How Things Get Done at … CommonBond
At CultureIQ, we define company culture as “how things get done in an organization.” In the spirit of sharing ideas around company culture, we are starting a series called “How Things Get Done at…” that will highlight the culture at a different company each week.
To kick off the series, we spoke with Phil DeGisi, the CMO of CommonBond, a New York-based startup consumer lender that currently focuses on funding and refinancing student loans. The company has a strong commitment to social impact with its “one-for-one” social mission — for every loan funded on the company’s platform, the company funds the education of a student in need through its partnership with Pencils of Promise.
Attitude, Ownership, Delivering Results
When asked how he would describe CommonBond’s culture, Phil referenced some recent words by their CEO, David Klein: “CommonBond is a playground for high performers that really like to be challenged, but also want to be recognized and rewarded for their contributions.”
The word playground implies that there is an element of fun and exploration involved in working at CommonBond.
The fun piece comes from attracting a group of people that are excited about and take pride in their work: “We talk about three areas of contribution: attitude, ownership, and delivering results. When those work together, that’s when we’re at our best as a company.”
This has created an entrepreneurial environment, which is where the exploration piece comes into play, and this entrepreneurial spirit “ has served as the context for how things get done at CommonBond.” For example, when the company had just 12 employees, they had funded $100 million in loans — a very high-performing team, indeed. In other words, “this is a team that knows how to do a lot with a little,” says Phil.
On Being a Values-Driven Company
CommonBond’s mission is “to build the leading values-driven financial services firm.”
Their values are:
- Our customers. Ensuring we make their lives better.
- Being kind. To one another and our community. Supporting each other.
- Having fun. Fun as a team inside the office and outside.
- Working hard. Putting in the time and thought required to do great work.
- High standards. Having high expectations and standards of excellence. Holding ourselves and each other to them.
- Getting better. Improving ourselves and our company through development and consistent feedback.
- Honesty and candor. Being honest with ourselves and each other. Being direct and transparent in service of each other.
- Solidarity. “We’re all in this together.” Through thick and thin.
- Clear communication. To help us make better decisions, quicker.
- Professional maturity. Building people up. Respecting teammates, always.
As far as the purpose the values serve in the company, Phil explains, “The values are not a mandate for how we behave, they are a reflection of how we behave when we’re at our best.”
As an example of what this looks like in practice, CommonBond’s values serve as the foundation for their performance reviews. They frame strengths and development areas in relation to what values the team member does or does not embody: “None of us are going to be A+ at all 10 values at any given moment. And that’s okay. It’s about getting better.”
Values as Guardrails During Growth
CommonBond has been “incredibly intentional” about building their culture, and their values play a significant role in this. CommonBond came up with their values when they were a much smaller team: “There was a really important inflection point, where we knew we were going to hire a lot of people, so we wanted to have our values really grounded heading into that period,” says Phil.
Since then, even through a recent period of high growth, the values have helped the company simultaneously establish consistency and embrace change. Phil views the role of their culture as “the guardrails for what the company values.” However, “how people behave within these guardrails and work with in them should shift over time. You have to be comfortable that culture is a living thing and your employees can help shift the culture, it’s not just a top-down process.”
Values as a Test in Hiring
“We’ll win or lose based on people,” is the unofficial mantra of their executive team. “A company is an idea and has a revenue model, but everything else is based on the people.”
Therefore, they put a lot of emphasis on hiring individuals that share their commitment to the mission and values. As an example of what this looks like in practice, Phil posed the following test: You’ve been trying to fill a key role for months, and you finally find someone who, on a functional level, would knock it out of the park. However, there are some concerns about if the individual is a culture fit. Would you extend an offer?
CommonBond would not move forward with this candidate–regardless of how pressing it is to fill the role. According to Phil, this is how you really demonstrate your culture, and this is the type of thinking that has helped CommonBond create a values-driven culture.
“Many of the people at this company, if they didn’t work at CommonBond, they wouldn’t necessarily choose to work in financial services. There’s nothing inherently wrong with financial services, but I think it speaks to the type of person we get. It’s the type of person who sees things in personal finance and says, ‘I don’t like how this has been done before, and I think there is a better way.’”
Culture Practices at CommonBond
“Culture can be events and fun occasions, but it’s also how we treat each other and how we work with one another,” says Phil.
CommonBond mentioned a few practices that play a key role in how people work with one another and more broadly, “how things get done” at the company.
One of the ways CommonBond makes sure that culture isn’t just a “top-down” process is through their culture team. Every quarter they have a team of five people that work on everything from social events for the office, different ways to celebrate milestones, new team initiatives, etc.
“That’s something we’ve been doing now for close to a year and we’ve seen great results. What I love is that a lot of new employees sign up for it, and they have great perspectives when coming from other companies, so great ideas about culture come from everyone at the company, regardless of tenure and level.”
“We’re a really big feedback-centric culture.”
Their goal is real-time feedback, and while that doesn’t happen overnight, Phil believes they are on the right track.
In addition to their twice-a-year 360 feedback process, each manager and direct report touch base every week. Every third week, there is an in-person, two-way feedback session where both the manager and direct report are expected to give each other feedback about effective behaviors and opportunities for development.
“The way we’ve structured our feedback process is something I’m really proud of, and I don’t want to say it’s best in class yet, but I’m really proud of where we’ve gotten to in the short amount of time.”
As a fast-growing company, it can be a challenge to develop and scale effective communication processes. Therefore, I made a point to ask about how CommonBond shares information internally:
“We employ the concept of morning huddles, based on agile project management principles. Every Monday as an entire company, we have a huddle where members of the executive team review their team’s top priorities for the week and then there’s an open forum for anyone at the company to share something they’re working on or a question they have. Every day, each team then does their own huddle and talks about what their priorities are.”
CommonBond also has lunch-and-learns on Fridays, which is an opportunity for individuals to share a current project with the entire company. “It’s a cool event and a great way for people to understand what’s going on in people from other team’s worlds.”
They also put aside time after the lunch-and-learn for a weekly Q&A with David, the CEO. Employees are encouraged to ask any question “whether it’s about a recent partnership or what he’s thinking about something in the industry– it’s all about promoting this culture of transparency,” Phil explains.
Summing It Up
As Phil says, “a culture is best reflected in the talent that chooses to work for you and the talent that continues to work for you.”
“When I look at the people who are in the office and who we’ve been able to a) hire and b) retain, and then to see how hardworking and talented they are, and how they treat each other — that is easily one of the things that I’m most proud of about our company.”
As CommonBond continues to grow and develop as a company, they approach culture as an ongoing process and apply their core value of Getting Better: “It’s a back-and-forth conversation about ‘here’s how we want to work together.’”
Looking for more real-life culture ideas and inspiration? Stay tuned for our next feature in June!