Samsara’s Chief People Officer, Steve Pickle, on ‘being intentional about culture, purpose and experience’

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez January 19, 2023 Audio mode
Summary:
Pickle joins Samsara from Salesforce, where he brings a wealth of experience with him about how to effectively scale a company, without losing sight of what makes it unique.

An image of Steve Pickle, Samara’s Chief People Officer
(Image sourced by Samsara)

Whilst some companies in the B2B technology market are suffering layoffs and experiencing headwinds as a result of the current economic climate, the same can’t be said of Samsara - a vendor that is focused on becoming the ‘system of record for physical operations’. The company’s most recent results highlight the growth Samsara is currently experiencing, with close to 50% revenue growth year-over-year and over 1,000 customers now paying over $100,000 in annual recurring revenue. 

It’s clear that Samsara is in its ‘scaling era’ as its Connected Operations Cloud continues to gain traction with buyers and the number of proof points for how it uses data will likely further accelerate this. However, as most organizations know, scaling is hard - particularly as it relates to people. 

Samsara is already a company with a couple of thousand employees - and unlike other vendors in the market - it is planning to hire hundreds more this year. With this in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Samsara recently appointed its first Chief People Officer, Steve Pickle, in October 2022. 

Pickle joins Samsara from Salesforce, where he served as EVP of Global People Strategy and Operations, and led a global team of HR professionals, data scientists and technology specialists. What’s key though is that Pickle helped oversee the doubling of Salesforce’s workforce to 80,000 people. Speaking with diginomica this week, Pickle says that this experience will prove helpful in his new role at Samsara. He explains: 

The great thing about a company like Salesforce is that experience with scale. That growing from a small base, to a very large, giant company, and the lessons you learn along the way - the twists and turns along the road - I think that that's one of the things I think I can bring to the table.

I joined Salesforce when it was a couple of thousand employees. And I left when there were tens of thousands of employees. And so having been through that journey, I think I can help Samsara see around corners and anticipate some of the pitfalls. That will be really powerful. 

Pickle says that he comes from a family of teachers and preachers, where he is one of a small handful of family members that has ended up in the world of business. However, similarly to his other family members, Pickle says that he enjoys working in organizations that are focused on connecting with people and connecting with mission and purpose. He adds: 

The thing that excited me personally about Samsara is our mission and the fact that we are grounded very fundamentally in the real lives of real people every day. 

As noted above, Samsara’s goal is to become the system of record for physical operations. It started out by providing fleet management solutions to small and mid-sized trucking businesses, connecting sensors in vehicles to its management software in the cloud to help track mileage and other performance indicators. The company now offers more sophisticated AI-enabled video solutions in-vehicle, where it actually coaches drivers to drive more safely.

It has since expanded to include workflow technologies to companies with huge physical operations and its Connected Operations Cloud uses AI and machine learning to provide companies with the intelligence they need to run either more safely, more sustainably or more efficiently.

For Pickle, this means working for an organization that delivers something which makes a real difference in peoples’ lives. He explains: 

We are helping the people who move things that move the world every day. I just met with somebody who'd come over from a top technology firm. One of the things he shared with me is: ‘I loved where I was, but at a certain point, it felt like I was doing technology for technology's sake’. 

Here his code can help make sure somebody gets home safely every night. Our mission of safety, efficiency, and sustainability, really is differentiating. And I think particularly coming out of the pandemic, there are a lot of us who feel that's really profound and the fact that we're connected to the physical world, the fact that it feels that we can make a difference in everyday lives, as well as thinking about broader societal issues, like sustainability and climate change, is really powerful. 

Diversity of thought 

Whilst Samsara has an exciting opportunity ahead of it, Pickle is not naive to the fact that scaling a company doesn’t come without its challenges - particularly when considering its people. And Pickle believes that people are central to the future success of the business. 

Part of this includes taking a more proactive and intentional approach to inclusion and diversity. Samsara recently released its second Diversity, Equity and Inclusion report, which whilst acknowledging that there is progress to be made, outlines some impressive goals that include achieving the following by 2025: 

  • Achieving gender parity at the people manager level
  • Ensuring that 40% of its director and above level are women and members of underrepresented minorities in the technology industry 

  • Increasing the number of women in engineering roles, to reach 30% women at the individual contributor level and 20% at the director and above level 

  • A commitment to join the Corporate Equality [LGBTQIA+] Index and aiming to score a perfect 100%

  • Maintaining parity in parental leave

  • Maintaining a top 25% annual score in ‘Belonging’ in the Samsara employee engagement survey

Pickle recognizes why diversity and inclusion makes good business sense for Samsara and says: 

Our business is fundamentally about people. We don't have storefronts, we don't have factories. We have a little bit of inventory, because we have the hardware component to what we do. But obviously, a lot of it is about our platform in the cloud. And so in that context, it's really all about people. 

There’s study after study, data after data, that show that if you want innovation, you have to have diversity of thought. And you can't have diversity of thought if you don't have a diverse population represented in the various parts of your business. 

So we see it as an imperative for innovation and growth. It's sort of a no brainer. you're not gonna get there if you don't set goals and if you're not transparent around your data. So that's a big part of us just being accountable to our own values and our own objectives. 

Intentions matter

One of the things that Pickle is very clear about is being intentional about Samsara’s culture. As Chief People Officer, Pickle is all too aware that when scaling there’s opportunity to shift the dynamics of the organization. He says: 

We've grown quickly. We're almost a couple thousand employees now and we're continuing to hire - we're going to hire several hundred more this year. So one of the things that happens when you scale is you're bringing in lots of people. And as you bring in all those people, the great thing is you get a lot of new energy - but you also have to be intentional about your culture. 

Welcoming in parts from the outside while also being thoughtful around: what are those things that make Samsara unique? Certainly, we're very clear on our values, but we're also very focused on creating a culture of belonging and connection and performance. And I think that's really critical as we scale.

Cultures evolve, cultures continue to sort of grow, but being thoughtful about that and having an intentional culture is going to be one of the things that will be really important for us as we continue to hire and as we continue to grow.

Part of ensuring this is the case involves creating an excellent experience for people joining the company, onboarding them effectively, and focusing heavily on their first year at Samsara - or as Pickle puts it, “making sure that people are connected”. 

The way Pickle is thinking about this is through the lens of ‘natural communities of connection’ - whether that be through functions, locations, or the company’s Employee Resource Groups. Whilst Samsara is maintaining a flexible approach to working, Pickle wants to make sure that people get together and that the company’s leadership isn’t just having face to face time with customers, but employees too. 

In addition to this, Samsara has just launched a new mentoring programme, which Pickle believes will help aid this kind of connection, or ‘communities of affinity’. 

But given the ongoing debate in the market around office work versus remote work, I was keen to get Pickle’s view on how he sees this evolving at Samsara. One thing he said was that it was clear to him, through the company’s engagement surveys, that employees value Samsara’s flexible working approach very highly. 

However, Pickle argues the key is to understand that not one size fits all and to think about how to foster different types of trust within a work environment. He explains: 

There's times when you really do want everybody to be in the office, whether it's for a kick-off, or training, or something else. There are times when being together physically is really critical. And there are other times when actually we can be equally, or even more productive, virtually. So a lot of it comes down to being intentional around what those occasions are. 

How do we do that effectively and efficiently? We've seen that we can be successful virtually, but we're also seeing that if that goes on too long, we're missing something. 

One way in which a number of folks have talked about this is different types of trust. There's that performative trust: do I trust you to get the job done? We've shown during the pandemic that that can be realized virtually. 

But there's also social trust. Can I be vulnerable with you? If I make a mistake, will you have my back? Establishing that trust is harder to do virtually, it's much faster when you're in person, and you want to have that performative trust and that social trust. 

Those two together are critical for innovation and success and growth. And so it’s thinking about how you can have that combination? We believe that that's the heart of flexible work. Some of that will be intentional times in the office, some of that will be when we're virtual, but it doesn't need to be all of all one or the other. In fact, it shouldn't be all one or the other.

Amen. 

My take

It’s promising to see that Samsara understands the importance of its people - focusing on issues such as culture, trust and diversity - during its scale phase. Often companies hope that they can retrofit these principles once they’ve achieve the necessary revenue targets that they’re after, which is a much taller ask, and can often feel like putting lipstick on a pig. 

Pickle brings with him a wealth of experience and clearly understands some of the nuance when thinking about these issues. Placing these agendas at the core of the company now, rather than later, will hopefully put it in a much better position to navigate its growth phase. 

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