Scaling culture is hard. Can Zenefits pull it off?

(Story by Henry Albrecht originally appeared in Employee Benefit News)

Zenefits dominated HR headlines last week when CEO and co-founder Parker Conrad resigned. Periods of executive turnover are always daunting, but even more so for a company that’s experienced such insane growth in a short period of time. The benefits software company — one my company uses and likes — falls into that camp, recently valued at $4.5 billion.

New CEO David Sacks immediately addressed the outdated company culture and released a new set of corporate values, effective immediately.

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This is tricky: If done right, this move will result in a culture grounded in the new values. But if leaders and employees don’t embrace the change, words will ring hollow.

For Zenefits, the challenge isn’t building a new culture. The real battle lies in scaling it as the company grows. Culture ebbs and flows depending on people, the economy, business success, employee churn and even the office layout — but intentional culture requires discipline.

Let’s be clear — culture isn’t the Silicon Valley stereotype of ping-pong tournaments and margarita Fridays. Culture is the underlying norms, beliefs and behaviors that determine how employees — and companies — work. In fact, 60% of C-suite executives say culture is more important than strategy or operating model.

As Peter Drucker said, culture eats strategy for breakfast. You need a strategy for weaving your values into your culture and vice versa.


First things first: If you want values to drive culture, you need to operationalize them. Employees might memorize the company values, but do they understand how to apply them? Communicate openly and often about why these values matter, how they align with your business strategy and what behaviors help your employees live them. Do you value flexibility and work-life balance? Adopt a no-email-on-the-weekends policy. Does your workplace value collaboration? Then stack ranking your employees against each other won’t work. Bring values up in meetings, in the carpool and at happy hours.

Walk the talk

Once you open a dialogue and set policies around your culture, it’s time to walk the talk. Living the values starts at the top, with company leaders setting the standard for employee behavior, expectations and cultural norms. Reward employees who uphold and exemplify the values. In our own efforts to scale culture, we recently created the “Culture of Improvement” awards, which recognize LimeMates (Limeade employees) who exceptionally live the Limeade culture. Recognizing and celebrating these culture champions is a great reminder of why our values matter.

It’s a tailored game

One size doesn’t fit all — employers need to provide autonomy and flexibility to allow different groups to bring culture to life in their own ways. We encourage our employees to take stress breaks, but it’s not up to me to decide what that looks like. For some, it’s working on a puzzle; for others, it’s a team wall sit or a walk around the block. Employees will only adopt and embrace your values if they can do so in a way that’s personally meaningful.

Scaling culture isn’t easy. It’s something we deal with every day at Limeade. It won’t happen overnight — but the results are worth it. In a blog post new Zenefits CEO David Sacks outlined company challenges, goals for the future and the values that’ll get them there. Zenefits is taking all the right steps. It’s nice to hear words like “integrity” – but words are just that. It’s more exciting to see a company look critically at its culture and make changes according to its (new) North Star.