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LIVE From LEARN Summit: Building a Customer-Centric Culture (Ep. 31)

with Aaron Levie, CEO of Box

When you master company culture, you master company growth.

Culture is key. And the majority of companies are so focused on success that they forget about cultivating a strong, healthy work environment.

What they don’t realize is, if a strong culture is implemented, they’ll see more growth and success than ever before.

"Set up a company with a strong culture of dedicated, hardworking, highly collaborative, and high-execution individuals. Organize it around ‘how do we work well together? How do we create a safe enough environment where people can be themselves, where they can bring their best selves to work and bring their best ideas?’" Says Aaron Levie, CEO of Box.

LIVE From LEARN Summit_ Building a Customer-Centric Culture with Aaron Levie, CEO of Box (Ep. 31)

In this episode of LEARN, Aaron covers various aspects of building a successful company, including fostering a strong company culture, managing executive teams, and maximizing the potential of employees and customers.

Key takeaways:

  • Create a strong company culture where employees can bring their best selves to work and contribute their best ideas
  • Align talent with the company's trajectory and cultivate an environment where diverse talents contribute to the team's overall effectiveness for greater results
  • Orient the entire organization around the goal of making customers wildly successful with the company's product or service

Listen on your favorite podcast app to understand what your company can gain from developing a strong culture.


[03:09] Team evolution focuses on talent alignment and effectiveness.

[06:31] Navigating talent and collaboration

[11:10] Fostering strong culture and values in an organization

[14:26] Evolving processes and values shape the company's success

[16:26] Aligning organization to prioritize customer satisfaction and feedback


[00:00:00] Aaron Levie: . We want to set up a company with a strong culture of dedicated, hardworking, highly collaborative, high candor. high execution, but, one that is sort of organized around how do we work well together? How do we, you know, create a safe enough environment where people can be themselves or they can bring their, best selves to work and, uh, bring their best ideas.

[00:00:21] Ted Blosser: Welcome to the LEARN podcast, where we interview top leaders in tech and learn about how they're building the world's most innovative companies. I'm Ted Blosser, CEO and co founder of WorkRamp, the world's first learning cloud platform. Our mission is to help professionals reach their full potential through learning, and the LEARN podcast is where we can learn from the best leaders at the top of their game.

Please subscribe, leave us a rating, and we hope you enjoy the episode.

Hey everyone, welcome to our fireside chat. We have a special guest here, Aaron Levy, CEO of Box. Aaron, thanks for joining us.

[00:00:55] Aaron Levie: Hey, thanks for having me, Ted. How you doing?

[00:00:57] Ted Blosser: Aaron to kick us off. I actually [00:01:00] went throughout my whole house. And for those of you don't know, I worked at box for Aaron. I found my oldest piece of swag. It's an old smug, but it says cloud content management. So you haven't changed your vision much, which is very consistent. It says www. box. net.

[00:01:16] Aaron Levie: Wow. You have a dot net, uh, uh, relic. That's incredible.

[00:01:20] Ted Blosser: Well, the question I want to start with is what was your first piece of swag you remember making for, for box?

[00:01:28] Aaron Levie: first piece of swag, um, there was a Justin Timberlake, um, uh, Andy Samberg, uh, SNL skit, um, that is not work appropriate. I'm not gonna recite it here, but it was, it was on SNL and, um, and so we were young kids back then.

So we made a T shirt, that had the same tagline as, uh, as that skit. So I'll, uh, I'll let people kind of look it up and on their own. But, uh, that was, that was probably the first piece of swag. I remember, um, was, uh, was us stealing that [00:02:00] marketing tagline.

[00:02:00] Ted Blosser: Well, leave that to imagination. But I also found, I also found an old sweater, which I keep,

[00:02:04] Aaron Levie: Okay, good sweater.

[00:02:06] Ted Blosser: my whole, my whole wardrobe. I don't even have much war cram stuff. It's still all box. So, uh, thanks for all the swag, uh, through the

[00:02:13] Aaron Levie: We're just trying to keep you clothed, man. That's all.

[00:02:16] Ted Blosser: Well, today's conversation is going to be really fun. I'm actually going to base our conversation off of a book. You actually made us all read. When we joined box, it was, uh, any gross high output management. And what I love to do is talk about how do we get high output from various stakeholders that we interact with?

This will be from executives to employees, all the way out to investors. And we love to get your tips. You've been doing box for almost two decades now. And so you're like the elder Statesman. You can share all this great knowledge with us

Well, the first area I love to pick your brain on is the executive team. You've gone through, yes, you have a very stable, strong executive team now, and you've gone through multiple [00:03:00] iterations in different phases. I love to hear from you. What are your tips from getting the most out of your executive teams?

[00:03:09] Aaron Levie: Yeah. I mean, over the years, certainly the team always, you know, any kind of team naturally evolves, um, because the, the problem that you're solving in the business evolves. And so you have to ensure that. You know, fundamentally for any, any talent decision, your talent has to align with, you know, where the company is going and then that talent, you know, has to organize in a team and that team has to be able to be also effective for where the organization is going.

So you can have the world's greatest individual contributor for where, where your business is going. but if, you can't ensure a strong team dynamic and get the most out of the whole team with that individual, then it doesn't work. And so we've. We've certainly evolved our, our organization to ensure that we've got the right talent for where the business is going.

And I'm, I'm extremely happy about where, where the team is and, where the team has been, to be able to get us. to the spot, you know, I think it's a mix of [00:04:00] ensuring that you have highly complimentary, players on the team, you know, people that, that, uh, are able to, solve the, the types of problems that maybe their peer doesn't solve.

So, so everybody's sort of fitting in this mosaic you know, some people are maybe incredible operationally. but that's balanced out by somebody who's incredibly on incredible on strategy. And so how do you make that whole kind of team gel with different kinds of talents, different kinds of skill sets?

Um, and how do you enable them to all be incredibly effective in what they're great at? And then, and then hopefully the sum of the parts is, is kind of, you know, greater, than those individual parts. so we spent a lot of time just cultivating the right kind of team, the right kind of camaraderie, the right kind of collaboration, openness, transparency.

A high degree of candor calling out challenges when we see them debating those challenges. Um, but then fundamentally, uh, aligning against a set of goals and executing on that, that that's kind of like the whole set of lessons that we've learned. you know, again, we strive for an [00:05:00] open and candid culture.

Um, but one that is going to be, you know, hopefully very ambitious and set big goals and then go rally the organization. in the direction to go achieve those, those goals.

[00:05:10] Ted Blosser: How does your personal style evolve? Like, and I've been doing this a lot, a lot less time as, as you have been doing. I've only been doing it for eight years. I've seen my direct style evolve. Has yours evolved? I'd love to hear like, maybe even specifically, like, how do you go manage a Stephanie to have the best output?

Anything that has changed in your mindset. Over the years, I've managed even execs.

[00:05:33] Aaron Levie: Yeah, I mean, I think, I probably am the, you know, kind of classic, founder on the standpoint of when we started, I wanted to be involved in everything and I wanted my hands on, on everything just because, you know, every decision was at least to me, life or death. and you know, if we made one wrong turn, it could end the company.

And so that pressure. unfortunately, I converted that pressure into a form of energy, which is just like, then I have to know [00:06:00] what is going on everywhere. I have to be involved to make sure the right decisions are getting made and that that sort of, you know, probably works when you're in pure survival mode or.

So, you know, Ben Horwitz has this idea of a wartime mode where you really have to just convert into, you know what, you know, we love everybody's opinions, but we have to make quick decisions. And these are high, high stakes decisions. So, so by definition, you know, the CEO or founder is going to be even more actively involved and engaged in those kinds of decisions.

So over time though, when you're, you know, you're not always in this wartime mode, you do need, you know, kind of stable execution. It's not necessarily peacetime because I don't think any startup really gets to experience peacetime. but you're not always, in those sort of life or death decisions on a daily basis.

And so, so the more run rate is how do you delegate the right kinds of, of work to the team? your role as a founder or CEO becomes a bit more around cultivating talent, cultivating the team dynamic, ensuring and enabling and orchestrating collaboration to the extent possible. Obviously, you know, layering in when you have strong [00:07:00] opinions, but doing your best to sort of pull out the best ideas from, from people.

and so over the years I've, I've tried to get better at, at how do I exploit all this amazing talent that's in the organization, you know, get out of the way. Uh, when people are, are doing great work and, and executing and, and, you know, certainly don't, you know, interrupt or, confuse that kind of work, but step in when there are challenges and where we do need to be decisive and we can't kind of punt on difficult decisions.

And so that's, that's sort of been the role evolution that, I've had to take on. And I think you have, and, you know, really any, any leader, whether you're a CEO or any kind of individual manager of a, of a team.

[00:07:36] Ted Blosser: I love that evolution. I still remember when you would, when I was a PM, you would just ping me, like, I think I was on vacation or something. And I, you asked about specific feature about, uh, a specific launch, like, how does Aaron even know that? But you were in wartime mode. You knew what you needed to get done, but I'd love to see how you've evolved.

All right. Let me switch gears into employees. So for those of you who have never worked at [00:08:00] Box, Box has literally like the best culture of any company at tech. I always say like, that is like the secret sauce of Box beyond anything is the great culture it's fostered and amazing people that have come from it.

So I'm curious, Aaron, give us some tips on How do you, one, build such a great culture, but then also, two Drive great output from your teams, for example, like box being profit or cash flow, uh,positive now, as an example, where you're still like doing all the culture things and still making money and being efficient, how do you do that, uh, in this day and age

[00:08:34] Aaron Levie: you have to define the culture that, that, that you want. And, um, and I don't know that there's a, a sort of a universally good culture because optimized around a different set of attributes. Um, culturally, and sometimes that's driven by founders.

Sometimes it's driven by a leadership team. Sometimes it's driven by the market reality and, and, you know, kind of business that you're in, you know, if we, you're in a, if you're in a logistics business, uh, where, you know, every [00:09:00] single second of every day and every utilization level matters, then your culture is obviously going to veer toward more things like operational excellence of every single minute, every single dollar, right?

Has to be high impact. If you're in maybe more of the software business or innovation business, you probably have to foster a level of creativity and, you know, almost. Environments where people can bring great ideas to life and, and you're going to debate those ideas and doesn't mean everybody. It's like, everything's happy, go lucky.

And everybody gets to just run around and innovate all the time. You have to have hard conversations and hard decisions, but you do need to foster an environment that has a certain kind of culture as well. And so, so I think there's, you know, kind of an infinite set of cultures, um, because every company is, by definition having to do something slightly different in the market if they're going to succeed.

and so then there's a correspondingly different set of cultures out there. So for us. Yeah. You know, we, we defined seven core values, that we said were the, the values that we would live by as an organization. And it's a mix of, what we want to do as a company, not, not at a [00:10:00] strategy level, but, but the kind of what in terms of how we operate and then a little bit of the, how we do that, um, the style, and the trust and the, sort of healthy dynamics we want to create the ways in which we work.

And so, um, so our values are, things like, we want to have 10 X ideas and this was. Um, actually, it's an Andy Grove idea, which is, um, which is how do you have kind of 10 X, performance improvement on, on what we're, uh, what we're innovating on? How do we have breakthrough ideas? Um, you know, customers generally only pay for things that are 10 X cheaper, 10 X faster, 10 X more innovative.

Because it's a lot to change what you're currently using, these are why incumbents always tend to win is because like change is hard. So as a startup, you have to be 10 times better at what you're delivering. And so one of our core values was like, let's be 10 X better, in the areas that really, really matter.

And how do we, how do we be disruptive in. in the areas where customers are going to value that another core value had was blow our customers minds. And this was this idea that we just need to do everything we can to make our customers wildly [00:11:00] successful with our software. And that means anybody in the company needs to step up, make sure that we're doing what is what is best for our customer base.

then we balance that with, uh, with another core value of make mom proud. And this was this idea where, where we want to have an organization and a culture where. Where people, you know, interact with each other, where we collaborate with one another in a way that, that, you know, we can be proud of and that, that we know that, that if you were kind of looking into the business, you would be proud.

Of, uh, of how people were acting and operating with one another. So those are the core values that we set up. And then we define those very, relatively clearly. And over the years, we kind of, you know, continue to, iterate on them craft them. But, the key is to reinforce them across the business.

Um, so every new employee that comes in, every moment that we have as a company to remind people about the values, unfortunately in situations where maybe somebody doesn't work out, you know, living by our values and, we sort of are, you know, making those kinds of decisions.

That's how we've reinforced that over time. And so we want to set up a culture. We want to set up a company with a strong culture of dedicated, [00:12:00] hardworking, highly collaborative, high candor. you know, high execution, but, one that is sort of organized around how do we work well together? How do we, you know, create a safe enough environment to, you know, where people can be themselves or they can bring their, their best, you know, best selves to work and, uh, bring their best ideas.

and so that's the environment we've created and then we align that to a set of, you know, hopefully again, ambitious goals and targets and an operating model that lets people go and execute. against those goals, and I think that's sort of what has allowed us to, to build back that cohesive culture over over the years.

And, um, where we've landed today,

[00:12:37] Ted Blosser: Hey, everyone. I want to take a quick commercial break and tell you about the company that produces this podcast. I co founded WorkRamp back in 2015, and our mission has always been the same, to help professionals reach their full potential through learning. As part of that mission, we built the world's first learning cloud, an all in one platform for your employee, [00:13:00] partner, and customer learning needs.

If your company is looking for a learning management system, also known in the industry as an LMS, We'd love to talk to you. You can reach us at our website, work ramp. com, or you can even email me directly at Ted at work ramp. com and I'll get you in touch with our team. Hope you're enjoying the episode and back to the show.

has been around for about 18 years, let's call product market fit 15, 16 years or so. Have you seen, like, if you, if you take a step back, have there been big, like, phase shifts of the culture? Like, how many, or has it been pretty consistent the whole time in your mind? Like, uh, or would you, tell the story differently?

[00:13:40] Aaron Levie: I think the culture has certainly evolved as we've scaled. But the thing I've been very happy with is. there are some things that naturally just definitionally change when you're 50 employees, right? You can get in a room, make a decision. And like a week later, the product could pivot and you're, you're doing that, you know, again, out of survival, out of trying to find that product market fit [00:14:00] and at 2500 employees, you know, we probably can't do that as easily, but we wouldn't really want to, you know, you want stability, you want consistency, and then you want compounding value to get created, you know, any company that's sort of changing its strategy every year or two years, you're probably not getting the benefits of that compounding nature of, of software, at least in our industry.

but ultimately, you know, we want a culture where, we can line line up against a set of goals and go and execute on those. And, um, and as we've scaled, I think we've just been able to do that better because you get more at bats. You get you get more feedback loop of what's working and what doesn't.

if I look back at our, operating system as an organization for things like goal setting or aligning the company on goals, 12 years ago, it probably looked very different than it does, you know, today or the past 5 years because we tried a bunch of things and. We iterated and now we think we've landed in something that is a sort of sustainable, approach to that type of thing.

Um, similarly, the way we made hiring or firing decisions may have been a little bit different 10 or [00:15:00] 15 years ago, but over the years you kind of build that feedback loop and then we've improved things. And now we've landed in a spot that we think we're good at, you know, we're good with, and that we think is sort of best for us.

And so we kind of do that by category hiring goal setting, business processes, how how we drive execution. that has evolved over the years. I think the parts that are universal and timeless are just like, what are your core values? what's your, the mission of the company?

These things have, you know, remained relatively stable over, over time.

[00:15:26] Ted Blosser: I will say you've all, you all did a great job. If you were just in the culture, you would make it fun. And we actually, we've stolen one burn busters from Box.

[00:15:34] Aaron Levie: Oh, nice. Okay, youth burn busters and every. And it's really saving money in the company, but you've made that fun where it's like, Hey, it's no longer about spending all the money we can to grow.

[00:15:43] Ted Blosser: It's, it's about being efficient. And we've used that internally for our work ramp 2.

[00:15:47] Aaron Levie: Oh, cool.

[00:15:48] Ted Blosser: it's learned from you because you made it a fun culture shift as well. So let's, okay, let's close off. I want to talk about one last area, which is customers. And what I love to learn from you is, and I'm going to [00:16:00] frame it this way.

How do you get the most. Out of your customer base. When we talk about high output. What's the best way for you now? Have you evolved? You're thinking there's things like user conferences, like boxworks to new products, to like just showering them with CS, uh, resources. How has your, viewpoint evolved on how do you get the most.

From your customer base where they become loyal followers of your brand and your business.

[00:16:26] Aaron Levie: you have to start with what are you doing for them, uh, you know, kind of almost obviously, to the extent possible, everywhere across the business, we are as organized and aligned, on this mission of, making our customers just incredibly successful.

And, you know, again, this, this value of blow our customers mind is sort of, you know, deeply, enforced across, across the organization at all levels of leadership. And. This could be everything from if we have a site incident, how quickly are the engineering and infrastructure teams going to rally against that [00:17:00] to if we have an individual customer issue, top to bottom, how, how aligned are we going and solving that customer problem?

and so I think you have to, you know, establish a culture of being customer first, customer centric. And then when you do that. you then get the benefit of your customers want to tell you, you know, things, what, what new feature do they want? what better ways could you serve them? What markets should you be entering?

we are always listening to our, customers at all times. We encourage anyone in the company to be paying the product team or me. If they are running into customer feedback or ideas that we should be listening to. probably 95 percent of what we build as a company is coming from customer feedback.

It doesn't mean that, they're literally submitting a, you know, request and then we're building that, but, the ability to, listen to and synthesize all the different ideas and things that we're hearing from customers and then converting that into our strategy. is sort of what we're doing all day long, whether it's explicit or kind of almost implicit in, in how [00:18:00] we operate.

So, I'm a massive believer that all value eventually, comes from customers in terms of what, what you need to do for them. and then it has to be extremely aligned to their, what you're doing has to be extremely aligned to their needs and wants and wishes. And, so we've just tried to, again, build a, a very customer centric customer first organization, to go and drive that.

[00:18:18] Ted Blosser: I can attest that there's a story where we had customers who were stuck in an elevator at headquarters and Aaron went to go talk to the customers that are stuck there, asking for feedback, pitching them box. Do you remember that story at all?

[00:18:32] Aaron Levie: Well, I think that's like the definition of a captive audience. So, um, uh, so I, I, I definitely exploited that opportunity, but probably the bigger lesson there is like get better elevator maintenance. I don't think, I don't think you ever want customers stuck in an elevator.

[00:18:45] Ted Blosser: I'm going to go dig, I'm going to go dig this video up somewhere, somewhere in my, in my box archives.

[00:18:49] Aaron Levie: I'd love to see that one. So

[00:18:51] Ted Blosser: All right, Aaron. Hey, really appreciate the time you spent with us. We learned so much today from you and best of luck with everything.

[00:18:59] Aaron Levie: thanks Ted. Appreciate it. And, uh, great to great to see you, you folks and have a great conference and, uh, go work ramp.