3 Keys to Building Thriving Workplaces With Kat Steinmetz
July 25, 2023
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Kat Steinmetz has always had a passion for music. That passion drove her to form half of the performing duo Kepi and Kat and to become an organizer for the world-renowned Burning Man festival—an event whose attendance now numbers over 80,000 people.
Her other interests—fashion, and technology—attracted Kat to her subsequent projects, StitchFix and Box, where she spearheaded global talent development and employee engagement programs. Today, Kat is the Principal of Initialized Capital, whose portfolio includes brands like Instacart, Patreon, Coinbase, and Reddit.
Kat’s whirlwind career path is as unique as it is impressive—and, as you might expect, she’s gained more than a few insights into learning and development (L&D) along the way. In this LEARN podcast episode, Kat chats with WorkRamp’s CEO and Co-Founder Ted Blosser about strategies that enable success, like building strong employee communities, creating a great workplace culture, and hiring and developing top talent.
The importance of building community
When asked who she’s learned the most from in life, Kat has an immediate answer: her community.
“I’m constantly feeding them, and they feed me,” she says. “I’ve learned everything I want to know from my community.”
She says her community is one of the most important things to her—which is why she actively strives to build and maintain it.
“I’m a big community builder and super-connector,” says Kat, explaining that she frequently communicates with her network.
She even credits her enthusiasm for community-building as one of the reasons she was recruited to Box, where she was head of Talent Success.
Thanks to her previous experience as an organizer for Burning Man, “[Box] wanted me to run all communities,” she explains, including not just its general community but also the company’s employee resource groups (ERGs).
ERGs are communities created by and for employees with a shared identity or status—for example, an ERG for LGBTQ employees. ERGs can improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace, boost employee satisfaction and morale, and decrease employee turnover—and related costs.
Creating ERGs is just one approach to building community in the workplace—something that organizations of all sizes across all industries should embrace.
Just consider the following findings from the Harvard Business Review: “When people had a sense of community at work, we found that they were 58 percent more likely to thrive at work, 55 percent more engaged, and 66 percent more likely to stay with their organization.”
They also, the study noted, experienced significantly less stress.
From improving employee retention to increasing employee well-being, building community is good for both organizations and their individual team members.
Creating a positive work culture that fosters growth and success
Culture isn’t just some buzzword, passing trend, or abstract concept. On the contrary, the ability—or failure—to create a positive culture has real, long-term implications for organizations.
In fact, its culture is what drew Kat to joining Box as the company’s global head of Talent Success in the first place.
“This is why I went to Box,” she says. “They have incredible culture…one of the best.”
“People are just into things there,” she continues. “They go to Box because they’re excited; they want to use emojis and talk about how great things are.”
The role of its culture in drawing Kat to Box reflects what the statistics tell us. In one survey, almost half of job-seekers (46 percent) said culture was one of the deciding factors in the application process, while nearly all (88 percent) said that workplace culture was at least relatively important when applying.
So what can organizations do to reap these benefits? Here are a few of Kat’s strategies for creating a positive workplace culture where diverse, high-performing teams can thrive.
- Give team members more autonomy. Kat points out that “letting people have agency and autonomy” was one of Katrina Lake’s greatest strengths as the founder and CEO of StitchFix. By giving employees the tools and freedom to act and learn autonomously, you can boost employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention.
- Offer leadership development and other L&D programs. Kat highlights a manager training program that she created at StitchFix—a one-day “immersion in our values and our leadership qualities”—that she says continues to run to this day. The program not only encourages creativity and self-development but provides a cultural introduction: “This is what we do here. This is how we feel here. This is what the behaviors look like.”
- Get your teams excited. “I learned how to get people to become champions for me,” Kat says, explaining that employees would go above and beyond to take on tasks because they were excited about the mission and vision. As Kat reminds L&D leaders, “You have all these people in the company just sitting around waiting to be ambassadors and champions of your programs.”
- Value progress over perfection. Don’t get caught up chasing perfection, Kat advises, when you’re developing new programs or pursuing other organizational goals. Instead of perfection, prioritize progress. “Get things to 70 percent and put it out, and experiment, and iterate,” Kat says. “I love that. That is how I do my life.”
- Partner with excellent vendors. You should think of your vendors like partners in your business, Kat says. Ask questions like, “How are you sending me narratives? What data are you giving me? Are you doing a slide deck for me so I can use it for the leadership team?”
So, what if you’re coming to an organization where there’s already a well-established culture?
When Kat first arrived at Box, the company was “geriatric,” Ted jokes: entering its 14th year. That experience gave her insights into how leaders can navigate and elevate cultures that are already firmly established, especially if their funding is limited—something she already had experience with from her role at Burning Man, a nonprofit where you have no resources, and you have to count every single penny.
Kat’s advice? Hone your storytelling skills, which will help you generate the buy-in and get the support you need.
“You’ve got to be incredibly good at your storytelling [because] you’ve got to paint the picture for people. You’ve got to enroll them. They need to become champions for you.”
The secret sauce for hiring and developing exceptional talent
Sports and business both revolve around competition—and if you want to score the biggest wins, you need the strongest team.
The more skilled and effective your employees are, the easier it will become for your organization to reach its goals, and the more competitive and successful your brand will be long-term.
On the flip side, unaddressed skill gaps can be disastrous for your organization—especially in its early stages, when speed and growth are essential. Kat recalls a moment of realization in her early career at StitchFix where she suddenly became aware of the need for marketing and PR team members, “and from then on, that is what everybody needs—now.”
“You have to have those skills,” she says, “so I started hiring for that. I started looking for that.”
Critically, she adds, she also started developing those skills herself—a perfect example of how organizations can benefit from hiring the best talent and by developing and upskilling their current team members. Companies can limit turnover and improve efficiency while retaining valuable talent by creating opportunities for employees to develop professionally.
It’s easy to understand how organizations benefit by hiring talented candidates or by offering top-notch training programs. What’s more challenging is to identify—and implement—employee recruitment and development strategies that are actually effective.
Kat’s approach? Think about the bigger picture—not just an interviewee’s experience, but their temperament and mindset as well.
“I look for emotional intelligence skills—that’s the biggest thing I hire for,” she says. “I hire for self-awareness, personal responsibility, and the ability to remain calm in the midst of a lot of chaos. You need those things when you’re building at a startup, or any kind of high-paced company.”
Creativity and the capacity to innovate—two qualities, Kat says, that StitchFix founder Katrina Lake was strongly focused on in her own hiring process—are two more examples of key soft skills that recruiters should also weigh when hiring.
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