Culture at the Core: Why Stance Stands Out

You have seen them on the feet of Jay-Z and Rihanna, as well as NBA and MLB players. Justin Trudeau even recently rocked a Star Wars-themed pair. They are colorful, high quality, and instantly stand out in a crowd. We are talking about Stance Socks. Jeff Kearl, cofounder and CEO of Stance, has built a company that transcends the basic utility of the sock by elevating the humble article of clothing into a cultural powerhouse. With over 15 million pairs of socks sold, and over $100 million raised in venture capital funding, Stance is certainly a force to be reckoned with. The company’s success can, in part, be attributed to the exceptional organizational culture Kearl and his leadership team have thoughtfully crafted.

Company culture is tricky to define and often even harder to implement. It goes beyond your mission statement, the values listed on your website, or your HR policies; it makes up the day-to-day in the office: how you act, how you communicate, what values you promote, and what message you send to your customers, employees, and broader community. From their San Clemente-based office, equipped with a skate bowl, basketball court, and cold-brew coffee on tap, Kearl and his fellow cofounders have deliberately molded Stance’s culture throughout its growth to reflect the values they live and breathe by—inspiring their employees to do the same.

I spoke with Kearl about the origins of Stance’s culture, and how its leaders continue to cultivate a people-centered workplace today. Read on for key insights from our conversation, or tune in here.

Culture is always happening. It’s just a matter of whether you actually acknowledge and steer it.

Kearl: Core values can be anything as long as they are real and authentic. The important part is that you acknowledge them, put a stake in the ground and say, “This is what we believe in.” Somewhere between 20 and 30 employees, culture starts to become self-reinforcing… People start to hire people that are like themselves, and… it’s like a core DNA starts replicating… In the case of a big business, when there are thousands of employees and the culture becomes toxic, it’s really hard to make a change.

Stance’s core values are entrepreneurship, creativity, performance, personal responsibility, and gratitude.

Kearl: We’ve spent a lot of time on integrating the values into [our] work processes. An example of this might be our fifth value, which is gratitude, and the way we define that is we say, “You are humble in your communications and treatment of others. You are quick to acknowledge the help and contribution of others. You know that your success is not contingent on the failure of others, and you’re quick to give credit for results and slow to take it.” We call that “high impact, low fingerprint.” Now, how do we put it to work? It could be in customer service: when we speak with one of our suppliers, customers, or sales reps, [we’ll] send a personal thank you note, and explain why we’re grateful for that person and that interaction. When you’ve taken a value and converted it into a work process, it becomes part of the fabric of the business.

Be wary of bringing too much bias into an interview; rely on your own heart and your own intuition.

Kearl: Once a leader wants to hire someone, the candidate has a second interview… with one of the original five employees (I’m included in that group). For that second interview, we actually don’t look at the resume because we don’t want to be biased. We really want to rely on understanding what it would feel like to work with this person. When you just look at a resume, you’ve sort of abdicated your own decision-making to… their last employer, or to the admissions counselor at the university who was just reading an application, looking at some grades, and a test score. I really want to make my own determination and understand how they might fit in.

The idea of best practices in business is a silly one…it doesn’t mean “best.” It actually means “safest” or “least original.”

Kearl: I’d like to think that the true best practice is original thought, and original thought means doing something different from everyone else. So, with that in mind, we ask ourselves: “can we do it in a better way for our people?” We believe that most companies do an annual review process that ends up demoralizing their employees, and making their managers anxious… so do they really come back in January with a better workforce? Have they really optimized the spirit of encouragement and using compensation to reward the best people to get even better results? Probably not. So let’s try something different. Without doing anything too radical, we included the performance review process in regular monthly one-on-ones; that means we can give raises or bonuses or new stock option grants at any time during the year. If I do something great in January, I don’t have to wait until December to brag to my boss that I did it. I actually can get rewarded in January or February.

It’s lazy leadership to blindside someone with a termination when they were never given feedback that their performance needed to change.

Kearl: We had one employee who had a number of mistakes and failures with other departments —it had become so bad that no one wanted to work with him. I went to his manager and said, “Hey, you really need to put in some extra time with this particular employee, because he needs to get a lot better… to regain the trust of the people he works with,” but that conversation never happened. In fact, it got worse, beyond the point of repair. So we were in a difficult position because he was never given the opportunity to right his wrongs and change. I don’t believe in blindsiding; and this is our mistake: our leadership was lazy. We fell short, so we did our best to honor the principle of fairness, and I said to him that because we couldn’t fix this, we’d take care of him and his family [with a generous severance package]. People don’t do their best work in a culture of fear. If everyone’s afraid they’re going to lose their job or not get their bonus, or of how their peers are thinking about them, it ends up that they play defense, and you want people to play offense, to take big, bold risks, to be passionate contributors, and no one does that in a culture of fear.

Kearl leaves us with some final wisdom: “You’ve got to enjoy the process. You can’t just optimize everything for an outcome. Enjoy every single day and make it great.” With that in mind, be ruthless in your ambitions, not in your company culture. Treat your employees like family and they will deliver for you. Be transparent and honest with them. It is hard to measure or quantify the benefits, but when you have an amazing culture where employees feel appreciated, the impact is felt far beyond your bottom line. Investing in your core values is not only great publicity, it is great for retaining talent, attracting investors, winning customers, and – most importantly – providing a common ground that you and your team can be proud of at the end of the day.

LEAD is a podcast by Menlo Ventures for the next generation of entrepreneurs that focuses on best practices around leadership, culture, and architecting world-class teams.