In Celebration of Pride Month: A Word From Lexer’s Gay Founder on Building An Inclusive Company
As Pride month draws to a close in the United States, we had a chat with Lexer’s gay founder and CTO Aaron Wallis, or Az as he’s more commonly known, about what it takes to build an inclusive company culture.
Can you share a bit about your background and why you started Lexer?
Ten years ago when I started Lexer, there was a problem to be solved. I was in advertising and saw first hand how tedious it was to get actionable insights on campaigns. At the time, the challenge was that data was really hard to access, let alone understand, which meant getting timely insights was near impossible. Lexer’s CEO Dave Whittle, who was then my boss, and I saw huge potential in more effective advertising if we could get customer insights faster and as a result, help brands engage customers in a more meaningful way. That was the inception point and from my flat in Darlinghurst late at night, Lexer was born!
When you started Lexer, how did you go about identifying the culture you wanted it to embody?
Early on, I was pretty much our only employee for a while. It was lonely. However, there came a point when we began to grow and realised we needed to formalise our values. The culture that I’ve championed stems from both the positive and not so positive experiences I’ve had in the past. My goal was to create an environment where people feel safe, are recognised for being self-starters, and not hierarchical.
We worked with everyone in the organisation to formalise the culture that had been developed over the years into six values:
- Sharp: Be the brightest crayon in the box. Bring a bold, focused, curious, and rested mind to every moment.
- Dependable: The friend that others depend on. Always commit to the mission, deliver on your promises, and work hard for the best outcome.
- High-value: Own the day. Every decision you make has the chance to cost or save our clients, our reputation, and our growth.
- Caring: A Lover, not a fighter. Bring heart and care to our clients, your team, your craft, and yourself.
- Proactive: Actions speak louder than words. Be proactive and engaged with the goings-on of the whole business; always adding value where you can, and support where you can’t.
- Playful: Laugh a day keeps the doctor away. The daily grind can be exhausting, so have a laugh, grab the mic, love your quirks, take a joke, and bring a little crazy.
As a business, how do you ensure you’re inclusive?
I think two values in particular are unique to creating an inclusive culture at Lexer: Caring and Playful. Including these as our values had an unexpected result, which is that quirkiness and “weirdness” is not only totally okay, but celebrated. With values, you can write them but it’s hard to predict how they’ll come to life within an organisation.
With “playful” people have taken that as being able to truly be yourself, which unfortunately a lot of organisations don’t encourage.
Ten years on and now an international business, how do you make sure your culture remains true as you grow?
We focus on the values in the interview process and it’s pretty striking how often candidates bring up the “caring” and “playful” values as something they’re looking for in their next role because they haven’t had at previous jobs. By this discussion, it’s quick to see who wants to work for a value-led organisation.
Another way we focus on our culture is with our monthly Lex Factor award, which asks for people to nominate their colleagues who have demonstrated one of our values. I think it’s telling that we have a huge participation rate for those—in the last quarter, nearly 80% of the company submitted a nomination.
We also love food, so outside of COVID lockdowns, each Friday a different team cooks lunch for everyone in the office, which is a great way to come together and break bread on a weekly basis. I mean, who doesn’t love a home-cooked meal?
What are some of the ways you go about recruiting diverse talent?
We have a strong representation of employees who identify as LGBQTIA+, which in turn drives high referral rates because Lexer is an inclusive and comfortable place to work. But we’re not perfect here and are always looking to improve.
In the spirit of Pride, how has being part of the LGBTQIA+ community impacted your experience as a leader?
I have been very fortunate in that for the majority of my career I’ve worked in the advertising industry where I always felt I could be myself—being gay was completely accepted in the creative community. However, early in my career, I worked in government where being gay wasn’t something you would share openly. So when I started Lexer, it was extremely important for me to create a culture that is a safe space, where people can be themselves.
How does having a culture that celebrates all types of backgrounds actually benefit business?
Where it pays dividends is that you’re forging strong loyalty with the people you’re working with by creating a safe space. This encourages people to be bolder and try new things. And at the end of the day, everyone does their best work when they’re happy and feel safe.
Do you have any recommendations for other founders who are early on their journey?
Something that I found crucial was finding a peer group to be part of. Being a founder can be very lonely. It’s lonely at the start in that you’re working by yourself and then when you grow and have a team of people, you’re pretty isolated in that you don’t have peers you can confide in. Finding a support group of other founders who know what you’re going through can be really beneficial—it’s pretty much therapy.
What is the top tip for a founder to create an inclusive company?
Know what you believe in and be true to it. There have been times when I’ve hired people that may not have been a fit because I needed to fill a role, but that never ended well. Every founder has to make decisions on their journey about whether or not they stick to their values or compromise on them, so it’s vital to remain true to your beliefs.