A Q&A with Appature CEO, Kabir Shahani
After my recent post about young leaders, I had a chance to catch-up with Kabir Shahani of Appature.
In 2009, at the age of 26, he was recognized by BusinessWeek as a “Best Young Tech Entrepreneur” and since then has watched his company become one of the fastest growing technology start-ups in the healthcare industry (in fact, a couple weeks after I did this interview, Appature was acquired in what GeekWire describes as a blockbuster deal!).
Needless to say, Kabir has learned a lot along the way.
Back in 2009, before Appature had a large workforce, when asked about his major lessons learned, the young CEO had some good product insight:
"Work with your customers to meet their evolving business needs. Every one of our customers is taking a different approach to managing limited budgets. We need to be able to support that with our technology."
After speaking with him four years later, I’d venture a guess that while the above is still absolutely true, he’d now follow that up by telling you all about his people and the importance of corporate culture in making those product goals real.
I went into this conversation with the intention of talking to him solely about generational diversity; however, there are some people that give you material for a story, and others that give you a new story. Enjoy!
Generational Diversity – is Ageism a Symptom or a Cause? Enter, the Culture Department.
A living, breathing culture can, in some ways, expose generational diversity issues as symptoms of a greater cause, instead of causes themselves. There are many examples of that in today’s enterprises.
In speaking with Kabir I’ve found that Appature has created a culture that does something more farsighted than simply "embracing" generational diversity. It makes it almost irrelevant by holding a value system paramount.
PK: How generationally diverse is your workforce?
KS: I’m proud to say it's pretty diverse. I couldn't have said the same thing 18-24 months ago. In Tech in general it’s hard… generally, you have younger workforce. We focus on skills and cultural fit.
PK: Tell me more about cultural fit. Is it correlated to an employee’s generation?
KS: A lot of people think cultural fit is restricted to being because you’re of a particular generation. We've found that to NOT be the case which is pretty amazing. There are people of a wide age-range, but the culture in terms of the way they are wired, and what motivates them to do a great job, and the type of people they want to be around, remains the same. Our value system has helped bring that out. It's given us a common definition… a framework. Since the framework is very specific, differences aren't masked as age-related, so something that might seem age-related isn't necessarily. A lot of the age issues, in general, aren't with a company being uncomfortable with a particular age-group, for example, but with particular people in an age-group not being comfortable with the company. Our value system has helped us have a very specific conversation around this.
PK: Have you noticed any issues in being a younger leader selling to older folks with more experience? Have you experienced “Ageism?”
KS: It’s definitely an issue. It becomes less and less so maybe because I’m no longer in my 20’s. It’s one of those things I think is ultimately in control of the person, not the audience. Ageism issues can result from what YOU can be doing differently. We have to thank the "Bill Gateses," the "Steve Jobses," the "Mark Zuckerburgs" of the world that have built businesses when they were young and have made it believable that someone of our age can walk into a meeting and know what they’re talking about.
But the ONUS is on us to be clear and demonstrate that we do indeed know what we’re talking about and have the humility to know when we don’t. I think people respond to that.
PK: Have you encountered challenges with managing folks in different life-stages? By life-stage, I’m referring to people having different priorities or values, based on a life event independent of generation. For example, everyone that is having a kid may have similar priorities regardless of their generation.
KS: You know it's funny you asked that question. I remember very specifically back to our early days. We had 20 employees before the first person had a kid! And it was like "WOW" … this is going to change EVERYTHING. But in the end, it didn’t change our values.
What we've found is that going through that transformation didn't affect the person's motivation, their alignment to the value system or their desire to work hard.
PK: Why do you suppose that is? That your values remained unchanged?
I feel that if you as a company and your value system are, for lack of a better term, "all-in" and your culture has everybody “all-in,” your personal situation doesn’t weigh in on that. If you’re bought in, people can see that, and it makes it okay to work from home one day, or leave early. It’s okay to take time during your day to take care of stuff you need to. The important part is getting your values right, so that becomes possible.
Work Life Integration – “Bring Yourself”
If you peruse the websites of today’s top tech companies, you'll see corporate values that make mention of building great products, changing the world, doing social good and embracing corporate culture.
However making these values palpable to your workforce requires starting at pre-hire and incorporating them on a day-to-day basis. I was intrigued by Appature’s commitment to its values, and one in particular: “Bring Yourself”. It’s about bringing your authentic self to work, NOT wearing a mask or unnaturally forcing work-life balance (see below cartoon for “unnatural” work-life balance!).
PK: Not to impose my views and ask a leading question, but I HATE the phrase work-life balance. I think of it more as work-life integration. What are your thoughts on either of these terms?
KS: Work-life integration is a good way to sum it up. They aren't separate things. You have a day to get "N" number of things done. How you do that is up to you. You spend so much of your life working… might as well go all-in. To be honest, work is life. There are, of course, other equally important elements that are life, too. One of our values is "Bring Yourself." This plays into the notion of work-life balance. We encourage people to be the same at work as at home. Don't be two different people and wear a mask to work.
PK: You guys have grown quickly and I feel that as companies naturally evolve and become bigger, they sometimes have trouble sticking to their values. How do you mitigate this at Appature?
KS: Our CTO, Chris Hahn, is our culture czar. We are militant about culture and ensure every new employee that goes through orientation gets the culture talk. Once we established a culture people believed in, it became institutionalized into how we operate and we end up self-policing. Once you institutionalize it, frankly it is a huge accelerant to growth.
PK: What hasn’t worked In terms of retention, engagement and getting people motivated?
KS: Oh god, do you have five hours? We used to be so terrible at so many things early on. A great example is that we cared so much about the success of the business and success of our customers, that it came far and above everything else. For example, if we had to ask somebody to leave because they weren’t moving the ball forward, or weren’t a good fit, we were very mechanical about it. We’d say, “Sorry you aren’t a good fit.” We’d pull the team together and mechanically say to them, “So-and-so isn’t with us anymore. If you have any questions let us know.” We learned from that and have come a long way…
PK: Sounds like you guys are now communicative about tough decisions like that with your employees?
Yes. It’s very important to be. People need to feel and hear the emotion their leaders feel, and the reality is we did have emotion about it. We just didn’t communicate emotion about it. Being really open and transparent about your feelings is important and in the spirit of something I like to talk about as Authentic Leadership. Being authentic and real about how you lead. The second thing we learned, as we grew and matured as a business, is that every business is a “people business” and the notion that putting our people ... putting the needs of our people and the environment we create for people is far and away number one. If we do that, our customers will be more successful.
PK: Does this factor into the pre-hire process and getting people that you think will fit your mold and values?
KS: Absolutely. Right up front, as we screen, we do that. We try and find out if a candidate is confident; if they are comfortable in their skin. One element of our recruiting process can actually include trying to talk people out of the job…saying things like, “It’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done"..."it’s going to take a ton of your time"... “are you ready?”
PK: Does that go both ways? Do you exude your culture to the candidate in the interview?
KS: Yes, we certainly do. We want to represent clearly and accurately what the work environment is like. We may even casually swear in the interview, if that’s what the interviewer does in the workplace. If someone has a problem in the interview they probably will later, so we want to get it all out there. It’s a very conscious decision: do we change who we are or embrace who we are and find people who map to that.