“Did you just tell your entire team you only have nine months of runway left, and if you don’t raise money in the next couple of months, your company is dead?" one of my early-stage investors asked. “Yes, I did,” I answered.
He had learned this inadvertently before I could tell him. It was during one of our weekly catch-up meetings. He decided to grab a coffee from the Starbucks across the street. He was standing in line behind two of our team members and heard their conversation. “Can you believe that town hall?" one of them said. "I guess our company really embraces transparency. We have to raise our A round, or we go under. Let’s make sure we do everything we can to support our efforts.”
Deciding to be extremely transparent with our team was scary. How will they react? Will they quit? Will they question me? These are just some of the thoughts running through my head a few years ago before presenting at that town hall. In the end, we chose to lead from a place of trust and not fear. The result then and since has shown that trusting our team and leading with transparency always produces the best outcomes.
Why we tell it like it is
We decided to embrace transparency early on.
One key influence was the well-known Ben Horowitz book The Hard Things about Hard Things. One of my favorite chapters is “CEOs Should Tell it Like it is.” In this chapter, Horowitz talks about one of the most common mistakes CEOs make: they paint a very positive picture all the time and don't share negatives with their broader team. CEOs do this, Horowitz claims, mainly because they don't trust their team to manage the bad news.
This type of secrecy breaks the trust between employees and upper management, as a smart team knows that things aren’t always perfect. It can also create a culture in which people are scared to share bad news.
We took this to heart and decided to build a different culture founded on trust and not fear. We embrace transparency as we're an interdependent collective working very hard to improve the speed and quality of life-saving research. If we aren’t honest with each other and sharing the full picture, how can we succeed?
How we use transparency to fulfill our mission
Transparency at BenchSci starts with our weekly company newsletter, the same version of which goes to investors and employees. In this newsletter, each department shares its weekly accomplishments and setbacks. We encourage people to be open about their challenges.
Everyone in the company also receives our monthly investor update. Here we share all of our KPIs and financials. Every employee in the company knows how much money we have in the bank and our runway.
Our monthly town hall takes this transparency further. It's a deep dive into our OKRs and monthly progress and setbacks. Before the meeting, we also send out an anonymous question submission form. All topics are on the table, and I answer each one that we get. Questions run the spectrum, including product strategy, efforts to improve diversity, compensation strategy, work from home policy, and more. These questions are critically important, as they help us address information gaps and further increase transparency.
Every quarter we also conduct a quarterly review and kick-off. We summarize our accomplishments and setbacks from the last quarter and communicate our objectives and strategy for the next quarter. We do the same thing for our yearly review and kick-off. We take the time to explain why we're doing what we're doing. After all, if we can't explain it, we probably shouldn't be doing it.
Also, we conduct semi-annual engagement surveys and share the results with our team. Through these surveys, we learn what we can do better. Just as we're transparent with our team about strategy, KPIs, financials, wins, and losses, they're open about what's working and not working for them, which is essential for us to grow and improve as a company continuously.
Overall, for every critical decision that we make, we share a detailed explanation. We believe that our team deserves to know not just which decisions we make, but also why we made them and the process behind them. For example, this is the public version of the presentation we shared with our team regarding our COVID-19 financial strategy. We understood that many people were probably concerned about their livelihood in addition to their health. We shared with the company our detailed strategy, cash reserves, and more.
Some might say that it's not sustainable to maintain such transparency at scale. I disagree. Our team has doubled in size year over year. We have maintained the same level of openness at over 100 people as we did when we were 10. We're excited to continue to grow and build a mission-driven organization founded on trust and transparency.