Bridge Southeast Asia

Bridge Way

Cultural Debt

Seems all my writing (other than my poetry) is directed at us at Bridge. The main motivation for this is my great fear of something I call Cultural Debt. Cultural Debt is the most dangerous kind of debt an organization or a team can accumulate. Some form of “debt” is hard to avoid when scaling anything. All debt is similar in that they achieve present goals or requirements at the expense of the future. Financial Debt is the most obvious, which comes from using up more financial resources than the organization has. This is solved by paying off the debt with money. Technological Debt is another one that has gained prominence through the rise of tech companies and platforms. Technological Debt accumulates when future technological capacity is sacrificed (knowingly or unknowingly) for current requirements (usually for speed and cost issues), and is solved through additional rework down the road. But Cultural Debt is by far the worst. Cultural Debt accumulates when we sacrifice stated principles for in addressing present day concerns, usually for the sake of growth, speed, and convenience.

If Financial Debt is measured in money and Technological Debt in terms of development time, Cultural Debt, to me at least, is measured in stories. What stories are my team members telling themselves and others about our company? If there are more stories of me or anyone in the organization sacrificing our core purpose and principles for present performance than there are of us standing by core purpose and principles even when it costs us, we will increase Cultural Debt. You can’t spend your way or develop your way out of Cultural Debt. In most cases, Cultural Debt is never addressed. Those organizations that do attempt to fix their cultures understand that it requires overhauling the management team. You cannot fix the culture of an organization with the character (or lack of character) of those who allowed it to become that way.

Once Upon a Dark Time…

I’ve taken it upon myself to make sure we make and share the right stories. We make the right stories by living up to our core principle of “In a world of OR look for AND”, and we need to share these stories to show other show they can also be AND people, people of possibilities, of connections, and of solutions.

I would like it, in this time of flux, of uncertainty, a natural disaster (we just had a volcano), a pandemic (Corona Virus), personal disaster (we’ve had a few deaths in our Bridge family in the last 6 months), and all on top of the stress of being in a fast-growing start-up, that make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime backdrop to write an amazing story for ourselves, a story of understanding, yes, but also a story of courage, of hunger, of diligence, of mastery, and of service. While most people are reacting, I want us to remain purposeful. Purpose is a North Star when changing times cloud our view.

It is our purpose, even in this time, to grow as an organization. Let me tell you how exactly we are going to do that. As a team, we will focus on:

1. Grow Your Roots (Don’t rush to branch out)

A tree doesn’t only grow its trunks and branches. It also grows its roots. Sometimes we think that growth can only come “branching out”, doing more, adding more clients, adding more services, going regional, and other obvious metrics of  growth. I want us to focus on depth.

Growing Roots, in our context, means strengthening the fundamentals of each of our departments, including how we serve existing clients, how we cultivate existing team members, and how we develop existing technology. While most people will be paralyzed by this period, you be different. Ask yourself, “What fundamental area can I improve?”

2. Grow Your Partnerships (Don’t be distracted by competition)

Some of our most beneficial relationships have been with “competitors”. Our reasoning has always been simple: in an underserved market, we’re better of segmenting and cooperation, and at some point merging, than fighting. Sadly, finding like-minded companies has been difficult, but the logic still works. It makes no sense to spend more resources to acquire the same value when partnerships can capture more value and divide up the cost. Less resources go to jockeying for position and more goes to providing customer value. The best thing about difficult times is that it reveals who is really out there for your success. When people start withholding or attacking during crisis, you realize who is a partner. You be different. Make sure Customers, Team Members, and Suppliers know that Bridge is a partner even in tough times.

3. Grow Your Focus (Concentrate instead of expand)

This is going to be a difficult year. All of us will have to tighten our belts in some way. By focusing more, removing parts of our operation that are non-essential, we make sure that valuable and scarce resources go to keeping our essentials healthy. But the bigger threat to our focus isn’t more work, less resources, nor external threats. The biggest threat to our focus is the non-stop and unprocessed flow of information coming at us from all sorts of sources. I, personally, can’t keep up with my email and messaging apps, and neither can I follow the streaming news from politics, to climate, to health, economy. If you add all my “connections” on personal and professional networks, it’s easy for me to drown. I’m sure much of the stress, physical and mental issues, and relationship issues are caused by our physical, mental, and social systems being overwhelmed by too much. You be different. Choose to focus on the timeless things about yourself and your work. Don’t focus on things like diversity. Focus on being understanding, kind, and in making those around you better. Don’t focus on political correctness. Focus on honesty, humility, apologizing when wrong, forgiving when right, and sincerity. Don’t focus on what you don’t have. Focus on who you are becoming. Don’t focus on the threat. Focus on your response.

The End…

I don’t know how this will all end. I’m no prophet. Who really knows what tomorrow will bring? Will crisis lead to poverty? Will poverty lead to extremism? Will extremism lead to war? Will war lead to a nuclear holocaust? No idea. Will we be able to pay our bills? Will we be able to visit loved ones? How will our business be affected? Will we be able to care for our sick? Will we be able to afford college? Will we be able to get married? Will we be able to protect our children? I really don’t know.

This I know, tomorrow we will wake-up early and face the day, whatever that day may be, and we will do what we can to grow our roots, grow our partnerships, and grow our. focus. Be cautious but don’t fearful. Be prudent but don’t’ be paralyzed. Be informed and turn that information into insight. We don’t need to know how everything will conclude. We don’t need the assurance of prediction. After all, our beautiful stories don’t come from promised happy endings but from courageously and creatively responding to life’s call.

The Bridge Basics

Last January 2, 2020, I got together with the leaders of Bridge and the presidents of our two subsidiaries: Bridge People Solutions (HR) and Bridge Access (Fintech). I wanted to kick-off the year with the same format I use over and over with our teams: Clarity + Competence + Capital. Clarity for us means answering the Why are we here question again and again. It means reviewing our mission to Make Work-Life Better and the principles we live by, which are, Hunger, Understanding, Diligence, and Empowerment. Competence for us means answering the question, “What will we be excellent in?” While the Capital section is a review of our approach to handling the different kinds of business resources. Together, these give us the overarching plan for 2020.

I have provided an outline of what I passed on to the team to give you ideas on how you can approach your own 2020 preparations. One of the things you won’t find in our framework is an obsession with valuations or marketing. As our business grows, and as the pace of innovation speeds-up, it’s even more important for the team to be excellent on the timeless business fundamentals.

Bridge in 2020

 

1. Clarity: Why do we exist?

a. Purpose: Make Work-Life Better (by improving the ability of every worker to create and capture massive value)
b. Principles: Hunger (Whatever It Takes) + Understanding (In a World of OR look for AND) + Diligence (Meet the Demands of Reality) + Empowerment (We Master the World by Mastering Ourselves)
c. Objectives + Key Results (confidential)

2. Competence: What are we going to excel in this year?

a. Business Fundamentals:
Get good at the timeless functions that create and capture value. Get good at removing distractions and stop relying on conventions.

b. Leadership Development:

Get good at developing our next level of leaders. Developing leaders to create massive value and helping our leaders capture massive value in return is a major differentiator of Bridge as an employer.
c. Productivity Technology:
Get good at overcoming the circumstantial realities of traffic, beauacracy, and distractions by mastering new technology and new best practices of work.

3. Capital: How dowe Acquire + Develop + Deploy + Secure the following resources?

  1. Human Resources (HR): Leadership Development
  2. Intellectual Property (R&D): Innovation
  3. Data (IT): Security
  4. Financial Resources (Finance): Stability
  5. Customers (Business Development): Satisfaction
  6. Qualified Leads (Marketing): Predictability

I’m keeping a lot of detail out since it’s an internal document, but what I really want to show is our simple (and boring) focus on Clarity, Competence, and Capital Management is 

more than enough work for the year. The challenge in this day and age isn’t having too little to do but having too much to do. We are purposefully limiting what we’re going to work on, focusing on high impact activities that lead to great customer and team experience. We’re not going to focus on valuations, on pets in the office, work life balance, events, or talks. Those are all extras.

I encourage you to discover your own “basics”. What are the fundamental principles that affect your business? What practices should you adopt that are high impact? Don’t be distracted by the latest and greatest, by the high profile, or the fancy. Focus on your purpose and the activities that help you fulfill your mission.

4 Lessons From 4 Years of Bridge

Introduction: Start Ups are F***ing Hard

This week, we celebrate Bridge’s 4th year anniversary. It’s been an incredibly wild and rewarding ride.

As a startup, we are growing stronger and stronger, having determined our model, developed our growth strategy, and assembled an amazing team. But even as we celebrate this milestone, I’m very well aware that most startups never make it to their 4th birthday. More than pride, this reality brings a sobering humility that success is elusive, and we must be more vigilant than ever to do the necessary hard things. While we’re still early in the journey, I’d like to highlight 4 lessons (from the many) that have helped us get this far.

Lesson #1: A Valuable Mission is an Incredible Strategic Advantage

Having a valuable mission means embracing a purpose that has significant worth to people. Our mission of improving the results and rewards of work affects so many lives and, if achieved, is extremely meaningful. Our People Solutions subsidiary provides HR Tech and HR Solutions for the Human Resource departments of some of the most respected companies in the Philippines. More than providing “admin support” or “back office systems”, we see ourselves as strategic partners in helping manage people effectively. Recruitment isn’t simply about hiring. It’s about career opportunities and advancement. Payroll is not simply about salaries. It’s about quality of life. With Access, our Fintech platform, we improve the Rewards of work. Compensation and benefits to us are not simply for amassing “stuff” but for achieving greater security.

When your people and your customers know that you have infused your company and your offerings with deep meaning, they will value who you are and what you have to offer much more than competition. This is probably why we are growing quicker than our peers in terms of users served.

Lesson #2: The Quality of Your Leadership Team Determines the Quality of Your Organization

I cannot emphasise this enough. When I was an investor, when evaluating an early stage company, more than P&L, more than decks, more than tech, I looked at the leaders. Who were the ones responsible for stewarding the vision and mission? Who was ultimately accountable for the achievements or lack of achievements of the company? This is not to say “Ignore financials!” That’s just stupid. Of course you should also look into those. But because there is so much ambiguity and lack of data to benchmark with, don’t make quick judgements about the company on initial performance. Instead, look at its ability to attract, develop, and retain high level talent.

Bridge got off to a slow start. A very slow start in some people’s view. But I was regularly reminding the team, “Trees need to grow roots before it shoots up. You can’t see roots. You can only nature the conditions that lead to strong roots, like keeping the soil healthy.” To me, great talent, however way your company defines it, are like seeds. The soil is the company culture. We asked ourselves, “What type of culture can we plant great talent in and thrive? This of course didn’t impress anyone. For one, it’s hard to measure. It’s practically invisible since it’s underground in a figurative sense. But, from experience, I knew that of all the “debt” a startup incurs on its way to success, including financial and technical debt, there is one kind of debt that’s rather permanent, and that is, Cultural Debt. It is inevitable that high risk, hyper speeds, and loads of work will lead to some form of disfunction that needs paying off or correcting later on. A bad cultural precedent is difficult to change.

The early leaders set the that culture, and they set it mostly accidentally, since the company lacks a lot of the codified principles at the start. Bring in people who can lead by example as soon as you can. And cut-off the wrong ones quickly too. I’ve wasted so much resources on not cutting a bad talent fast enough.

Lesson #3: Focus on Highest Impact Activities

Given that startups are working with very limited resources, it is important to focus those resources on the things with high return. For me, that’s great leadership and getting those leaders to do only 3-4 things that have the most strategic return. I find that being able to make wise trade-offs, not trying to accomplish everything right away, is an important discipline to develop.

Executing this way means that you will also leave many things undone. And that’s fine. You can’t do everything. Knowing what you can’t live without, what is most necessary, getting good at identifying these things, will help your company for the long term.

Lesson #4: In a World of OR Look for AND

This statement is now our Core Principle at Bridge. It captures our desire to bridge seemingly unconnected things. In Lesson #3, I talked about the reality of trade-offs. When running a startup, one will be regularly faced with OR situations. Do we do this OR that? Do we spend on this OR that? Do we hire OR not? Do we fire OR not? But even as we are presented with these OR situations, before making a decision, I’ve learned that it is a valuable exercise to look for AND scenarios, and consider them, before making a decision.

This is easier said than done. We’ve had to struggle with living up to this very aspirational principle. But it has been extremely valuable. There are situations like when two key talents could not get along, but somehow they found their AND, so we benefit from both their contributions. There are situations when it seems like the budget constraints would prevent us from having a successful team building, only to find that a free company-wide MOBA tournament is all we needed to get everyone together. I can go on and on about how powerful this principle is.

I really hope we continue to fight for this Principle in our company. I’m convinced it sets our culture apart.

Conclusion: We’ve Only Just Begun

I’m excited about the coming years. When I look at our current growth, both users and revenue, our current tech, and our current team, all assembled and achieved in only 4 years with little experience, I can’t help but be excited for the future of Bridge. Despite the doubters, despite the challenges, and despite the conditions, we’ve marched-on, we’ve set a strong foundation, and we’re positioned to dominate our segments. I’m very grateful to the many men and women who make Bridge’s success possible. Thank you for going on this great journey with us! We’ve only just begun.

Beyond Equal Pay: Striving for Gender Neutrality 

In a recent interview on CNN Philippines, I’d claimed that the gender inequality in the workforce only exists if we allow it, pertaining more to the individual.  If a woman chooses to let herself be deterred just because there are more men than women in the office or that men are earning more – then yes, for them, the gender gap does matter. What I’d missed to articulate was that while it is, in the end, up to an individual, company policies and maybe even more importantly, culture is an important factor in achieving gender equality in the workplace.  


Photo taken during Bridge’s Christmas Party 2018

I am fortunate to be working for a company that is not  just concerned about gender equality, but imbibes in all respects  – gender neutrality.  At Bridge, gender is never a point of consideration for remuneration, nor advancement, or even just plain being heard.  In fact – Bridge’s leaders are majority female – with women leading both of its tech teams on the People Solutions and the Access business even while the teams are mostly male. I say gender neutrality – because this is not a result of deliberate moves to achieve gender equality (and NO coincidence either).  This is a result of an overriding culture of respect, understanding, accountability – and ultimately embracing the idea of the AND over the ORs.

This gender neutral culture is so apparent here because while I have never allowed it to be a hindrance, I have worked for and with companies where it still felt like there was a glass ceiling that had to be broken, an Old Boys’ Club that had to be ‘infiltrated’ or broken up.  So what can a company do to create the culture of gender neutrality ?  I draw a few key shifts:

1. Leaders walk the talk vs. just supporting diversity initiatives for the sake of saying they do 

Leaders and managers need to acknowledge and confront their own gender biases (really, we all have them)  and shift the focus to the individual and the individual’s performance.  Beyond just supporting women empowerment and diversity projects – leaders need to be more aware of how they communicate to and lead their employees.  It has to be apparent and clear to everyone in the workplace that the company is doing something and is serious about addressing gender inequality.

2. Encourage a culture of open and honest communication

Both leaders and staff need to be able to call each other out  or report when an offense is made or taken.  In an age where political correctness and gender sensitivity is almost a given, this might be made unconsciously.  Ideally, colleagues need to be able to say to another – “that is slightly offensive” or “that sounds discriminatory”.  As a safeguard – a role or unit can be setup as an outlet to report certain sensitive cases.  It is important that this unit is perceived as both safe and effective – for it to be trusted and actually utilized.  Part of establishing effectivity is by setting an example when an incident does happen .  These should not be tolerated and appropriate action need to be taken.

3. Promote an empowering environment of respect and understanding

Employees need to know that they are given the freedom to express themselves within the bounds of business etiquette set by the company.  The policies need to be flexible to allow concessions based on an individual’s needs and in certain cases, preferences.  Some companies do this by reviewing their dress code policies – to allow employees to dress how they want on certain days.  Flexible work from home policies also allow both men and women to perform parental duties when needed. Company events can also be very helpful for employees to be able to get to know each other as individuals outside the workplace encourages better understanding of each other.

Just based on my experience at Bridge and like-minded companies alone,  a culture where gender is a non-issue allows for both men and women to be empowered as productive contributors to the organization – creating a diversified leadership team and upwardly mobile workforce that can focus on being a productive contributor versus abolishing the patriarchy or proving themselves worthy. The company only serves to gain from the diversity –  a more diversified workforce allows for healthier idea generation and exchange and is able to draw from the varied strengths of each individual.  When gender is not the issue, the company’s mission can again become the focus.

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David on Diversity While I do believe that diverse perspectives lead to fuller and richer combinations and synergies, it’s important to remember that the point of building a team is not diversity itself but performance. The end goal of every team is not to have a good mix but to create, deliver, and capture value. If diversity helps this, then build a diverse team. I experienced the value of a diverse team, but we have never sought out to have a diverse team for the sake of diversity. Performance is what we design for. - David Bonifacio is the CEO and Founder of Bridge

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