Culture and Hyper Growth: Ron Storn on Keeping Lyft’s Values Alive

Meghan Oliver, Human Synergistics

Establishing and maintaining a strong workplace culture is a major undertaking for any organization. But when your organization grows 300 percent in the space of a year, holding onto the culture and values that led to such success becomes an uphill battle. That’s the challenge that Ron Storn, VP of People at Lyft, took to task when he joined the company—how do you keep values alive while your organization grows at a dizzying rate?

Humble beginnings

With a background as a cutting-edge startup, it might be surprising that the inspiration for Lyft came from a third-world country. Co-founder and CEO Logan Green grew up in the Los Angeles area, where, Ron says, he was “consumed with traffic.” While attending college in Santa Barbara, he became “obsessed” with creating a better living environment by decreasing traffic and removing cars from the road. A trip to Zimbabwe provided the lightbulb moment that would eventually lead to Lyft. “What he found was in the big cities, people would congregate in certain areas every day, and an organic shuttle system developed that maneuvered people through the country. So, Logan's thinking, affluent areas like LA and Santa Barbara can't figure this out, but countries like Zimbabwe have a plan. That started the genesis.”

Lyft’s other co-founder and current President, John Zimmer, had a similar experience being surrounded by traffic in New York, and had begun to consider a similar solution. A mutual friend connected the two on Facebook, and in 2007, they launched Zimride, a long-distance carpooling service at university campuses that was the precursor to Lyft. They started gaining traction, but as Ron explained, “the problem with Zimride was it was a long-distance ride, too infrequent, and there were no network effects.” In the summer of 2012, they had a hackathon, and “the Lyft concept was born.”

With growth comes competition…for business and talent

Ron joined the company in 2013 as a member of a relatively small—but rapidly expanding—team. “The growth over the last three years has been pretty insane. When I joined, we had 80 people, we were in six cities, and we had one primary office. And then fast forward to today: we have 1500 team members—and that excludes drivers; drivers are independent contractors—so these are just internal employees.” Lyft now operates in more than 200 US cities, with partnerships internationally, and has added two more primary offices: an engineering office in Seattle and a Nashville customer service office. These offices are in addition to the 15+ hubs in all the major cities within which Lyft operates that focus on optimizing the driver experience.

By the numbers: Growth at Lyft

Lyft growth by the numbers

“During this tremendous growth there's tons of competition, especially for the ‘war for talent,’ on how you can bring the best individuals into the organization,” said Ron. He shared the three things top talent wants most when seeking out a new opportunity:

  1. Work with the Best: “Top talent really wants to work with the best people they can work with so they can learn from them.”
  2. Role/Impact: “The role that they have has to have impact within the organization.”
  3. Connection to Mission: “People are trying to find an employer that they have a connection with—either their mission, their values, or their product.”

“At Lyft, our product is really people, and we build a platform that connects communities, so we try to find talent that aligns to that. Having a very diverse population of drivers and passengers, we are very focused on building an organization that has diverse backgrounds and diverse experiences in order to bring that diversity into the organization.” With 50 percent of drivers identifying with a minority group and a passenger base that is 60 percent female, Lyft strives to keep diversity in mind to ensure that they build a product that supports their community and the organization’s core values. “We try at Lyft to live by the brand—we treat people better. That is in our external community with drivers and passengers, but also internally in how we support and develop our team members.”

Bringing values to life—in our cars and beyond

As Head of People, Ron’s job is “to take the experience within the car and replicate that internally for all of our employees, which we call team members. And, again, this starts with core values.” But when he started with Lyft, their core values were “really broken”—they focused on the drivers without considering internal team members. “What we had to do was work to reshape the values and come up with values that apply to all stakeholders in the community: drivers, passengers, internal employees, as well as the external candidates who want to join the company.” They defined four core values that permeate how Lyft’s team members think and act and what they want to accomplish.

VIDEO CLIP: Listen in as Ron talks about Lyft’s core values

Lyft Core Values Lyft core values
  1. Be Yourself. “I know a lot of companies talk about the authentic you, but really, who you are at home is who we want you to be internally within the company. We want you to be very comfortable so you can be more productive and happier.”
  2. Create Fearlessly. “We empower everyone to be an owner in the company, so if there's something that isn't working, fix it yourself or try to talk to someone who can fix it for you. We've grown so quickly, there are a lot of Band-Aid solutions that were put in place, so I want people to really assess and try to improve upon processes, maybe develop new processes to make the company better.”
  3. Uplift Others. “In the platform, drivers and passengers uplift each other. Internally for us, it's so important to really be collaborative and be team-oriented. We have a rule that we really don't want to hire any assholes. That doesn't mean that we don't want tough conversations, but we want people to do it in a very collaborative way. If we build the best engineering team and the best app, but we don't have the right supply and demand in each of the cities, we're going to fail. So, each of those groups has to really work together in a collaborative fashion.”
  4. Make It Happen. “John has an internal saying that says "F-ing participate.” It really means that we want you to be proactive and not reactive. The problem is that, as we scale, you have to be very thoughtful when you're proactive. When I first joined, we didn't hit our cumulative millionth ride until four months in. Today we have millions and millions of rides every week. So, if we are very proactive but are not thoughtful about the passengers, it can disrupt that service, and that's something that we can't afford to do.”

Lyft relies on its core values to foster an inclusive environment that puts team members front and center of everything they do, allowing their team members to influence the product, lead, and continuously grow. “That's what we call our EVP—our Employee Value Proposition—and it really separates us when people are looking for a culture that they want to join.”

Culture and hyper-growth

These core values have been a key factor in helping Lyft maintain a culture that attracts top talent. The company didn’t want to become part of the statistic Ron cited: “If you grow by 20 percent or less, your culture remains intact. If you grow between 30 and 40 percent, you're about to risk losing your culture. And if you grow more than 40 percent in any one year you've lost your culture. This last year, we grew almost 300 percent.” To mitigate the culture loss, Lyft determined four key ways to ensure it was living its core values:

  1. Behavior & Impact. Lyft threads their core values through all its programs and regularly pulse-checks to make sure team members are living up to them. The values are included in performance reviews and continuous feedback to measure the impact team members have, and to assess how they are living their values according to their peers and managers.
  2. Inclusion & Engagement Surveys. To make sure the values are aligned with team members and support the diversity of Lyft’s workforce, the company regularly administers inclusion surveys and engagement surveys. If misalignments are discovered, initiatives are undertaken to focus on how they can improve.
  3. Rewards & Recognition. On a monthly basis, Lyft gives out an Employee of the Fortnight reward that is directly tied to the core values. Team members who go above and beyond their job and exemplify one or more of the four core values are recognized.
  4. Office Culture. Lyft strives to offer an environment that emphasizes continuous learning, the value of individuals, empowerment, and a strong support system. That culture allows for the tough conversations that are necessary for an organization to grow and thrive.

Culture definitely starts with your founders, your CEO, and your leadership, but I think it's owned by everyone in the organization. ~Ron Storn

Supporting and evolving your culture

Lyft had two major obstacles to maintaining its values-based culture: rapid growth and a distributed workforce. For organizations facing the challenges of hyper-growth, Ron has four main touchpoints to focus on and scale to support and evolve culture:

  1. Onboarding & Orientation: In the early days of Lyft, each new team member received a gift-wrapped MacBook Air and had an individual onboarding session. With so many new team members joining each week, they switched to a weekly group onboarding session where John gives the founding story and Ron gives a story about values. “What we want to do is really reaffirm why you join Lyft and make it be a place that you want to thrive in and are connected to. It really made a difference on how we scaled and how we connect people through these values.”
  2. Company Meetings & Communication: Lyft holds company meetings every two weeks to share information and “roast” new hires. They’ve had to scale the roast to themes rather than individual employees, but “it talks about how we integrate people into the environment.” Lyft also utilizes video and communication tools, wikis, an internal Facebook group, and informal chat conversations to allow for real-time collaboration as well as relationship building across their distributed team.
  3. Community Service: Team members take part in a “community day” where each office gets together in the morning to do community service. They have an online platform that connects individuals to organizations to which they want to donate their time. “In the afternoon, we come together and really talk about and have experiences of what you learned during the morning session, and then we'll usually have food and drinks in order to make it a fun day.”
  4. Employee Resource Groups: To grow and maintain inclusion and diversity, Lyft developed employee resource groups for individuals to identify with each other. They also have a culture board made up of individuals with different tenures so team members from across the organization “can help shape and drive what culture looks like.”

To bring his presentation full circle, Ron emphasized that people want to form a connection with the organization they join, from the people they work with and the impact they have to the mission, vision, and values. He closed with key culture takeaways for all organizations, whether or not they’re facing hyper-growth: “Your last 100 hires are what your true culture is, so make sure that they embrace, understand, and learn the culture so they can hire the next 100 folks. Culture definitely starts with your founders, your CEO, and your leadership, but I think it's owned by everyone in the organization. It's a living, breathing type of situation where you always have to curate, you always have to evolve, and that's going to make a very healthy environment.”

What are your core values and how do you help bring them to life? 

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Article direction: Tim Kuppler.

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