Work Minus More Titles with Andy Kitson

24 Aug 2018   |   Culture

Work Minus More Titles with Andy Kitson

24 Aug 2018   |   Culture


Well, welcome back to Work Minus, where we talk about what we need to drop from how we work and quick pivots so you can make today’s you get closer to a better future of work. Today, our guest is Andy Kitson, people ops at Redox and this episode is Work Minus more titles.  Hi Andy, how are you today?

Hey, doing great. How are you, Neil?

Very good, very good. Now, Work Minus Titles is a topic that we talked about several episodes ago, but we want to revisit it now with you so, why don’t you start us off with who you are and what you do at Redox?

Yeah, sure.  As you mentioned, my name is Andy Kitson and today, I am building out our people operation function at Redox, just for some context Redox, we are a start-up, we´re growing pretty quickly and we build out a platform for healthcare technology.

Okay. So, you’re in people operations, is that what other people call HR or how do you describe that?

Yeah, it’s roughly similar. It’s like a re-branding of HR. If you´ve ever read Work Rules by Laszlo Bock, he has kind of a nice description of how they operate and landed on the people operations moniker and it’s often used in to reference HR in more of technology or start-up environments.

Okay. So, great. Now, your background is actually as an engineer, correct?

Yeah, that’s correct.

So, walk us through, how that transition has been for you?  What is the story?

Yeah. I started pretty early at Redox, as one of the first few engineers and spent like a lot of time really in the trenches, hands on the keyboard, building out our products, getting our first customers, getting a platform up and running stable answer to scale that. Over that period, my day-to-day work really shifted from, you know, building the product and the platform to how we build the organization, the engineering organizations that is the one building the products and platform.  So, that’s one way that my role shifted over the past few years and then, last December, we were doing some 218 planning for the full company and as you looked at, we’re trying to achieve as a company, it became pretty clear that we’re going to have to scale other parts of the organization, similar to how we had scaled the engineering team and answer questions like, “How do we hire great people for this? When we have great people, how they think about career paths? How do we think about compensation, how to think of performance managing that, you know,  expectations, and, how do we divvy up work among teams?” and that sort of thing. So, in the time, the engineering team has a lot of great people, pretty much all of them are better at the actual engineering task that I am, which is an amazing thing to had to happen and it became pretty clear that, the way I can have the greatest impact for the company is to shift focus from the engineering team to, you know, how do we build Redox itself as an organization? And yeah. I made the move and that step brings us up to now.

So, as you’re an engineer and all these discussions thinking about things, did you just find it natural that you are always drawn to the discussions of how do we build a better organization?

Yeah. I mean, it´s an interest. I really love systems as such, so that means technology system, or the product you are building, but also, I think systems where people are the main entities in that system, are incredibly interesting. Just because people are really complex and they can do a lot more than you might expect of them at first if you think about how to engage people in the right way and make sure they’re working together and motivate people. That itself is an interesting problem so, I’d often gravitate as, you know, we’d hit issues that might present as technical issues, but dig a couple layers down, there is a more structural organization of people issues. Those are the sort of problems that I like solving and I gravitate most, more towards.

Yeah. So, engineer going over to people operations, not common, but not totally unheard of, but we’re talking about Work Minus Titles so, how did that work out? In terms of your title, your position as you can make that transfer.

Yeah. So, at real for us we really… I guess we don’t really care about titles, certainly internally. So, at the point where I was, you know, transitioning,  I really thought of my role as I am engaged in building a few engineering organization and there wasn’t like a title that so you went along with that and in thinking about, what should I start doing next? I could answer that question without a thought of really know where it is my… what happens to my title? What title do I get? Is this a battle or move? Is a demotion? Is a promotion? Any of those things, it could really just be a question of, you know, what is the greatest need at Redox that I am uniquely capable of solving? And, how can I shift my time to do that? I think if we had a set of titles that you had to negotiate or anything like that, that would have slowed down the process introduced just a layer of fiction that we want to avoid.

So, tell us, how your colleagues responded to this? Your fellow engineers, other people working in people ops, it is just like an obvious thing for them? It was like, Oh, yeah! Andy loves this stuff so, it makes sense for him to be working on it, or was it strange for them?

I don’t know if it was strange, I think when they thought about what am I good and and what do I enjoy doing, it made sense. We hadn’t had say a dedicated people operations function before so, there was some set of conversations we had to have to establish, like, what is that? These of the activities that we’ve been doing already in the engineering team that makes senses.  Certainly people like when they try to project themselves into the position I think that made it a little tense…there were a number of jokes about how I finally achieved my dream of getting into HR, that sort of thing. But, yeah, I think because you’re able to really focus on like, what is the task and the value and how is that map on to what I’m good at, it largely made sense.

Well, tell us more about this culture of not really caring about titles. Is that just because you guys are a cool startup? How did that come about? What’s that culture like?

Yeah. So, I say this, first off. The not-caring-about-titles thing, we’re not really dogmatic about. We’re not on a mission to get rid of titles or anything like that. For us, it’s more a matter of… it didn’t start out with titles, we’re just a group of people working on a really hard problem and we wanted a high degree of fluidity in moving from, you know, what am I doing today to what is the thing I need to do tomorrow and sometimes, those are vastly different things. As we’ve grown, we really try to maintain that focus, each person should be asking themselves, “What is the biggest problem I can see from my vantage point? And, how can I go about solving that?” So, actually one of our core values is solve the biggest problem in sight. So, the question like, “Should we have titles?” comes up periodically, especially when you talk with candidates who are coming in, they want to understand kind of how do we think about titles or talking to customers. But when we think about, you know, do titles make sense, for Redox it´s always through that lens of “Would introducing titles enable us to move faster? Would it enable the team to have a larger impact?” It doesn’t make sense for us now and we expect they would introduce friction in a number of ways that we really want to avoid.

So, tell us, you know, you have this internal culture where there are no titles, but you mentioned hiring, you mentioned people on the outside, a lot of times that’s where the titles become a little bit more important. Do you have kind of a dual identity where inside there are no titles, but outside you have to give yourself some position?

I´d say yeah. There is this kind of duality to it.  So, internally, aside from our CEO and CTO, it’s hard to say what anyone’s title is, people just know that, “Oh you’re on this team, this is your work, this is what you do and how you relate to the rest of your organization, and titles don’t really factor into that. But yeah, when you’re talking with the customer, sometimes you need a title to get the right meeting. For those cases like, people are able to put the title that makes sense for them on LinkedIn or on their business card. A lot of that is trying to understand that when people ask for a title, sometimes they’re asking for a title and it is a matter of status, but a lot of times are like really looking for a shorthand. So, from a customer’s perspective it’s often, “Is this someone who can make a decision on behalf of the company and I want to talk to someone who has that.” So, a title can be a signal of if a person who can decide for Redox. And we actually want to empower people without having a title to be able to make decisions on behalf of the company because they understand what we do and they are closest to that decision. If they need to tell someone that they have a specific title in order to get them to believe that, then go for it. We’ve actually had like a few different people have had fun with their titles and choose things that were a bit whimsical, I’d say, in doing that.

Yeah. Can you give us some examples?

Sure. So, two of my favorites. One of our early engineers. He is really is a deep expert on healthcare interoperability standards, which are in our industry, extremely, they’re a very abstruse topic. So, his title on his card was “The Standards Whisperer”.  Another, one of our solutions engineers, when she came on, we asked her what she wanted on her business card. Her choice was that she wanted to be called the Tech Enablement Princess. So, people can make up a title, some choose to go with something like that, others are more focused on maybe a bit more practical things. But we recognize that titles can be useful and whatever people choose needs to be grounded in some sort of reality, so it’s not completely off-base,  we’re not misleading customers if they want to know if this person can make a decision. But internally they don’t really matter and when they do is because they’re sort of funny and we get a laugh out of them.

Nice. So, you’ve intrigued me with this business card issue. Do people literally just… you say, what do you want on it? And they can name pretty much anything and as long as it within reason you’ll print it?

Uh, yeah.  I mean, so just to be clear, we don’t want to mislead people.



But yeah, like that’s pretty much the process we have. What do you want, what do you need for your role and if you’re going to conferences and talking to a lot of prospects and you actually can make decisions for the company. And saying that you’re a director is going to be the shorthand that makes sense. Yeah, then go for it. That’s fine.

Going back to your internal team culture, how have you found that being titleless has enabled you to reduce the friction that you have amongst how teams work and how they operate?

I guess we didn’t necessarily have a really clear before-and-after like, you know, we had titles and then removed them. But there are areas where when we think about, “Should we have titles?” we choose not to because we are afraid of friction. Really, day-to-day–how we solve problems together–and also when you think longer-term about how do people think about their career and career growth at Redox, day-to-day I think the reason we choose not to introduce titles at Redox, or at least one of them, is that we fear that titles that titles might introduce friction in terms of what problems people choose to solve and how they go about solving them.

So, if you have a title, it’s kind of like an implied hierarchy and titles can reinforce that. And there’s this question of when I look at a thing that has to happen, “Is that a problem that’s above or below me?” And we want people to feel that when you have that kind of question, when you look and see a problem, the relevant frame to use in looking at that is, “Am I capable of solving the problem? Do I have the context and the ability to do this?” And that means that people say who maybe just recently started, they´re early in their career, they´re solving problems that feel big to them and if they were to ask from a point of, “Am I the right person or have the title, the authority?” If you view it through that lens it might be no, but if you ask “Do they have the ability and the context?” and the answer is yes, we want them to solve those problems. Conversely, people who have more leadership responsibilities or who might have a higher-level title, when they see a problem they are in the best position to solve it, we want them just go and solve it, not worry about if it is beneath their title or work that I shouldn’t be doing, we want people to get their hands dirty.

That’s kind of one set, I think the other day-to-day activity is that titles can imply authority that’s granted by the organization and there are a number of pathologies related to that. One is if someone who has a title asks you to solve a problem, it can be pretty natural for people to solve it because someone said so and because they have the weight of the organization behind their title and behind the request. One, that’s not what we want. Then, even if they go and do it, it’s less effective because they don’t fully understand why are they solving this problem and are they able to course-correct as they actually dig into the details. If they’re solving it because a person with a title asked them to, they just don’t have the deeper understanding of what are we trying to achieve, but if they’re really able to dig in and say “Actually I don’t really think that’s the right thing” or if it is, we need to have a deeper discussion, but I’m not doing it just because you told me to and you have a title. We want people to solve problems because they matter and not because someone asked them to.

Then there’s the HIPPO problem, the highest paid person’s opinion. And titles really are signals of who is the hippo in the room and we always want people to engage with ideas on their merits to push back on decisions regardless of where they come from. Not just to push back, but to question and make sure they have a deep understanding and conviction behind what we’re doing. Those are areas that I think titles can introduce friction. It doesn’t mean you’re destined to go that way, but when we think about ourselves, that’s why we choose to hold back on titles.

Yeah. It’s really fascinating to think through the lens of decision-making and problem-solving, especially. I’ve never really thought about that element of which problems you choose to solve, how you approach them based on who’s asking you to do that. It’s very fascinating to think about those things. Just a curious question for you, just thinking culturally, what would make you guys decide to start to introduce more titles? Can you think of a cultural change or a growth size change which would cause you to say, Hey! We got six hundred people around here, we need to have some kind of level of hierarchy or some kind of old titles, what are those things for you?

Yes. I say for us, we’re always going to do this question through the lens of will introducing titles enable us to have greater impact as a company and if the answer is yes, then we are open to it, but for us one of the values about having titles is we really engage with the problems say day-to-day, when you think about career growth people are able to think about like, what is the company going to need a year from now and not just what titles we happen to have out there. We’re constantly building a team. I´m building with the people operations function we didn’t know about a year ago or starting a product marketing organization that we didn’t know, we´re going to do in a year. There are things like that where we don’t have titles that people can thrust their aspirations towards. But, we’re still a growing company, we’re discovering things, and I can see how creating greater stability, we’re able to really have a ten-year career path or something like that, you know, titles can make sense. Ten years might be a bit long, but the point is, you know, greater stability and also communication.

Yeah. Now, you guys are obviously kind of on this very far end in terms of removing most titles internally, kind of getting rid of that. So, as somebody who’s into people ops, thinking about organizations, what’s next for you? I mean, where’s the next place you want to go? How do you want to push the organization to further reduce friction and the idea of where people land within the company? What’s that for you?

So, in terms of where I’d like this go as a company, it’s really in building out an extremely strong capability of communicating around like, growth paths, essentially, that are not title-based so, as an example, we know that our company needs people who are able to lay out a vision for something that we’re not doing now, it’s maybe continuous with our current business, our way of operating and then having that equates to something new. We also need people who are able to translate that vision into action for the team. We need people who are able to coordinate a team around the achieving, doing those actions and carrying that out now. We need people who are able to do so more traditional, people management functions and support individuals and growing skills and excelling in their roles and really doing that. So, there are things that we need as an organization, that we’re able to start setting different growth paths, their roles, you can wear these hats, be able to try it, and experiment with them and it turns out that is the way that you both find joy in your work and you´re most impactful for the company and incredibly, you found a good fit. If it turns out not to be right and there’s no harm in going back to whatever you did or trying something new and having a really robust career development and career growth that is really engaging for all the people on the team and drives a company forward. It gives different results in a way that is low friction so, if it doesn’t work out, you’re not faced with, “I’m going to lose this title that I had,” but it’s more balanced. “I’m going to switch to another thing that I know it’s valuable for the company and I have a set of tools and support structure training around how do I develop those skills.”

Well, excellent. It’s a great peek into the future where you guys are going. Andy thanks so much for being on the show, it’s been great to get to know you a little bit better and learn about what your company’s doing. How can people stay in touch with you?

Sure, yeah. You can you text me on LinkedIn. I’m Andy Kitson and I work at Redox as we’ve been talking about, or you can shoot me an email, [email protected].

All right, excellent Andy, thank you again for being on the show, we appreciate it and we look forward to talking to you again.

Thank you.

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