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Slack co-founder Cal Henderson on the 1% emoji and values at work

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 21, 2019
Digital teamwork platform Slack’s British co-founder Cal Henderson discusses values, change, focus and what the 1% emoji means

Cal Henderson CTO Slack interview Unleash19 London by @philww
Cal Henderson, Slack

How does a fast-growing company like enterprise messaging platform Slack stay true to its values? Cal Henderson, the company's British co-founder and CTO, took to the stage in London at this week's Unleash conference to talk about values, managing growth and staying focused, along with the surprising role of the emoji. Here are eight takeaways from the conversation.

1. The power of the emoji

The emoji has become one of the least likely productivity tools of the modern enterprise. In the fast-moving discourse of digital messaging, these visual icons rapidly convey approval, praise or disagreement, speeding up what is already a rapid communications channel.

Slack has gone further than most, building in the ability to use any emoji when replying to a message. Henderson explains how the company internally uses this feature of its own tool to compress the time it takes to react to a message:

We use a lot of small workflows around emoji in our use of Slack. We have a convention that if you see something that you're looking into and are going to act on, you post the eyes emoji and that says, 'I'm taking care of this one.' You post the green checkmark emoji when it's done. Or if you're going to vote on something, you use thumbs-up and thumbs-down.

That helps compress a whole bunch of that interaction and wipes out those five hundred or thousand-long reply-all email chains.

2. Slack's 1% emoji

Organizations can design their own custom emoji for use in Slack, often to reinforce specific values of their company culture. Slack is no exception, and its own custom emoji is a 1% symbol, says Henderson:

We have a thing internally where we talk about the idea that getting 1% better at something every day leads to huge compounding returns over time. You don't have to just make big splash changes, you could make a whole bunch of little improvements and it will really add up over time.

So we have a 1% emoji that people [use to] react to people making small changes, which will all add up over time. And that's the way we can signal that people see that and give them internal kudos. We find that pretty powerful.

3. Learning to be flexible

Slack's exponential growth in user adoption has made it the fastest-growing enterprise software company in history. Henderson says his biggest learning as the company has grown has been the need to be flexible. That doesn't come easily to an engineer who's more comfortable with routine and structure, he admits.

The one biggest learning for me has been how to let go of that and allow the fact that my role has changed really significantly at least every six months. In a sense, each time I'm working myself out of a job and trying to figure out how can I push down what it is I do today to my team below me ...

[I'm] constantly thinking about what's a high-leverage use of my time, because I know what I'm doing today in my role is going to be very different to what I'm doing next year. Embracing the fact that you know everything is going to change over time has been hugely important.

4. Staying true to values

That pace of change is why it's been important to have defined the company's values from the start, he believes:

I think that was important, that we defined our values early on. Those are the things that we want to keep constant, as a thin line through everything, and everything else is up for change. Every bit of process, every bit of structure and every bit of the way we work together is going to change.

5. The power of alignment

Values are the foundation of alignment across an organization when it's in such a constant state of flux, he explains:

The environment in which all organizations are globally operating now is significantly different from where it was a decade or two ago. There's a massively changing workforce, markets are changing faster than ever, and it's driven by an increase in the pace of technological change. And so organizations which are able to adapt to change, you're going to be the most successful.

Now, in order for an organization to be able to adapt to change, you need to build organizational alignment. You need to make sure that everybody in your organization has a shared set of goals they're pursuing, that they are aligned around not just what your organization is doing, but why as well.

6. Thriving as a core value

Henderson didn't list out all of Slack's core values, but one that he did talk about is the notion of 'thriving'. This is especially relevant to the employee experience, he explains:

That's the idea that, whatever your role or whatever your level, we want you to be growing your career while you're at Slack. I think one of the longterm measures of whether we're successful in that will be whether people leave Slack to go on and do great work elsewhere.

We know that people who work at Slack will not work there for the rest of their lives — the world isn't like that anymore — but we want this to be a great time in their careers.

7. How to get hired by Slack

While the core values define people's goals when they work at Slack, the company has defined a different set of criteria that it uses to decide who to hire, says Henderson:

We said, think about the best people that you've ever worked with — your best co-workers you've ever had — and what did they have in common? We tried to distill what we thought of as the best descriptors of people you would want to work with.

The attributes that we came up with were smart, humble, hardworking and collaborative. That's now the criteria which we use to help assess people that we want to join the organization, and also a guideline via which we assess the performance of people in the organization as well.

8. Staying focused is crucial

As Slack continues its growth at breakneck speed, one of the most important qualities is focus, says Henderson.

There's so many directions we could be going right now, there's tens of thousands of things that we could be adding to the product. But I think at scale, one of the key roles of leadership is about creating clarity and about aligning people around what it is that's important — focusing on just the few most important things that we can be doing at any one time, that'll have the biggest impact on our customers.

What are the biggest problems that we're trying to solve, or the biggest problems that still exist within the platform? Focusing on those I think is a really important role, especially for me.

My take

An interesting insight into life on the inside of a company that’s helping define the future of work for all of us.

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