Why You Need to be Blunt to Win, Hudl's Unconventional Company Value

Danny Schreiber
Danny Schreiber / April 17, 2014

To close out a two-week software development sprint in February, six Hudl team members gathered at 3 p.m. at a nearby bar for drinks and an introduction to a new card game. Casually sitting on couches, the team waited for the game to commence as its creator, Kyle Deterding, produced the deck.

This wasn't any ordinary deck. This was a pile of orange note cards, each containing a question, or as Hudl co-founder John Wirtz unabashedly says, a "pretty blunt question."

One card, for example, reads, "Tell the person on your left one thing they can improve on." Another says, "Give us an example of something someone did that disappointed you." Another asks, "What is one of your professional goals?" Some, in the bottom right corner, say, "Reversal," or, "Pass to the left."

If this reminds you of a drinking game, well, it's because it was inspired by one (Categories), Deterding says. But getting tipsy isn't the aim. Instead, it's about getting open and honest feedback out there, a common practice in the Hudl workplace. In this case, feedback was for the two-week sprint.

"Tough questions are going to come up on these cards as you draw them and you're on the spot, there's no escaping it," Wirtz says. "You've got to get an answer out there."

"We're Respectfully Blunt"

Deterding's card game, one version of a retrospective at Hudl, follows a company value the three co-founders refer to as being "respectfully blunt." Or as it's been more commonly called inside the walls of the eight-year-old company since 2008, using "#RealTalk."

"People were dropping #RealTalk (on Twitter) back then when they would throw a tweet out that was an in-your-face statement," Wirtz says. So the Hudl co-founders adopted the hashtag for internal use, keeping the symbol attached to call to mind Twitter's brevity.

"Part of being blunt is being concise," Wirtz says. "You don't have room for compliment sandwiches." That is, he says, when an individual starts feedback with a compliment, delivers the real statement their teammate needs to hear or understand and closes with another compliment.

Deterding Cards
Hudl project manager Kyle Deterding created a deck of cards with tough questions to encourage honesty during a team retrospective.

#RealTalk, one of six values read off at the start of each Hudl retreat, plays an important role in the company, from use in hiring to performance reviews to product updates. It's written in emails, said out loud before feedback is given—"All right, give me the hashtag-real-talk…"—used in the company's HipChat room and, of course, mentioned by employees on Twitter.

The #RealTalk practice, Wirtz says, has been "absolutely critical" to Hudl's success, playing a part in the company's growth to serving over 15,000 paying customers, including the New England Patriots, New York Jets, Indiana Pacers and Oregon Ducks football program. The company's online video tools today are used by 85 percent of high school and college football teams and 50 percent of basketball teams in the U.S.

To learn just how #RealTalk permeates the 125-person sports software company in Lincoln, Neb., I spoke with Wirtz this week.

Why Hudl Wants #RealTalk

"As founders, (we) have always had a really honest, open communication style with each other, so that set the tone from the beginning," says Wirtz, the company's chief product officer. He met Hudl co-founders David Graff (CEO) and Brian Kaiser (CTO) while attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, starting the company shortly after graduation.

"There weren't any secrets between the three of us," he says. "That set a really healthy tone."

Hudl co-founders
Hudl co-founders John Wirtz, Brian Kaiser and David Graff met as undergraduates at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Influence also came from friends and family, Wirtz says, who shared "horror stories" with the three co-founders about the opposite of #RealTalk happening at their workplaces.

"Nobody talked about real stuff. The real problems were always sitting underneath the surface," he says.

Then there were Hudl's customers: coaches. If their own personalities and friend and family's horror stories didn't lead them to be "respectfully blunt," then coaches would have sooner or later.

"If you want to talk about a blunt, #RealTalk-embracing crowd, coaches are definitely up there," Wirtz says. "We were influenced really heavily by the fact that our initial clients were NFL and Division I coaches, who are at the top of the blunt spectrum."

Successful coaches, he says, learn to deliver concise, blunt feedback with no hesitation.

"It was really natural for us to return the favor to our users and deliver the same kind of blunt feedback that they were really good at giving to us."

#RealTalk's First Rule: Be Transparent

The explanation of #RealTalk from Wirtz is pretty simple.

"It's just about being open across the board, there's really not a whole lot of exceptions," he says, noting the management team still keeps items like salaries or an evolving business deal confidential. But other than those topics, transparency plays an important role in maintaining a culture of #RealTalk.

Coaches

The management team each week sends out a spreadsheet to employees, investors and advisors, Wirtz says. The document is "incredibly transparent" about Hudl's revenue, usage numbers, support metrics and key challenges.

"It's meant to be a real open book about how things are going at the company," he says. And though the transparency might surprise some new employees, that's what #RealTalk is all about.

"It's really about, pretty much in a blanket way, being open to the point where it feels like, 'I can't believe you would actually want to be open about this,'" Wirtz says. "That's probably where you're getting into the really good, juicy #RealTalk territory.

"Stuff that's easy to be open about isn't why we have it on our values and what makes us different. It's the stuff that feels like you shouldn't be talking openly about it."

Hudl Candidates Share #RealTalk Examples

Keeping #RealTalk intact means the value comes into play during the hiring process.

"We ask people point-blank when we're interviewing them … 'Give me an example of where you delivered some #RealTalk that was challenging to deliver,'" says Wirtz. "Then we'll also ask from the flip side, 'Tell us an example where you received some #RealTalk in the last couple months, and talk to us about how you reacted.'

"It's amazing how many people can't answer the question of delivering it or receiving it," he says, noting some work conditions don't account for the latter. If candidates can give an example of delivering #RealTalk to a former supervisor, Wirtz says, they get "bonus points."

Hudlies
Among its 125-person team, "Hudlies" range from straight out of college to professionals with 8-9 years of experience.

Once on board and in line for a promotion, #RealTalk comes into play again as a way for management to give honest feedback before laying on a new responsibility.

"People are at different levels of maturity and different levels of skills," says Wirtz. "Being able to be really respectfully blunt and honest with them about what they need to do to get to that position that they want to be in … that's been one of the biggest factors where respectfully blunt has allowed us to grow and keep great people and help them progress."

Customer Support Gets Real, Too

As they learned early on, coaches expect honesty, so through Hudl's 30-person support team, #RealTalk makes its way outside the office walls.

"We are incredibly gracious with our customers, but we're not going to (be accommodating) if they're asking for a feature that we know is nowhere on our roadmap," Wirtz says.

"We'll be really honest with them about, 'Hey, that's not something we're planning on building, here's why we really appreciate the feedback.'"


Hudl extends #RealTalk to its blog, too, where team members reveal new features and ask for comments.

Sometimes this honesty even catches coaches off guard, Wirtz says, because they're not used to hearing it from other companies.

"The feedback we've gotten from customers pretty much across the board is that it's really refreshing, they appreciate it," he says. "It feels like we're a part of their culture because that is a part of the coaching culture."

How to Add #RealTalk to Your Organization

Wirtz admits that #RealTalk has a tongue-in-cheek element to it, but that might not be such a bad thing. It's taken on its own brand within Hudl, where it created an environment of honesty.

Compared with a statement like, "Our company really values people being honest with each other and open about that things that are troubling them or that they think is an issue," Wirtz says, #RealTalk is tangible for employees.

Tangible

"It's the same reason that you would want to brand a product with a strong brand—it starts to have its own identity within our culture, (making it) really easy to identify when it's happening and when it's not happening," he says.

If you want to bring #RealTalk into your own company—hashtag and all—Wirtz offers the following advice.

Start at the Top

"Start being almost painfully open about what's happening at the top of the company," Wirtz says. Without transparency from the management team, he says, you won't be able to persuade your employees to be open and honest, too.

Use a Hashtag-Real-Talk Mechanism

"If the company feels like openness is a problem, come up with a way to talk about it that resonates with everybody and that can be repeated," Wirtz says. For Hudl, that was with the use of the catchy phrase, #RealTalk.

Employing a mechanism in your daily routine will begin to spread its use. In an email, for example, open it with, "Here comes some #RealTalk."

"It's almost like a tag to say, 'Hey, what's coming behind this could sting a little bit, but just remember, it's for the good of all of us to get this feedback out there and be open," he says.

Consistent use of this can also provide examples for others to follow, Wirtz says.

Don't Tolerate Surprises

During a performance review, an employee's reaction to a piece of feedback shouldn't be: "Woah, where did that come from?"

At Hudl, managers abide by the "No surprises" rule.

"If anything comes up in the review that's a surprise, #RealTalk failed," Wirtz says. "That means somebody wasn't blunt with you when it was an issue."

#RealTalk on #RealTalk

Before concluding the interview, Wirtz took a moment to offer some #RealTalk on #RealTalk.

"We also epically fail at this on a regular basis, too, to be clear," he says, admitting they still catch themselves sugarcoating statements inside of Hudl. For example, he says, sometimes he and his fellow co-founders are reluctant to give a full briefing on a poor strategic decision they made as leaders.

"In every one of these areas that I talked about #RealTalk being important, we still struggle on a daily basis," he says. "It is just tough to put that sting on the people around you when you know it's going to be a hard message to hear."

Card Game

That was the case during that card game in February, where Wirtz saw a member of the quality assurance team look a developer in the eyes and bring up a specific example as feedback

"This code was pretty weak sauce when it landed in my hands and I would expect you to have a higher standard for quality yourself before you bring me into the mix to help me test," Wirtz paraphrases the Hudl team member.

"(The feedback) was delivered in the healthiest way and the dev totally agreed," he says.

"Yep, I short-changed it. I rushed it," Wirtz paraphrases. "It was weak and I leaned on you too hard to go in and clean up my mess."

Further Reading

For more on honest feedback in the workplace, Wirtz recommends checking out the recently released book Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios.

Credits: Photos by Jordan Hofker of Hudl. Co-founder photo courtesy Hudl.

You might also enjoy this article: "The Secret Behind MailChimp's Creative Culture, Even As It Grows"

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