Lauren Letta of Charity: Water on the Impact of Transparency and Integrity
Lauren Letta is the chief operating officer of charity: water, where she has been a driving force in building its entrepreneurial-minded team and employee-centric culture. Embedding the principles of collaboration, transparency and integrity in its performance management process has helped charity: water function more efficiently and effectively.
In this episode, we explore:
- How transparency and integrity matter for both the internal culture and the external reach of an organization.
- The role that comradery and collaboration play in charity: water’s ability to be efficient and effective.
- In what ways a structured approach to performance management can coexist with the flexibility to customize it within different departments.
- Why technology can improve, but shouldn’t replace, communication between managers and employees.
- How performance management is a living thing that’s constantly evolving and never perfect.
Also mentioned in this podcast:
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Michael: Yes, I’m Michael Bungay Stanier. Yes, this is Performance Management Stories. This is where we get into the nitty-gritty about how organizations around the world are thinking about and tackling their approach to performance management. I’m really excited today to be talking to Lauren Letta. Now she is the COO, the Chief Operating Officer, of Charity: Water.
Now if you’ve got any interest in the world of philanthropy and doing good in the world, you should know Charity: Water because they are a fascinating organization that is doing good and doing it with real marketing and operation savvy so that they raise their profile and they make great impact in the world. Lauren as the COO is in charge of the day to day operations, including the major campaigns, the special projects, the partnerships and productions, all with this emphasis on marketing and brand development. Just knowing how busy she is, we’re extra lucky to get this time with her to talk about it today.
Lauren’s been the driving force in building Charity: Water’s entrepreneur minded team and employee centric culture, and they’re encouraged really to apply bold creativity, collaboration, and innovation, all with a singular focus which is to solve the water crisis. In the seven years that Lauren’s been with Charity: Water, she’s helped the framework and built the framework that’s enabled Charity: Water to grow into a 75 plus person enterprise that’s brought clean water to more than seven million people around the world.
Lauren, awesome. Thanks for being on the call with us.
Lauren Letta: Of course. Excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
Michael: We’ve talked a little bit about Charity: Water. But what else can you tell us about the organization so people understand what we’re talking about here?
Lauren Letta: Sure. Of course. I mean, I think you did a beautiful job of setting us up. At the core our mission is about bringing people access to clean water who don’t have it. We primarily work in, or we only work in developing countries. We work in 25 different countries right now. Mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, which I think adds a level of complexity into the organization as it is.
But we’re based here in New Work. We’re just turned 11 years old this year. Not in start-up terminology anymore, but we still often times feel quite scrappy as such. As you said, we have 75 people here in the US. Then we work through implementing partners around the world in those 25 countries where we work. All of those implementing partners then employ thousands of employees really all around the world who are kind of extensions of how we make our work possible.
Michael: I love that. I love the fact that you’ve been at Charity: Water for seven of the 11 years of its existence. You must have really seen it grow and evolve from that scrappy start-up where it’s probably you and Scott the founder and a few other people, to being a much more substantial organization now.
Lauren Letta: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been an incredible journey and a fast journey to watch the organization grow. Both internally in terms of how we operate and how we’re designed and structured, and then the movement outside. The supporters, and the more than a million people around the world who have joined in the fight against the water crisis. It’s been a really amazing ride, and certainly plenty of change and evolution of the organization over that time.
Michael: One of the things that I know that happens is, when you start off and there’s three or five or 10 or maybe 15 of you, you don’t really do performance management. You all go, “We’re alive. It’s a miracle. We’re doing our job. It’s fantastic”. But at a certain point when teams form and teams and leaders and the like, you need to start implementing performance management.
I’m curious to know when it kind of coalesced into something that you needed to think about and worry about at Charity: Water.
Lauren Letta: It’s so funny, because when I was thinking about performance management and this chat with you, that’s the exact thing that came to mind. Which was like, “What was that point where we realized performance management was a thing?”
Lauren Letta: I remember it quite distinctly. It kind of roles back a little bit to my role, and as you stated, as a smaller organization. When I started, I would call it about 15 people at that time. The organization had been kicking along for four or five years, and doing quite well. I think there was this interesting point where the team that was in place looked around and said, “This is amazing. We’re growing, and there’s this incredible group of people who want to support us and help us get to an even bigger level of impact. We’re changing lives all around the globe, but how the heck are we doing it this way? What do we have in place?”
My role when I came in, when there was those 15 people in place, was really this kind of hybrid role. Part of it was looking internally at our organization and saying, “How can we get work done more effectively and more efficiently?” Of course based and baked into that is the people. How do we hire the right people? How do we structure the right people? How do we support them? How do we grow them?
Throughout that exploration and through the development of going from an organization of 15 people that were all doing everything to a little bit more of a structured organization with managers and an executive team, that was all forming in those early years. That’s when we started to look around and say, “How are we nurturing growing? Thinking about professional development? Providing feedback?” I think that’s something early stages of companies, you’re kind of doing that so quickly you don’t know if you’re doing it or not.
Lauren Letta: That was really kind of early on for us. Maybe a year or so into my tenure with the organization where we really started to understand performance management was a thing. It was even, and I think this is really consistent for a lot of organizations starting up, that you don’t really typically start with an HR person straight away. It was really probably nine years into the organization where we had a formal HR function forming.
For us what was really cool about that is, we formed it as people in culture. We had the years of expertise in learning of, it wasn’t just about compliance and regulation, but it was about people and nurture and community.
Michael: Part of what’s wonderful about this of course is you don’t have a 50 year old legacy approach to performance management going, “This is what my grandfather’s grandfather did, so that’s what we now do at this organization”. Knowing that you’re a smaller team, my experience when I came to visit the offices was this was a very Millennial focused team. I guess that’s just code word for, “I’m older than everybody there”. It’s a sad thing to have to admit”.
How do you guys go about performance management? How do you approach it?
Lauren Letta: That’s a great question. When we first started, you’re reminding me of this. When we first started and I first started looking at performance management, to that point I certainly didn’t have expertise in it. But there’s something very natural about the way you think about providing feedback and helping people to grow in their careers.
I remember our first performance template was, I think Netflix template, which at the time was getting all of that really … I remember there was a video about how to do it the Netflix way. That was actually really helpful for us, because I think it was a starting point for a young organization to think about how you incorporate behavioral and performance based evaluations into the performance management tool.
It’s certainly evolved for us, and it actually is constantly evolving for us. But the way that we initially thought about it was first and foremost, every single person in our organization should on a regular basis know where they stand, how they’re performing, and the opportunities they have to grow in their careers within the organization, and also how that supports them in the future growth of their careers. Nobody’s spending a lifetime in a company anymore, so what does your overall development look like as a human being? Both from a value and behavioral base, to how are you performing within the culture that we expect and the values we expect of our organization which has been ingrained in our performance management process since the beginning.
Then how are you doing against your deliverables? What is the opportunity to improve or to grow within those more performance based sides?
Michael: One of the things that I’ve noticed in, if you like to call them non-profits, I’m not sure if that’s the right word anymore. But that kind of social innovation sector. I’ll just be blunt about it. Poor behavior, because people have a kind of moral mission where they go, “Look. I’m serving the mission”. That excuses all sorts of behavior that might not get away with in other organizations. Do you get any of that at Charity: Water? Or is that just me kind of making it up?
Lauren Letta: No. I mean, here’s what I can say. I have not worked in another non-profit, so I don’t have experience with that. But I do think there’s a stigma of lack of accountability, or lack of excellence that I’ve heard of when I hear people talking about working in a non-profit environment and why they’ve chosen not to. I hear that a lot when we’re recruiting.
I can’t speak for any other organizations but I can certainly say for Charity: Water, and for the organizations that we follow and look up to, I don’t see that to be the case at all. The actual, I find it to be the opposite in that the most beautiful thing about working in a non-profit and especially one I think where the mission is something that everyone can wrap their head around, everyone in the world should have access to clean water. That’s a really simple truth.
What I find is that we are able to attract a very wide range of talent and expertise, and at the same time bringing in people who are coming into something that they know is greater than themselves. It creates this really great sense of comradery and teamwork and collaboration where egos don’t play a part. But there is a very important sense of, “We all together are achieving this great mission, and we all have to carry out weight”. It’s very team focused, and the reliability of each other is really an important part of the way that we’re able to achieve what we do.
Michael: You know, I was talking to somebody from One.org which is another great non-profit. Part of the RED charity that people may have heard of. They said something very similar which is, “There’s a stigma to the way people think about non-profits, as being a bit touchy-feely. A bit lacking in accountability”. Made the very same point, which is about just how rigorous accountability is in their organization, because they are professionals. They are showing up and acting and being held accountable as professionals.
Lauren Letta: Yeah. That’s absolutely the case for us. I think One’s another great example for sure. We attract and recruit talent from a variety of types of industries and sectors, depending on what we’re building in the team. We have people from big technology companies and start-ups and great agencies. Then we have top notch people from some of the best NGOs. Those people are all coming together. Bringing in their expertise and certainly holding one another accountable.
Michael: Love it. Let’s get into some of the nitty-gritty about how you approach performance management. One of the things I’d love to hear you talk about is your approach to ratings. Ratings are getting a bit of a bad rap at the moment. Ratings are demoralizing and de-incentivizing. Yet most organizations have had ratings in some form or another. Do you use some type of ratings at Charity: Water?
Lauren Letta: Yeah, that’s a great question. We do use a rating. Our formal review, the formal review process which we believe should be an ongoing thing, there is a formal twice a year review process. That review process uses a qualitative rating system. Which ranges from exceeds expectations to doesn’t meet expectations. There’s a variety of iterations on that in between. That’s been the most successful for us, because we’ve found that when you try to boil it down to some numerical rating to fit onto some chart that matches to some fiscal plan of, “You get X percent raise now”, you just lose the story, the context. All the things that attribute to, “Did that or did that not work?”
It’s important to us. One of the things we try to do along with that process is to have our performance management plan be something that’s very, a living document and incorporated into one on one so that when you’re coming into that mid-year review and looking at the rating, you know exactly where you’re falling on that spectrum.
We have both a self-review and a manager review so that you’re able to say, “This person thinks it’s on track”, and your manager thinks that it’s not. Then let’s find that dialog. That summarizes down at the end of the review into one overall qualitative rating, which helps inform things of course like performance increase, and some of the quantitative metrics. But it’s one of the factors in consideration there.
Michael: One of the things that I’m aware of with Charity: Water as a charity is how brilliantly transparent you are. It’s part of the essence of your brand. Which is not only, “Do we market in a really savvy way”, but, “We will show you what’s really going on and we’re absolutely nothing hidden, nothing behind the curtain”, in terms of how you do your work.
My guess is that sense of transparency shows up in terms of how you work internally. It’s probably some form of a value of yours at Charity: Water. I’m curious to know if I’m right, because I’m just guessing how that then plays out in the performance management process. How transparent are you across the organization about how people are doing?
Lauren Letta: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a great question. It is, transparency and integrity are huge parts of our organization in how we market and how we try to bring people closer to the impact on the supporter side. It’s certainly something we try to match on the internal side.
I think where we really focus is on over-communication. That’s in a variety of ways. Every single time we’re re-rolling out the performance management process, we do a presentation that explains what’s changed about the process and why. That’s almost always driven by feedback we’ve gotten from both managers and employees the previous cycle.
We’re really trying to incorporate feedback. We use a couple of different tools to be able to do that in surveys. Sometimes it’s just a Google survey. Sometimes it’s just our head of people in culture sitting down and speaking with team members and managers to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and then incorporating that into it.
The evolution of the qualitative rating system and what types of descriptives were right for that came from discussion with managers and team members. We really try to over-communicate throughout the process. Then we really try to also prepare managers to have the contacts they need within their team and their department and in the organization to be able to answer questions about, “How does this tie to my compensation? How does my rating in this department relate to a rating in a different department?”
I think within that we try to be transparent about the fact that as much as we want a structured approach to performance management, there needs to be flexibility and an ability to be able to customize that within departments. You just have different sets of metrics.
Michael: Got it. Part of where that takes me on is to the challenges of change management and rolling stuff out. It’s one thing to go, “Okay. We’ve got good feedback. We’re going to make some tweaks”. It’s another thing to then roll out or introduce a new approach or a revised approach. Communication’s clearly one of them, which is, let’s be really explicit about what these changes are. But I’m wondering if you’ve learned anything else around change management that helps everybody who’s involved in performance management, which is everybody, kind of be fully committed to the process.
Lauren Letta: Yeah. I think outside of the over-communication, one of the things we’ve learned is not changing too much at once. I think because when you do that it’s just kind of sensory overload and you’re, it’s almost like when you’re A B testing something and you’re testing 14 things. You’re like, “We have no idea what actually changed about this”.
Lauren Letta: One of the things we’ve seen is that, I really believe that just like the organization is always growing and changing, that the performance management process always needs to be growing and changing along with the organization, and the organization’s needs and the state of the organization. I think there’s a constant of change.
We have, outside of our performance management process, just in the way that we work as a team, we really try to encourage that you should always be expecting something to becoming better or different or more efficient. Or we’re trying a different way of doing this.
Part of it I think is just customizing and sensitizing people to, it’s okay if we’re trying something new. Let’s get feedback and then decide if it should keep going. It’s again that kind of over-communication. But it’s also about, well it’s about a constant state of evolution. It’s not changing everything at once. We’ve tried to balance those two things when it comes to change management.
Then really, really paying attention to, who are the people, in this case the managers, who are putting in the bulk of the work? How can we hear from them and get feedback from them before, during, and after the process? As you said, everybody’s involved in this. It’s not a top down kind of, “Here’s the new thing. Do it. See you later”, approach. It’s, “What do you think? How can we get your feedback and incorporate that?” Then, “Let’s give this a try”, and then hear feedback and make it even better next time.
Michael: That’s really helpful to hear. I particularly love that pointing to the tension between it’s a constant evolution, we’re constantly evolving this. We’re always in beta mode, but we’re not changing everything all the time. We’re refining bits of it bit by bit. It’s a constant improvement towards the best version of this we can get to.
Lauren Letta: Absolutely.
Michael: Lauren, let me ask you. I implied this earlier on about Charity: Water feeling like a relatively young company. Not just the years you’ve been around but the population of people who work at Charity: Water kind of being younger rather than older. Where I go with that in my kind of cliché way is, “These hip Millennials. They probably do it all with gadgets and technology. They barely talk to each other”.
I’m being a little melodramatic for the sake of it. But I’m curious to know what if any technology you use, and how you might use it as part of this process.
Lauren Letta: Absolutely, yeah. I wish we were a little bit more advanced with the technology that we use for our performance management to be honest. We haven’t found the perfect technology yet. Part of that is, as a non-profit, we’re always on a little bit of a tight budget. Part of that is a budgetary thing. But part of it is also being able to, like we just talked about, have that ability to constantly customize and evolve something.
What we’ve relied most recently and most heavily on are actually Google Sheets to be the kind of house for our performance review process. What we really like about that is that it allows it to be, A, collaborative, so your manager or the head of people and culture, the employee, everybody has access to it all the time. We also really believe that the nature of our organization, the nature of business today, changes too fast to assume that what we say we’re going to do in January is what we should evaluate ourselves on in June.
The Google Doc was a great way for us to say, “This is a living, breathing document that should be incorporated into your one on one meetings”. That should be looked at on a regular basis. I think that’s why we relied on this kind of digital collaborative tool.
But we haven’t tried to replace the conversation with technology. We still expect all of our managers to be having one on ones. That everybody here has one once a week, if not once every other week. We expect for our feedback to be regularly delivered in face to face situations. We have started to think about how we can supplement that with additional tools that might, we use Slack as an organization quite heavily and we have a channel called Wins, where peer to peer, people are able to give each other feedback and high fives on what they did really well that week.
We’re trying to find ways to incorporate some of our digital communications and feedback mechanisms that are a little bit more part of the day to day, into the process there. That’s something that I think we’ll hope to evolve a little bit more in the new year. But we certainly do believe that a conversation between people is still valuable.
Michael: Is the point, yeah.
Lauren Letta: No matter how young we are.
Michael: That’s great. Lauren, this has been fantastically helpful. Before we wrap it up, and kind of final reflections or comments on your experience in performance management at Charity: Water?
Lauren Letta: It’s been great to chat as well, thank-you. I think this is just such an important part of the organization and nurturing the people that join us in what we’re trying to achieve. For me I think the most important part of performance management and the most important part of organizational design as it is is that it’s never done. It’s never perfect. It’s something that really should constantly be looked at and figured out how it can be made just 10 percent better every single time.
Michael: I love it. Charity: Water committed to solving the water crisis. Box of Crayons has been a supporter of Charity: Water, which I’m proud of. For people who are listening to this podcast who are like, “I love the conversation and I also want to become a supporter of Charity: Water”, where would they go to be able to contribute?
Lauren Letta: That’s a great question. Thank-you, and thank-you for your support.
Michael: My pleasure.
Lauren Letta: We’re really very grateful for it. The best place to go is charitywater.org. You can learn all about what we’re looking to achieve with our mission. Right now we’re really excited about this brand new community called The Spring which we’re growing. It’s a community of people giving every single month to help bring clean water to people in need all around the world, all year long. You can learn all about that at charitywater.org.
Michael: Lauren, it’s been a real pleasure. Thanks for your time.
Lauren Letta: Awesome. Thank-you.