“What kind of company are you?”: Our biggest business mistake and why I’m glad we made it

If they say you learn from your biggest leadership mistakes, this one takes the cake.

We made a huge mistake.

We’d built a new feature in Know Your Company a while back. During that process, we’d accidentally written a bit of code that caused private responses to be revealed to new employees in a company.

This means that for the past six months, when new employees were added to Know Your Company, they were able to view responses that only their CEO was supposed to have access to.

Ugh.

It was a horrible mistake… and we were just finding out about it now. It affected about 80 companies, and hundreds of employees. My stomach still feels sick when I think about it.

One of our customers noticed the error, and was kind enough to tell us. Aside from that, our other customers hadn’t noticed the problem (or, at least hadn’t told us).

Now I was faced with a big decision… Should I tell our other customers about it?

One could argue that, if customers hadn’t noticed, why say anything? Why rustle feathers, especially when the damage had already been done. There wasn’t anything that our customers could do about it.

Saying something could cause our business harm. Customers might be angry. Some of them might even leave.

Or, we could come clean. I could be upfront about what happened, own up to our mistake, and say how terribly sorry we were. Sure, we risk losing business. But what about the risk of losing the trust of our customers?

Trust, after all, is everything. If you don’t have the trust of your customers, what do you have? If your customers don’t trust you, they won’t be your customers for much longer.

I also thought: If I were a customer, wouldn’t I want to know? As a CEO myself, I would want to know that those private responses had been accessible to my new employees. Even if I couldn’t do anything about those private responses going out, I would want to know that it happened in the first place.

To gut-check myself, I called up Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp. I wanted to get his two cents, and make sure I was thinking about this right. (Basecamp originally built Know Your Company, and is a co-owner and advisor to our business).

Here’s what Jason said to me: “I like moments like this. Moments like this are an opportunity to show what kind of company you are. You get to show your customers what you stand for.”

Those words were all I needed to hear.

I knew what kind of company we were. I knew what we stood for.

I decided to personally email the eighty-some CEOs affected by our mistake. In a short note, I explained what we messed up, and how sorry we were.

I offered a small credit as a token of how bad we felt, knowing of course that it wouldn’t make up for it. I gave folks my personal cell phone number and told them to call me anytime if they had questions, concerns, etc.

Then I braced myself for the reaction.

I got a flood of replies from customers. Not a single one was negative. A few folks were concerned (as they ought to be!)

But no one was angry. No one left.

In fact, the response from customers was overwhelmingly positive. People said, “Thank you for letting me know” and, “No biggie, these things happen.”

One of our Dutch customers emailed me saying, “We have a saying in Dutch: waar gewerkt wordt, worden fouten gemaakt that translates to ‘mistakes are made if you’re doing work’.”

Another person replied to me, “We all screw up from time to time. Go have a cocktail ;)”

I even had one customer who said he was so impressed with the email I’d sent, he’d forwarded it to his entire company as an example for how to handle a mistake.

Our mistake became a positive moment for our company. It solidified who we were, what we stood for, and showed our customers that too.

We proved that “putting our customers’ best interest first” isn’t just something we say — it’s something we do. We gained our customers’ trust and confidence as a result.

Mistakes are bound to happen. You’ll never entirely avoid them. So your customers aren’t going to judge you on whether or not you’ve made a mistake — they’ll judge you on how you handle it.

Do you come clean immediately? Do you say how sorry you are? Are you genuine about it?

It’s a hard thing to remember when you’re in the middle of a fire. You’re faced with the prospect that admitting a mistake could cost you customers, your reputation, and a lot of money.

When you’re in that moment, simply ask yourself: “What kind of company are you?”

You’ll know what to do.


The four questions to ask every single employee for feedback

Based our research, these are the essential employee engagement questions for managers that we’ve found to be most effective.

Getting good feedback starts with asking a good question.

Ask a good question and you’ll discover that there’s a part of the business you’re neglecting, or an issue you weren’t aware of. A specific, thoughtful question can even shift an employee’s perception about the company, and help them feel more heard and valued.

That’s the power of asking the right question. You can unlock what an employee actually thinks about your company.

So what are the best questions to ask?

We’ve pulled together over a year’s worth of data from over 300 questions that Know Your Team provides. Across 15,000+ managers and employees in 25 countries, these four questions below were the most popular. We hope sharing them with you here will help you as much as they’ve helped our current customers.

#1: Do you think the company is the right size?

Why this question is important: Growth comes with unintended consequences. You’ll want to learn what those consequences are for your company. For example, do people still recognize each other in the hallway? Do people feel that the leadership team is still accessible? That’s something important to dig into if you’ve recently hired folks, or opened up a new set of offices.

#2: Have you ever been afraid to suggest an idea at work because you thought someone might shoot it down?

Why this question is important: Innovative ideas happen when there is a diversity of opinions. You want to create an environment where dissenting opinions are encouraged, and everyone feels comfortable weighing in. Otherwise, you’ll end up fostering group-think. Asking this question will help clue you into whether you should encourage more “devil’s advocate” viewpoints.

#3: Do you feel like you’re spread too thin right now?

Why this question is important: No one performs well when their attention is spread too thin. Not only does it make a person less productive, but that stress and negativity can rub off on others too. So it’s important to gage how stressed folks feel, so you can identify potential burnout earlier, and keep that sentiment from affecting other employees.

#4: If someone asked you to describe the vision of the company, would a clear answer immediately come to mind?

Why this question is important: Having a shared vision in the company is the most powerful way you can motivate people. If the vision isn’t clear or if it’s not shared across the entire company, you’re not giving your employees a big enough reason to care to do good work (other than for a paycheck). Asking this question is a good gut check of if you, as the leader are actively thinking about how you’re motivating your employees and the direction you’re headed as a company.

Of course, asking the right questions is only half the battle. You have to ask for feedback in the right way. And most importantly, you have to act on that feedback.

But it does start with a question.

Start with these four questions. Ask them to every employee — whether it’s during a one-on-one or the next time you grab coffee with someone. It’ll get you off on the right foot.

How we define our company mission, vision, and values

What I wrote back in 2013 to remind myself of what matters as we develop Know Your Company’s (now Know Your Team) own organizational culture.

Yesterday was one of those days when I doubted myself a little bit more than usual. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen many more times again, I’m sure.

When I started to feel that doubt creep up, I decided to dig up a document I wrote for myself a few months ago.

Back in early December 2013, when I was gearing up to officially take over Know Your Company, I had done a lot of thinking. I thought about why I wanted to run Know Your Company. What kind of company did I want to ultimately build? What beliefs did I want to stay true to, regardless of what would happen in the future?

So the week before I signed the papers for the deal, I sat down and wrote down the answers to those questions. I wanted to remind myself what not to forget as I set out to run Know Your Company.

Here’s what I wrote (side note: I’m a visual person, so I wrote it out as slides)…

Nothing earth-shattering. But it felt good to write. And it felt really good to refer back to yesterday, to clear my head and set my sights straight on what matters.

It’s amazing how simply writing down what you believe in the most affirms why you’re doing it in the first place. Even if no one sees it (I wasn’t planning on sharing this document) — the reminder is just for you.

Sometimes a reminder is all we need.


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