Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Seoul, South Korea and immigrated to the United States at the tender age of two months. When I was a kid, I thought the song “Secret Agent Man” was actually “Secret Asian Man” and something I could be when I grew up.
My first job after college was in a call center, helping people manage their 401(k) plan accounts at Vanguard. While many might consider the prospect of working in a call center talking to 50 to 100 customers a day grueling and unappealing, this experience was perfect for learning how to communicate effectively with customers. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was doing real time A/B testing every time I tried a new way to phrase something when communicating with a customer. I know my interactions with customers to this day were shaped by all those phone calls.
In 2008, I started working for a startup named OtherInbox as their first dedicated support pro, and I handled support solo for a few years. We were acquired by Return Path in 2011, and I’ve been managing a small support team and running the support operations for two of our brands (OtherInbox’s email applications and Context.IO, a platform for developer to build on top of the data trove that is email).
In all, I’ve been supporting customers for nearly ten years.
When did you first come across the idea of transparency at work?
I’ve been fascinated with corporate transparency since I first read Buffer’s Open blog. Being that transparent (revenues, fundraising, even salaries!) was nearly unbelievable to me. I pored through their blog posts to learn why they chose to do this and how it affected their team.
Then, in early 2013, Stripe wrote about their email transparency setup. I had an epiphany! It showed me how to incorporate more transparency at work.
Can you share how email transparency started at your company?
In August 2013, my department at Return Path gave email transparency a try. It started with a lunchtime conversation and an email from one of our senior software engineers with this excerpt:
“As a growing (email!) company I feel like we’re missing a big opportunity to use email as a tool for transparency and alignment … As a distributed company we will only have to rely on asynchronous communication more and more—I think this could be a great step in that direction.”
Following Stripe’s model, we created Google Groups for the four teams in our department (team discussion lists and “announce” lists to broadcast news to others) as well as a few others for miscellany. Then, we encouraged each other to start copying at least one list for every email sent out unless it was absolutely necessary to keep it private. Frequently, an email to one person provided others with the chance to contribute valuable and compelling replies. Without these lists, they likely never would have had the opportunity!
We tweaked the Google Groups settings so anyone in the company could join (and get emails) and all messages to each list are archived, browsable and searchable on the web. When someone had a question about a topic discussed in an email thread from the past, it was great to be able to link directly to that conversation on the web so they could read and catch up.
It took some time for everyone to get into the habit of copying a list to every email, but over time, it started to become second nature. Over time, we’ve adjusted a few things (got rid of some lists, added some others) and encouraged people to use Google Groups settings to switch busier lists to daily digests or even turn off emails altogether and only read the messages on the web.
How have things changed since your team started sharing more?
Help me help you. Being transparent and putting all your communications into something that anyone in your company can browse, search and find what’s going on means fewer emails asking for things and less meetings to keep people up-to-date. Others can keep tabs with what’s going on in other teams or projects without having to interrupt anyone.
People are not their job title. Just because you may have “marketer” or “customer support” or “analyst” in your title does not mean you don’t have anything valuable to add to other parts of the company like recruiting or product development or customer discovery. When all communications for a team are siloed away in emails or in-person conversations only amongst the team, you miss out on the valuable contributions others could potentially make because of their unique backgrounds, experiences, education or personalities.
Get what you need and get out. My favorite thing about other teams in the company being on Slack is how easy it is to ask a quick question when I don’t know who exactly to contact. Previously, I would start by sending an email to my manager, then he would contact someone else to find out who I should ask. Three or four email forwards later, I get an answer that only copies the few intermediaries. Now? I find a team or topic’s Slack channel, ask a question (no need for a subject line!) and someone answers. Quick, easy and painless.
How have some of the teams at your company become more transparent?
My department’s engineering and product teams use Trello to track sprints and product backlogs. I created a Kanban board in Trello for my personal work todo list that is visible by anyone in my department.
For a couple years, my department used Campfire for team chats. Despite our best efforts, it was not easy to get other teams and departments to adopt it. When Slack came around, we made a stronger push to convince as many teams in the company to give it a try. Some did, and a few even started using it every day.
The company has always been very good about sharing the big picture things: nearly full access to “board books” the executives provide to the board of directors every quarter, regular AMA-style roundtable discussions with executives. But, I think there are lots of opportunities to improve day-to-day transparency of what people are working on.
I think it’s safe to say I have been one of the strongest proponents for company transparency. It’s one of our company values, and I am always quick to remind people when there may be an option to be more transparent.
After all of this, where do you see the value in transparency?
Transparency in a company does wonderful things: helps people trust one another; keeps people aware of what is going on; and allows everyone to contribute valuable insights and ideas so better decisions are made.
Trust is one of those things that can be very hard to develop yet very easy to break. Sometimes, it only takes a single moment of perceived slight to lose someone’s trust for a long time. Defaulting to transparency means less confusion over what happened and fewer opportunities to accidentally forget to keep people in the loop.
A company can reap huge rewards when everyone is made aware what is happening with other departments. If you have never given transparency a try, you will be amazed at how much valuable insights and contributions your smart and capable workforce will demonstrate because they now have the opportunity to show them off. They just need to have the information and permission to do so, and truly being transparent gives them that chance.