The We Company’s Heather McCuen on the Scalability of Trust
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Heather McCuen, the Head of Global People Policies at The We Company, to discuss their Unstoppable Culture. Heather is a friend and an Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship alumni, and I know you’ll be as interested to hear what she has to say about the scalability of trust as I was!
1. What is your elevator speech when someone asks about WeWork or The We Company? And we cannot imagine that the whole world does not know about your company.
It’s actually really fun to talk about so I don’t mind at all! Since 2010, WeWork has been a platform for people to make a life and not just a living, so it’s a place to create your life’s work. I think a lot of people first hear about us and think, “Oh, you’re a coworking space,” but that really only scratches the surface of what WeWork is. I think in a very real way, people in our spaces come together, are connected to our community, and go on to do incredible things. And, actually, now that we’ve rebranded, or expanded, as The We Company, that platform continues to evolve and grow into something that stretches beyond just the way we work together. As I see it, our work life isn’t actually separate from the rest of our lives, so that idea of making a life involves so much more than just where we work! We also believe that we are students for life, so educational resources are important to us, as is personal wellness, so our business is expanding to support these things too. I like to think that what we are building is really the infrastructure for a meaningful work-life integration, which goes beyond the idea of work life balance into a life where everything is connected and truly fits together.
2. You touched on it, but can you expound on what difference The We Company is trying to make?
I think it starts with that idea of being a platform where people can make a life and not just a living. I love that mission, and I feel very connected to that. I also believe that what makes WeWork so extraordinary is that the difference we want to make is constantly evolving and growing. When my team and I opened our first building in Montreal in 2016, for example, it had a real tangible impact on the Montreal startup ecosystem. Montreal is an amazing town, and we tapped into the talent, passion, and innovation that was already there by creating a space for our community to innovate and build together at a scale that just hadn’t previously existed. And the talent, imagination, and creativity that exists all over the world, now has this community to be a part of that connects us all together. I think for me, personally, making a difference begins with that connection because that connection can be a catalyst for a million things that we haven’t even dreamed of yet. And that’s the magic! To me that’s what our new mission statement – to elevate the world’s consciousness – is actually all about. It’s about connecting more to ourselves, and to each other, and to just living more meaningful lives.
3. We know there is nothing “typical” about you, Heather. But please tell us about a typical day as Head of Global People Policy. Who or what are you trying to influence?
Actually, I was just saying to a new employee the other day that I joined WeWork in 2015, and I don’t think I’ve ever had the same day twice. Typical is definitely not part of our vocabulary, so I suppose the only thing that’s typical is that we’re constantly evolving. We’re constantly outgrowing our last best ideas, which I love! And that’s an amazing thing to get to do every day. I can say that I think of policy as a critical framework of culture. The policies we write don’t just tell people what they can and can’t do, and I think that perspective on policy really misses a huge opportunity. Well-crafted policy is a positive mutual commitment, it’s a framework to build trust on. And as we know as Unstoppable Culture leaders, trust is a pillar of a strong culture.
To actually answer your question, my team develops, facilitates and localize its policies for all of our employees around the world, and right now that’s 100 cities across 27 countries, and growing fast. So, I guess you could say we’re busy! In terms of what we’re trying to influence, the first answer is that culture of trust, and the way that we do that I like to call staying hungry for impact. Being hungry for impact is about never losing sight of how our work affects our employees in very real ways. To give you an example, we recently increased our paid parental leave to 16 weeks for both moms and dads. And just a few minutes after we announced that, one of our employees posted that he had just read that announcement from the delivery room waiting to become a dad for the first time. He was just totally overwhelmed with what that meant for him and the time he’d be able to spend with his new child. And to me, that’s impact. I want my team to always be hungry for that.
4. Based on the WeWork values, which one best describes your leadership team?
Oh man, it’s really hard to choose! But I think if I have to pick one, I would go with Together. Our team has done a huge amount of growing, especially in the last year. And as I said earlier, we’re constantly outgrowing ourselves and our last best ideas, and the intensity of that is not easy. It really only works if you have a team that’s willing to step up and choose that struggle together! Our People Leadership Team knows that we can count on each other even when it’s hard, or late, or complicated, and that what we’re building, we’re definitely building together. And actually, that takes all the other values too, right? That’s authenticity, tenacity, inspiration, and entrepreneurial spirit. And, I’m definitely incredibly grateful for all of that. So, I guess I had to include all the values after all!
5. All companies have part of their narrative that isn’t as well-known as other aspects. What do you want others to know about the We Company?
It’s just that we have the most amazing people because that’s who The We Company attracts. I think our members know this because our community teams in our buildings are probably the best example. In fact, that idea of being hungry for impact is something that our community teams live and breathe every day. Every single success story, all of that magic that comes out of our communities around the world, is the direct result of their commitment to our members, and our mission, and to each other. And I am constantly inspired by what amazing, generous, gifted, and just unbelievably creative people work for the company. In fact, a big part of my job, as I see it, is to make sure that our people policies, and really my own personal commitment to our employees, is equal to their commitment to this community.
6. As a student of culture, what culture learning do you wish more organizations would practice?
I think that one thing that’s really a game changer in culture is a commitment to growth mindset. That idea that there is no point at which any of us could say, “that’s it, this is as smart as I get,” and understanding that there is always more to learn, and that you don’t have to be an expert to dive into a problem, or embrace a conflict, that can move you forward. And that every process, even the good ones, can be better. While the connection between growth mindset and culture may not seem immediately obvious, being surrounded by people who are always looking to learn more and do things better is incredibly motivating! It makes us want to be better for each other, and learning together creates common experiences that makes our connections to each other even stronger. So, growth mindset is really a culture building mindset, and that’s something that I think that we have internally at The We Company that makes us stronger.
7. You recently posted on Instagram about “what it feels like to stand in your purpose.” Can you tell us more about what you mean by that?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my life that there have been times where I felt entirely present and just grounded in what I was meant to do. These times often begin with some kind of inflection point, a moment or a choice that propels me into something new, which is usually something that terrifies me – but those are my favorite things! When I made the decision 17 years ago to head downtown towards Ground Zero after 9/11, I knew in my bones that that’s where I needed to be. And the four months I spent there changed my life. When I quit my job in 2013 and moved my family to Costa Rica to attend the United Nations University for Peace, I was terrified – but I was also one thousand percent sure that that was where I needed to go. I am someone who believes in both energy and purpose, and that each of us is a vitally important piece of a much larger puzzle. I think in systems and I believe that everything is ultimately connected. I also believe that the energy that we put into the world matters, and that the cumulative energy created when people work together toward something – positive or negative – has enormous power. So, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing these moments when I’m truly standing in my purpose, those inflection points that are going to lead to meaningful things.
8. Were than any actions items for you following your involvement in the 2018 Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship?
Definitely, yes. I could probably talk for hours about this so I’m going to try not to do that! I would call them open questions that I’m incredibly grateful for because I was able to articulate them for the first time during the Fellowship in a way that I hadn’t been able to previously. So, thank you for that! I think the most interesting question for me right now that came out of my time at the Fellowship is about the scalability of trust. How do you scale trust, especially in hyper growth environments? Obviously, the conversation around how you scale strong culture is not new. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career to have been part of some very strong teams that truly showed up for each other and accomplished amazing things. But lately, I’ve been more focused on the disconnects – the places where we share mission but we lose trust in each other. I believe fundamentally that we can be driven, and competitive, and high performers, and also do the right thing, and connect, and give as much as we can to each other. I also believe that we can be both successful and emotionally generous with each other, not dissimilar from what Gary Vaynerchuk refers to as Honey Empire, a term I love. It’s describing an end state that we haven’t quite perfected the formula for. So, in other words, we know the end state we want to reach, and we can point to real world examples of what this ideal balance looks like, but we don’t necessarily have the formula to get there yet. And I love that kind of question because it’s really about the physics of human relationships.
During the Fellowship, I was lucky enough to have lunch one day with Commander Rorke Denver who is really a living example of that exact balance of generous spirit, ferocious drive, and accomplishment. I wanted to get his perspective as a Navy SEAL Commander on the relationship between trust and struggle, because teams in the military become like family, at least in part, through their shared struggle and their commitment to a larger purpose. And while it’s certainly not the same, there are parallels that we can learn from. My hypothesis here was that people don’t come to trust each other in spite of the struggle we experience – we trust each other because of it. When startups are small, trust is forged in the struggle of getting things off the ground through solving unexpected problems, late nights, and all those failures you experience on the way to being successful together. The team that I worked with as a 9/11 responder is still my family almost two decades later because of what we went through together. Frances Frei, another fantastic thought leader, talks about the triangle of trust and how trust takes authenticity, empathy, and logic. And she’s right. I also believe that shared struggle is the fire that fuses those things into trust. So, since the Fellowship I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my conversation with Rorke and about the power of shared struggle, and how we can really embrace and celebrate that in our culture building strategies.
Whatever it is you’re doing, when people feel connected they will always show up for the mission. But when they stay, and commit to what you’re doing, they really stay for each other, not just the mission. They stay because they’ve connected to people. And that’s, I think, the real core of what I believe as a culture strategist – it’s about how we can show up as our authentic selves, connect, and do amazing things.
Heather McCuen is a culture strategist and HR Leader passionate about building inclusive, resilient and high-performing teams. Currently the Head of Global People Policies at The We Company, she has two decades of experience in strategy, operations and HR in both the nonprofit and private sector. She combines an understanding of culture systems, operational excellence and strategic organizing as a catalyst for ongoing positive change. She is a visiting professor in Social Innovation at the United Nations mandated University for Peace, where she earned her Master’s Degree in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies. She also holds an Executive Certificate in the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (in association with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict) at Tufts University.