What does it actually look like to put your people first?

Here are five tools we use at LION Publishers to create a people-centered culture.

March 1, 2022 by Anika Anand

Photo by Jason Leung via Unsplash
Photo by Jason Leung via Unsplash

Post updated on Wednesday, Oct. 12.

I’ll be honest: When I hear “people-centered,” I immediately think of heart-shaped rainbows and dancing unicorns. It can be a squishy term, so when we decided to list it as one of our core values at LION, we knew we’d have to show our receipts.

While we still have room for improvement, below are five specific examples of progress we can share with you so far. 

In other words, these are the tools and structured systems that help us operationalize the good intent behind those heart-shaped rainbows and dancing unicorns.

Updated note: In general, we’re proud of the culture we’ve built at LION— but that doesn’t mean we stop checking in about how things are going. At a recent retreat, we did a sticky-note brainstorm on these three questions: 

  • What are things you like about our culture that are helpful for someone new to know?
  • What are things you struggle with about our culture that are helpful for someone new to know?
  • What is something you’d like to change about our culture that you feel comfortable talking about with the whole team?

The exercise opened up some unexpected conversations about how we maintain high standards within our existing bandwidth and limited resources. We realized how important it was to keep talking about organizational structure alongside personal responsibility when it comes to ensuring folks aren’t burning out. 

One piece of feedback we received post-retreat from a colleague was, “I know that I often consider the fact that LION isn’t like the bad places I’ve worked as enough of a win. But just because something isn’t terrible doesn’t mean that it’s perfect or there isn’t work to be done.  I appreciate that despite (it seems) general appreciation for LION company policies, we continue to prioritize conversations about how we can actively design LION as a workplace to be the best it can be.” It’s my goal that we continue to experiment and codify ways to put our people first.

1. User manuals

A user manual is an articulation of how someone likes to work and collaborate with other people. I’ve touted user manuals as an essential remote work tool, but frankly, everyone who’s on a team could benefit from writing one. Some folks are more self aware than others, but every single person I’ve seen fill out a user manual template has referred back to something they’ve written in a professional conversation or interaction. 

I’m not sure who first invented the idea of user manuals, but this article by social entrepreneur Abby Falik is what I point to most frequently as good background reading for those who have never created one before. 

What this process is most useful for: 

  • Getting to know a new hire: Part of our new hire onboarding process is creating a user manual and sharing it with the entire team. We’ve facilitated discussions about people’s user manuals and also used it as reference docs in 1:1 get-to-know-you conversations. 
  • Navigating conflict: Sometimes when I’m having a hard time communicating with someone on my team, I go back to their user manual to remind myself what they value and how to best communicate with them. And, when appropriate, I’ll even reference something they wrote in their user manual as a jumping off place for more conversation.

> Adapt our template

Thanks to WhereBy.Us for helping inform our user manual template.

Updated note: We’ve made some updates to our user manual template since we last wrote about it. We’ve now added these questions:

  • Some important aspects of my identity are…
  • Ask me about (e.g. professional/personal things I’m good at and am happy to help others with)
  • Tell me about (e.g. professional/personal things I’d love tips or tricks on)
  • My Enneagram type(s) & some thoughts about how this shows up in my ways of working

In general, user manuals remain a really effective tool to quickly get to know a new person on our team, as they force each person to be thoughtful and explicit about who they are and how they like to work with others.

2. Job scorecards

Every person on our team, from program managers to our executive director, has a job scorecard, and everyone can view each others’ scorecards. 

The scorecard lists out basic information about a role including the title, salary band, who the role reports to and who the role coaches (i.e. direct reports). But it also includes other useful information like key authorities (what they’re empowered to make final decisions on) and key processes (workflows this role executes or oversees in order for LION to function as an organization). 

Finally, the scorecard includes a breakdown of the skills and/or experience needed for the role and a list of behavior-based competencies, which mirror LION’s values and are the same for every role to ensure we’re holding everyone to the same set of values.

What this process is most useful for: 

  • Performance reviews: We refer back to scorecards to evaluate a colleague’s performance, contributions, and areas of improvement. 
  • Time off planning: By spelling out key processes and key authorities, we know exactly what needs to be done when someone is out for a period of time.
  • Succession planning: If a colleague wins the lottery and leaves tomorrow, we have the beginnings of a roadmap to get their work done and hire their replacement.
  • Creating a new role/making a new hire: When we have an idea for a new role we want to create, we start by writing a scorecard, which informs the job description —and we share the scorecard with candidate finalists before they accept the position. We also revisit a scorecard when someone leaves, before hiring their replacement, to make sure the role best fills our organization’s current needs.

> Adapt our template

Thanks to Geoff Smart, author of “Who,” and Rebecca Ross for helping inform our scorecard template.

3. Rose/Bud/Thorn and Team Health Checks

These two tools are borrowed from the tech and design-thinking worlds. There are ways to get really in-depth with them, but we use a simplified version to understand what’s going great and not-so-great for our colleagues personally and professionally, and how they’re feeling overall. 

We end our all-team meeting each week by talking about each person’s Rose/Bud/Thorns and team health. We ask that they write these into our agenda ahead of time to maximize thoughtfulness. 

A “Rose” is something they’re feeling proud or happy about from the past week; a “bud” is something they see potential in being a rose; a “thorn” is something that just kind of sucks for them right now. And then they choose whether they’re personally feeling “green” (everything’s alright with me!) “yellow” (there’s some not great stuff happening with me and/or I need some additional support) or “red” (shit has hit the fan and I need help ASAP to get back on track). 

Here’s the thing: Some of these corny/kitschy frameworks get made fun of because of their earnestness, but like every team management tool, it’s what you make of them. Don’t ask a question if you’re not prepared to respond to the honest answer. If you’re asking about your colleagues’ team health and everyone is yellow or red every week and nothing’s changing, then you’re telling your team that their health is not a real priority and they might as well keep their challenges to themselves.

What this process is most useful for: 

  • Creating a team culture of if one person is struggling, we’re all struggling.
  • Normalizing that it’s okay for work to not be going okay or for things in your personal life to factor into how you’re feeling at work.
  • Kicking off conversations about what’s truly high-priority, and what can wait (or move to someone else’s plate).

> Adapt our template

Thanks to WhereBy.Us for teaching us about team health checks.

Updated note: The most useful thing about team health is that it has helped us normalize sharing out how we’re doing as individuals. But it hasn’t always given us actionable data of how folks are specifically feeling about their bandwidth. 

To address that blind spot, we’re trying something a little bit different: asking folks to give a 1–5 rating on how they’re feeling about their workload. The goal here is to load-balance the entire team’s work— not just try to solve individual capacity problems. If this experiment goes well, we’ll share more about what we learned!

4. Heads down time

Last year, when I hit a wall at work, I knew I was close to burnout. I felt comfortable asking for time off, but when I considered how much time to take and how I’d spend that time, it wasn’t so clear to me that traditional PTO was the way to solve my exhaustion. 

So instead I tried something different: two weeks of “heads down time.” I had urgent things I was genuinely excited to work on — I just needed to prioritize those things while deprioritizing others, and give myself space outside of work to unwind and relax. “Heads down time” has since become a tool we use that falls somewhere between PTO and working full-time. It was so helpful for me that we did a staff-wide heads down week and a few heads down days last year. 

We also moved to no-meeting Fridays, which helps ensure everyone is getting enough time on a regular basis to go heads-down on work.

Heads-down time and no-meeting Fridays are two ways we’ve addressed staff telling us they really are loving their job, but they can’t significantly move their work forward without uninterrupted time to prioritize their most important projects. 

What these tools are most useful for: 

  • Giving staff the flexibility to get high-priority work done in the way they feel is best
  • Ensuring meetings and collaboration don’t overtake the need for focused solo work time
  • Showing staff you trust them to do their job and take the time they need for themselves to prevent burnout

> Adapt our template

5. A rubric for what would make LION a great place to work

At a recent team retreat, we used the last session together to talk about what specific things would make LION a great place to work. While we brainstormed, I asked the team to keep in mind these two questions: 

  • What makes you happy in a job? 
  • What has made you unhappy in previous jobs? 

I created a few different categories, and went through each one, asking folks to write one idea per sticky note for that category. The sticky-note walls informed the list of things we collectively value about our work, our development and growth, our colleagues, our managers, the senior leadership team and our compensation and benefits.

Finally, I took that list and turned it into a survey, listing each item and asking whether the team agreed or disagreed with each statement. I know that there are plenty of great templates and proven processes used by HR folks to measure employee satisfaction, but it felt important to start by asking our team what they valued, and then create what was essentially our own rubric for keeping our staff satisfied and fulfilled. 

> Adapt our template

What do you do to take care of your employees? How do you try to make your workplace more people-centered? If you’ve got something that’s worked particularly well for you, share it with me ([email protected]) and I’ll update the list above. 

Sign up for the weekly newsletter

Join the LION mailing list to get our weekly roundup of opportunities and resources for news entrepreneurs. View our most recent issues.