How This CEO Keeps His 600 Employees Happy And Engaged

10/04/2017 05:51 pm ET

What is the secret to growing a company to 600 million dollars?

We’ve all heard that hard work pays off, and certainly that’s true of most multi-million dollar companies. The origin stories are clear; young entrepreneurs take risks on a big idea, they work hard and smart, and eventually achieve great success. But what keeps what was once a small company humming along at such an expansive rate? What’s the secret to success when you go from 60 employees to 600?

Andre Durand is a rare entrepreneur and CEO, who is down to earth and practices radical transparency. He started Ping Identity in 2002 with a vision of securing the internet through individual identity. This was visionary because this was long before everything moved into the cloud. In the early years there was struggle, but over time Ping Identity has grown to now being almost 600 employees and seven offices strong, and was recently sold for a reported 600 million dollars.

I recently interviewed Andre for the LEADx Podcast, where we discussed his secrets to having 93% approval among his nearly 600 person staff. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: You originally had the idea for Ping Identity while out on a sailboat, is that right?

Andre Durand: That's exactly right. Look, I had an advantage, I had a very wise mentor once say to me that "Hollywood always gets it right." And the reason he said that is, "In Hollywood, they dream up the way it should be and they're not restricted by what's possible. If they can visually display it, and make it feel real, then it's possible." I often think about that at times when you enter a new market and know nothing about it, you're kind of free the shackles of old thinking. through naiveté you can dream up the way you think it should be, or the way you think it ought to be. It was a little bit by accident that I stumbled upon Identity.

I started blogging in 2001 on that sailboat back when I used to have to copy blog onto a 144 floppy disk, a hard disk, take a boat and a bicycle into the internet café to upload it back in 2001. I wrote two or three blog posts, they were really just kind of observations in computer networking. One of them was just this notion that if all of our devices have diminishing utility when they're not connected to the network, it should be that if I ever lose or have a device stolen in the future, I actually should be able to just shut it off.

Verbatim, it was Find My iPhone. This is in 2001. The concept was Find My iPhone. If I lose my device and it has no utility off the network, I should be able to shut it off or find it. Kind of like a global lost-and-found for network-attached devices. The following morning, I woke up and something was bothering me about that idea; it seemed totally inevitable to me that we would get that, but it also occurred to me that we had no more universal notion of identity on the internet. Everything, by default, was kind of anonymous, sort of like an IP address or MAC address and things like that.

That was my “aha moment.” I said, "How could we possibly achieve use cases like that if we don't have a better understanding of who the user of the devices that's attached to the network are?" In kind of layman terms, I said "Everything on the internet is instantiated with a server." Back then we had email servers, web servers, FTP servers, and DNS servers. I said "There's got to be an identity server in there somewhere." It wasn't more complicated than that initially.

Kruse: How many employees and how many locations do you have at this point?

Durand: I think we're just under 600 employees now, and we've got seven offices around the globe.

Kruse: You have amazing employee ratings on Glassdoor, 4.2 out of 5 stars. Remarkable considering how much harder it must be to engage almost 600 employees. What's your secret?

Durand: Even harder, as I've appreciated when the company goes through a difficult transition. I think back at those scores a little bit, to the 2013 through the 2016 time period. As painful as it is when you read remarks about yourself or about the company that, in some cases probably have a lot of foundation, frankly, when a company goes through difficult times. I would say the secret is nothing more than this, and the formula of who I serve between employees, customers, investors, I rank it like this, and I think of it as a virtuous cycle:

I put my employees first, focusing on the employees and letting the employees know that I have their back allows them to spend 100% of their attention and focus on the customers. By doing that, I think that breeds happy customers. Then the result, not the input, is a successful business and a return for investors and shareholders. I think there's multiple ways to succeed, obviously, but you might compromise some of the efficiency of that virtuous cycle. I've seen companies where employees don't feel as if the company is really looking out for their best interest. Consequently, they have to spend a certain amount of their time and energy as they should, rightfully, be making sure that they're not being taken advantage of. That is time and energy not spent on the customer. That to me is an underlying formula that you see there.

Kruse: I've heard you celebrate ‘red flags,’ you want people to share the things that are possibly getting them trouble, right?

Durand: No doubt. Right. Transparency, and that kind of manifests into what I refer to as transparency. The bigger conversation about the relationship between trust and transparency, that we can have at some point, but I think at any moment in time, especially as a company gets larger, not everything is going to go right and things can come off the rails or things can change. Everything could be working perfectly, but the landscape or circumstance changes, and people might be slow to recognize that.

Making it acceptable for people to be upfront and honest about what is not working, and just addressing that matter of factually, like "Let's discuss what is not working and what we're going to do to correct it." It's a huge part of what I think is a healthy culture. If you bury those things, then the smoke becomes fire.

Kruse: You also launched a Slack channel that you use to share some of your daily lessons learned, tell me about that.

Durand: I’m actually kind of old school on that front, I've got a good portion of my company on the Slack channel, for certain, with a lot of real time communication. Several years ago we started an email alias that we just referred to as ‘Ping Junkies,’ and it's the unofficial staff email, we can kind of keep staff to the official communications and Ping Junkies can be all sorts of things and so ‘Thought Of The Day,’ or ‘Lesson Of The Day,’ or ‘Learning Of The Day,’ I kind of use that channel to share lessons learned, sometimes in real time. Other times they're just little things that are going on in my life outside of work, but to where there's probably an applicable lesson to work itself.

I think it's pretty informal, at the end of the day, and I try to keep it that way. But I think it allows people to better understand my thought process and what I value in behavior, and in culture, and in a well-performing company. It's just been a great little outlet, frankly. At different times, I think, maybe a little bit more when we were smaller, that channel was used for all sorts of little cultural things. People would go on vacations and rather than take a picture of themselves, where they were at, they would take a picture of their Ping-logoed backpack with the scenery in the background.

Kruse: What advice would you give to a younger manager?

Durand: There's probably a book somewhere in there, right? I've actually kept track over the years of lessons learned, and mantras, and doctrines, I guess, is almost the way I would characterise it. We've created a Ping bible, which kind of captures the essence of our thesis for winning and all of the doctrines along with it. I would say there's one thing that is kind of, it's probably more timely than it is, the most important thing for me to share. I would say, I'm more cognizant than ever that we have limited time. Limited time in our role, limited time on earth, limited time with our family, and I really feel it more than ever.

Speed, it's just a very important thing to understand in business, “Time kills all deals,” as they say, it erodes all advantages, sometimes the goal is not precision, so much it is “Let's hit the target five times rather than hit the bullseye once.” Anyway, it's just finding the balance between a certain amount of accuracy, strategic accuracy, but a certain amount of execution speed. I just think that the world is moving faster and faster. Your ability to blend strategic insights with speed of execution is just more important than it ever has been.

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Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

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