Dena Upton of Drift: How Great Storytelling Can Energize Your Employer Brand

Nov 25, 2020 - Joe Matar

Before we get started, here's what you can expect:

    • Great brand storytelling is a critical part of building a strong employer brand, one of your most powerful assets.
    • Strong company culture starts with the founders’ values, and people leaders are responsible for codifying and spreading those values.
    • “[Our team members] believe in what we're doing, what we're selling, they understand the financial metrics behind our business, they understand how our customers are talking about us. And it builds on itself, it's contagious,” says Dena Upton of the value of transparency for company culture at Drift.
    • Startups naturally attract curious, lifelong learners. Reward their curiosity with information and opportunity to create ambassadors for your employer brand.

A strong company culture starts with a solid understanding of who your people are.

Realizing who your company’s mission and product appeals to most helps HR leaders understand what will attract talent and set employees up for success.

“I think we've all learned over the past few months that there are only so many Zoom happy hours,” says Dena Upton, Chief People Officer at marketing software company Drift, on a recent episode of Talent on the Rise. “It's up to the people team more than ever to build that sense of engagement.”

Drift does a phenomenal job of connecting with people and building relationships, whether it’s in marketing, talent acquisition or with employees. Whether you work within a fledgling startup or a large company, so there’s a lot to be learned from Dena’s experience.

Check out the full episode on your favorite podcast app:

Dena joined Drift in October 2018 as the company's first Vice President of People, and she moved up to Chief People Officer in February 2020. She’s worked in a handful of tech startups, and she’s gotten comfortable with facing the challenges of a fast-growing company.

Around the time Dena started with Drift, the company had around 225 employees. Today, it’s at nearly 400 across four national offices, and continuing to grow, including an expansion into Europe and Australia.

She shared lessons from her experience on managing people operations in a company growing so quickly.

Start with a solid framework

Dena attributes much of Drift’s successful growth to the company’s absolute focus on the customer. But the company’s internal culture plays a major role, too.

Drift culture is based on a set of eight values, which the company calls “Drift Leadership Principles,” including:

  1. Put the customer at the center of everything you do.
  2. Create a culture of respect and trust.
  3. Practice extreme ownership — of both successes and failures.
  4. Have a bias for action and deliver daily results.
  5. Seek feedback, not consensus.
  6. Push for high standards.
  7. Stay scrappy.
  8. Be a curious learning machine.

“We think of them like a tool box you can use to make the best choice for your customers, get unstuck and move as fast as possible,” Dena says. “They're kind of guardrails that steer our actions.”

She says this culture, as with most startups, is driven by the founders. As the company has grown, these values create the framework for how it’ll run. Clearly defining helps them disseminate across all employees and decisions.

Dena says Drift lives its principles in every way it manages employees and culture, including:

  • Recruiting
  • Promotion
  • Employee recognition
  • Internal communications
  • Customer service

Every candidate is vetted according to these principles, and new hires are trained to put them into practice, to ensure they remain the company’s foundation even with fast growth.

Make transparency a habit

Each Monday, Drift kicks off the week with “Monday Metrics,” a team gathering to learn what’s in the product pipeline. It ends each week with “Friday Show and Tell,” where one person per department shares something they accomplished that week.

“We've relied a lot on rituals,” Dena explains.

These opportunities for the whole team to come together bookends the week with transparency about the company’s goals and a celebration of its accomplishments.

Along with camaraderie, these rituals instill a sense of ownership and purpose in each employee.

“People come to Drift because they’re curious learning machines and want to be part of an organization that is growing really quickly,” Dena acknowledges.

Transparency about the company’s trajectory, including challenges, rewards and encourages that curiosity, which helps them better contribute to the company’s success and find success in their own careers.

Trust your team, create brand ambassadors

One of the most impressive things about Drift is how enthusiastically the team promotes the company, its products and how great it is to work there.

Dena says this is the ripple effect of transparency.

“If you trust the team with information,” she says, “they will, in turn, talk about the great experience they've had working with you.”

Everyone at Drift believes in the product and what the company is trying to achieve. They also understand the financial metrics behind the business, how the company provides customer service and what customers are saying.

This deep understanding of and involvement in the company’s mission naturally creates brand ambassadors who organically spread the word about the company culture and brand.

Make your people famous

HR leaders sometimes worry that showcasing leaders in their company runs the risk of revealing your best talent to other organizations. Dena says that’s totally OK.

“I hope we make all of our employees super famous and they go on to do greater things as a Drift alumni,” she says.

She’s not kidding. Drift hosts the HYPERGROWTH Podcast Network, with shows that showcase the company’s leaders in marketing, operations, growth, product and even one hosted by co-founder and CEO David Cancel.

Dena and her team aren’t interested in hoarding talent, but rather helping their people grow. They want to attract people to the company to do the best work they can and be better because of their experience there. They know growing at Drift might also mean growth in their careers to do great work somewhere else.

Control what you can control

These principles aren’t limited to startups. In larger organizations, you can apply them in smaller segments within the company.

If you lead a particular department or team, Dena says, “think of yourself as a small company within a large company.”

Treat your small corner of the company like a startup of its own, and control what you can control. Apply the transparency, set those standards and develop a positive culture within your space.

Dena suggests focusing on the “area of influence” you have, sharing as much as you can across departments and being transparent with finances where you can.

To encourage this transparency and ownership as an HR leader, you have to have a deep understanding of the business beyond expertise in your field.

“Organizations are changing drastically,” says Dena. “Successful people leaders are up to speed on what's happening in the business, so whatever they're delivering from people strategy mirrors the challenges facing the business.”

This article is based on an episode of Talent on the Rise, Brazen’s podcast about transformative leaders and how they got a seat at the table. Subscribe in your preferred podcast app.