians analyzed thousands of manager performance evaluations, annual surveys, and interviews.


After much data crunching and coding, the research netted “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Managers,” who share characteristics like having a clear vision for their team, helping develop employees’ careers, and being results oriented. (Struggling managers also share characteristics such as a lack of understanding of Google culture, trouble transitioning in their new job, or a focus on themselves instead of the people they manage.)


While the information gathered echoed existing research, Kurkoski says Google used the findings as a foundation for change to improve manager training, mentoring, and coaching. The information was also used to develop the biannual survey employees take to evaluate their managers, part of a boss-employee feedback loop.


“This has provided a language for having conversations about good management,” Kurkoski says. “It’s a constant conversation. People now use their survey results to identify areas for development and take action.”


Food for Thought


Google has become well known for the tasty treats served in its cafes, but free food can be a double-edged sword, leading to unwanted extra pounds. The company wanted to give workers healthier options without taking anything away. Small tweaks made by the company over the past year include:

  • Moving bottled water in refrigerators to eye level and soda to the bottom, where it’s harder to find.
  • Shrinking the size of desserts to about three bites that still satisfy a sweet tooth but with fewer calories and less fat. Desserts are tucked in the back of the cafeteria; the salad bar is in the front, so greens are the first thing hungry lunchers might grab.
  • Offering smaller plates. Research shows when people use smaller plates they fill the plate with less food.

These efforts, Kurkoski says, have made workers “really thankful.”



Cultivating Core Values


After Laila Tarraf, MBA 97, joined Peet’s Coffee & Tea five years ago, she noticed a schism in the growing company’s culture. There were the veteran, hard-core coffee bean worshipers (who didn’t necessarily value the bean-counting side of Peet’s) and the newer managers who needed a primer on Peet’s rich history. “We needed coffee people to know the business and business people to understand the founding values and legacy of Peet’s,” says Tarraf, Peet’s chief people officer and VP of human resources.



coffee_beansCompany leaders decided to revisit Peet’s core values and, after a year of gathering employee feedback, came up with four new ones: mastery, curiosity, responsibility, and prosperity. Now, all employee programs, including performance reviews, are designed to reinforce these values, helping the company to speak in one voice, Tarraf says.


Cheers cards


Many of Peet’s 3,800 employees look no further than so-called cheers cards on the counter - each marked with an icon representing one of Peet’s core values - to thank co-workers for “the little stuff,” Tarraf says. If a barista makes espressos to perfection during the morning rush, a manager might hand him a mastery card. Or a junior team member who offers up a non-traditional idea to solve a problem might get a curiosity card from a teammate. Card recipients are tracked on the company’s internal website, and small gifts are raffled off every quarter to reward participants.


Barista Competition


Another way Peet’s cultivates mastery and a connection to the company is through a national barista competition, streamed live on Facebook. Each year at the company’s Alameda, Calif.-based roasting plant, four Peet’s finalists have just 15 minutes to press and steam 12 drinks, including espressos and cappuccinos. Those drinks are judged by coffee experts on technical drink-making skills, cleanliness, speed, organization, and presentation.


“The training is intense at Peet’s, and the culture holds baristas to a higher standard,” says Tarraf. The winner, whittled from 2,000 baristas who are cut to 20 and then four regional finalists, gets bragging rights, a gilded tamper (used for compacting ground coffee) mounted on a plaque, and a donation from Peet’s to a charity of his or her choice.


Plantation Visits


The late Alfred Peet founded the company in Berkeley in 1969, coveting the high-altitude coffees of Costa Rica, Guatemala, and East Africa. Today, Peet’s sends three groups of five to seven of its top performing employees to these far-flung places to experience where the company’s coffee is grown and better appreciate how a committment to providing a living wage to farmers is core to the company.


Last January, Tarraf and her leadership team spent four days in Guatemala’s Antigua Valley, meeting the owners of a family-owned farm that has grown coffee beans for Peet’s for 30 years.


The trip to the farm, tucked 5,000 feet up among three volcanoes, fostered employee understanding of the people who grow Peet’s beans, says Tarraf. “The care and quality of what they’re producing makes you respect the bean even more,” she says.


Baristas and sales and management leaders return “so inspired about what they learned and saw, and they share that knowledge, love, and passion with their store and their direct reports,” Tarraf adds. “They become ambassadors and take on that culture.”




Fostering Synergy among Ventures


At Kapor Enterprises Inc. (KEI), Nicole Sanchez, MBA 12, has the challenging but rewarding job of building an inclusive culture for several ventures that fall under the organization’s umbrella: the Mitchell Kapor Foundation, which offers grants to ensure fairness and equity for low-income communities of cosynergylor; Level Playing Field Institute, a nonprofit that supports underrepresented people of color in science, technology, engineering, and math; and Kapor Capital, which provides early-stage investment in technologies that generate positive social impact.


Each organization has a different staff, and on the surface, KEI’s technology investment and social justice work can look like very different functions, notes Sanchez, the organization’s chief people, values, and culture officer, who just graduated from the Berkeley MBA Evening & Weekend Program. “The real challenge is in making sure we’ve correctly articulated the commonalities among each of our entities.”


Let’s Do Lunch


A key effort in bringing the different groups together is a monthly “allentity” lunch gathering where all employees listen to or participate in presentations. The gatherings have focused on everything from voting rights, to the efforts of Kapor Capital portfolio companies, to an open-mic celebration of Women’s History Month. In contrast to more formal, orchestrated meetings, the discussions foster greater personal connections and creative cross-collaboration among the different employees and groups, Sanchez says.


Family Friendly


KEI also makes sure to celebrate all employee accomplishments, even those outside of work, such as graduating from an educational program or running a marathon. It also strives to maintain a casual, family-oriented atmosphere that Sanchez believes boosts morale and helps everyone feel at home. Employees’ children were welcomed into the organization over spring break and treated to lunch, movies, and other activities, and at any given time, up to five dogs wander the offices finding treats and welcoming pats.


Learning to Err


One challenging area KEI hopes to focus on in the future is acceptance of mistakes. “We’ve had to work very hard to get where we are today, and we tend to avoid failure at all costs,” Sanchez says. But “we know from our technological side of the house that you can’t innovate without making mistakes,” she adds. “Accepting mistakes is something we haven’t always been good at here, but we’re getting better.”




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