Culture is about being honest, open, and intentional.
In Episode 5 of Marco Labs, Marco CEO and co-founder Suman Siva speaks with Michele Bousquet—Chief People Officer at Strava—about her thoughts on building great culture in a hybrid environment.
Strava is headquartered in San Francisco, with smaller outposts in Denver, Bristol, and most recently, a subsidiary in Dublin. The team is currently very distributed, and an estimated 40-50% of people will remain remote.
People and culture aren’t after-thoughts at Strava—they’re key elements that define decision-making across the leadership team and beyond.
As a talented and recognized people leader, Michele had a few learnings and takeaways that she often has top-of-mind when it comes to culture at Strava.
If your team is trying to navigate a new situation and decide what to do, consider what your company stands for and make decisions accordingly.
“It’s very liberating. When we go back to our values, then we don’t have to only look at benchmark data and what other people are doing. We can do what feels true to ourselves.”
Strava has made a commitment to do the work to become an anti-racist company and has chosen to promote discussion rather than shying away from conversations.
“People are one integrated being," Michele says. It’s impossible for people to truly separate their work and the rest of their lives, and things that happen in the news and in their daily experiences have an impact on how they work.
"Despite fear and insecurity, we really believe in the concept of holding space, which is to say, we have no script for this. I’m going to set up time, and our leaders are going to attend, listen, and share our own views and hold space deliberately, outside of the normal responsibilities of work."
Even if culture isn’t something that you’re choosing to focus on and define, it’s still going to happen. Culture isn’t something that can be ignored, and it’s something that’s important to be deliberate about.
“When culture is right, it's very tied to the values and the stated intentions. And when it goes off the rails, it's like this other thing with a life of its own, that actually has nothing to do with what people are saying.”
Michele's point on culture "happening"—whether you like it or not—is something we think about a lot at Marco. Culture isn't a term to describe a feature of a company that they decide to have or not. Culture is there, it is inevitable. The questions is: did you design it intentionally? Or did it happen TO you.
To illustrate this concept, think about the difference between a field and a garden. Plants (weeds) will likely grow no matter what in a field. They will grow however they want to grow and take on a very random, disorganized form—interfering with each other and the overall growth of the land. However, a garden, which requires intentional, frequent effort—taming, watering, weeding, trimming, planting—will grow as an orderly, healthy (and beautiful!) ecological system.
In a distributed or hybrid team, stay open to how you can provide opportunities to support connections. Whether it’s opening up bespoke locations, or supporting people in organizing their own local get-togethers, have an open mind about the myriad of ways that remote and hybrid teams can foster a sense of connection.
Listen to Episode 5 on Spotify!
We’ve included a transcript of this episode below.
Hey, I am Suman. I am the CEO and co-founder Marco Experiences, which is a company that helps companies build culture through bringing their people together through experiences. And we recently launched a podcast called Marco Labs, where we interview the creators that we work with, but also the people leaders and the community builders that are kind of making big changes within the people's space, in a variety of companies.
And so excited to be chatting with Michelle, who I've worked with in a previous life, but now is the Chief People Officer at Strava. So with that, Michelle, how are you doing? Hopefully, well.
Yeah, I'm doing great. I'm doing great. Just, you know, living the integrated lifestyle of continuing to work from home, having three kids, scaling the company, making it happen and trying to remain present and in a state of, you know, grounded-ness.
It sounds like a difficult task, but I think one that, if anyone is prepared to do it, you are, and I would love to just start with a little bit of background.
I have had the pleasure of working with you through kind of an investing role in a company that we invested in. But would love to hear about kind of a little bit about your background and how you got to kind of leading people teams.
Yeah. So I'll say. I spent about the first 15 years of my career, primarily in financial services.
And so I still see myself as new to tech and I'm appreciating and enjoying being able to wear whatever I want still it's like as someone who wore a suit and nylons for most of my career. But I, so I would say, had progressive roles. I spent almost 10 years at an asset management firm as ultimately as chief of staff, and the head of people role and really kind of solidifies my approach, which is that the way you lead people is so directly tied to the way you want to run the business and what you need to achieve as a leadership team.
And so those two kind of go hand in hand to me. So coming out of that, I had the wonderful opportunity to join GoPro and lead organizational development, kind of globally there, a bunch of different functions, including building out DEI, practice, HR, business partner, organizational development, learning, and development, and ultimately recruitment.
And so just really steeped in great practices around how to treat people, how to support a culture. That's really thriving and has a lot of vitality and passion in it. Very similar to Strava. And then, from there, led people, which is where I met you as you know, led people at a Series B startup, later Series C, and went on kind of a blazing rocket ship ride for awhile.
And then ultimately got my dream job here at Strava. Loving it and, having the opportunity to lead a culture that I totally believe in at a company. I totally believe in just, you know, new adventures and new playbooks ever since.
Yeah. And I think it's super exciting for you to, I mean, I'm an avid consumer of the product.
And I think the product itself is generally just helps me. And I think a lot of other people live better lives and I think it's cool to be a part of that company, but also be building a really quickly growing company with the positive mission. So yeah. So, what we'd like to talk about is, first of all, like what culture actually kind of means to you because as we talked to different people leaders. I think culture is actually quite nuanced and there's a lot of policies you can enact, but in terms of what culture actually means and how that informs the policies, I'd be super curious to hear kind of like what the word kind of means.
Yeah. I spend a lot of time thinking about this because the first time that I really, really was introduced to the idea of culture now was awhile ago. You know, definitely more than a decade ago. And I remember a consultant saying, Hey, regardless of whether you want to, you have. So you can cultivate it.
You can be deliberate about it. You can look at it, examine it and prove it, but you can't like ignore it because you have one. And so I think that leading me, what is the definition of culture there's, at its most base level, it's the day-to-day experience that each person within the company lives, and that's everything from what happens when I interact with my manager, what are the kinds of programs that support.
What kind of company we want to be in the values. How do the leaders communicate? What is my day-to-day work life? Like all of those things together, it's really like what is the actual lived experience of being here? And when, when it's right, it's very tied to the values and the stated intentions. And when it goes off the rails, it's like this other thing with a life of its own, that actually has nothing to do with what people are saying.
So, yeah, that's some musings on it.
Excellent musings. And when you, so you've been at Strava, remind me for, for how long has it been?
So just since December of 2019, so shy of two years.
Got it. And when you came to Strava, First of all, just personally for you as Michele, what kind of like components or tenants within culture where kind of like most important, and then how did you translate those to Strava and perhaps those were very congruent or maybe they were, they were different and it took some work over the past two years to help refine or define Strava's culture.
Yeah. So just so I understand, you're asking kind of what was the culture then, and maybe in what ways have I had an imprint on it since being.
Totally. And also, yeah, I know that personally for you and for Strava, there's different components in terms of how you sh like, I I've just been reading some of your blog posts, which include, how do you create an anti-racist workplace?
How do you kind of show up to work and bring your full self to work and maybe the components, but personally, then maybe how that manifests within, within Strava?
Yeah, I mean, I would say arriving at the Strava culture, this is, was, clearly a company built on people first. Not in words like it's very lived.
We have a CEO and co-founder who's starts every decision with — what is the most I can do for people? That is like, he doesn't say those words, but that's how I observe him to lead. And so you start with that place of generosity and humility, and you already are building like the foundation of a great culture.
People stay at Strava a long time. They did before I came, you know, there, we have probably 20% of our company at this point, over six years in tenure. And cause they're like, why would I leave? It's like wonderful place to work. I'm working on a product I love. And there's a lot of joy there. There've been some changes.
Certainly the most profound change you named is the decision to, from our leadership team and a commitment to becoming an anti-racist company. And, that we have been living into, you know, since June, 2020, and that is, I want to name like Strava was not an anti-racist company before June 2020, Strava operated, though very people-firstm operated with white standards, very white leadership and recruitment practices that led ultimately to a very white team. And so the, the evolution which ultimately led us to restate our values, which had been in place, you know, throughout the company's history, we explicitly added as our primary first value anti-racism.
And so we've been, we've been living into that and trying to live up to that kind of an anti-racist inclusive, multicultural, uh, workplace. And that's been an incredible journey, but I think other things where I may have put my imprint a little bit on Strava would be toward a practicality of the culture.
So I really believe that the role of the people leader starts with, what do people need? What is the way to care for people? Not like, what are the other companies around us doing? What would the benchmark data say? You know, those things we can reference, but it does start with a basic level of humanity and practicality.
That is like, what is most meaningful for people? And let's dedicate our efforts toward that instead of mirroring things that may or may not be helpful over time. And so I do believe I've spoken loudly enough and, kind of directed people's strategies toward that enough that people would experience.
Yeah. The things that are happening are meaningful to me. So that's one and then I think always I'm on the quest for simplicity. Like what are we trying to solve for? And Strava is a very, it's filled with successful people to have been successful. Lots in sport, very, you know, I'm sure everyone got an A, you know, everyone that works here by As on everything.
But there's this tendency to solve problems with like more complexity and more detail. And so whether it's through our programs through the way we communicate, we are working toward like, what is the simplest kind of latest way that we can solve this, whether it's performance management, for example, or promotion process and things like bringing that level of, how can we lighten the over wrangling, which may have happened in these programs over time?
Totally. So there's a lot of really cool themes there. And so on the kind of like practicality point and also, it seems like just a humanization of the word. How do you, how do you actually do that? I mean, I know that you just mentioned at the beginning of this call aspects of your life, right? You're a chief people officer, but you're also a mother.
You're also a person who's balancing a very stressful kind of couple of years. How do you, how do you do that in an organization and not only you personally, cause I imagine you do that with your leadership team and your people team and whoever else you work with, but how do you get other people to do that and, and act that way.
Yeah. Well, I'll just share, you know, again, just some real life examples, five minutes before joining this meeting, I was in a meeting with, many, many of our Strava women leading an open discussion around the anti-abortion laws coming out of Texas. That's just one example. I wrote a letter to our entire Strava team globally about views on this issue and, how that legislation harms women and people of color, especially in the poor. So, I mean, just one example of humanizing is like whether or not you want to talk about certain topics, especially topics that felt more risky and workplaces. Part of, I believe the modern era of work is understanding that things that affect people affect them at work.
Like people are one integrated being. And so we know this is on women's minds, it's on, hopefully it's on not only women's minds, but being able to speak to things that other people are wondering. I wonder if my leader is thinking about that, I think is a true part of our culture and we try to speak openly, despite having fear and insecurity about things, as often as we can. And we also try to, we really believe in this concept of like holding space, which is to say, we have no script for this. I don't really know what, but I'm going to set up time. And our leaders are going to attend and listen and talk and share our own views and like hold space deliberately, um, outside of the normal responsibilities of work to support human.
Like, so one that's one example of like, how do you live into that humanness? Another example is like last about a year ago, a little over a year ago when we were really deep in the lockdown and the kid's not going to school and all that, just this feeling. Like I said, it starts with like, what do people need and what can we do?
I have my own experience of three, like kids bouncing off the walls, trying to figure out their own Google classroom, whatever, just come. I can hardly think of that time, honestly. And I hope if any parents are listening to this, they'll know, like it's like a dark, dark time. That was very hard to manage.
So in thinking about like, what do people need, what people needed then was helpful to watch their kids. So starting to talk about that, like, and guess how we can help Strava, we can pay for that help. So we started then, you know, last August, um, offering any of our caregivers at Strava, an extra $500 a week to offset the cost of childcare camps.
Like anything that could help, we still have that program going today. So it's the. The, how do you evolve as like paying attention to what do people need? And then starting to talk about that. And while those things can feel risky are like, wow, that's so, so, so generous. You know, that's millions of dollars per year you're spending on that program. You think about like, but we're spending millions of dollars on other enablements, like, you know, technologies and infrastructure and systems and services. So we have to keep talking about spending money on people. And normalize that. And, and so it was just an another example that comes up.
Well, I would say, first of all, I appreciate you sharing, real examples, which are meaningful. And I think what we've seen in the past few years is you have the funny kind of, oh my, my daughter accidentally in a funny way, walked into a zoom meeting, but then there's kind of not only the burden that parents have to face, but then there's kind of like all the social justice issues that kind of like weigh on people and certain people who actually had to live that in their lives outside of work. So I think it's great. And to your point on taking a stand, because a lot of companies haven't have chosen explicitly to not do that. Right. And so very cool how y'all done that. So appreciate you sharing.
Yeah. I mean, I just want to expand on that because what you said there about there's the narrative of like ha you know, here's my kid with no pants on, but I actually need that experience of trying to like trying to carry both worlds in the exact same spot, under a huge amount of pressure that people were experiencing.
Even just workplace pressure of how do I keep my company afloat during this pandemic? How do I plan for the future in our case? How do I scale? How do I support my kids? They have no social interaction. The feeling of failing profoundly on both fronts and the lack of sleep and the, um, you know, running on a treadmill while everyone is hugging you, flaming plates, like, and then just collapse into bed and know you're going to do it again the next day.
Like that was, was a lot and it wasn't really cute or funny, you know, it was like a lot, a lot of strain to put on people. And I think that I'm seeing people are still trying to come out of. Especially moms who are like, what the heck was that? And how, and are my kids okay? Like, are they okay now? So I just, you know, I think one of the things we're trying to do is not just move on so quickly, like, so that happened, but to understand that these things have lasting impact and it continues to need us to like rise to the challenge of how do we support people and restore health and wellbeing,
To your point, it's not fully over, unfortunately. You know, to the extent in geographies or places where it is, or, you know, there's a better kind of system resources, it's still unclear as to what the lasting impacts will be. Right. In terms of, so totally agree. And we're kind of talking about this now, but I guess one of the questions that I have is during, I mean, a big portion of your career at Strava has been during COVID. Right. So I guess how you had to deal with certain issues and perhaps what issues have you had to deal with that you might not have had to deal with in your previous, you know, many years of experience as a people leader, what comes to mind out of mind?
Oh my God. It makes up like 95% of what I've dealt with. I have not had to deal with before. Everything comes to mind. I mean, that is. Things to laugh about is like, what did I think my plan was going to be when I came to Strava, what did I think the Strava culture needed and how would I support that?
And it would all be lotted off. And then of course, two months in, so everything from, how do you support a distributed workplace overnight? How do you, how do you hold space for, and come to your own conclusions around where we needed to go? After, you know, George Floyd and his murder and everything leading up to it, how do you reconcile your own growth and, and need to evolve?
I need to acknowledge that the way that I've performed as a leader, needs to seriously change, but I also need to support a culture that is seriously changing. Yeah, how do we support people? You know, I always say this, but you're like, if you were hiring someone, like, let's say you're hiring a head of engineering and when you make them the offer, like they go, oh yeah, by the way, I care for three kids. I'm a stay at home mom. Like, is that cool? You know, is that, can we just like work that out? You would seriously doubt that they would be able to do their job effectively while being a full-time stay at home mom. And so like figuring out how we took an entire workforce in that situation and stayed productive and scaled and supported people.
I mean, all of those things have been new as well as just every week. What do we do back? What about vaccination mandates? What about when we can allow travel? What about when we can reopen offices? So it's literally everything. It feels like everything I get so excited when somebody asks me like a really basic question, like, yes, one that I know.
Great. But you know, mostly we're in, like, we need to write a new playbook, but I will say, how do we do that? Right? It's like, first of all, just acknowledging that we're like 99% over our skis all the time. And anyone who's acting like they know exactly what they're doing is totally lying. But two that we ground ourselves in our values, everything comes back to like, what do we do in this situation?
What do we do about vaccine mandates? What do we do about allowing get together? Like all these things. Come back to what do we most value and how do we want to show up? And then in that way, it's very liberating because we don't have to look to a lot of benchmark data and what are other people doing? We can do what feels true to our, to ourselves.
Yeah. I love that thread that you keep on going back to, which is defining your own plan, as opposed to looking at your neighbor, perhaps, which of course I'm sure you still do, but courageous. I I do. I have a question on that point, which is, so we're thinking about, we're trying to help companies build culture and experiences are part of that culture but certainly not all of it. Right? Cause there's so many components of it. But one of the, uh, one of the pieces of culture that we're trying to help it with is what place. So there's kind of like the way we think about it is like mission and values. People kind of practices. There's so many components and one of them is the place which used to be the office.
I'd be curious how at Strava are y'all thinking about, over the past couple of, you know, year and a half, two years, and in the future, how you're going to replace that place right. Where people may, maybe it made it easy for people to build connections or kind of have rapport. How are you, how do you think about replacing that or, or supporting it in, in creative ways?
Yeah, I mean, we still will have an maintain,you know, our headquarters office. We have a larger presence in other cities and we will. So I would say physical spaces important and gathering places important. It's also differently important for different people. So, you know, further to the extent that I'm like, Hey, I don't really feel a need to like go and be around a lot of people.
I'm not particularly extroverted. I'm not very fun, whatever. Like that's me. I understand that there's like a whole pull of our company. That's like, I love being in the office. I want to be around people. So I think solving for all of those different realities. But we're also, you know, and then opening up little spoke locations where we have like three or four people giving them a little area, you know, to convene.
Right now, how we're doing that is through, we're just rolling out a program now where we're supporting people in organizing their own local, get togethers outside and at Strava, those will likely be, you know, walks and hikes and things like that, given what people are passionate about. But I think it's just being remaining open to like, how can we support connections?
As cliche, as it sounds a Zoom screen has become a place. It's possible to feel a great sense of connection. Like our people team. I see it as a place I see when we come together, there's so much joy and connection and personality in that place. So treating it as a place, even though it's not physical and supporting it in similar ways is something that we're leaning into it.
I mean, I've talked to my mom and dad on video way more than I have with my twin brother and sister. And that's cool. Right there, there are elements of technology that enable you to build connection. Which is super cool. And remind me, so I know that you recently opened an office in Dublin.
Where's the headquarters is now people are all over the place or how does the distribution look like?
Strava people are, they're not, you know, certainly they're not like in every country in the world, we have a headquarters located in the San Francisco Bay Area. So we have a large like center of people here. We have people in an office near an office in Denver. We have an office in Bristol, in the United Kingdom and recently launched a subsidiary in Dublin, Ireland. We also have like Wednesdays and Tuesdays and other countries, as you know, marketing community support folks and things in Brazil, in France, etc.
So, we have someone in Japan or two people in Japan and so on. So we have people very distributed. You know, like most companies who were open to say, Hey, I think at this point you can live anywhere, which is what we did. We saw that, we made huge strides on that kind of team we could build when we took off those kind of, um, privileged requirements of like where, you know, who can live, who lives, where we may build a much better team.
So now we're like, okay, probably after the pandemic, 40 to 50% of our company will still be remote.
It's interesting. We have a small team of 13 growing to 15, hopefully soon. And we are actively thinking about, even though we literally sell this, this is what we're trying to solve it for our own team.
And it's not, but it is cool to be able to have. And, I think on the anti-racist point, it also opens avenues to kind of explore more diversity and so forth. Absolutely one thing is, I want to end on a positive note, but I do thank you for all of what you've shared.
And one of the cool things is there's so much, it's always been strategic to be ahead of people, but now there's so much new stuff that we're hearing right now, which is just exciting. The innovation that's happening. And what I would love to end on is, what are you excited about? I mean, there's so much tough kind of challenges that you've had to deal with, but now we're hopefully soon emerging in, in, in some ways.
And what are you excited about in terms of opportunities? For example, one of them being, you know, recruiting, you can recruit anywhere, like, are there other, areas that you're looking at positively?
Yeah. I mean, there's so many things that I'm excited about. I think the primary thing that comes to mind is I'm excited about our leadership's commitment to struggling with the very deep, very hard and very hard to solve issues around racial equity and especially in a workplace, but also in a global community, the Strava has over 90 million athletes globally. And you think about like the place we can take in progress toward inclusivity toward like everything from the way we, the way the product functions, the way we construct a team, that's truly global. You know, I'm excited about all those because we have this huge megaphone and huge platform and our leadership is so deeply committed to living into the anti-racism that we can have a huge impact.
So I'm excited about that. And I'm excited about like Strava's growth just in general and the way that we can do that. Based on our, like, we have such a strong culture it's so people first we're so committed to doing the right thing. I'm out to prove like, can you scale a company and have huge inflection points and huge growth and stay true to that? I think so. But it's like a dream opportunity to be able to prove that.
Yeah, well, they are lucky to have you, I'm a big fan, like I said, so these are always fun when you're a big promoter of the person you're talking to, but also the company that are standing for in the role and all of it. So I very much appreciate the time and, and thank you for sharing kind of candidly and honestly, your kind of reflections over the past.
Thank you. I was really great to connect with you.