A Look Inside Rackspace’s Company Culture

Rackspace is known around the world for its unique and award winning company culture. They’ve been listed on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work for list multiple times. They also consistently get compared to companies like Southwest and Zappos for their company culture. So how does Rackspace do it?

Listen in on our culture chat where we talk to Rackspace’s Culture & Engagement Senior Program Manager, Sophie Yanez to learn more.

Video Transcript

Marisa: All right. Today I’m talking to Sophie from Rackspace. And one of the really cool things about Rackspace, and something I love, not only about the organization but just about reading and trying to understand your best practices is that you guys actually have dedicated people within the organization that focus on culture and engagement. And so I’m curious Sophie, just to get to know you a little bit better today, and to see what’s been happening since I actually left Rackspace about five or six years ago now. So I’m really excited and I just appreciate you joining me today so that we can talk.

Sophie: Oh, absolutely. Thank you for having me. So a little bit about me. I’m a native Texan, lived here my entire life and moved to San Antonio to go to college here. When I graduated, there was a lot of buzz about this company called Rackspace and its unique culture, and a lot of my friends from school were working here. So I was referred by a friend of mine who was a software developer, and she worked second shift which was very rare. Female in software development working late night. And she referred me and I had no idea what Rackspace did. I didn’t understand technology very well.

I was a consumer but not by any means someone who built it, was on the back end. And my focus and how I got in was I was in the customer service field before. You know, I worked in restaurants with people, in the hospitality arena. And that was Rackspace’s bread and butter. So even though it is a technology company and we focus on servers and data centers and software, the customer service and the fanatical support element was really what attracted me to this company. I’ve been here; it’ll be nine years next week.

Marisa: Awesome.

Sophie: I’m almost at that milestone.

Marisa: Yeah. And so what role are you currently in?

Sophie: I am currently the culture and engagement manager at Rackspace. I have a counterpart who focuses on our international business, and my focus is really on the US business. Well, the US and Mexico now. We really focus on our employee engagement, maintaining our culture programs, rewards and recognition. Anything in that culture arena, which is a catch all. So a little bit of everything.

Marisa: Yeah, absolutely. When you run into people who have not heard of Rackspace before and they as you “What is Rackspace” what do you tell them?

Sophie: We make technology easy for you to consume, pretty much. If you have an iPhone, if you have an email address, more than likely it’s hosted on one of our servers, so you are a consumer of Rackspace in some way, shape or form.

Marisa: Right. That’s cool. So you focus on culture and engagement. I’m curious, what are some of the initiatives that you have. Initiatives that you’re working on that you’re really excited about?

Sophie: Sure. So the last few years, I’ve really been focused on our technical culture efforts. Like I said, nine years ago when I started it was a very support-focused company and we were working on dedicated servers, dedicated hosting. And that was really the focus of the company. But as you’ve seen the industry evolve and change over the last few years, you’ve got the cloud, you have OpenStack. The population of Rackspace and our rackers…

…large subset of software engineers, software developers, quality engineering. And they have a little bit different approach as to what culture is like for them. We’re all different personalities, different backgrounds, different strengths. So a few years ago we realized that our population was shifting and changing and we wanted to make sure that our culture was a place that fostered everyone’s strengths and everyone’s type of personality, including our engineers and developers. So now we have really built a technical community.

We have implemented specific awards that recognize our technical rackers on the technical achievements that they’re doing, whether it’s writing code, a patent, going out and explaining to our customers how to use our technology. Actually, today is the last day of our RAX.IO conference, which is an internal conference where we fly our developers and engineers from all different locations of Rackspace, here at headquarters. And they get the opportunity to talk about the projects that they’re working on with their teams at different locations. And it’s just a mecca of everyone sitting together collaborating and working together to solve problems. So our technical population, community, is really, really strong. Just the way with support, you know our support rackers and fanatical rackers that were support and sales focused, they have that community, now our technical rackers do as well.

Marisa: That’s great.

Sophie: It’s really exciting, and that’s one of the things I think we’re most proud of. One of the things we say is we love the skin you’re in. And that’s not just diversity as far as, you know, gender, race. It’s also diverse schools of thought.

Marisa: Yeah, you know I love that concept. I haven’t heard that before. We love the skin you’re in. Because I think all too often they try to plug their employees into this persona that they want their employees to be, and what they don’t do is just embrace the fact that people are people. And if we can put them in roles where they can be themselves, both from a technical standpoint and from a personal standpoint, then they just have a better experience at work. And when we have great experiences at work being ourselves, we’re more engaged and more passionate, and we just do better work. I remember from my time at Rackspace, people would walk into the office sometimes and they’d look around at our employees. And I think they were often times surprised at some of the things that we didn’t flinch at, from even just an appearance standpoint, right?

We didn’t care what your hair looked like, and so people had really interesting hair, and we didn’t necessarily care if you had piercings or tattoos. We just didn’t care about that stuff and so I do think often people would come into our office and were really surprised that people were just being themselves. And they weren’t judged for being themselves, and we didn’t care. And quirky was fine. And I think too many companies, you have people who are in suits and ties, and then you see them outside of the office, and they don’t even look like they’d be comfortable in that suit and tie, and it turns out they’re not really. Ties are out anymore in business for the most part, but I think it’s so interesting, when we try to plug people into personas that they’re just not.

Sophie: And it’s interesting, there’s a huge focus on that. I think in the technology industry as a whole. Focusing on diversity, and it’s really focused on gender or race, but if you think about it, what we’re looking for, it’s not on the outside, it’s on the inside. If you care about customers, if you care about taking of others, whether it be by building technologies that they can consume, whether it be by just picking up the phone and doing everything you can to help the person that may be on the other line, that’s the type of personality that we’re looking for. Now what we look like, our backgrounds, all of that is going to be diverse, but that’s the core of what we look for in our candidates is, do you have that passion to care for others? Do you have that passion to make sure that everyone is taken care of? That fanatical support? What you look like, you know you can come in with blue hair. If you want to shave your head, that’s totally fine. I am in a t-shirt and Chucks today. I’m still going to do great work whether I’m in a suit or a t-shirt. Doesn’t matter.

Marisa: Yeah, I think that’s great. Can you tell me a little more about how you guys measure and keep track of employee engagement, because I know that’s a really important piece of building the right culture.
Sophie: Absolutely. Currently we administer a semi-annual survey. So we will administer a survey early in the year, and then September/October timeframe so we can start RAX site [SP]. What we track in our surveys is we use NPS as a measure to see how rackers feel about the company as a whole, so whether you would recommend Rackspace as a great place to work, and we use that same question in a different framework to ask rackers whether or not they would recommend their supervisor, their direct manager, as a great person to work for. Because you know, the manager/racker relationship is super important when dealing with engagement.

Marisa: Sure.

Sophie: And then we take it a step further. There’s a section of questions that talks about our leadership and our mission and vision and whether or not they feel connected to the work that we’re doing and whether or not they trust our leaders to make sure and carry forth with that mission. And there’s a section that focuses again on managers. And this is very specific. Questions about, are you having consistent one-on-ones, do you feel your manager’s somebody who cares about your well being? Are they helping you with your career development? Do they have clear, consistent communication styles? Questions of that nature. The next section focuses on their team and the team that they work with, so the projects that they’re working on, the people that they work with, whether or not they’re living up to our core values. And then there’s a results focus. So are we tracking back our measurements?

Are we tracking back to see whether or not we’re doing a good job, based on the goals that we set forth at the beginning of the year? And then there’s three open ended questions. You could talk about, what do you love about Rackspace? And what are some things we can do to improve? And then a specific section where you can give your manager direct feedback. You know, what is the one or two things you would love for your manager to know? So we administer this twice a year. I think it’s a total of 23 questions and we keep the survey open for two weeks. Our participation rates are very high because rackers know that we utilize the results time after time and all of our leadership has bought into those results. So we average about 80 to 82% participation, which is great. And then we have a team behind us. So me, my counterpart, and then we have a team of data analytics. How am I going to say? We call them dapafers [SP]. I know there’s a better term, dapafers of data. So, the dapafer team. That’s what we call them.

Marisa: I love it, yeah.

Sophie: We work with them and analyze the results and break it down by business unit, we break it down by shift, by manager, by location, to try and understand the makeup of the results. So if we see that certain areas are doing really, really well, we’ll do deeper dives with those groups to find out, what are you doing that’s got these great, amazing scores and how can we replicate this in other parts of the business?

Marisa: Yeah. There are things you said that I want to point out because I think they’re fundamental to building a really great place to work. And just to point out to anyone who’s listening at this point, Rackspace has been nationally recognized for their culture for I think seven years now, on the national best place to work list. It’s been a long stretch for you guys, and something you should be really proud of. And it’s not easy to achieve that. And I talk to companies all the time, and what I tell them is that culture is not about slapping a foosball table in your lobby and thinking that’s going to be culture, or telling people they can wear casual clothes and thinking that you’re going to be a great place to work. Companies that become nationally recognized for their culture have such an intense focus on employee engagement that they form teams, like yourself, who their entire job is to make sure that engagement levels are there and they’re always increasing. So things that you said that I want to point out: number one, that your senior leadership team buys into these engagement surveys at their core. Right?

Sophie: Absolutely.

Marisa: So every single person on your senior leadership team, they know the results, they know when those surveys are coming up. They’re encouraging people to take them and answer them honestly and to give really candid feedback. That is so important, and too many companies miss that piece. Right? HR’s off doing a survey and sending it out, and the senior leadership team has no idea what’s going on and really, quite frankly doesn’t care.

Sophie: That is not the case here.

Marisa: Right? It’s not at all the case at Rackspace. So number one, senior leadership team cares a lot about these surveys. Number two, you said that you have a high participation rate, and I believe the reason is because what you said, which is that you do something with that data. So again, another real big downfall to companies that do surveys is that oftentimes they actually don’t do anything with the data. They kind of take the survey and they brush the bad stuff under the rug, and then they kind of talk about the good stuff, and as the years go on, no one wants to respond to the surveys anymore because they know the results; no one’s going to do anything with them. So they stop caring. And at Rackspace, time and time again, employees know that when they put the energy into answering those surveys, something’s going to happen as a result. And it’s because of that trust that their opinion counts that they continue to go and give you feedback year after year. So I think you guys have done such a nice job of embedding that into the culture of the company.

So after a Racker takes the survey and you guys compile all the results, what does the delivery look like? How do they find out where the company is doing well and where the company has some areas for improvement?

Sophie: Sure. So the great part of this is our survey is administered by a third party vendor, and we do that to ensure confidentiality of the responses so that we don’t tie it back to anybody. So what’s great is after the survey closes, they have one week to turn back around the results, and at that week mark, all of our managers will receive an email from the vendor with their individual team’s results. So they break it down by score at the team level. Then we, my team, will get the overall company results, and we’ll take a team to do additional data cuts and analysis that we then present to our senior leadership team. So we’ll schedule a meeting with them maybe two weeks after we receive the results. We’ll do a deep dive on our verbatim analysis to find out what rackers are loving about the place, what are some areas of concern and areas of opportunity. We’ll do an analysis on that and then present to our senior leadership team.

What they then do is discuss amongst themselves if there’s areas where they need to act or make changes, they’ll go ahead and discuss that at their level. But what’s great about this is maybe a week or two later, we have our company open book, which is once a month, and Taylor, our CEO, will go up and talk about these results and how we did. So full disclosure, this is how we did as a company. This is our MPS one, our MPS two. These are our areas of strength, our areas of opportunity; this is what we’re going to focus on moving forward. And I’ve got that check back. The results that we use at the beginning of the year is really more of a checkpoint. At the end of the year, which the results come out say in October, our leaders start planning their offsites in November to do their planning, strategy planning for the following year.

So those engagement results are taken into consideration when they’re doing their strategy plan. So that’s the one, that second survey’s really when the action plan is going to take form at the team department level, leadership level. So that’s how we use it now. If there are additional analyses that we need to do, we’ve also done some culture digs. Where we have a group of culture instigators, which is a group of volunteers from across the business that are very passionate about culture and engagement, and we’ll go out and put together some focus groups where we seek additional feedback. “Hey rackers, I heard a lot of conversation about communication channels needing improvement. What does that look like? What do you mean by that? What would you suggest if you were able to fix this problem?” And then we give that additional feedback to our senior leaders when they’re going to their offsites.

Marisa: Great. What happens if you have a manager who scores particularly, not low, because I know you guys are monitoring this all the time so I’m thinking there are not managers who are just flopping, you know. That’s not the style of how you guys promote and move from within and all that stuff. But let’s just say a manager who’s struggling a little bit. Maybe a new manager who’s just kind of unfamiliar with that role and their scores come back not terribly great, what would happen in that instance? What does that look like?

Sophie: Yeah. Look, nobody comes out and is an absolute rock star from the get go. There are learning curves for everybody. And even very senior leaders from other companies that come into Rackspace sometimes have challenges acclimating to the culture and the way we do things around here. So the survey helps us to identify those who need a little bit of help and additional guidance. And what’s great about that is that we have our business partners and our HR generalists are very involved with the coaching of these leaders and helping them if they see that the communication came in really low. Digging a little deeper, maybe giving them some additional training and coaching on how they can communicate better with their teams.

If it’s a little bit more general, we don’t know why the scores came in so low, either myself or one of these members will go and talk to the rackers to gather additional feedback and see how we can help our leaders. You know, Rackspace University has a great leadership program, leadership development program at all levels, and if they haven’t gone through any of those classes, we’ll suggest it at this time. And then the great thing is at six month’s time we have the opportunity to check back with that team and that leader to see if progress is made or not.

Marisa: Yeah. Let me point out again what I’m hearing you say. So first you do the engagement surveys where you’re gathering feedback. Your response rates are high because people know their opinion counts. So you get all this feedback, and then you’re able to parse out who the people are that are doing really well, so you can study why they’re doing so well, looking at best practices from right inside your organization. And then you follow up with people who might be having challenges and you help coach and give them the opportunities for development. And then you retest again or resurvey again in six months, which is about how long it would take, I would guess, to get through that process. And the cycle begins all over again. And so again, I think the mistake that companies make sometimes in this process is they think that doing one survey every couple of years and then having a team meeting where they talk about the results is, well they checked the box.

And this building a really high level of engagement within an organization is not about checking a box. It is literally about waking up every single day and figuring out the pain points and solving those pain points, and figuring out how you can increase engagement and going after it and increasing engagement. I think a lot of companies miss that. You know, they think it’s a one and done type of thing, and it’s really not. I mean, every single day, and I’m guessing here, so tell me if I’m right or wrong, you and multiple, multiple people, if not everyone in the organization, wakes up thinking about engagement.

Sophie: Oh yeah. It’s super important to everyone. I mean if you come in to work and you’re unhappy about the place that you work, you’re not going to do good work. You’re going to be actively disengaged, which eventually hurts the customer experience, it hurts the company, it hurts the team morale. We really want to work making sure that when people walk through these doors, they’re happy to be here. They love this place. They love their manager. They love what they do and they love the people they work with. It’s super important.

Marisa: As a result of these things, can you tell us a little bit about the culture? Because there’s a lot of people who’ve never walked through the doors of Rackspace. They’ve never kind of experienced it the way you and I have. So can you tell me a little bit about how people typically from the outside, sort of describe the culture when they experience it.

Sophie: Sure. I will say, most people when they’re talking about culture, they mistake it, automatically looking at the tangible things. They’ll look at, “Oh wow, you guys are wearing t-shirts and flip flops to work” and “Oh, there’s a slide in your office” and “You guys have crazy flags all over the place.” And there’s a coffee and a gym, it’s a very relaxed workplace, and people just sitting in little conference rooms made out of the little Ferris wheel booths. I don’t know what they’re called but we have them as furniture around, so people will focus on that piece and just say “Wow, this looks like Disney World, how do you ever get any work done?” And yes we have the foosball tables and the pool tables and ping pong tables, but I don’t describe that as culture. Those are perks, and it’s awesome to have those amenities, but culture really is on what you don’t see. It’s on what you feel. So when you walk in those doors, you will feel a buzz of energy.

If you walk our sales floor, I mean, you’ve got the clapping, you’ve got the bells anytime a deal comes in, it’s like a big parade and hurrah. And the same thing when you’re walking the floor with our support team, you feel the buzz and the energy, the folks on the phone, and people turning around. “Hey, I have a question; can you help me with this?” That collaboration that’s taking place. Our communication styles, you know, we’re a relationship heavy company. We value the relationships we have with one another to get things done. So it just depends on what pocket of the building you walk in. I think the energy is the first thing that you’ll notice and it’s really beautiful. It’s an amazing space just to walk through, but I think from a culture standpoint it’s what you don’t see that makes it so special.

Marisa: Mm-hmm. So it’s interesting. Since I left Rackspace back in 2009ish, I think? 2009, 2010, I’ve been studying best places to work across the country and a couple of international organizations I’ve gotten to talk to some leaders in, and one of the things that always surprises me is that when I ask them to describe their culture, every single one of them says that it’s something that you just feel when you walk in. Isn’t that incredible?

Sophie: Yeah.

Marisa: Literally in these organizations, you walk in and you’re just drawn to something that is unspoken and there’s an energy. You see people moving with an energy, you see people interacting with a certain energy. I mean you just physically, even when I’m talking about it, I can feel what it’s like to walk into an office such as Rackspace. And the thing that actually brought me to write my book, which is called “Culture: More than Jeans and Margarita Machines,” is that concept of the fact that people would walk into Rackspace and say, “Oh, this is a great place to work because you’ve got this ping pong table” or “Wow.” They would open a magazine and look at articles about Google and Facebook and all these cool, trendy, fun companies, and say “Look at the slide! That’s why they’re a great place to work.” And no one ever talked about the work that I, every single day, would wake up really passionately about, and so do you, which is engagement.

And those companies, you know, I was just telling someone the other day, it’s no longer the new, cool thing to have a pool table in your lobby. Everybody’s putting these foosball tables and they’re putting alcohol in the refrigerators at work and they’re wearing jeans and that’s no longer a differentiator. And so that’s what we’re going to see, and I think we’re already starting to see it, is that companies who are going to say that they’re great places to work are going to say that they’re cool because their people are in jeans and the walls are painted cool and they’ve put all this money into decor, they’re not winning anymore. Ten years ago you could get away with that, but the companies that are the true frontrunners are the companies like Rackspace where they get the difference between the cool exterior and backing it up with some amazing values and with an intense focus on engagement levels.

And so I literally, when I talk to companies, all I do is talk to them about this idea that, I want you to put aside what you think culture is and I want you to really understand that there’s an infrastructure. And companies like Rackspace that are winning, you guys know your values. Every single person that walks through the door understands fanatical support, and they know their main mission that day is to deliver fanatical support in whatever way their role requires them to deliver that. And your HR processes are set up to hire, fire, and promote people who are living those values. And that’s the meat of building a great place to work, and that’s the stuff that most companies can’t figure out.

Sophie: It’s pretty basic stuff, I mean, you’re right. People focus on the slide, or they’ll focus on the ping pong table, and quite frankly that’s a band-aid. I mean, that’s flashy. I think in the concept of culture it’s not necessary. Culture, like you said, it’s a feeling, it’s the values, it’s the way you communicate with each other. It’s the intangibles, I think.

Marisa: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. What would your piece of advice be, if someone came to you and they’re starting a company, but it’s going to have quick, high levels of growth, so very similar to Rackspace, and they said, “Listen, I really want to build a great culture, but the only thing I know about culture is that I should let my people wear what they want and put some beer in the fridge and a ping pong table out there.” What would your advice to that person be?

Sophie: I would assume this is a leader, a senior leader. My advice to them would be, think about what kind of company do you want to be in 20, 30 years? Think of that far out. If you want to be on the front cover of Fortune talking about how amazing you are, what is it you’re going to be known for? And then take steps back on how you’re going to get there. Then based on your approach to get there, that determines your value set. So what your core values are going to be, that’s going to determine your mission statement. And when you start there, everything else takes form. It’ll determine how you’re going to communicate with your employees and how transparent you’re going to be. It’s going to determine how you’re going to take care of your customers and what procedures and policies you’re going to put in place to take care of your customer.

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It’s going to determine what kind of product you’re going to put in place and how the quality of that product matters to you. If you start there, it’ll put together the foundation of what your culture will be like. And then you need to work with your employees to make sure they’re bought in with you and make sure you’re hiring people that believe in this mission that you’re putting in place and that believe in these values that you’re putting in place. Because if they’re not bought in, it doesn’t matter how wonderful your strategy and your plan is, it’s just not going to be followed through without the support of your employees.

Marisa: Yeah. I find that companies start to get out of control, meaning they deviate away from who they really want to be during the hiring process. You know they start to hit this growth mode, where it’s about, we need 50 people in seats, as fast as possible. And so slowly but surely that bar starts to go down in the fit category, which 10 years ago I used to get in so much trouble for talking about fit. And finally we can have the conversation and the HR world doesn’t cringe as much about it, you know? Because again, when I talk about fit, it’s not about what you look like. It’s not about anything that is protected.

It’s about finding people who will thrive and love being in the organization you’ve created and that they believe in your values above anything else. And that they live them on a regular basis outside and inside work. And I find the organizations that are hiring very quickly, you know slowly but surely one or two people trickle in who don’t believe in their values and so they don’t treat fellow rackers like friends and family, for example, as one of your former values. I know you guys have tweaked them up recently.

Sophie: It’s still a core value.

Marisa: Good, good. And so they let those little things slip and before you know it, you’ve got toxicity on your teams and you don’t know how to get rid of it, because you’re still trying to grow, so you can’t get rid of people, because you still don’t have quite enough people in the seats. And so for me, when I’m talking to those companies in growth mode that have done all the things you’ve previously mentioned, at least defining the vision and values and where they want to go, my very next thing to them is just, don’t screw it up in the interview process. If your gut tells you that person’s not going to be a fit and not going to live your values, don’t say yes. Because getting rid of them is incredibly hard. Because you don’t have time to be getting rid of people. And so I find people kind of slip in that way and it just starts to spiral, because then you’re promoting the wrong people. And everyone’s shuffling in the organization. The alignment starts to fade. So that intense focus has to happen at that hiring piece.

Sophie: Yeah, and that happens everywhere, unfortunately. I mean, no company is immune to that. There are some people who are really, really good at interviewing and then they come in their first day and are at their desks and you’re like, “What? How did this person get in here?” That happens everywhere, but there are certain triggers and certain questions you can ask when you are interviewing your candidates to determine whether or not they’ll fit in the environment that you currently have.

Marisa: What are some of the questions you like asking during interviews for fit? I don’t know if you interview much anymore but…

Sophie: It’s been a while, but we do have a guide of questions where we have four or five questions that are targeted for every single core value. So they’re very situational. Like, “give me an example of a time when you’ve experienced really bad service. And what made it bad, and how would you have made it better?” And then when people talk about their experience about service or their service experience that was horrible, you see what their expectation is. Do they have a high bar? Is it, “Oh, well that’s just kind of everywhere.” You get to determine what they think is going above and beyond, which we determine as fanatical.

Marisa: Yeah, and if they think that mediocre is okay for what they received, they’re probably going to deliver mediocre.

Sophie: Exactly.

Marisa: Here’s another thing that you said that I love, that I want to point out. When you interview, you guys have guides for the interviewers, the rackers, that have questions built out that are starter questions so that they can get into a story and then keep digging that are directly tied to your core values. So again, you’re not taking your core values and putting them on a wall somewhere and putting them in an employee handbook and thinking that’s the box you’ve checked in creating great core values. Doesn’t mean they’re not on the wall. Doesn’t mean they’re not in the handbook.

Sophie: This is true.

Marisa: But in addition to that, and again, companies tend to stop there sometimes when I’m talking and I say, well do you have your values? “Oh yeah, they’re right there. There they are on the wall!” And I’ll say, all right, look that way, the opposite way and tell me what those values are. And nobody can repeat them. So okay. You’ve checked a box. Fine. But what you guys are doing is then you’re starting to embed those values in every single process you can possibly embed them in. So in your interview process as just one example, you’ve got the value and then a series of questions that rackers can pull from to start a conversation during an interview that will allow them to check against that core value. So you’re not just looking for technical fit, you’re looking for value fit in the interview process. If I had to guess a percentage, and there’s no scientific basis for this, I would guess that less than 10% of the companies in the country do that. I just don’t think they do, that they take their values and tie it that directly into the interview process.

Sophie: And it’s sad. Especially if it’s the heart of your organization, it’s the foundation that you’re built upon. And you’re not checking from day one to see if the person you’re about to let it fits with those values? I think it’s a huge mistake.

Marisa: Yeah.

Sophie: Missed opportunity for a bunch of companies.

Marisa: I think so too. And I think you said this earlier, that the stuff we work on in the engagement world is really not that…it’s not rocket science, right? But it is systematic, and it’s taking people like yourself and saying, okay. Here are our values, now where can we start to embed those into all of our processes? And here’s what we know about the best gal…I’m using gallop in my mind, but here’s what we know about some of the best engagement research out there. And if we know that, how do we embed that into our processes in the organization? And then just going in and aligning your values with your interview process. And aligning your values with your promotion process. And aligning your values with your performance improvement plans, and all of that stuff.

You know, it doesn’t feel really hard, but yet I’m always surprised by how many companies don’t get that and don’t do it. So it’s interesting. But I think part of it is, companies don’t value the positions of the people who would do those things, and I guess what I mean by that is that it typically starts in HR, and I mean in a company like Rackspace, are you plugged in under the HR umbrella somehow or are you guys separate now?

Sophie: I am. I am under the HR umbrella. But what’s great is that it doesn’t stop me from being able to go talk to our CEO when I think there’s an area that he needs to be aware of or a situation he needs to be plugged in on. Which is great because I don’t have to go through my leader, my leader to then get to the CEO. It’s very direct channels, which is great.

Marisa: Yeah, but in many companies, I think if I went to them and said, well if you want to do this really, really well you should hire someone who may or may not fit under the HR umbrella but it would come out of the bucket of HR funding basically, if you have one, to focus on engagement? I think many companies don’t even see the value in doing that. And so instead they have what I would call more traditional HR that doesn’t have time to focus on engagement because they’ve got a lot of work to do and so then there’s no one even thinking about engagement. And that’s a really big miss in my mind too. Because Rackspace, in no uncertain terms, has said we value this enough to hire people who we are going to pay to just think about this stuff. So look what you’ve been able to think about and to do, it’s pretty incredible.

Sophie: Yeah, and I mean, it’s always been great. Since day one, since I started, I know the survey was already in place before I started at Rackspace, there was an engagement team that really focused on strength training, administering the survey, doing additional deep dives with managers and their teams. But even then, that hasn’t stopped us from seeking council externally just to make sure, hey, are we doing this right? And we’ll go out and seek advice from some consultants to make sure that we’re on the right track, the right path. You know, our industry, our environment changes so often that our culture is not the same as it was in 2006 when I started.

It has evolved. And we need help just like anyone else. And we’re not going to sit here and be arrogant like, oh we’ve got this down. Absolutely not. I think that’s what’s so great about us is that we’re willing to admit when we’ve gone through tough times, which we have. When we’re going through cultural evolution and cultural changes, which we have gone through that. We’re not so prideful that we won’t seek help from our rackers, but also some experts in the industry.

Marisa: Yeah, I love that. I was just interacting with a company the other day and they had an engagement survey. And I was kind of checking them to see if I wanted to work with them, ’cause I can’t do what I love, I can’t help companies create high levels of engagement and create a great culture if the senior leadership team thinks they want culture but doesn’t actually. They don’t really want to put the work in. This company had just done an engagement survey and their scores were actually pretty good. So out of fives, they mostly had 4.5s. And so not bad, but I looked at the leader and I said, I need to know that if I come to you and I show you a 4.5, your response is not going to be “That’s a great number,” your response is going to be, “What do we do to get to 5?” And she said “I want to know today what we’ve got to do to get to 5.” Her response was immediate. That, no. I’m not looking at 4.5 as good.

It’s not bad, but I want to know how to get to 5. Me personally, every time. And I learned that from Rackspace, where it was always a matter of, what is the number one thing we could do differently here to make your life better, and sometimes the responses I heard were bigger, right? My team’s having some challenges, or my leader’s struggling, but there were times, and this is a real example from Rackspace, where someone said to me, there’s no way for me to get water to drink unless out and around. And I was in the Blacksburg office, and we’d grown so quickly that they did physically have to go outside and around and inside. And in Virginia, it was cold. So in the winters, that was a bummer, unless they wanted to drink water from the bathroom sink, which they didn’t. And I don’t blame them.

Sophie: I don’t blame them.

Marisa: No! And so this guy, I went to him and I said, what’s one thing that we could do differently that would just make your life a little better here? And he said the water thing is just a little frustrating to me. Not a big deal, but you asked. And I thought to myself, that’s great! Fifty bucks and I can get you guys water. I mean, it’s no big deal, we just made arrangements to put a water cooler in their section, and it was fine. And I used to share that story with HR professionals when I would go out and speak to different groups. And before I told them my opinion on his statement I would give it a moment to settle. And many times they would think it was ridiculous that he was complaining about not having water.

And what I would say is, “No you guys. That’s a great day for me. When your biggest complaint is something as simple as water. I can fix that. What I can’t fix is if you don’t like it here. Or if you’re not doing work that you feel is valuable, or you don’t think your opinion counts.” And so I think that mentality of, let’s make it really, really perfect, or as close to it as we can for our employees, it started at Rackspace. And I think it’s fun to be able to explore that with people. Because if you’re telling me you need a water cooler and you’re not telling me all those other things, that’s a great day for me.

Sophie: Oh yeah, absolutely. If that’s the biggest problem you have, man, you are lucky.

Yeah, and so, I got a little off track there, but where I was going was this idea that what I know from Rackspace and what I just appreciate so much about being part of the organization is that they always looked at the numbers and said “What can we just do a little bit better?” Because we know we’re going to fall sometimes, and we know that we’re going to have missteps, and we know that the culture might change out there and we might be one step behind in that moment, and we’ve got to do some controlling to get ourselves back. And leaders who can’t put their pride aside for a minute to acknowledge that they’re not perfect are the ones that struggle with engagement.

Sophie: I agree. It’s those leaders that take the ego out of the room, take that pride out of the room and do what’s best for your people. Those are the leaders that people are truly going to follow.

Marisa: Mm-hmm. I kind of want to wrap it up with a question for you. I’m curious, what experience have you had at Rackspace that you are the most proud of, or that was kind of the coolest thing that you got to work on?

Sophie: Rackspace as a whole, or you want to say on the engagement arena?

Marisa: Nope, anything like a great experience that you’ve had at Rackspace that you’d kind of like to wrap it up with.

Sophie: You know, one of the things I’ve loved, and still do until this day, was when I was a manager. So before I even got into this arena, I was a people leader. And you know, getting to hire people right out of college, to help build them up, coach them, help them find their stride in their careers, and then being able to come back…I still meet with them today to see how far they’ve come. You know, five years later what they’re doing. And now they’re people leaders. And being able to see some of the little things that I implemented when they were right out of college, to see that that’s transitioned, and that they’re coaching their people with that value set, and with those expectations, it’s my proudest moment.

I know I don’t manage anyone directly today; I’m more an influential role, but I love to see that our managers are just as passionate as I was when I was a manager. And very proud of our managers here. Proud of our leaders. They are doing such a fantastic job to keep our rackers engaged and to maintain engagement, even during times of uncertainty. You know, last year was a tough year for Rackspace, but you know, our leaders did a really good job of keeping our rackers engaged and understanding, we’re going to get through this just fine.

Marisa: Yeah. That was such a good example and a good story to share, I really appreciate that.

Sophie: Sure.

Marisa: Sophie, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today, it’s been a great conversation. There’s a special place in my heart for Rackspace, it’s literally where I launched into culture and engagement and the work I’ve been doing now and will continue to do the rest of my life, I’m sure of it. Because of my experience at Rackspace. I think so highly of the organization. So it was nice to be able to catch up and just learn more about what you guys have been up to.

Sophie: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Marisa: Yeah, you’re welcome!

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Marisa Keegan
by Marisa Keegan
Marisa Keegan has held culture and engagement roles inside two nationally recognized great places to work, started the networking group Culture Fanatics, and wrote the book Culture: More than Jeans and Margarita Machines. She was recognized as one of the Top 100 Employee Engagement Experts in the US in 2013 and is currently a consultant to organizations interested in creating a great culture.
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