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Our People Are Everything

By Nikki Hampton, VP People + Places

SPHR, People Person, Tech Company Leader, and Mom

In September, Twelve employees from around the world came together for Camp Twelve, our annual all-company gathering. There, for a few days, we paused work to focus on our company vision, collective wins, and staying connected as we scale. It was incredible to see how much we've grown since I joined just under a year ago, and I walked away feeling excited and optimistic about Twelve’s future. 

During Camp Twelve, I especially loved getting to be in person with the folks who energize me every day: my team. I would not be the leader I am without the amazing, brilliant humans who motivate, challenge, and uplift me every day, and I’m constantly counting my lucky stars that I inherited a group of such phenomenal individuals. As we all sat together thinking toward the future of our team and company, I felt inspired to write down some of the philosophies that guide my approach to leadership.

My role is to empower—not create culture

At many companies, the head of people often has “People and Culture” in their title, but when I was interviewing with Twelve I was very intentional about emphasizing my belief that I am not responsible for creating company culture—the people we hire determine our company culture. During my interview process, Nicholas (Twelve’s CEO and co-founder) emphatically agreed with this, which furthered my excitement about joining. As I continued to interview, I learned this was a belief all three of our co-founders shared. It’s refreshing to be part of a team who understands that the people define our culture, and culture is constantly evolving. In fact, iteration is one of Twelve’s values and it definitely applies to culture. Every hire, every departure, each person at Twelve influences who we are as a team. 

My team is made up of extremely competent professionals who are experts in their fields. I’m not here to micromanage them or be a helicopter parent. In my role as VP of People + Places, I see my primary responsibility as being to empower my team using trust and encouragement, and to advocate for them in the rooms where I have a voice at the table. I also believe it’s my job to remind our leaders and my peers that every business decision has an impact on the humans who make our company what it is—and that we are nothing without our people. 

Questions are essential and iteration is important. Expect mistakes

It can be tempting to join a company and immediately duplicate the playbook of what you did at a previous place. This is almost always a mistake. As a new leader, it’s important to spend time observing, asking questions, understanding, and getting to know the team before making any significant changes. There is always so much historical knowledge and context I am missing as a new leader. I don't know what I don't know and it doesn’t set me or the team up for success to come in and assume I have all of the solutions. In fact, I’d argue that it would be disrespectful to the existing culture and the work of those who came before me to do so.

When launching new programs or processes, I always ask the “Why.” “Why do we think this program is a good idea?” “Are we doing this because this is what everybody is doing?” Wellness is a good example. Instead of asking “What is a good wellness program?” we should be asking “What does good wellness look like for Twelve?” Every company is unique and has a different culture. Duplicating work from one company to another is simply not a good approach. It doesn’t encourage innovation, thoughtfulness, or strategy. It’s especially important to ask questions when something appears to be broken, or when there’s a program I believe is missing. I first ask myself, “Why doesn't this exist?” And then I figure out who can help me determine why the thing doesn't exist. There very well may be a really great reason why something exists in its current state or doesn’t exist at all. Asking these simple questions helps me make sure the work my team is doing is on the right track. 

Building successful people programs requires trying new things and iteration is a natural component of that. With any initiative, I always view the first attempt as a beta version and assume we are going to get some piece of it wrong the first time no matter how thorough we are. If we set the expectation that we want perfection right away, it creates an environment where people are afraid to make mistakes and instead allow perfection to be the enemy of done (or progress). I encourage my team to try new things and make mistakes. We aren’t perfect, experimentation is important, and owning mistakes is equally key. The key is evolving from the learnings and striving to do better.

Diversity creates the most possibilities for success

At Twelve, we recognize that people with different backgrounds, experiences, and education are more likely to come up with innovative, world-changing ideas, products, and solutions. This is especially important because we’re addressing a global issue, climate change, which research shows has an outsized negative impact on impoverished communities often containing higher populations of Black and brown folks. All the more reason why we need our teams’ diversity to reflect the population impacted by the work we do: all humans. We recently started taking steps toward building diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) practices into Twelve’s infrastructure as we scale, and I love what our Head of Talent, Kylin Ellison, has written about how we’re approaching that journey

I try not to assume I always have the right answer

I never assume I’m the expert on a subject. I believe my team when they tell me I’m wrong about something. When Kylin makes a suggestion about talent, I believe her—she's the subject matter expert. She can ask me things and I’ll give her feedback, but ultimately she's leading her team and I want her to know I trust her expertise. Further, I want to support her growth as both a human and a leader and to encourage her to experiment. Everyone has the ability to own the pieces that belong to them and everybody from entry level on up should have some autonomy to make decisions that contribute to their feeling of ownership and their ability to have an impact on their team’s success.

In conclusion: Bananas

Twelve’s mission—to decarbonize the planet—is a huge one. My team will tell you, when things get crunchy or challenging with work, I’m known to throw out a “that’s bananas” (or if things get really wild… “cuckoo bananas”) because at the end of the day, a sense of humor and perspective about working toward our audacious collective goals is absolutely essential. It’s easy to feel daunted by the road ahead, and to get overwhelmed by the realities of startup growing pains. But just as we’re all on this planet together, my team is in this together as a solid unit of highly intelligent, fabulous humans. If I can inject a moment of levity or an exhalation of acknowledgement that we are often building the plane as we fly it, I want to do that. Because sometimes things are truly just that: bananas. 

So go tell your people you appreciate them. Give them the space to grow and the support they need to thrive. Advocate for them. Lead by letting them be the badass experts you hired them to be. And maybe, if you can, remember to giggle now and then. It’s easier than you think!


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