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The Lessons From “Why Coinbase Shut Down Woke Activism”

Read the latest Coinbase Cultural IssueOperation Revive COIN – Coinbase Top Down Culture Issues & What it will mean for the company and their employees.

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong joined the recent Good Time Show, a dedicated podcast from some of the a16z team to discuss Coinbase, the mission they are on and the decade long journey of Coinbase in crypto and embracing a web3 future.

There was a ten-minute section (see below) of the podcast that is vital listening for any leader and leadership team that you can learn many lessons.

The Lessons To Take Away

It is important to note this podcast was recorded before Coinbase rescinded job offers by email and is now on a hiring freeze with the crypto space and macroeconomics being so uncertain. Watch the full vodcast here

Coinbase addressed cultural issues with a mission-driven approach in that infamous blog post.

The lesson: Being public with big internal decisions is important, owning the message and getting ahead of internal leaks has been an important step for many businesses to own some of the conversation(s) and be transparent, particularly when you are a listed company is going to help shape the future conversation and encourage those internal and external to support your leadership and buy into your company.

Tribal nature impacts businesses

The lesson: Many leaders are often blinded by what happens within their business and how tribes form.

The leaders are commonly disconnected from their departments, their teams and their people and miss understanding the tribal nature of their business and what impact internal influencers have.

Knowing tribes form, knowing how they are forming and being in a place to address these tribes is critical to leading the business and empowering those around you.

Dreading townhall and Q&A’s based on external factors.

The lesson: Business has changed, businesses and business leaders are expected to comment on larger items and have a stand, Coinbase decided to go against the grain and not comment until they engaged the right advisors. Even impacting how their people would view them and understand the company.

Often in modern-day business, external factors impact your company culture far more than ever before and you have to be prepared to address these, whether it is clearly calling out it is a factor or a factor you will not be discussing as a business, however difficult and negative impact it could be the short term.

Applying a supported risk benefit framework and engaged his team and most trusted external advisors

The lesson: The role of the CEO can be extremely lonely and can feel an impossible role, particularly in a crisis. Engaging your support network and your leadership team on big topics will be imperative to address big situations and pivotable moments for the company.

Pros and cons be a great exercise however it often is too biased whereas a risk/benefit framework helps to frame bigger issues and help to guide longer-term and the most critical decisions, providing you with the discussion points with the team.

What I Want Vs What The Company Wants

The lesson: Brian was brave referencing it was what he wanted versus what the people within the company wanted and didn’t want to change the business.

This is a tough call and something that shows vulnerability, the lesson to learn as a leader you have to make the right decision for the company and that decision may upset a larger percentage of the company. Ensure your decisions are right for the company, not just you.

Why the hard decision caused a month of hard decisions and losing top talent

The lesson: There was a hard period where they lost talent and people who wanted the company to be part of the bigger picture, however, this also brought in great new candidates who wanted to work at a work mission-driven company

Broader Lesson To Takeaway

It is important to note for any manager or leader appearing on any podcast can create many challenges, particularly when discussing sensitive topics or asking about well known public events. Podcasts with friends or connections are challenging, more open, you become more relaxed and you speak more openly than you may on other formats, particularly shorter TV, radio or magazine interviews.

On Podcasts be mindful of:

  • The language you use (like and whatever can be extremely dismissive language)
  • The references you make (and suggesting your experience and other companies better or worse, and is similar or the same as you rarely have enough information to back this)
  • The tone of your voice will be analysed internally and externally.

Leadership in 2022 is more challenging than ever before and learning lessons from high profile CEO’s like Brian Armstrong and big moments in their career are essential.

Below is an important follow-up read, the internal email shared (on their blog) following on from the original memo/blog post and addressing internal issues

Hi team,

I wanted to send you a follow up now that the deadline has passed for people opting in to the exit package.

I know there have been many difficult conversations happening to help clarify what our apolitical culture means in practice. It’s been great to see the whole team come together to reach understanding here, and support each other through it. It’s not easy to get through, but I think it will result in us having a stronger and more united team.

I also want to acknowledge that we could have done a better job bringing the Operating Group and managers along on this clarification of our culture so everyone was prepared before it went out to a wider group. Our practices will continue to evolve as we grow as a business, and we’ll work to do a better job on this in the future.

Many of you are probably curious about the outcome. I wanted to share that about 5% of employees (60) have decided to take the exit package. There are a handful of other conversations still ongoing, so the final number will likely be a bit higher. For those of you who have decided to move on, I want to thank you for your contributions to Coinbase and we wish you the very best. And for those of you who are opting in to the next chapter, I want to thank you for your trust and commitment to this mission. I’m excited to build the future with all of you.

I’ve heard a concern from some of you that this clarification would disproportionately impact our under-represented minority population at Coinbase. It was reassuring to see that people from under-represented groups at Coinbase have not taken the exit package in numbers disproportionate to the overall population. We’ll continue to keep a close eye on this to ensure we are building a diverse, inclusive environment where everyone feels they belong.

Finally, I saw a few misconceptions pop up in public responses. And I know many of you have had friends and family read various articles and send them your way. I thought I would take a minute to address a few of them.

Isn’t crypto inherently political?

Yes, we are ok being political about this one particular area because it relates to our mission.

Do employees have to pretend politics don’t exist?

No, we support each other through tough times and also have conversations about recent events like any team. We have just made a decision to not engage in broader activism as a company outside of our mission.

How will I know what counts as political?

We recognize it’s a blurry line, and ask that employees use good judgment. Our goal is not to look for violations, but rather to support employees in adapting to these clarified expectations.

Does Coinbase just stand for making a profit?

No, we stand for accomplishing the mission and for creating a great place to work. Growing revenue and profit is the only way we will be able to grow our team to build all the things that are needed to accomplish the mission. And we need an environment that is welcoming to everyone to attract and retain team members.

Hopefully these clarifications help clear up any remaining misunderstandings. To help create the same clarity for our external audience and prospective candidates, I’ll be posting this email to the Coinbase blog a bit later today. If you still have questions or would like to discuss further, I encourage you to reach out to your manager, HRBP, or me directly.

While having team members leave is never easy, I think we will emerge as a more aligned company from this. From time to time we need to rearticulate and clarify our cultural norms as we continue scaling. I’m excited to be moving forward as #OneCoinbase to pursue our vision of economic freedom for every person and business.

Thank you,
Brian

Watch the full vodcast

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