Politics and private time: Making room for each at work

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Roxanne Petraeus is the CEO and co-founder of Ethena, a compliance training platform for modern teams, and is a former Army combat veteran.

We have a monthly company book club at our company. It’s in the evening and our whole team attends (yes, we’re really into book clubs), so it made sense that a few minutes before our book club on the evening of April 20, a team member let us all know that he’d be missing it.

He lives in Minnesota, the verdict for the trial of Derek Chauvin was about to be announced, and the atmosphere was tense. He wasn’t able to focus and was giving the rest of the team a heads up on Slack that he’d be absent. There were a few thumbs up emojis and then we started the book club.

A few days later, I was talking with our executive team and several of them mentioned that people on their teams had brought up the book club situation. Something felt off about it. Should we have canceled it? Reminded everyone that they were free to take personal time for whatever reason? No one had the right answer, but it felt like an opportunity to reflect and arrive at a more thoughtful approach, which is especially important as our team rapidly grows and we continue to be remote.

This past year, we’ve had so many moments when a massively important event is happening as we work, entering our collective conscience and forcing us to acknowledge that the boundary between work and life is thin and porous. Companies are grappling with how, or whether, to talk about these events with their teams.

Most companies have taken the view that to develop an inclusive company, there has to be space for what’s happening in the world. A few have gone in the opposite direction, saying companies should exist separate and apart from “politics,” which is an admittedly fuzzy term.

I’m familiar with the “shut up do your job” mentality because I spent years in the Army. About a political issue, for example, salty soldiers would say things like, “If the Army wanted you to have an opinion, they would have issued one to you.” (Side note: There were still plenty of opinions.)

But that’s not how I think about company-building. I believe that our “work selves” and what’s going on in the world are inextricably connected. And while I don’t know exactly how to navigate the choppy waters, this recent experience helped my team crystallize a few lessons.

Make space for when “politics” impacts your team

Months ago, I was listening to “The Daily” while getting ready for work. The episode was about the murder of Vanessa Guillen, an Army soldier who had been the victim of sexual harassment while in uniform. It was heartbreaking to hear her mother talk about how the Army had failed Vanessa. I cried. My own experiences in uniform came flooding back and I needed to take time that morning to think and write. I moved around some things on my schedule and didn’t start the workday until I was ready.

I do not think it’s the role of a company to dictate acceptable reasons to need personal time. Instead, a company should hire smart, motivated people and give them a framework to help them make the right decisions.

I needed time that morning. I do not think it’s the role of a company to dictate what is and is not an acceptable reason to need personal time. Instead, a company should hire smart, motivated people and give them a framework to help them make the right decisions.

Our working framework (and I say “working” because culture building, for us, is a work in progress) is borrowed heavily from Netflix: It’s the dual concepts of freedom and responsibility. Ethena employees have the freedom to take time off for whatever reason and they don’t need to give a justification to managers. They also have the responsibility to do their jobs well. If they’ll be missing a meeting, they need to ensure there is coverage, for example.

Listen when colleagues tell you something’s wrong

While the founder mythology is strong, CTO Anne Solmssen and I don’t subscribe to it. We believe that two things can be true: We are smart, driven and resourceful founders and we are better with our team. We hire the smartest people we can find precisely because we want them to make our company better.

We have weekly feedback meetings between direct reports and the feedback is always bilateral, meaning managers get feedback from their direct reports. Feedback Fridays are where issues tend to surface first. I’m so glad there are pressure release valves for feedback, especially with a remote team, because otherwise I sit in a bubble thinking everything is fine, when it isn’t. I’m also glad we built feedback early into our culture because it’s incredibly hard to bolt it on later.

An important but often neglected part of listening to employee feedback is being honest about how decisions get made. For example, my co-founder and I want to hear dissent and criticism because it makes us better. But listening intently is different than being a direct democracy. As the CEO, I make decisions; I just want them to be as informed and inclusive as possible.

Invest early in people ops

We didn’t have a proactive approach to attendance at our recent company book club in part because we don’t yet have a people operations leader. Our team is about 20 employees and rapidly growing. We’ve prioritized a people ops hire because it’s a crucial function and if we don’t invest in it early, we’ll continue to have issues fall through the cracks.

Yes, co-founders should be personally invested in company culture, but people ops is a craft and requires expertise. Experienced people ops leaders have lots of practice navigating complex issues. (Side note: We’re hiring for many roles, including people ops. If you’d like to be part of a company that intentionally invests in company culture, come work with us.)

I want to build a highly functional team where everyone can bring themselves to work and excuse themselves when they need a minute. I’m undeniably making mistakes along the way, but the best way to learn about where we stumble is to let our smart and capable team tell us, listen when they do and be intentional in building our company culture.