Episode 7 – On Cheating, Money, and Important Truths About Growth

On Episode 7 of Up Right & Better, I talk with Stephen Green, one of my favorite Portlanders and startup thinkers. He’s an economist, entrepreneur & general do-gooder. A Portland native and recovering banker and venture capitalist, he is a champion of the little gal/guy, creator of the event PitchBlack and the Oregon Public House. He spends his days as Community Manger for Townsquared, a tech startup connecting small businesses with the knowledge they need to succeed and grow. On this episode, we’ll be talking about funding, why you might not need money, how to cheat, and more – join us!

Kristen G: Hi, welcome back to Upright and Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

Today’s guest is Stephen Green. I got to meet Stephen during the first year I lived in Portland when I was an AmeriCorps member at Micro Enterprise Services, Oregon. Since then, he’s gone on to make so many stunning contributions to our community, and I am so honored to talk with him today.

Stephen Green is an economist, entrepreneur, and general do-gooder, a Portland native and a recovering banker and venture capitalist, he’s a champion of the little guy and the little gal. He’s also the creator of the Pitch Black event that highlights Portland’s black founders and also one of the founding board members of the nation’s first nonprofit brew pub, Oregon Public House. He spends his days as community manager for Townsquared, a tech startup connecting small businesses with the knowledge they need to succeed and grow.

I also recently learned that Townsquared is a hugely diverse company. He was awarded 2016’s small business advocate of the year by Portland Business Journal and was also highlighted as one of Portland’s top 40 under 40 in 2015. When not making spreadsheets or helping founders, you will find him with his family in Portland’s Woodlawn neighborhood. Help me welcome, Stephen Green. Good morning, Stephen. How are you doing?

Stephen Green: I am doing fabulous. How about yourself?

Kristen G: I’m doing really good. I’ve actually gotten a lot of work done this morning, which isn’t always true for my morning, so I’m quite pleased. All right, so I want to go ahead and dive right in. You have a really long history of being in finance, of advising small businesses, of actually starting a couple of things yourself, and you recently gave a talk at TEDxPortland, that’s your hashtag, #cheatmore, and you gave a really wonderful story about a construction contractor that you’d worked with. I want to say, did you work with him 10 years ago?

Stephen Green: Yeah, it was about 10 years ago.

Kristen G: 10 years ago, so maybe you can talk a little bit about that, but why are you drawn to this space personally?

Stephen Green: First and foremost, I think it’s because I’m the son of two entrepreneurs. As a child, I was able to see both of my parents start their own separate businesses. My mom had a tech company in the 90s. My father had a really successful human resources consulting firm where he worked with tech companies in the Portland area, mainly. And so, being up close to it, I could see them benefit and them grow, and the power of having other people say yes to ideas that you bake up on your kitchen table.

Kristen G: That’s amazing. I did not know that about your parents. That’s funny, it’s close to home. A human resources consulting company and a tech company. What type of work was your mom doing?

Stephen Green: She does information systems. She worked at Tectronics for 20 years.

Kristen G: Oh, wow.

Stephen Green: My dad worked at Intel for 20, 25 years, and then my mom started a tech company in the insurance space back in the early, early 90s that she ended up exiting from a few years after they started it. I’ve grown up seeing strong people of color doing amazing things, and so I think it’s only natural that I spend my career supporting those folks around me in Portland.

Kristen G: Definitely. I want to talk a little bit about cheat more, for those listeners who haven’t watched your talk, which is amazing and you should definitely take… I think it was 13 minutes, 13, 14 minutes to take a listen to it, but can you talk about what cheat more means and how it supports businesses here?

Stephen Green: Yeah. The idea of cheat more is really to break up the dynamic and the conversation around what it means to support small businesses, and generally, that conversation is always a binary conversation of either you’re buying local or you’re a douche bag and you’re supporting some national business. The idea of cheating really comes from what my buddy Neil Blassingame who’s a body builder does. He works really, really hard, and he’s lifting all the time, but he has cheat days, and so just like it’s okay to have those when you’re working towards a goal, it’s okay to cheat on the big guys. I understand why people shop at companies like Starbucks and Walmart and Amazon, and it’s not about telling them to stop. It’s about them understanding the power that they have in their community when they have cheat days or cheat weeks or cheat months or whatever as opposed to them feeling some sort of shame because they went and bought some items on Amazon.

My talk is really… you know, quantifies what happens in local communities when you do decide to cheat and what a big deal it is when you spend your money in local communities and the direct benefits to the people in the community that connect all the way to your own personal health. Communities that have more small businesses actually have higher health outcomes than communities that have fewer small businesses.

Kristen G: Wow. I did not know that before your talk about the health outcomes, which is a really amazing statistic. I love how your thoughts around cheating on the big guys actually contributes to your work in finance, almost like the most tangible work that I can think of that you’ve done. There’s the financing you’ve done where you’ve made sure that companies had millions of dollars of funding that they needed, but this is the $5, this is the $3 in the local community that really does add up. It kind of leads me to my next question that does everybody need financing or when should you not go look for financing and can you do it from a community perspective?

Stephen Green: Yeah. I think firms are always seeking financing, and one way to think about financing is a loan or equity. Another form of financing is revenue. I think as a business owner, you should always be seeking to figure out who your customer base is, do they want to buy your product, what are they willing to pay for your product, how much does your product cost you to deliver to your customers? When i think about providing financing, it’s from those different sources. It doesn’t have to always be a bank or your home equity line of credit or doing a kickstarter campaign.

You should be seeking the optimum ways to figure out how you can produce revenues at all times. I think we’re living in a day and age where it’s the easiest time ever to get access to capital if you have a business, for better or worse. Venture capital has grown here in Oregon, but so has crowd funding. Crowd funding nationally is now at 39 billion dollars as of 2016. Venture capital nationally is only at 31 billion dollars.

Kristen G: Oh, wow.

Stephen Green: When you look at the landscape as a business owner, you’ve never had more opportunities than now to gain funding. When you go and you look at the data for why businesses go out of business, access to capital is the number five reason why businesses go out of business. And so far too often I see entrepreneurs going and looking for the next round of funding or the next loan or the next side investor, but they aren’t thinking about am I serving my market? Am I pricing things appropriately? What are my margins? Am I solving a problem out there? When you’re always seeking funding, sometimes you prolong the inevitable when you don’t have a really, really sharp, proper business plan.

Kristen G: That’s such a good thought because the name of this podcast, Upright and Better, we’re trying to move up and to the right from a profit perspective and a revenue perspective, but we want to move up to the right and better. We want to be a better type of company, a better organization in our communities, and I think you’re speaking to that, that you can’t just be looking for the money and that’s your business plan. Have you seen some businesses that have succeeded without seeking either crowd funding or VC or seed capital, but they’ve done it on their own merits and their business plan?

Stephen Green: Yeah. I think probably one of the best examples here in Portland is the digital media company Digital Trends. They’re approximately a 40 million dollar a year company that hasn’t raised any equity financing. They’ve really always been keenly focused on who their customer base is, who their competition is, and how do they do things better and cheaper over time? How do they diversify their product mix over time to a changing market? Before they just had Digital Trends as a platform where people were engaging, but recently they’ve added another standalone brand called The Manual, which still targets a similar demographic, but caters to them to talk about other products. There’s a perfect example right in our backyard of a bootstrap company that’s always been keenly focused on their customer segment and how to do that better and cheaper over time.

Kristen G: Why do you think that’s not talked about so much? I think the talk in the startup space especially in Portland, last year there was some big conversation about the difficulty of getting venture capital and seed capital in the Portland area for Portland companies, and there’s a history of this, of a conversation between Silicon Valley and Silicon Forest, but why do you think there’s not much of a conversation on the type of road that you say Digital Trends is doing?

Stephen Green: One, it’s not sexy. It’s not a really super great story, I don’t think, potentially, for readers to go and read about two guys who put something together and failed a bunch and over the years slowly created this juggernaut that’s doing so well. I think it’s better to tell the story of the company that raised 12 million dollars and they got six employees and now they’re going to have 50 employees.

But part of what’s happening is these stories go and feed into what people think of this, what it means to be a startup founder and that you have to have really fast growth. Unfortunately, when you look at what it means to grow a business, uncontrolled growth is the actual number three killer of businesses.

It’s even worse for you than access to capital, and so when you read about all these stories in the paper of these high growth companies and you never read about boot strappers or the people that are really being agile and managing growth and controlling their brand, it leads people to have this false positive idea that well, the focus is really fast growth and that’s what I need to point to. That gets a lot of founders in trouble.

Kristen G: I think you’re right. Not only, well, I don’t think you’re right. I know you’re right. The data says that, but I think people do have this image in their mind of the fast company or the wired. They want to be on the front cover, but it’s so ironic to me because I’m not building a tech company, but I want my company to be sustainable and to be able to look back and say, for example, this morning, I got told no from a potential customer, and that’s tough, and you’re going to get that more times than you’re going to get a yes, but eventually you’re going to grow.

For example, Edify’s already seeing double its first year in revenue. It takes time. I don’t know, that’s the story that I want to see. I think that’s the story that’s going to keep our community afloat actually when we see the trouble in other communities that are startup funded or venture capital funded over time. When a business approaches you for financing or advice on financing, what do you say to them? What do you ask them first?

Stephen Green: Generally, the first question is always what do you want versus what do you need in financing, and the answer to that question will tell me a lot about where the founder or founders are at with the company. If they go and say, “Well, I don’t know the difference,” that tells me a lot versus, “Oh, well to get to the next milepost, we need $18,000, but right now we’re fundraising for $60,000 because that’ll allow us to do these two other things that we really want to do.” Financing, getting capital into your business is gasoline, and so you should use gasoline to propel you forward to the next spot, but oftentimes, a lot of founders don’t have a plan of where the next spot is, and they’re just chasing to put more gas in the gas tank as opposed to they don’t know where the car’s leading to, and that’s difficult because that’s where, if you don’t know what road you’re headed, then any road will do I think the saying is.

I’m always looking for business owners that have a plan, and they’re working their plan. I sit down and talk with them about financing, they should be using financing as a tool to propel them down their plan. Oftentimes, we leave the financing conversation and go and talk about, “Well, what’s the plan? How would you spend this money? How do you know it’s going to cost $50,000 for a marketing plan and not $32,000?”

Kristen G: What research have you done? This isn’t a perfect analogy, but it reminds me a little bit about college loans. I remember being in school and I was about to graduate and a freshman came in and she was kind of getting settled, and we were talking about her money for some reason, about financing, and she said that she got the entire tuition in student loans. At that time, that college was $40,000 a year. That was just her first year, and right there she’s already over, at that time, she was over the national average for four years of college debt. She was a freshman, so she didn’t know necessarily where she wanted to go, but I think about her often because I think, I wonder did she find her way? Did she find a place that would make sense for her and that would ultimately pay it back?

I guess it’s not a perfect analogy because I think sometimes you can do that uncontrolled growth and you can get that money and you don’t always have to prove that you’re using it wisely. You kind of get out of jail free card if your startup fails. It seems like it’s a badge of honor that “I’ve had a couple of failed startups, I’ve taken money. I had a couple of exits”, but you still didn’t produce anything at the end of the day, so not a perfect analogy, but something that I think about based on what you’re saying.

So, I want to hear some of the successes and the horror stories of financing, so what are some of your favorite stories? I would love to hear construction contractor story again just because I love it, but I think everybody else would too.

Stephen Green: The construction story that I give in my talk is about a contractor, Mr. Hartley, and I use a different name in the talk, but when I met him, he was homeless, living in his van in Nevada. He’s a Portland native, and his dream was to come back to Portland with his head held high. He was an amazing lath and plaster professional, but had fallen on hard times. As with a lot of folks, he knew a trade, he was good at something, but knew little to nothing about running a business.

So, when we connected, he had an opportunity to work on one floor of one building in the South Waterfront Towers that were being built here in Portland, and if he was able to complete that, then he’d be able to get the remaining other 20 floors of the building. It would become very quickly a very large project. The only thing standing in his way was the $20,000 he needed to pay for the materials to do that first floor.

You can imagine being a banker. At the time I was working at Albina Community Bank, and starting off with the fact of someone coming in for a loan who’s homeless, you can imagine what the initial application looked like. I think in hearing his story and finding out that he was a talented person and looking into some other resources here in town, we were able to put together a pretty compelling argument for why he was the kind of person that you want to take a risk on. Some other partners came to bear that were going to help on capacity building for him to really be able to manage a project, but in the end of the day, he was able to get the money he needed to do that project.

Kristen G: That’s amazing.

Stephen Green: And ultimately did get the other 20 floors.

Kristen G: I love that story so much because it feels to me like one of the original ways to build your business, to show that I am somebody you can trust and I will return this. I’ve got to believe that he had to employ people, he had to buy materials, so he’s putting those resources back into the community, and especially because it was a loan from the community bank, I think it’s so impactful to me. On the flip side though, what about some success stories from a VC perspective or an angel perspective? I know that you’ve been on that side of the table too.

Stephen Green: I think one of the things that I learned in my foray in the venture capital world is it’s a really, really, really myopic tool, and I spent probably 90% of my time explaining to people what the tool was, and more importantly, what it wasn’t. Sometimes a big win was helping people understand that they don’t need venture capital because I think one of the things you alluded to in one of your earlier comments is that fundraising is kind of this badge of honor, and it’s kind of a cub scout badge. I’ve done my fundraise, but I’m always seeking to make more informed founders in the city, and if I can help someone understand that they don’t need VC funding, or they don’t need a loan, or they don’t need an investor and they can really get to that next milepost without it, then that’s a big win.

When i think of successes, what comes to mind is Tyrone Poole, the founder of NoAppFee, a technology platform here that helps people with barriers to housing find appropriate rental housing. When I met Tyrone 12 years ago, he was actually living in a homeless shelter, and to see him build two companies in the past 12 years, raise financing, win Pitch Black, go on to win the Challenge Cup in Washington DC and raise more than a million dollars for his company is phenomenal. Phenomenal.

I think he epitomizes everything that the venture world should be supporting, someone who’s dealt with adversity, someone who’s got a crazy ability to manage risk and navigate tough spaces and also has probably an industry leading advantage as far as being able to relate to his clients because he was one of his clients. I think one of the keys to his success is that he’s faced barriers to housing. He knows what it’s like to get turned down by 10 different places when you’re trying to rent an apartment.

Kristen G: And have spent all that money on the application fee.

Stephen Green: Yes. I’ve got to think that folks sitting in a dorm room in Stanford University aren’t thinking about how to solve that problem because they’ve never had to experience it generally.

Kristen G: Definitely generally, but I’ve got to think that you’re right because look at the companies that are getting the press and that are getting the money that we see thrown around. It’s not necessarily the NoAppFees of the world, right? I think that’s, we were having this conversation before we started recording about diversity and access to capital too, but I think one thing you just said, which was there are people that the capital, venture capital world should be funding, and they’re people who can manage risk. They’re people who have seen that adversity. They’re people who have actually experienced what their customer is interested in or has problems with and it’s not just that they can’t get their food delivered at the time that they want.

Stephen Green: Good point. I think the other way to think about it as well is that being able to raise venture capital equity is not the litmus for building a successful business either. Less than 1% of businesses in the United States will ever raise venture capital. It’s a really myopic tool. I hate seeing entrepreneurs leave the table of not raising venture capital and correlating that to “I don’t have a successful business.”

Kristen G: Exactly.

Stephen Green: Because in fact, they just may be a bad fit for that tool, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree for capital.

Kristen G: There are better ways, different ways to build the business.

Stephen Green: Yep. Conversely, to play alongside with you, the numbers bear out. Companies that have diverse founders return higher shareholder returns than ones that have more monolithic founder teams. If I’m a VC or I’m an investor who’s strictly about making money, you would invest in teams that have women or people of color or immigrants as founders because that’s how you’d make a crap load of money, right?

Kristen G: Right.

Stephen Green: If you’re not doing it for the moral side of it and you’re not doing it to be a capitalistic pig and make a ton of money, what you’re left with is you’re doing what you’re comfortable with. I think how do we break out of that mold of doing what we’re comfortable with and really seeking to be truly disruptive beyond using the word disruptive and using the word innovative and really using evidence and data in these stories to build a case for why when you do invest in a women owned company, when you do invest in a company owned by a veteran, it’s an impact investment, that it actually is about making returns on your bottom line.

Kristen G: Right. I think that could be a whole other episode. I would love to talk more about that. It would actually be pretty cool to get you and maybe Arlan and a couple of other people on the podcast to talk about that, so maybe we’ll have to come back to that. As the last question I want to ask you, maybe a big one, but how does taking funding from any source impact your company’s culture?

Stephen Green: That’s a good one. That’s a pretty high level question because when I think about taking money, I think of the multiple levels of what that means. That could be a bank loan. That could be a successful kick starter. That could be grandma wrote a check for $20,000. At the end of the day, all of those things point to there’s either one person or hundreds of people that believe in the idea of what you’re trying to do. I think that in and of itself is a good thing, and now it’s on you as a founder team and the employees to deliver on that better and cheaper over time.

Kristen G: Definitely.

Stephen Green: If you’re doing that without having a plan, then ultimately it could lead to the inevitable of you closing down and you just put more gas into a tank of a car that’s not moving. The point is how do you be a really informed founder and make sure that whatever gas you have in that tank, you’re using it to its fullest and getting you to where you understand that you need to go, right? Because sometimes you have conversations with founders and they come to the realization of, “Wow, if I can’t raise 1.8 million dollars and not a penny less, this just doesn’t move forward.” Sometimes pulling the plug is a really great option, right?

Kristen G: Right.

Stephen Green: Know when to say when. Fail fast. I think that really is part of the mantra that Gary V would talk about, of failing fast and knowing when you’re at failure. Far too often, people don’t, they don’t have a plan and they don’t know what failure looks like and they found some dentist in Lake Oswego that’s willing to give them another $200,000 of runway, but that’s not necessarily smart money, and they don’t have a market that’s really been validated. They don’t have a growing customer base, but they’ve found yet another person that’s willing to put some gas in the tank, but the car’s really not going anywhere.

When I think about getting access to capital and getting financing, it’s got to be about propelling you forward and what’s the next milepost that this money’s going to get you to, and if you don’t have a plan to be able to articulate that, you shouldn’t be getting a home equity line of credit. You shouldn’t be asking grandma for another $300,000 or whatever. You got to be able to answer those questions not only for yourself, but for your investors, and for your employees. If you’re going to be a good leader, you got to be able to articulate the path forward. What’s the mission, vision, values, and where we’re going?

Kristen G: You can’t see it, but I’m just shaking my head because I agree with all of that so much, and definitely the employee piece. I was just thinking about a person that I am acquainted with in Portland who was an employee at a remote company that was kind of winding down, and from the story she shared with me, she actually was hired in the middle of them winding down, which feels like one of the most irresponsible things you could do to a new employee, to a person. At the end of the day if you know your runway is coming up and you know this is not a good business to pour more gas into, don’t hire more people. Don’t hurt your employees like that, and that’s on the negative end of it, but I think you’re so right that it ends up being how are you going to lead the ship through this journey. I want to just say thank you. I love talking to you all the time that we get to talk and this has just been really helpful. Are there any last thoughts that you want to share with us?

Stephen Green: No. I hope the work that I’m really committed to is about changing the experiences for underrepresented populations, and I feel like Portland’s at a point where we feel like diversity, equity, inclusion is important, but it’s not necessarily urgent, and you do the things that are urgent. You talk about the things that are important.

So, I think when it comes to supporting underrepresented founders, people have to be committed to doing something, not just talking about something, not just changing their mission statement, and every little bit helps. Having that focus on changing experiences that people have as opposed to just sprinkling some equity on it.

Those are the thousands of little things that I like doing. That’s why I do events like Pitch Black because it’s really, you got to do something to shake up people’s perceptions. Once you can get people to shift their perceptions, it’s amazing how much quicker they will act on things because their perception has been challenged and shifted.

Kristen G: Right, exactly. Well, Stephen, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it. I look forward to talking to you again.

Stephen Green: Thank you for having me.

Kristen G: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.

Episode 6 – Experience is Everything

On Episode 6 of Up Right & Better, Emily Griffith, the Ambassador of Awesome at FINE, a brand agency for the digital age. Based in the Portland office, she works fast and goes creatively big, empowering people to create their best version of great, while maintaining grace under fire. Curating a bonafide Awesome office culture is a juggling act of operations, studio management, hospitality, event planning, and communications, and no day is ever the same. Emily knows first impressions are lasting, so she makes them meaningful for both staff and clients, taking FINE’s “bring friends” credo and running barefoot with it.

Kristen G: Hi, Welcome back to Up Right and Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

My guest today is Emily Griffith, an absolutely awesome person, whom you’ll see why very soon. Emily is the Ambassador of Awesome at FINE, a brand agency for the digital age. Based in the Portland office, she works fast and goes creatively big, empowering people to create their best version of great, while maintaining grace under fire. Curating a bonafide Awesome office culture is a juggling act of operations, studio management, hospitality, event planning, and communications, and no day is ever the same. Emily knows first impressions are lasting, so she makes them meaningful for both staff and clients, taking FINE’s “bring friends” credo and running barefoot with it. Thanks for joining us, Emily.

So I’d love to dive in, and first off I want to say thank you for being on the podcast, but I’m really excited to talk to you about this. Mainly because, so far, you are pretty much the first person I’ve met who geeks out about onboarding as much as I do. So, for those of us who may not know, would you share a little bit about your background and how you came to be at FINE, now six years ago?

Emily Griffith: Of course, and thanks for having me, of course, Kristen. So, my background leading up to FINE, I had been going to art school and graduated, and was working at a cookie shop called Two Tarts Bakery, as well as a restaurant that’s blown up over the last few years called Olympia Provisions. I was working at the bakery and the restaurant, and the FINE’s, were Two Tarts cookie enthusiasts, and visited the bakery frequently with their kiddos, and we just got to know them from the hospitality side of things. Just like, “Hey! How’s it going? What’s up? What can I get for you today?” kind of situation.

Then we just got to talking about what I was doing at the bakery, which was a mix of marketing, managing, as well as actual farmer’s market managing. So a lot of face time with all kinds of people from all walks of life and you know, pimpin’  little amazing cookies and helping with the design and display of those cookies, and all things bakery. All things cookies. And Kim said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I feel like I want you to come and work for FINE.” “Okay.” Luckily, the owner of Two Tarts is good friends with FINE so that all went okay.

Kristen G: Yeah, it wasn’t like they were stealing you.

Emily Griffith: No, it was a natural evolution. From graduating from college to just going into the industry that I had been going to school for, which is advertising and marketing and a little bit of fashion here and there. And they had a studio management role part-time available at FINE so I just popped into that role and was doing a little bit of hospitality in three different spaces every day. So going to Two Tarts, going to FINE, and then going to OP and juggling that. But we weren’t really sure what path I would take once I was in FINE so started doing reception and hospitality from the agency side of things, and then we started to grow.

The company started having more people move up from San Francisco to Portland and planning to have families and we started to outgrow the house that we were in on NW 23rd. So at that time, I went ahead and went full-time and bid farewell to OP and Two Tarts and began my life as the Ambassador of Awesome of FINE.

Kristen G: I love the job title. I love it.

Emily Griffith: Thank you. It was a casual job title for a long time bestowed upon me by our digital creative director Tsilli Pines. She just went, “Hey, Emily’s our Ambassador of Awesome. She’s doing the awesome things. Rock ‘n roll.” And then it started to really stick and become fertilized. The Ambassador of Awesome roll  is fun, it’s an open title but it allows me to explore all kind of avenues when it comes to our cultural management within the office. I facilitate our in-office concierge duties, and admin duties and onboarding, especially … Just making sure our team has all the stuff they need to be their best selves and make their best work. I act as the facilitator of the heart of our culture and the people side of operations.

Kristen G: That’s wonderful. I’m sure that you know what’s going on at FINE all the time and that you just have this pulse that is probably difficult to find in any other role, which makes you, in my view, like the overseer in a way. Just making sure that people are able to do their best work; I like that you said that earlier, that this is not just about okay, you’ve got a computer and you know how to do what we hired you to do, but realizing that people are multidimensional, multifaceted individuals and they need… That there’s a difference in working in a place that’s got beautiful light and lush green plants and spaces to collaborate and spaces to be alone, and a nice kitchen and things like that versus a cubicle farm, but there’s actually a difference in the kind of work and the kind of people that we become in those spaces.

Emily Griffith: Yeah, for sure. Acting as the connective tissue I think between all of the departments and the leadership and management and bringing in new people, just making sure everybody has a really nice use of communication and facilitating support in really any arena, people need. It’s kind of where I find my special little spot.

Kristen G: Yes. I’m going to talk a little bit about that spot because I have worked for a web design agency. I know that FINE does more than just web but I happen to meet a lot of people; some friends, some acquaintances, through that agency work, and I don’t know that I know of any other agencies who have invested in onboarding quite the way or to the extent that FINE has. So why do you think FINE has invested so much thought and so much heart into onboarding?

Emily Griffith: I think the main thing is that onboarding is going to be key to people’s experience and if you don’t understand the aspects of working out of place or working at the agency, if you just kind of rush into it or are trapped in the cubicle farm as you said, anxiety is going to increase and you’re not going to have your best work or be your best work or be your best self. You might even not even be yourself when you’re at work and I think the big thing for us is we have these credos; “bring friends” and “be human,” “be awesome” and we really do believe those.

I feel like you should be yourself when you’re here and yourself when you’re at home and as we ease you into your workload making sure that you know that we’re supporting you and you have that, I guess acceptance, as you start in the new space, I think that really allows people to just come in with a little more confidence and realize that they can ask questions and be curious or feel clueless for the first couple weeks.

And they know that we know, it’s all going to be okay and it’s all going to work out, so I think that’s why we invest a lot into the onboarding as well as … Onboarding, it’s not just selfless as our HR director says. It’s really important to make people productive as soon as possible and it can take years to get people fully ramped up to where they’re experts in their field and so taking the steps early on to make sure that we’re here to help them grow and learn and succeed is just incredibly important.

Kristen G: I think that that is so important, is realizing that there’s two motivations around onboarding and that, yes, it is about employee experience and allowing them to be comfortable and to work out of that comfort, but it’s also about the business’s bottom line. And I think not everybody realizes that but there is actually a cost associated with not onboarding people and that there’s sort of a down-the-line effect of that. I don’t know if that’s something that you’ve seen or thought about.

Emily Griffith: Oh, definitely thought about and we see it off and on but it’s like the great, awesome, wonderful employees. That’s really, really hard so the onboarding … It’s really hard because the industry’s competitive and there’s a lot of wonderful people out there, it’s like you have to stand out among the rest and I think we really pride ourselves in being authentic and kind and generous. So when we find someone great, the onboarding helps us make sure that we don’t have to do it as often in that role.

If an employee has a bad experience right off the bat or they feel clueless or they don’t understand how they fit into the mix, then they’re not going to last very long and they have to start all over again. We may have lost out on someone amazing just because there was no support to make sure that their role had the best of the best tools available for success, I guess. Yes. I just want to make sure they’re successful personally and professionally. I feel like they can be at FINE and just … The onboarding is the first step.

Kristen G: So you’ve talked a little bit about FINE’s culture and this credo idea that I think is wonderful. I like the concept of a credo rather than maybe specific values. Credo kind of calls to mind like a manifesto or, “This is how we live life.” Whereas I think values have this connotation of being … You can put them up on the posters, around the office and they’re not necessarily integrated into the way that you think about things. But how do you manage to introduce new employees to that culture, into that way of thinking?

Emily Griffith: I think it begins with the interview right off the bat. When we interview people, we have just our normal attitudes and we treat them with respect and hospitality and engage them in conversation right off the bat. Some of our interviews don’t even feel like a formal interview. It’s more like a coffee chat or a couple people getting together over lunch. We try to keep it casual so people don’t stress out or bug out, because sometimes that allows people not to be themselves. Then from there, we do a few rounds with them, they get to meet a lot of people, a few of the key folks you’ll be working with and see how they deal with group dynamics and all of that kind of stuff.

And then once they come in, we kick off our onboarding with a bunch of different people and they are all represent different facets of FINE and different departments, and then there’s different checklists of things to go over. So the onboarding takes about… All of the tools and orientations and all that stuff, it’s about two weeks and then they get people fully ramped up in maybe two to three months. We move a little bit slower maybe than other people but I think that is what helps people immerse into the culture so they’re not forced into  “Here, huge project!” or crazy, intense meetings right off the bat. Instead, they shadow, they get to ask questions, they get to participate as equals and all kinds of things and get to know people’s names. I think that’s important.

They get to just start to see, “Oh, that person really knows a lot about this,” or that person is really, really nice, and talks a lot about this. I’m going to ask them some more questions.” So they get to … I call it the sponge period. During that sponge period, they get to soak up all the knowledge around them, and all the personalities, and all the dynamics and all the stuff going in. I think that makes for a really genuine integration into our culture. They can identify where they fit in and not in a click-ey way. They can fit in, like “Oh, yeah. Okay, cool. I’m comfortable here.” Like, “Yes. I know what’s going on.” And that way, when they get kicked off on their first project, they know who to go to.

Kristen G: Or they’ve figured out some of the norms and probably this person likes to communicate versus that person.

Emily Griffith: Exactly. At the sponge time it’s really valuable, while low-risk learning and yes, it provides an opportunity for all the things and then accompanied with the tool onboarding and the process onboarding, the people side of the onboarding is when they just get to have lunch with some of the employees. So we try to facilitate organic pairings with employees.

Kristen G: You know, wine, cheese an employee.

Emily Griffith: Yes, that’s funny, yes. Like, “Oh, this person is a designer so let’s pair them up with a couple developers and a project director to go to lunch with, and talking about their experiences and what not.” Something we do that we’ve talked about before is the coffee talks where FINE supports those organic friendships and get-to-know-you communities by giving everybody a little bit of a budget to take the new employee out for coffee, or tea, or ice cream, whatever you want. And to take about a half an hour and go on a walk, and just talk about anything but work with your coworkers.

So we try to do a few of those over the first couple weeks and then over the first couple months. You might get to have coffee and ice cream with anything  from 5 to 10 people depending on how that all goes down, and then you have a little bit more of a connection. So I think that’s a cool part of our onboarding, is that it’s not like high-stress and go, go, go. It’s nice and easy, and then here we go. Then you’re ready to hit the start line, you know?

Kristen G: Right, right. I love that. Yes. I think if I’ve been onboarded that way, maybe I would’ve … Well, I don’t know if I would’ve stayed employed but that’s a whole different story. But I appreciate getting to know people before having to really work with them when the stakes are a lot higher.

Emily Griffith: And I’ve been here like six years now, so I can’t even really imagine what it would be like to hop into a meeting with a bunch of strangers and be expected to just contribute. Like, “Go, here.” I feel like that would be intimidating and …

Kristen G: Oh, for sure.

Emily Griffith: I will not perform the best. So having people be like, “Oh, I know everybody in this room and a little bit about them.” Like, “Yeah, I’m going to share my opinion and maybe be a little bit more assertive,” than they would, if you didn’t actually know anybody in the room. So I think that’s the goal. It just doesn’t stop there. Onboarding can go for a long time and once you’re in, it’s not like we drop that attention after the first couple months. So if you continue to have your mentors and your managers and peers around to support your growth and vice versa.

Kristen G: I want to talk a little bit too about your personal experience of being the person at FINE who coordinates this onboarding experience and who coordinates really helping to deliver such a good program. I haven’t gone through it but I can tell that there’s so much thought put into it. What is your experience? What do you like about it? What have you learned over time? And how do you know when it’s time to evolve the program?

Emily Griffith: Well, that’s a good question. Well, it helps that I have a super supportive leadership team, so the managers are involved, our director of Ops has been involved, our tech guru. Mike doesn’t like tech guru, I shouldn’t use that word, but our tech wizard. They are all part of it too so that’s what really fun. The interviews happen, and then we kick off all these processes and you have this rad little team to make sure that all of the steps and all of the boxes get checked. So my experience has been like, I started and it was like, “Okay, here we go.” I had a little welcome letter that had all of my accounts and my tools and my logins.

That was the first step; sitting down and getting your computer set up, getting your desk area set up, just finding the kitchen, how do you make coffee, all that kind of stuff was done. I had a really fun time. It was a busy time when I started so I just jumped right in and started rocking on it. And then as we had more and more people joining the team, I started refining the process based on each experience, I guess. So one employee would come in and it would be like, “Okay, we’re going to make that a little better.” Next time-

Kristen G: Make that a little differently, yes.

Emily Griffith: Yes. There was one employee who moved up that really cemented the experiential side of it for me and that was, our now art director Mayron. He moved up from Los Angeles to Portland, so we actually were introduced by Ken before he even moved, over email. So we were like digital pen pals for a little while.

Kristen G: That’s great.

Emily Griffith: He was like, “What neighborhood should I move to?” and what kind of view. I was even like, “Hey, if you need me to go check out apartment let me know.” It was very much a friendship right away before I even met him so that was the investment in that relationship. I was like, “Oh, okay. This guy is going to be super cool. I’m excited to get him in here and make sure Portland is a good experience. Not just FINE, but our whole, entire city.” Little pressure  there.

So I set up his desk a little bit differently than I had before and thought about different things like all the … Now, we have quite a few branded items but at the time we didn’t have very many but we still had really cute postcards and stickers and pins and all that kind of stuff, and little … I’m really big on having a plant at your desk so making sure we had cute plants and cute pots ready to go, and make people feel homey and comfortable and welcome. And the right chairs, office supplies, all the stuff. I was just like, “What is the ultimate desk set-up?” Like here you go [for your desk]. You know?

And luckily, he documented it the whole time, and then when he showed up, he was just like, “Whoa. Right on,” and was able to just like get into it, sit down and get cracking. He was really positive in the feedback he gave me so that became that type of desk set-up, and I was like 22 years old. I was like, “Yeah, here we go.” Cemented the whole hospitality side and that became standard procedure for just desk set-up. And of course, I built on that every year and every employee too. I just refined based on the merch we had and the supplies that people liked the most and the general tech set-up.

So from there, I got pretty excited about it and our director of ops, Lori, was like, “Right on. Run with it.” Like, “Make you our new plant person, and on that side of onboarding.” So from there, we started making lists and we started using a tool called BambooHR to create those lists and have an easy “click the button and go” type of process, so you get all of your tasks in your email box. And it’s really flexible, so we can add and take away anything that’s working really great or anything that’s not working great and refine it from there. I sit with the employees when they first start and then about a week and a half later, we sit down again and we run through feedback and questions, and that informs every single onboarding experience.

So they’re each a little more … They each have a little bit more sparkle, I guess, but they come from the same core goal, of people coming in and feeling like, “Hey, this place is kick-ass.” Like, “Here we go. Right on. I love it here.” And then from there they get into their work. And that’s my main thing. It’s like people will spend so much time in the office, it’s their second home essentially. So making sure that it’s as comfortable and fun and just feels good when you come to work, that’s the name of the game. I won’t want to work someplace that it was a drag to come in every day.

Kristen G: I definitely agree. That was actually one of the founding … I don’t want to say principle, but something that I thought about a lot when I founded my company several years ago, was work is definitely people’s second home, and it can be for the better, it can be for the worse, and we want to be intentional about trying to make it for the better.

Because if people are spending 8 to 9, 10 hours a day doing this kind of stuff, it can take away a lot from their life so why don’t we try to be intentional about how we add back to their life. The other thing I’m struck by is that you seem like you’re really using your creativity and your art background and you’re getting a chance to think through these kind of … what some companies see as mechanical problems, with an artistic and a creative lens to them.

Emily Griffith: Yes. I definitely do. I get to do a lot of expression around here, and I love having that freedom. There’s nothing better I think than knowing that your employer trusts you with the experience. So I read about feng shui and I read about just office aesthetics and I love articles on … sorry, on decluttering space and making room for space, like those types of things, like for your head space. So we do all kinds of things for people. Like I print out things that I learned about and we have people come in and do ergonomic assessments, and all of that comes from a creative problem-solving space.

So if someone has an issue, I come at it with like, “How can we not only make your experience awesome but impact everybody who may be having that same issue and hasn’t spoken up?” with the creative, problem-solving side of things. And the main thing I love about that is that … then after that people come to me for all kinds of stuff. They’re like, “Hey, I’m throwing a party. What should I do for this table?” That kind of stuff.

Kristen G: The added benefits.

Emily Griffith: … tons of resources who help me with that kind of stuff but I get to do our employee experiences as well so our retreats, and our spirit weeks, and playoffs and all that kind of fun stuff. Happy hours especially, like when you’re talking about you spend so much time at the office and there’s that work/life balance that we want to make sure to support. So we try to do a lot of events where family and spouses and partners and friends are totally welcome, and that allows people to, again, just be themselves with their fams and show the people who they love in their life what they every day, and the community they’re a part of when they’re not at home.

I think that transparency is really important. So work isn’t this scary, weird place that your mom or dad goes every day. It’s like they come in and they’re playing with toys and pop-up books and the gumball machine and taking a swing on the swing. We make sure that that is all from a place of creativity and fun.

Kristen G: Exactly. It’s also a wonderful way to be really inclusive. So, the last thing, the kind of thing I want to close on, is if you have any resources or any advice to people who are thinking about, “How do I start this kind of work at my small company or my agency?” I think you’ve made a pretty solid case about why you should do this and how you’ve done it, but what are some ways people can get started?

Emily Griffith: Ooh, ways to get started. I’d say try to define your essence. We have “bring friends” as our essence. We want clients to feel like our friends, we want employees to feel like our friends, and genuinely, not just like you alluded to earlier. It’s not just written on the wall. It’s something that we actually do. So I recommend anybody who’s struggling with having an onboarding experience that is authentic, I’d say figure out who you are as a company first and then set your dominoes up based around that. Have a very honest onboarding experience and let people know what they’re in for as soon as possible.

Make sure those types of questions are maybe answered in interviews. I think that’s an important thing when people see, “Hey, just jump right in and start.” Instead, we say, “Hey, it’s going to be about two weeks.” You get ramped up and … so be honest about your onboarding process. Figure out who you are and then set up some systems and lists and flexible framework for … Maybe if it’s just an individual who’s starting a company or a whole team, you can keep track of all of it and refine it as you go.

And then getting feedback from the employees is so important.That feedback is essential to making it better for the next person and also I think it allows the employees to feel like they are a part of the culture and a part of the growth. Then pair them up with the new person who comes in too. Having the new hires support each other … ‘Cause we do two hiring seasons, that also might be something I’d recommend to someone starting out so you’re not doing it throughout the year. So we do spring and fall. In the interim, we’re able to identify that maybe there are roles we need to add or the changes we need to make, we need to promote someone inside, it’s already here. Who’s going to come in and fill their role?

There’s a lot to think about between those seasons so if you’re onboarding someone every other month that can be stressful and take apart the actual direct attention you would give to the new hires. So if you have those two hiring seasons, then that cohort, if you will, are going through those trainings and orientations together even if they start … They don’t have to start on the same day. Sometimes they start a couple weeks apart but they still don’t feel isolated and alone. So I think those are all things that I’ve learned from this journey and really help me moving forward. It’s just keeping track of all the things I’m doing, refining it every step of the way, getting honest feedback and making sure those employees don’t feel isolated.

Kristen G: I love that. That’s so important; making sure people don’t feel isolated. If people want to find out more about FINE and more about you, how should they do that?

Emily Griffith: Oh my goodness. Well. You can go to our website. Wearefine.com. You can follow us on Instagram and with the other socials, and then me, I’m around. Come on in any time and say, “Hi.” Have a cup of coffee.

Kristen G: I definitely think everybody should, especially if you’re local to Portland. It’s a lovely office and, Emily, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for sharing so honestly about your experiences and how you’ve grown this program at FINE and why it’s so important. I really appreciate that.

Emily Griffith: Thank you so much Kristen. It was a lot of fun to geek out with you.

Kristen G: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.


Episode 5 – Don’t Compromise On Employee Experience

On Episode 5 of Up Right & Better, Jill Nelson, founder and CEO of business communications company Ruby Receptionists, shares with us her guiding principles for developing an employee-centric culture that in turn makes her company one of the most awarded in Portland!

Kristen: Hi, welcome back to Up Right & Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up into the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher. Today’s guest is someone I had the opportunity to meet a few months ago at a women led un-conference here in Portland. I’m absolutely honored to have her on the podcast. From humble beginnings 14 years ago, Jill Nelson has grown Ruby Receptionist into a four-time winner of Fortune Magazine’s Top Five Best Small Companies to Work For, and a Portland’s Business Journal’s Fastest Growing Company and Oregon recipient for the past nine years. Today Ruby’s 400 employees provide friendly, live receptionist service to more than 6,000 small businesses throughout North America.

In addition to her own entrepreneurial endeavors, Jill has been recognized for their contributions to Oregon’s business and technology communities, receiving the Technology Association of Oregon’s 2017 Technology Executive of the Year Award, as well as EO’s 2013 Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Jill has served her management philosophy of incenting, inspiring, and empowering employees with global brand such as Mercedes Benz, Leroy Merlin of Europe, and Chiavi of France. Her vision for Ruby includes a workplace where employees are excited to come each day, and inspire to learn, grow, and connect with others. Join me in welcoming Jill Nelson.

Good morning everybody. I’m so exited to have Jill Nelson on the podcast today. Jill is the founder and CEO of Ruby Receptionists. Welcome, Jill.

Jill: Thank you very much, and thank you so much for having me, Kristen.

Kristen: I’m really excited to have you here. I have been greeted at least five times here. I’ve been offered water so many times, and the first 10 minutes of just being here, I watched probably five or six employees just have all kinds of cool conversation with each other, and kind of wanted to listen in to what they were talking about, but today is Administrative Professional’s Day, and they’re all dressed up in 40s, 50s garb, and just having so much fun. I was telling Jill earlier you don’t see that in probably five or six tech offices a week, and I don’t see that kind of energy and joy so something is working here for sure.

Jill: Something is working and thank you for noticing. I feel it too, and I feel really grateful coming in every day. I actually have heard anecdotes of people posting on Facebook, or commenting to their co-workers that they wake up and they go, “Oh, I’m in a bad mood. I can’t wait to get to work, and everything will be better.” [crosstalk 00:03:01] No, it’s not a normal thing.

Kristen: If we spend eight, nine hours a day at work, five days a week, sometimes on the weekends, that’s the majority of our life, right? Why should you come to work to hate what you do and not enjoy that life?

Can you just briefly a little bit about how you started the company and what got you to here today?

Jill: Absolutely, okay. So it has been a long journey and it’s been fourteen plus year adventure of learning and having fun and getting our knees scraped and picking ourselves up and moving forward. But years and years ago, the original idea was to do a traditional, I guess you’d call ’em co-working spaces now, but executive suites with the smaller offices, to support small business with shared secretarial and shared receptionist services that go along with the suite. And I wanted to do it in the Pearl District, because at the time, the Pearl District was up and coming. But I had no money and no business experience, so I couldn’t find a landlord willing to build out a space, so it really was just sort of, I go, “Well, okay, if I can’t do that what can I do with the resources I had?”

So really tinkering with the virtual concept and it just went from there. But originally, the business was about just helping small businesses with their workload. That’s the mindset. Over time and I learn it over and over again, really realize that what it is we’re selling, we are helping small businesses grow through keeping alive those personal connections, those meaningful connections that seem to be increasingly lost and increasingly yearned for as we go through this virtual technology age. And so, that mission of what it is, what it is we’re even providing to our customers, drives, I think that drives both a natural attention to our own culture and who we attract here, we attract people that really identify at their core. They live for their relationships they have with others. And that sort of feeds in and of itself and is part of what makes things magic here.

Kristen: That’s amazing. I appreciate that. And I think, we’re going to get into culture at Ruby quite a bit, in just a minute, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk with you is I heard about Ruby’s culture and learning and development and onboarding, kind of through the grapevine, which should tell you something, that if it’s going through the town, someone else is telling you about it, and it’s getting twice removed, three times removed, that there’s something amazing happening here.

When we were talking earlier, you shared with me the onboarding guide and the culture book that new hires get. And there was a planning pyramid in there. Can you talk a little bit about how you have prioritized culture and business planning, strategic planning, and melded those together as a business owner?

Jill: Absolutely. So, the planning pyramid that you’re speaking of, we actually took it from the Rockefeller Habits, it’s Verne Harnish, he has a company called Gazelles that’s about helping entrepreneurs grow at a very rapid pace. And it was really through that book and sort of hearing him speak that I understood that really successful businesses, they have a very well-defined mission. They know why they get up in the morning and they have a clearly defined set of values that drive what it is that they do, that define their decision making purposes, or just decision-making actions. So the planning pyramid, and you can probably Google it and find an example, starts with at the foundation, is those mission and vision values, where it is you’re trying to take the company with your why and doing the things that come from your values. And so, when we go into our annual planning session and define our annual goals and then we attend our quarterly strategic planning session to define what outcomes we’re trying to achieve this quarter and even breaking it down to what ends up at the top of this pyramid is that action items, they start by looking at our mission. Really, every single action ties back to our why.

So even as we today go, our technology’s really evolving and what it is we provide our customers has moved beyond us providing those human interactions, even as we add technology features, we use our mission to drive which features to add. Like, does it help our customers connect with their customers? Then yes, that’s a feature we want. If it doesn’t? Then …

Kristen: Not so much.

Jill: Yes.

Kristen: Yeah. So, I want to sort of modify something I wanted to ask you about, I wanted to ask about the strategic trade-offs that you made. But the reality is that you’ve really grown up in the business. This is your first big business, right?

Jill: Yes.

Kristen: And you mentioned to me, this is what you’ve known. So the question of strategic trade-offs maybe isn’t the right question anymore. It’s about how you decided that this was important, that you were going to actually spend money on investing in employees, in culture. You have a wow station that you can talk about a little bit.

How did you decide to make those investments?

Jill: Yeah. Well, I think … It started with realizing our value proposition was to our customers. And it really was about how we make a difference in their business by being there for them, by being kind to their callers, by really seeking out how can we delight and make someone happy, how can we help them in whatever it is that they want to do. And so, when we got clear about that’s what it is that we wanted to do for our customers, it became very clear that to be successful, we had to attract the type of people that went, “The idea of helping someone, that’s what I live for! If I can someone’s bad day into a good day, that’s a day well spent for me.”

And so the realization of that’s who we want to attract made us understand that we need to live that most importantly inside and outside and so, how we want our receptionists to treat our callers and our customers, we want to model that for them, too. And so if we’re a company of first impressions, we want to give them the first day of their work at Ruby a day to remember, a day to really make that wonderful impression. And then, the other piece of it, too, I think there’s a lot of empowerment through as we scale and grow and maintained our culture or perhaps even strengthen it, it is about really empowering those people. Because I contend the smiling happy people that you met today? They’re in every workplace. It’s just, are they confined by the policies and scripts and rules that a workplace has set on them? Or have they been empowered by the understanding like, you invited me to be at Ruby because of who I am as a person and because of how I care and I know I’m empowered to step outside of a normal workday and bring my own contribution. Whether it’s doing something special for a customer that nobody asked me to do, or bringing my passion for knitting and starting a knitting group at Ruby, it’s understood here that all of those things are welcome.

And so I think that all plays into it and the more we do it, the more we see the beautiful rewards, and the more we go, “Let’s do more of that,” and here we are.

Kristen: Yeah, so. I want to … There are like three questions I’d like to follow up with that. But I’m gonna just pick one. The stepping outside of the policies and rules the norms of, oh well this is not how we normally behave is really interesting to me. There’s, you probably heard a joke in HR that we hire really great people and then we don’t let them do the work.

Unfortunately, that’s really common, right? We set up our workplaces to maybe have this beautiful façade, we have these beautiful values, and then there are things that we are implicitly rewarding and punishing. But I don’t know that I’m seeing that here at Ruby. I’m seeing that you are explicitly rewarding going outside of the bounds to serve a customer. Can you think of any examples of that, just off the top of your head, that have gotten to the wow station?

Jill: Yeah, well, and I’ll talk about the wow station. I’m pretty passionate about this subject because I do think that when you have the right people here, you want to do empower them and encourage them. But as you grow, and even with success, I think it’s really tempting to want to create rules. Because all of a sudden, you’ve had success, and one bad thing, a customer might burn you by not paying their invoice or something. And then all of a sudden, you’re creating new rules that ruin the empower for everybody and ruin the customer experience. We call it railing against the 10%. It’s probably the 1%. The one percent of customers who aren’t to act in good faith, we say goodbye to them, we happily refund their money, and then we do not make new rules for the 99% of customers. The same goes for employees.

Not every employee is excited to get up and come to work at Ruby and you know, honor the trusting environment, and we get that, that’s okay, and hopefully they’ll find their way, but we invite them to no longer be here. But we don’t change the rules for everybody else. And really, sometimes it can be scary, especially for HR professionals, who probably get inundated with cases of they’re trying to protect the company from a legal standpoint, so it’s a little bit more squishy to be like, “No, we’re not going to change the rules.” But I do think that’s one of the things that you have to understand is to not succumb to the 1% that ruins it for everybody. You know, just understand that occasionally you get burned, and then you go on. And [inaudible 00:14:08] better.

The Wow Station is a physical thing as well as a concept. But we inspire our employees to step outside of normal operations and listen to our customers, connect with them and find ways to connect. And when they do, they’re invited to send anything from a note card or a video to even a present of really any dollar value of anything that their imagination comes up with. And we even provide a pre-paid Amazon account that everyone has access to, they can buy anything they want, no questions asked. So, there’s been some really amazing stories that have come out of it.

One long time example was that a receptionist in her first week at Ruby took a call for one of our attorney clients, and he had been in a car accident. And it was their car insurance company following up on a claim. And nobody was injured, but she was unable to reach the attorney to put the call through, so she took a message. Life goes on. A couple days later, a package shows up for that customer and it’s from our brand new receptionist, her name’s Whitney, she’s our top salesperson now. And it was an emergency roadside repair kit with a note that said, “I heard you were in an accident. I hope everyone’s okay and I hope you never need this again, but just in case.” You know, here’s this. And he was just so really, it brightened his day and he thought it was so thoughtful. And he ended up writing a big post to another legal forum, which is great, and it got us press but it also served as inspiration to other people. So that’s an example of some, but we have tons and tons …

And also, you know, talking about the 1%, occasionally, because really anything goes, occasionally you might look at something and go, “Uh! Was that really appropriate?” For example, I’ll just tell you. Like, somebody sent bedsheets to a customer once. I don’t know what that conversation looked like, but I’m sure that customer could have been like, “Oh! That’s so thoughtful,” or, “That’s really kind of odd.” But you just kind of life, and you go, that’s just what can happen and you try to provide great examples going forward.

Kristen: Well, exactly. And people’s best judgment is informed by the culture that they’re working in, right? If you don’t make a habit of sending bedroom items to customers, then it probably won’t happen again.

That’s amazing. I’ve never heard of another company doing something like that. And I love that that is a physical manifestation of the way that people work with each other here and they work with their customers that Ruby has.

I also really appreciate the thoughts you have around not succumbing to that one person. I think we live in a very reactionary field, and human resources, even research and development, is pretty reactionary. You know, somebody comes to us and says, “Ooh, my salesperson isn’t doing this, I think we need to train them of that,” and the reality is that maybe that salesperson isn’t having a good week and we need to figure out what’s going on here. It’s not that they don’t know how to do it, you know? So there could be a lot of things behind that. Even behind the 1%.

I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about some honors that you’ve received this year. You received the 2017 Oregon Tech Executive of the Year. Congratulations.

Jill: Thank you very much. Super excited about that.

Kristen: Yeah, that’s a huge honor. What do you think led you to receiving that award?

Jill: Well, I would say that I actually have a little inside intel that our very, very consistent and strong growth rate year over year, we’ve grown double-digits, I think our average growth rate over the last four, five years has been 40%, but there has not been a year in existence where we haven’t grown. And we’ve taken a pretty traditional model and really created a technology platform that allows it to scale and be more useful for an increasingly large section of very small businesses.

Really, providing a mission-critical service. But I would also contend that we have, one of the big attraction points is we’ve created livable wage jobs that have actually turned into careers in technology. So, we’re really proud that as we’ve grown and changed, our engineering department is made up of senior programmers for sure, but also, junior programmers, one that started as as a receptionist, our QA people started out as receptionists. We have people in product, people in UX, technical support with our telephony, people in rules there that started out as receptionists, so I think it’s this … We’re additive, we’re not taking from, we’re actually bring careers to the community. And I think that was a contributing factor and so I’m super, super proud.

Kristen: I hadn’t read that, and I didn’t know that, and so, I don’t sit on the board [inaudible 00:19:45]. I mean that’s a pretty, you said traditional, you’ve taken traditional jobs that might not lead to a career in tech and that feels, I don’t want to get into robots and automation and all that right now, but in a time right now where everyone feels like the human is going to go away, and things are going to be automated and taken away and their connection is going to be gone, you’ve really created a pipeline to answer some of the challenges that people are afraid of.

Jill: That’s right.

Kristen: That’s amazing, congratulations. The last couple of things I want to talk about are sort of rubber meets the road type of things. We talked earlier about the choices you’ve made to invest in the business, but I want to talk about kind of physical things. You, I’ve heard such good things about the onboarding program here, we were talking about it just a little bit before. And there are, as I look around the office, there are notebooks, mugs, flowers, all kinds of beautiful physical things that cost money. And I think the pressure in tech companies, especially, but in any company today, is to cut costs wherever you can.

How have you decided to invest in experiences like onboarding and other employee engagement experiences?

Jill: Well, and I would contend that we too try to be very economical in how we use our resources. But what it is that we do and our brand, it’s incredibly important to infuse that throughout the day. And we at Ruby talk about the touchpoints. Like everything that you see that has to do with Ruby, whether it’s the physical environment or our people getting in the elevator, that communicates something about our brand. So that remains very important, but also that experience for our employees. We are selling a human experience so we have to create an environment that brings out the best in all of us. The onboarding thing, I’m super passionate about too, because we are also a business of first impressions, and you know the saying, you never get a second chance to make a great first impression.

But that employee’s first day, how much it sets the tone, not just for how they feel that they’re treated by their employer but actually what they feel that they’re going to be expected to do, too. So if you come into your first day, and your computer is already set you, and you have a lovely gift with a note from your supervisor welcoming you and a present and your computer already has all of the applications that you are going to be using in your workday and someone’s already asked you if you’re left-handed or right-handed and what kind of ergonomic keyboard you have and you’re ready to go? That also sets the tone of what you’re going to be expected to bring in your position, too.

So, it is a great investment. I think … And we have so much fun with it. And it gets better and better all of the time. And when you’re growing really rapidly, that risk of … You know, the people that have been here for years have a very, very strong sense of what we’re about. But since we grow rapidly, there’s always a strong percentage of employees that are relatively new. And we want that culture to continue to thrive. So the more we can sort of firehouse them with our Ruby Experience in the first few days, weeks, and months, the more that protects our culture going forward, too.

Kristen: Wow, that’s amazing, I think … It doesn’t just boil down to cutting costs or making sure that it’s economic or makes economic sense, but it is the concept that your customers come first. But in order to have that be case, your employees actually have to come first. Which is actually a surprisingly hard argument to make to a lot of businesses.

Jill: I do feel, too … I know the concept of core values in a business is pretty mainstream. I find it hard to say, “Oh, we have these core values that apply to our customers, but they don’t apply to this other segment.” Your values are your values. You live them consistently. [crosstalk 00:24:22] I think that that plays into it, too.

Kristen: It almost certainly goes into it. Well, Jill, thank you so much for taking time with us today. The work that you’ve done with Ruby and the team that you’ve brought on is just amazing and it’s very obvious that you’re some place with this company.

Jill: Oh, thank you very much for the kinds words, and thank you so much for having me on your podcast.

Kristen: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.

Episode 4 – It May Be Working, But It May Not Be Right

On Episode 4 of Up Right & Better, Luke Kanies, founder and former CEO of Puppet, joins us to talk frankly and openly about the challenges of being a CEO, understanding that the facts live outside the building, and how he worked to be intentional about culture at his company.

Luke has been publishing and speaking on his work in system administration since 1997, focusing on development since 2001. His work with Puppet has been an important part of dev ops and delivering on the promise of cloud computing. He currently serves as director of Puppet Labs, but recently he’s be writing things like, “The Wrong Successes Kill Companies,” in which he reminds us that just because it’s working doesn’t make it right.

Kristen: Today’s guest is Luke Kanies who founded Puppet Labs Incorporated in 2005 and also served as its chief executive officer until the fall of 2016. Luke has been publishing and speaking on his work in system administration since 1997, focusing on development since 2001. His work with Puppet has been an important part of dev ops and delivering on the promise of cloud computing. He currently serves as director of Puppet Labs, but recently he’s be writing things like, “The Wrong Successes Kill Companies,” in which he reminds us that just because it’s working doesn’t make it right.

I met Luke in late 2016 when he generously agreed to answer a bunch of invasive questions about what he might have done differently as he built Puppet and I’m so excited to have him on the podcast. In this episode we talk about failure CEOs don’t like to admit to, hiring, bad experiences with HR, diversity and a whole lot more. Welcome Luke.

Can you talk a little bit about why you founded Puppet and how you came to that solution?

Luke Kanies: Yeah, I actually wrote a little about this this week. I was talking about publishing and this is one of the things I published this week. I was out of college, I was a chemistry degree who I knew I wasn’t gonna be a scientist and went into being a sys admin. After seven or eight years as a sys admin, I essentially worked myself out of both doing the work and being interested in the work so I was focused on automation and things like that. After a couple years of that, as a consultant I kind of went I could make a lot of money at this, but I hate it. I looked at getting an MBA because the badge is useful, but I didn’t think education would be useful. I looked at going to law school because the badge isn’t nearly as useful as an MBA and I thought the education would actually be more useful to me. But it turns out becoming a lawyer is so expensive, you have to go to law school, you have to actually become a lawyer afterwards.

Kristen: Be a lawyer, yeah.

Luke Kanies: Which I didn’t want to do, I just wanted to have a JD.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: I basically said I think failing to start a software company will be more educational than successfully getting an MBA. At the time, it’s not so much that I thought that I had better ideas than anybody else I knew. But I knew everyone in the world pretty much was working on the problem that Puppet was built to solve. Of them, I was the only one who was gonna start a company. It’s a bit like the joke about poker, if you look around the table and you don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you. I looked around the table and I didn’t know who the entrepreneur was and I was like well I guess it’s gonna be me.

Luke Kanies: So a lot of it was I had all this insight and I saw an opportunity to turn it into equity. I saw a problem that I didn’t see anybody taking active movements to solve. Today, it’s pretty old hat for a sys admin to start a company. But when I started Puppet, there weren’t any. I thought maybe I can be one part of getting a movement started around we could build our own tools and once we build a good tool, we can start a company to make money on those tools. We can join the capital class too, we don’t always have to just be labor.

Kristen: Instead of diving into the history of Puppet and what you’ve done with Puppet and you have recently stepped down as CEO and are on effectively a sabbatical, writing a lot, touring around, doing some really interesting things, I want to talk about the actual people of Puppet and your experience in hiring those people, managing those people and considering them as the capital that actually made the capital for the company. So fall back to when Puppet was pre-ten employees, how did you get to ten employees and what was the momentous occasion that caused ten employees to show up one day?

Luke Kanies: Puppet is weird in a bunch of ways. I would definitely not recommend the way in which we did what we did. Puppet was bootstrapped for four and a half years. I started Puppet in maybe February of 2005, we raised our first round of capital in June of 2009. In between we were ramen profitable. I was the only employee for three of those four and a half years, three and a little bit of change.

Kristen: Yeah.

Luke Kanies: So the big thing that allowed us to get from three to ten was we got two and a quarter million dollars deposited into our bank account, which it turns out is a thing that allows you to hire people. Our first 25 employees, very, very few of them stuck around. What everyone else talks about with successful startups is that early spirit, the early culture and how are we gonna make sure we don’t lost that.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: For me, that was literally all between my ears. All that early culture was literally just Luke. Even those two people that joined later, they got given the title of founder, but they weren’t there for the early learning, they weren’t there for the building of the product. By the time they joined we were already making cash, we already had customers, I was paying myself a meager salary, I was able to pay them and they were only able to join because I was able to pay them basically a six figure salary.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: Those things we think about as the early days, everyone thinks is 2009 to 20011 at Puppet. But it wasn’t, it was 2005 to 2007. So those early days had many casualties as a result of me not realizing what my job was. Me having read all the advice what’s the job of the founder, the job of the founder is to empower your employees, get out of their way, you shouldn’t stand over them, you shouldn’t tell them what to do all the time. Of course, you do that as a founder and what you’re gonna have is a failure because your job is to lead and leading is not about vaguely describing … It’s not about empowering your employees, it’s telling them what to do and make sure they don’t do it and if they don’t do it, fire them as quickly as possible because you’ve only go so much time on this Earth.

The process of figuring all that out was very expensive for me, it was expensive for the people around me and it had a lot of casualties. The 0 to 25 was a painful, slow, high cost affair and by about the time we got to 50 or 80, I had a sense of okay, I can almost see what a company is like, I have some successes and not just some failures, I have some places where my direct involvement is a positive thing. But it happened much later for us than it did for most people.

Kristen: Sure. To be honest with you, I think having seen both from some of my own clients and other companies, I think there’s a lot of lore that company’s early people, they’re the backbone of the company and they are the culture. But in reality, the first 80 people the just stuck around because there was this lore around having them there and people who were managing them might … They were not able to let go.

Luke Kanies: Right.

Kristen: There was too much …

Luke Kanies: They were talismans, as opposed to great people.

Kristen: Right and then seven years later, eight years later, you have situations where this person is a horrible, horrible toxic human who is ruining this and it was cancerous to this organization. But I’m not strong enough to let them go. Or on the more common side, we get to this place where they have all of this knowledge and if I let them go I don’t know how I’m gonna get it back. It sounds like it was hard and painful and I fully trust you that it was. But I think maybe there’s also some …

Luke Kanies: I don’t think it was as special as I made it sound. I have to recognize I wasn’t unique.

Kristen: Sure.

Luke Kanies: I do think certainly it was outside of the way we tell stories about the early days and I was never under the illusion that those first 25 people or first 50 people were that special. Where I think most people they have that problem that you’re talking about, I didn’t have as much of that problem because … Actually a huge part of me becoming successful in what I was doing personally as opposed to the company was recognizing that what I had to do was find a way to go back to those first three years and expose that to more people as opposed to build a platform for new people to step in.

Kristen: Right. I was listening to someone speak recently about the concept that he hired based on fit for the moment and fit for what the company was gonna be doing in the 6 to 12 months. Case in point, I am a builder not a maintainer. I will never be able to step into a role where I have to do the same thing every day for the rest of my days. I can do it, but I’m gonna go crazy and bad things will happen. So I’m not right for a company of 500 people whose gonna stay at 500 people for the foreseeable future. I’m wondering did that show up? Maybe there were successes and maybe mistakes where this person was right at that moment and maybe 18 months pass and they’re no longer right or maybe 36 months pass and they’re no longer right. Did you ever experience that?

Luke Kanies: If you can pick those 5 to 10 most common ways in which things can go wrong, we did all of those multiple times. So that absolutely happened, but we also had a lot of … I wasn’t a developer when I started Puppet. So in the three to four years that I was the only real person working on the product, I became a developer. But then I started hiring developers and I’m the CEO so my time’s being dragged in all places. One of the biggest mistakes I made was saying thankfully now I have real developers on the project, I’ll hand it to them. All their reaction was essentially wow, all this software is horrible, I don’t understand it at all and why does the CEO have so many opinions about my work. Because of course I’m still the project manager, I’m still for better or worse I’m the person who knows everything about … It’s not even that, I’m still the lead developer. Whether you acknowledge it or not, there’s only one person that understand the architecture of this product, it’s me. There’s one person …

Kristen: Yeah.

Luke Kanies: I kept trying to step away and hand it to the developers, but at the same time I kept failing to do so for obvious reasons because I’m literally the only person in the whole world who knows anything about the product. My major conflict was I kept seeing my inability to work with people as a failure on my part to step away, when in fact it was a failure on my part to hire people I was compatible with.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: So I’m hiring a developer and there are some developers who I could’ve worked with really, really effectively in the early days and I have some of those now at the company. But I didn’t hire any of those in the first two to three years and when I saw a conflict, I always interpreted that conflict as a failure on my part on a day to day basis, as opposed to a failure on my part when it came to team building.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: So nearly all of the other failures, not literally all of them, but a much larger proportion than I would like to admit and certainly I realized at the time, was I didn’t work hard enough to get somebody who could work with me. I didn’t rotate enough on compatibility with me being important. It’s one of those you spend your whole life training yourself not to be egotistical and not be full of yourself, not to think the universe revolves around you and then you come to this role and the biggest mistake you can make is not thinking the universe revolves around you.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: By the time I actually learned how to correct the mistake it no longer did revolve around me because I did have more of a team, there were people who had made it through and who were surviving or they were thriving in the new world.

Had no other option but to spend the energy … This was when people talk about hiring fit over experience or hiring for capability over experience, what they really mean is the best person in the damn world who you can’t work with on a day to day basis is literally worthless to you, literally worthless. Somebody who has capability and who you are super excited to work with every day and an hour of mentoring that person makes you happen and energized instead of drained and suicidal is a much better fit. So, that’s the first of the trickle down.

The second is there’s a reason why you’re winning. There’s a reason why you’re successful enough that you’re able to hire somebody. There’s a reason why you’re successful enough that you’re able to do these things. It’s not the only way, that isn’t to say and all the ways are worthless.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: But you have a way that you know works. You’ve got a successful model that anything other than trying to replicate that model is again, it’s heat loss, it’s waste. Maybe you’ll find another better one, maybe hiring somebody who has completely divergent views of yours will help you to a better model. So what you need to do if find somebody that goes I love this model, I will show up every day and continue to execute this model and I fully support and I am here to learn from you and to find a way to duplicate your success.

The third way is there are ways to build tools that can help you reinforce this and there are some downsides to these tools that we built at Puppet eventually. It’s fair to say that we never got the most out of this but we built what I called a personal operating manual where we took some personality tests but we also took a bunch of kind of simple questions that were … If you view yourself as a minefield, how would you help somebody navigate that minefield? Here’s how to get the most out of me, but by the way if you do one of these four things, you should not be surprised if I scream at you. I’m not saying I’m excused for screaming at you, but at least now you’ll know why.

Kristen: Yeah. [inaudible 00:12:57]

Luke Kanies: Here’s a way that you can easily avoid it. Now, one of the downsides we had with this POM was that people pretty quickly went well you saw my operating manual, of course I was gonna flip out on you. No, this isn’t justification for you being a child, this is helping to inform the people around you. I do feel like as a hiring manager one of the things that it was incumbent on me to do was to try to give somebody in the interview process an idea of what it was really like to work with. I don’t mean are we going to be compatible, what I mean is I’m incredibly opinionated, there are going to be times where I have two hours to spend with you and I’m really, really concerned about how you feel and I want to make you feel better and there are times where seriously this is not okay.

People need to understand what they’re getting into and if they show up on day one they’re like wow the beta was great, but the production version is not any good, then you’ve got a real problem. You have to expose that so the personal operating manual I found was actually a pretty good way to say here as some pretty deep flaws I have and by the way, I’ve written this down, I’m not really working on these. These ones, as you were saying, are not gonna get better.

Kristen: Yeah.

Luke Kanies: That’s it. At Puppet at a certain point we got to the point where we had an intro lecture that I used to give in person to every new employee group and we eventually recorded that lecture and then I still met with all the new employees but it was instead of doing … It was all Q and A and they would watch the lecture some other time. It was 15, 20 minutes of here’s what I think, here’s where I work, I’m a real person, don’t …

Kristen: Don’t be weird.

Luke Kanies: Yeah or at least if I’m weird it’s because I’m a weird person, it’s not because I’m some sort of far off in the distance [inaudible 00:14:35] type thing.

Kristen: Yeah. I think that could be another conversation about just open communication. One of the things that I’ve found that is easier as a consultant is you hire me to tell you what’s wrong and if you don’t like it when I tell you, I can leave and you can leave and we can stop the contract. But as an employee, for example, I find a lot of, for me, a lot of similarities in your communication style that … I don’t know if it’s the east coaster in me, I don’t know what it is. But I am much more honest and much more up front and I ask for a lot of deep criticism and I give a lot of deep criticism. But I also won’t give any criticism that doesn’t have support behind it. That quickly makes you no friends in certain environments.

As a leader of a company or a manager, you’re not there to make friends often. But I don’t see … That doesn’t come-

Luke Kanies: Pointedly yeah.

Kristen: Through all the time in management. I could definitely talk more about that but I actually wanted to switch gears a little bit into human resources.

Luke Kanies: I have one point before we switch.

Kristen: Yeah.

Luke Kanies: On the east coaster versus … So I’m not an east coaster. I’m not from anywhere. I think that could be part of it. I think that our society, our definitions of success are so exclusionary and so little meritocracy. You think about … I’ll throw in a couple at the end to make it clear how exclusive we really are. So we only let people succeed who are white men, you can kind of do it as early as 20 or so, but you really need to be upper 20s and ideally early 30s. You really probably shouldn’t be older than 65 or so.

Kristen: No disabilities.

Luke Kanies: Right, no disabilities. You gotta be fit, you can’t be too fat or too skinny, you probably shouldn’t be fit. It can be all muscle but … You gotta be a morning person. If you aren’t a morning person, fix it, act like you are. You gotta start getting up at 5 in the morning and bragging about it. We all know the leader shows up, I open the office every day. Why? So everyone knows I’m a leader, okay.

Kristen: Other making assumptions there.

Luke Kanies: You think about it and you go any given person at the table justifying their existence relative to anybody else who could be there, any direct confrontation to the … They’re not incentivized, I should say we because I fit in that bucket. We’re not incentivized to question our assumptions about ourselves. In fact, quite the opposite, once we begin questioning our own assumptions, once we begin questioning our own beliefs, the whole thing feels pretty fragile. I don’t think your being an east coaster is a sufficient explanation for why everyone’s like this and certainly this exclusionary aspect of our society is also not a sufficient explanation. But I think it’d be unfair to say neither of them … It’d be unfair to say that neither one is sufficient or that neither of them is present.

Kristen: Yeah, I think that’s a solid, scientific assessment of that situation. [inaudible 00:17:37] and could also be its own thing.

I want to switch gears a little bit and talk … We have previously talked about human resources and mistakes and how difficult it is to actually know what you’re getting into when you hire a human resources person. Can you talk about when you first decided I’m gonna hire an HR person? What went through your mind and what were you hoping to do to [crosstalk 00:18:01]

Luke Kanies: Well it took a lot of convincing because I didn’t decide it, somebody else said you really need to hire an HR person. We went through multiple rounds of not success. I’m a stubborn loser. My head of finance at the time said we really need somebody to do HR and I said that doesn’t sound right, anyone I’ve ever worked with in HR has been [inaudible 00:18:23] evil. I don’t think that’s a good fit. So she said someone’s gotta do payroll and I’m tired of it being me. I went okay. There are tasks that do have to be done, again, people would selfishly would like to eat. That was a big part of what caused us to start hiring HR people and then recruiting is a thing that historically falls in that bucket. So those things kind of led to it.

But our first HR person very much … She was another person that culturally we did not … We weren’t a great fit and it took me a long time to go wait a second, this is a thing where you and I have to agree and if we don’t agree, it’s because you joined the wrong company. I’m not wrong and you’re not wrong, but we’re definitely wrong for each other. So that led to a bit more investigation and a bit more trying and even then once I had a strong HR leader as opposed to an HR practitioner … So anyway I could begin to form the team under, then I could begin to better understand the discipline of HR versus the other things. One of the things that became really clear was I think greater than most organizations in the company, there is a significant separation between the tradition of what the role of HR within a company is and how they talk about their role. Because if you look historically about why the discipline developed and if you look at what the first three biggest problems there are to solve, they don’t really have anything to do with the touchy, feely people oriented aspects of HR.

If anything, I think most organizations develop a comprehensive HR department primarily to protect the company. I remember, one example is we began hiring somebody to do legal training because it’s actually pretty important that your hiring managers have some idea of what the law is. There are things that … People can sue you for anything so there’s nothing you can do to prevent yourself from being sued, but there are some things that’ll guarantee you’ll lose the lawsuit. There are some things that you should be sued for as opposed to you can be sued for. It’s important train people on those. Some of those aren’t obvious. There are questions that you might think this is a great get to know you question and you just landed yourself in a lawsuit. There are really good reasons to train your teams on the legalities of hiring.

However, the first couple of conversations we had with this person who was gonna train us were very much here is the thin line you must walk and your primary concern is not being sued. So as opposed to here is education about what the shape of the law is and how to get what you want done, but also not break any rules and let’s understand them and here’s why some of these make sense and here’s why we frankly don’t think this makes sense but it’s still true. It came a here’s how to protect yourself. Then when you talked about the conversation about discrimination, it was very clear that the first … Job number one, are we in danger. Then if you’ve still got time in your 30 minutes, if you’ve got 5 minutes left we can talk about how you’re feeling and whether you’re okay.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: Again, it’s not so much that anybody … Nobody’s doing evil. Nobody’s a bad person. But as an industry, the kinds of training and opinions that HR produces are clearly biased towards protecting the company. But if you listen to them talk about why they’re here, that’s not what they say. So there’s this really, really big separation between those two. Those who are on the development side of the house might see the separation sometimes where you’re at a company that talks about the user all the time, but in practice they don’t ever talk to the users and don’t understand what the user really wants. So they’re we’re a design oriented shop but we only talk to the buyer and we never actually know what the user does.

Kristen: That’s great. I think that was one of the questions that I had and wanted to dive deeper into and something that I’ve personally been chewing on a lot lately. I feel that maybe I’ve read one too many … I hate even saying it that way. But one too many statements, one too many [inaudible 00:22:26] articles suggesting … Painting that HR was not there to help in certain circumstances of racism, discrimination, sexism of any variety. I think that maybe we need to have a conversation about HR’s participation.

Luke Kanies: HR showed up and did its job perfectly, the company was safe.

Kristen: Right, the company was safe. There’s little legal action, supposedly none for most companies.

Luke Kanies: We’ve made it really clear to people who report that you’re gonna be fired, there’s nothing you can do about being fired, you can sue us all you want there’s not gonna be any proof. By the way, if you make it to court the jury’s gonna rule against you because all of this is he said she said kind of stuff in nearly every case. Even having reported, if your name makes it on a lawsuit, no one’s ever gonna hire you again, but the person who you sued is gonna look like the victim somehow. Our society has made that super clear.

Kristen: Very clear.

Luke Kanies: There’s this pernicious myth that women support harassment somehow for their own benefit. But of course only white dudes think that and only dudes think that’s a real thing because in practice, any reporting of harassment or discrimination of any kind is usually a sign that it’s time for you to leave town and you’re never gonna … Every work experience you have is never gonna count for anything every again and you’ll probably take a 30 to 50% pay cut and probably be an independent employee for the rest of your life.

Kristen: It’s true. Having myself been dragged into a HR conversation about discrimination and sexism, it was not there to make my life better. It was not there to assuage my fears. Which brings me to another question that I think is a really pivotal one in the conversation about diversity but I don’t hear it a lot or hear it talked about a lot. Let’s just take the example of a very talented engineering manager, maybe somebody who is very senior, has stayed with the company for quite a long time and holds a lot of tasks and knowledge and they’re actually a huge problem culturally.

Luke Kanies: This is super common.

Kristen: Very common unfortunately. You’re then faced with the hard decision of do I let this person go and make almost a, you can decide how far you want to go, but make a lesson out of that or do I just sweep it under the rug and deal with it because they are the one who architects my project?

Luke Kanies: I think you have to phrase the choice differently than that because when it’s phrased that way it’s an easy answer. But I think you have to phrase it differently, which is do I let this one person stay or do I let women stay.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: Because that’s actually what you’re deciding in the end. Do I choose to exclude something like 50 to 70% of the available workforce in my country because I won’t hire people who aren’t white people and I’m not excluding women, so that rules out most people.

Kristen: That’s a lot of people.

Luke Kanies: Or do I want this one person to stay.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: That’s not how people think about it. They think about it like I’ll find a way to make this work and for a long time that was reasonable because there weren’t any places that women could work that wouldn’t treat them like this. What people are beginning to find is I can leave Uber, I can leave other places and I can get a great job somewhere else because there are places like Stripe, there are places that women can go work that are pretty awesome places to work for women. There are places like Etsy that have done a fantastic job of empowering and enabling women. Suddenly you go, as a woman I have a choice of working at a company that keeps that jerk around or I … So there’s competition for your great developers and that competition is driving the right behaviors. The only reason hwy we care about this today is A, we’ve got disadvantaged people have a platform that they didn’t have two decades ago and B, there’s a place they can go where they can … And it’s not gonna be perfect for them too. There’s gonna be discrimination everywhere so it’s gonna be way better than it is at the other place.

So you gotta phrase the choice correctly and now that is a really choice because women, they will leave. Not just the women but all the dudes who believe women are people, those people will also leave. So what you end up with is that one person changed the entire nature of your organization and that’s not right either. You, your tolerance of that intolerance, of that discrimination changed the entire nature of your company.

Kristen: Exactly. I really appreciate the flipping of the question and the distinction you made there. Because I think often times consultants, people in my world often are saying saving somebody like that, letting them stay is going to ruin your culture and that’s the exact kind of vague language that I don’t tolerate.

Luke Kanies: Right.

Kristen: What does ruin your culture mean? Yeah, sure, that’s a byproduct. But you’re right, the reality is that I’ve literally said by inaction that I don’t want you to work here if you’re a woman, I don’t want you to work here if you’re black, I don’t want you to work here if you’re disabilities or a veteran because what I value more is the profit that I’m going to make and not having a hard conversation … I’ve actually been told by an HR person and a CEO about the same engineering manager that A, they’ve improved a lot in five years …

Luke Kanies: Right. They don’t ever beat the women who work for them, they only yell at them now.

Kristen: I don’t want to know what we was like five years ago, if I couldn’t tolerate it now. B, he’s just so valuable we have to keep him.

Luke Kanies: Right.

Kristen: We can’t replace him.

Luke Kanies: I could see somebody saying this person is worth me never hiring a woman ever again.

Kristen: Sure.

Luke Kanies: It’d be weird, but I could hear somebody saying that.

Kristen: It depends what your motivations are.

Luke Kanies: I think people need to realize that that’s what they’re actually doing.

Kristen: I agree.

Luke Kanies: Especially, of course you’re going to keep hiring women accidentally, so what you really mean is it worth me continuing to hire women who never get promoted. So every woman I ever hire, I’m gonna hire very few of them and the few I do hire are gonna last 18 months and we all know the people that leave within 18 months are some of the most expensive people. They leave within 12 months it’s not that expensive, but if they leave in 18 to 24 months, they’re here long enough that people rely on them and then they’re gone and now they … Those people are never gonna become valuable people in my company because I’ve prevented them.

Kristen: Right. But I’ve spent a lot of money on them and I invested …

Luke Kanies: And then the second thing is you’ve now taught your entire company by the way, you know all the things that I say that I want you to believe, I wouldn’t do that anymore. I’ve always said I care about diversity, I care about inclusion, but I’ve demonstrated that it’s not true through my actions. But don’t worry that’s the only thing that I’m lying to you about. No one believes that.

Kristen: No.

Luke Kanies: So once you stand up and you do a thing that everyone in the room … Because everyone in the room knows, they all see that person in the conference room yelling at women and only women. They all see that, they all know, they can tell that you’re lying, they can tell that they cannot trust you.

Kristen: I think that’s such a salient point that leaders often think that people do trust them innately for whatever reason. But it is these very … I guess maybe even relate it to microaggressions, the thousand tiny cuts. People can see, but they might never tell you. They’re never gonna walk up to the CEO and mention this is a little hypocritical for you.

Luke Kanies: I’ve certainly have people do that to me.

Kristen: Really, did you? What was that experience like?

Luke Kanies: I spent too much time in firewall configurations so I think about this as default except on criticism. I couldn’t possibly explain why, I could explain it but I’m not sure it would be usefully explainable.

Kristen: Sure.

Luke Kanies: But when people say here’s this thing you’re wrong about or here’s this thing that you’re missing, then I start with the assumption that they’re correct. I start with the assumption that their opinion has as much validity as mine. I spend a lot of time thinking and a lot of my beliefs are very defensible. If I find that I agree with somebody in general, when I test it all I find that I was probably actually … I was the one who was correct. Not because I’m super smart, but because for most of the things that I bother expressing an opinion about I have been thinking about for 10 times longer than you have and that’s the only reason why. If you spent as much time on it as I have, you would’ve had a more correct opinion. When somebody comes and says I have this experience that from my perspective makes you a liar, what you can’t do is say you don’t have that experience.

Kristen: Actually you can, I’ve had that done to me before. But it depends on the standing.

Luke Kanies: You’re right, there are a bunch of silent words in there like authentically and with any honor or justifiably or in the court of law.

Kristen: Or if you go on another podcast and say actually we have a wonderful culture in our company or you may be the keynote speaker somewhere.

Luke Kanies: I’m a product manager, I love all of my products, they are all perfect and they work fantastically and all of my ideas are brilliant until I talk to a user. You have a choice, when a user tells you that this is stupid and you have to fix it you have a choice, you can be right or you can be successful. Those are your two choices, you gotta listen to users. So building a product really helped me understand and everyone knows this from reading Eric Reaves and reading Steven Blank facts of outside the building. I think of culture as a design problem and as the CEO, I’m not building culture for me, I don’t need help especially as the white guy. I already didn’t need help but I’m the boss, you literally can’t discriminate against me. This is solvable.

So what I have to say is who am I designing my culture for and how am I convincing myself that I have succeeded at that. If one of the people I say wow, I think they’re one of my vulnerable users, if the come to me and say you aren’t there yet, if I’m a designer, if I’m a product manager and I really think the facts outside the building I better listen. So not only did I encourage people to come talk to me, but I went on the [inaudible 00:32:26] and they did, it’s bad when somebody comes to you and says this thing that you love … You might’ve been on a podcast yesterday talking about how great your culture was, you might’ve been on stage yesterday saying it, here’s a place you were lying. I saw that and me and my team around me, we’re all pissed off at you and now …

I remember I had this dinner, it was fall of 2014 and I had dinner with eight women, it was the hardest night I’ve ever had as a CEO, it was the hardest time.

Kristen: They were all Puppet …

Luke Kanies: They were all Puppet employees and they pretty much all were really pissed off at me. Now I realized later on that we collected the eight most pissed off women in the entire company for that dinner-

Kristen: That’s not a bad thing.

Luke Kanies: It was a tactical mistake in terms of figuring out … You have to have a more complete picture. I failed to acquire a complete picture that day, but it was a hell of a stark awakening.

Kristen: Yeah.

Luke Kanies: In terms of how far I was in terms of where I thought I was as a leader. You have to do that.

Kristen: I was gonna ask you if you had any parting words of wisdom for other founders, other CEOs. But I feel like that was actually really clear parting wisdom. That you can choose to be right or you can choose to be successful.

Luke Kanies: The facts of outside the building, if you think Eric Reaves is right about products, you gotta use the same practices to build your culture. That means that your perspective as the white male leader of your organization is literally irrelevant. The only people who are relevant are people who you’re trying to build advantage for in a way that wouldn’t happen organically. You’ve gotta go talk to them. And you’ve gotta have people who you also know can go talk to them in a way because you aren’t trustworthy. You as the CEO are the wielder of ultimate power, so they aren’t gonna always trust you. You’ve gotta demonstrate day to day, year to year … Those women at that dinner were willing to talk to me in a way that they wouldn’t be willing to talk to other people because I had demonstrated over the years that for all that I wasn’t succeeding necessarily, I was really, really trying and one of the things that worked out really well at that dinner is I was able to say here are three things that are going on right now that I’ve been working on for three months, here’s the person whose working on it, here’s when I expect it to ship and here’s why I think this is one of the most important things to work on.

So for all that we were struggling I was also able to say I’m aware of some of these struggles and I’m making direct and positive effort towards some of them. That really helped and I was able to include some of them in some of the effort. So they were able to go okay, for all that I was a little bit blindsided, I’m also not completely ignorant nor kind of leaving things sit. You’ve gotta get outside the building. If Eric Reaves were to write a book on HR, he would definitely say talking to just your HR team isn’t goo enough. That’s the CEO talking to his product team, not the CEO talking to his customers or her customers.

Kristen: Any kind of last thoughts about culture or HR or people management?

Luke Kanies: The last piece maybe would be another piece of advice for me three to five years ago, which is … There was a time when I became despondent as CEO because there’s a point in time where you realize the absolute best you can hope to do is to be less discriminatory than the wider society. Because within a system that has biases and all of us have biases as individuals, as a culture, as a business culture. Our business culture itself has some pretty impressive biases. Within that system, you can compensate for many of them, you can have an organization that is dramatically better for the best people than the people around. But you can’t really have a world that is isolated, so it’s important to recognize the difference between I succeeded at building an organization that’s absent from all these problems, that’s missing all these problems and I succeeded in making a better organization that people are proud to be at.

It took me a long time once I realized kind of where I was failing and succeeding, it took me a long time to stand up and go wait a second, there’s work to do but I can and I should be proud of the work I’ve done. I think as important as it is to stand up and work on things, it’s equally important to stand up and say but here’s what I’ve accomplished and here’s where I can and did make a difference, therefore here’s a platform of success to build on. If all you can do is look around you and see here’s how far we are from success and I wasn’t really good at seeing here’s how far we’ve come. You have to feel like I did good work yesterday or you can’t show up to work tomorrow and do good work again.

Kristen: There’s so many other things that we could talk about that are on my mind and I know that you’re thinking a lot about writing about what you believe and HR-

Luke Kanies: On that note actually if anybody’s interested in … Some of these things I’ll absolutely be writing about on my medium blog, if you look for L Kanies on medium you’ll find me, I’m pretty easy.

Kristen: Wonderful.

Luke Kanies: My last name is rare enough that I’m easy to find on the internet.

Kristen: Well thank you so much Luke, I appreciate you being on today.

Luke Kanies: Thank you for having me here.


Episode 3 – What is Culture, Anyway?

On Episode 3 of Up Right & Better, we’ll have Dara Blumenthal on the podcast today. We get to talk about her research and how it relates to the culture work she does today and what it actually means to do strategy in a company.

Dr. Dara Blumenthal is a scholar of identity and embodiment who is passionate about humanizing the workplace. She is the head of Strategy and Culture at Live Grey, where she specializes in cultivating more authentic and emotionally intelligent cultures by weaving together group dynamics, interpersonal coaching, and organization design. 

In our conversation, we discuss what culture really is in the context of the organization, why sense making is key to work, and how to go about understanding and creating culture in your organization.

Kristen : Hello and welcome to Up Right and Better, where CEOs, experts and thought leaders challenge conventional business wisdom to help you scale your company up and to the right and up and better. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher. I’m so excited to have Dara Blumenthal on the podcast today. I’ve admired her work and her articles for quite some time and I think you’ll see why very soon. We get to talk about her research and how it relates to the culture work she does today and what it actually means to do strategy in a company. Let me tell you a bit about her.

Dr. Dara Blumenthal is a scholar of identity and embodiment who is passionate about humanizing the workplace. She is the head of Strategy and Culture at Live Grey, where she specializes in cultivating more authentic and emotionally intelligent cultures by weaving together group dynamics, interpersonal coaching and organization design. After teaching University for five years, Dara became a member of Undercurrent, designing and implementing people systems for GE and American Express. Dara holds a PhD in Sociology, a Master’s in Critical Theory and a Bachelor’s in Sound and Embodiment, is a Usui Reiki master, a published author and has spoken internationally. Her monograph is entitled Little Vast Rooms of Undoing and she writes regularly on culture, organization design, and everyday life on Medium.com.

Welcome Dara, how are you?

Dara Blumenthal: I’m doing great, how are you?

Kristen : I’m doing wonderfully. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today. Could we start by hearing a little bit about you? I know that you started your own company and you recently, several months ago, turned your talents to Live in Grey, but love to hear it from you.

Dara Blumenthal: Sure. So, I did start my own company. I was on my own for a year with a project called Nature of Work. Before that, I was working at a sort of radical organization design firm called Undercurrent, which met a sort of tragic end. On the other side of starting the company, which is where I’m at now, is I’ve basically joined forces with one of my most favorite clients Live in the Grey, and I work full time with Live Grey now doing strategy and culture.

Kristen : Very cool. What does that mean, strategy and culture?

Dara Blumenthal: Well, a couple things. The most simple way to think about them is that I work on organizational strategy, I assist with strategy all around, so I work with the sales team to work on sales strategy, I do strategy kind of generally inside of the organization and I, at the same time, work on and think about our culture. I also do both of those types of work out in the field or out in the world with clients within their organizations. The thing that’s really, really interesting and exciting to me is really bringing strategy and culture into closed conversation. So thinking of them in this sort of yin and yang way, where they aren’t on opposite ends of the spectrum, but they’re actually very, very closely related and they support each other. So, I’m doing a lot of hand movements that you can’t see, but it’s like they balance each other out in the most ideal circumstances. So really trying to work on bringing those things together.

Kristen : Wow, that’s fascinating. It strikes me that you are, as you said, a big puzzle solver that, let’s say it could be sales strategy one day, going to a new market, or the next day team dynamics. So I know that you come from a very academic and I guess by that I mean a rigorous background that looks at cultural studies very seriously. I think that that might be pretty different. It’s at least in my experience different from many of the OD, Organizational Development and Design community members that I know, not that that’s a negative or a positive, but I think there is something that you bring from a rigorous background. What does it mean to activate a lens of cultural studies in a company? How does that translate for you?

Dara Blumenthal: Sure. I’ll just respond to a couple things. One is that people always think that my education or my PhD is in Organizational Psychology or OD and it isn’t.

Kristen : Right, but it’s Sociology, right?

Dara Blumenthal: Right. Exactly.

Kristen : Okay.

Dara Blumenthal: So, you’re exactly right, it’s in Sociology and I have a rich background in cultural studies. I taught cultural studies at University and so I sort of come to this work, as you were bringing to light, from a different discipline, from a different set of understanding systems. I can talk about that in two ways. To really speak to this question of activating a lens of cultural studies, is that you kind of … so a couple things. You don’t take anything for granted. To whatever extent possible, you question everything. And sort of everything in the field or in the scene, everything that exists inside of or alongside of or among the area of study, in this case organizations, everything can be considered a sort of input into the understanding into the sense making of that place. So that’s everything from the way that the space is designed to the conversations that people have to the way that people physically move through it, take up space to the words that you see around the office. So it’s sort of like all of these different pieces can actually be input into this way of making sense of the system that’s at play and that’s brought to life, that’s enlivened from the people there.

Kristen : Right, right. And I see that manifested in my work all the time, that, from a learning and development perspective, there are a lot of assumptions that can get made and your job is to come in and question everything and make sure that we are actually solving problems that are A, the right problems, well, I should say A, problems at all, B, the right problems, and C, engaging with the people that need to be part of that. So I kind of want to ask you two follow-up questions at the same time, so I’m just going to pick one and then we’ll come back to the other one. So, you wrote a book, Little Vast Rooms of Undoing, and on the surface maybe it’s not the same work that you do right now, and I’ll just read for the listeners a quick synopsis. So, public toilets are places where individual identity is put to the test through experiences of fear, anxiety, shame and embarrassment, yet also places where we shore up, confirm and check the status of our gendered identities. So, where did you come up with this idea and how does that inform your concept of sense-making in culture?

Dara Blumenthal: Yeah, so, this project was born, funnily enough, of the workplace. It was a … so basically it was my first real job out of college. I worked in an institution, I worked at NYU Law and I just started noticing all of this really strange sort of behavior in the public toilet spaces and coming from … I had just completed a degree in sound and embodiment, so super, super interested in the senses, the way that we use our senses to literally make sense, to make meaning and to make knowledge of our experiences and to create our identities, which are inherently material and physical. We are bodies and we have bodies so when we … so I’m interested in those sorts of things and I come into this workplace and I notice everyone is kind of like weird, it’s an office almost entirely made up of women and we spend most of our lives together the majority of every day and yet everyone is so weird in these spaces and so, I started talking to people about it and asking questions and everyone seemed to have something to say. So I knew that it was a really viable, scholarly project and that my research wouldn’t be too hard because everyone wanted to tell me something.

So, what’s really interesting, which I’ll try to connect is that even though these are like these taboo spaces and that there’s a huge amount of socializing that goes into becoming an adult human that enables us to be out in the world which is through training our bodies to use these spaces, so even though they’re taboo and after we become kind of inculcated into the normalized system of, “Well, I’m a woman, I use the Women’s restroom” or “I’m a male and I use the Men’s room” and we don’t really go back and question any of that and so we’re stuck with these patterns from early, early childhood that we just continue out through most of our lives usually without question. And yet, everyone wanted to say something about it. Everyone had so many thoughts and feelings and stories and things to share about these really taboo spaces that we don’t spend that much time actually talking or thinking about in our society and so there is just this really interesting juxtaposition between this desire to actually talk about them but there being no space to do that.

So that was super cool and I would say like in many ways … so the book is, put most simply it’s a theory of the way that we construct identity and that work continues to be at the heart of the sort of work that I do and the way that I think about what I’m doing which is how we fundamentally relate to ourselves and to others. What are the emotional systems and patterns at work that perpetuate that sense of self or free that sense of self to emerge or become differently? And how does our everyday lives work in that system? So, it’s sort of three things. It’s identity embodiment, so we can think about emotion as something which is … you know we call them feelings because we feel them, so it’s a physical, material reality of the self, so the self, the body emotional pattern and this sort of both time-bound and at once continuous experience of everyday life.

Kristen : Oh my gosh, there’s so much in there and again I want to ask multiple follow-up questions, but I’m going to stick with the original one. So, using that example or even thinking about how that identity embodiment happens at work and how it happens with other identities, other people, how does cultural sense-making matter, I should say why does it matter in regards to a company culture?

Dara Blumenthal: I can answer this a couple different ways. One, the sort of like the easiest way to answer it is like this idea of having a strong culture that  you either fit in or you don’t fit in is really quickly becoming outdated or outmoded and replaced by the reality that organizations actually have to continuously shift and change in relation to the people that bring them to life, that enliven them. So, we’re really shifting all the way from this sort of black and white world to this more grey becoming world where the people itself are the ones who are actually directing the culture and enlivening that culture everyday. So culture is something that is fundamentally co-constructed and it’s something that happens at multiple scales all the time. It happens sort of at the individual, at the team and at the organizational level every single day. And it’s really, really easy to get stuck in patterns that either aren’t serving the people or ultimately aren’t serving the organization. And this is where the strategy and culture conversation becomes really interesting to me which I was talking about earlier.

So that’s like one, I mean, quite simply millennials are the largest generation in the US workforce, they demand more of organizations not less, so millennials want more leadership, they want to have a greater impact, they want to feel more connected, they want to be more developed. So they actually want more from this fundamental experience of being a person right now in our society of still having these systems of labor and they want to use these systems of labor to actually develop themselves fundamentally. So it’s a very different conversation. And the sort of academic answer is that my theory of identity is that there is no self that necessarily precedes any interaction, but rather that self emerges in interaction. And so that, if we’re all working together in this way, we can enable the best selves to continuously emerge and grow in that way.

Kristen : That’s fascinating. It, just to simplify drastically, makes me think of some commentary that I’ve gotten on my own self over the course of my entire life that I am actually a huge introvert, but that I can sort of “turn on” the extroversion so there is a different self that I can use in different ways. And that changes the environment and the environment changes the self. That’s fascinating. So, just to go down a quick rabbit trail, you mentioned that millennials demand more of organizations not less. And I’ve sort of had this theory … I am, full disclosure, a millennial myself, but have had this sort of ongoing mental theory that it’s not that millennials maybe demand more per se, but it’s that they are more vocal. I wonder what you think about that and why do you think millennials demand more?

Dara Blumenthal: Yeah, so I would agree. I think that this … so I’ve been reading this book Why Should Anyone Work Here? And they have a pretty nice way of talking about it which is this idea of the Organization Man, if you can think about … so the image that came to mind for me was Mad Men and how all of those characters are kind of like trying to mimic or replicate one another. You can think about the advertising guys and then you can think about the creatives and how different they are and how they really fit into this idea or stereotype of what it means to be a person at this company doing this job. And that’s sort of Organization Man or Organization Woman or Person. That doesn’t really exist anymore. And I think in the instances that people are trying to replicate that idea of something, to live into an idea which is very ego-driven, I think people get called out on it and it feels really inauthentic. And so authenticity is a big conversation.

I walk around New York City and I see ads all over the place, like I saw a Mail Chimp ad the other day that was about being yourself. Like this idea of authenticity is really, really permeating our at least Western consciousness in this really, really specific way that I think at once is … so I think in the recent past we’ve been super, super individuated as people, as identities, so individuated “I am a man” “I am a woman”, I follow this life path or that life path. And my body’s very sealed and I only make connections or I only have friends in these sorts of ways and these are the things that we do. So very, very black and white. And I think in some ways we’re kind of reaching the limit of that individuation in the way that we construct self and that we live our daily lives because we are so increasingly connected at least digitally and I believe that people are starting to crave that deeper sort of connection in everyday life.

And the way to do that is to continually release this intense boundary that keeps you individuated and I think this is why we see such a huge increase in things like yoga and meditation and Buddhism that’s entering our consciousness and then things like juicing and people changing up their diets and this whole self-care and you take your health into your own hands is like a big sort of transition that I think we’re all going to where we’re sort of taking things into our own … we’re questioning these existent and long-standing narratives and understanding how we can actually forge a new way.

Kristen : I can agree with that. That makes a lot of sense to me. And it, for me, begs the question, that I wonder if we are reaching that as you called it the limit of individuation, are we reaching that because of the very technology that we are making? So if you think Tinder, you think Facebook, Twitter, even Uber and Lyft, these cause us to have to interact with other people. But it’s almost a paradox, because even as I say that, the data is coming in that we are more alone than ever before. We are not actually communicating in traditional ways with each other. And I wonder how that might play out in company culture?

Dara Blumenthal: So one way that I think about it is that in some ways we reach an extreme as a society before things really start to change. We can see this I think in our politics right now. I think that … this might be like, I don’t know how you’ll feel about this answer, but I wonder if people are becoming aware of their own loneliness for the first time because they don’t have the regular human interaction that propped up or assuaged that feeling to a certain extent. And so that’s like an interesting … I’m answering a question with a question, but that’s a question that I have is that is it that the technology actually creates an awareness to our own human experience that we were able to ignore more easily before because we had to interact with people?

Kristen : I feel good about that answer. It doesn’t necessarily close the conversation and that’s good. But it makes me think about as we, in a way, lose this regular human interaction like to zoom way out, gathering at the Grange Hall or having a neighborhood picnic, those sorts of things. And I feel in a way that the companies are replacing that with the obligatory happy hour and the kegs on tap and the ping pong tables, which actually reminds me of a Medium article that you wrote called Where Do Perks End and Where Does Culture Begin? And you actually mentioned, and this has been my long-standing feeling as well, that the cultural attributes are not perks, necessarily. They are not tangible objects “like a ping pong table or a calendar of events, but they are the intangible and unseen ways in which people use these things.” So I wonder if companies almost unknowingly are trying to replace that and it becomes this artificial “culture.” Because so many times I have to have the conversation with my clients or people in general that adding in the ping pong table does not make your office welcoming, does not make it fun, necessarily.

Dara Blumenthal: Yeah. So, one thing is that we … so my company Live in the Grey, a big part of our business is that we do offsites and we do offsites that are geared towards creating connections and they’re outside of the city. So no matter where someone is based, we use one of our properties and we make it happen outside of the city because it releases some barriers, it drops the guard a little bit and actually enables people to be a little bit more human and to be a little bit more open to that connection. That doesn’t really happen in the superficial way, in the happy hour, in the mandatory event, in the ping pong game. The way that I’ve started to think about this recently and I’m going to do a little bit of a … not a thought experiment but just play with this idea a little bit. So there are a couple of distinctions I like to make in order to try to invite a new way of thinking and one of my favorites is the distinction between form and content. So, it’s a dialectic and ideally we like form and content to emerge and to be interrelated or entangled. But it’s nice to start with separating them and seeing how they come together.

So in this case, organizations focused on objects or these really superficial things that they believe is culture. Like “Oh, well twice a year we get together and we do XYZ and we talk about culture.” Talking about culture, which is like a content or creating a culture event, the content isn’t necessarily the most powerful way to do this. So the idea that I’ve been playing with is how do we bake or grow culture into the form of an organization? So you can take it really simply and think about okay, in your one on one, instead of thinking about the things that you’re talking about, think about your tone of voice, think about the actual words you’re choosing to construct your sentences, think about your body language, think about how you feel. So really coming into the form of the event rather than what the content focuses on. So you can think about at a meeting, what is the structure of a meeting, who is speaking, who’s making sure more voices are being heard, are more voices being heard? So really thinking about the form or the format of something rather than just the content, which is where I think most people stop.

Kristen : Right. I think I love that. I teach two various types of coaching classes to mid level and senior level managers and we spend a lot of time on the one on one and I haven’t before necessarily connected it to say the embodiment of your culture as a company, but we talk about that form and I love the direction that you’re taking it. So I appreciate your thoughts on this and I feel like we could continue this conversation for quite some time, or at least I would want to and have tons more questions. But that being said, do you have any other closing thoughts before we end for the day?

Dara Blumenthal: Sure, I’ll just add that I think fundamentally, culture starts with the individual and that everyone to a certain extent has the ability to start questioning or start looking at things differently. That could be questioning your own behavior, that could be questioning the way you respond to someone, that could be questioning why do we hold a meeting this way? So really starting that or creating that invitation to begin to think differently about not only your role, but also how you can start to shape the culture differently.

Kristen : Right. Wonderful. Thank you so much. Dara, if people wanted to learn more about you or Live in the Grey, where would they go?

Dara Blumenthal: Sure, you can learn about Live in the Grey, which is LiveGrey.co and you can find me on Medium, I have a bunch of articles up there. I’m on the other social media, but that’s a good place to start.

Kristen : That’s all for today. Thanks so much for listening to me, your host, Kristen Gallagher and to Up Right and Better, the podcast that shows you how to take your company up and to the right and up and better. Got questions? Email us at Hello@UpRightAndBetter.com or tweet us @UpRightBetter and you can read the transcript of this episode, see extended resources and learn more about our guest at UpRightAndBetter.com.

Episode 2 – Leading, Not Managing, Projects

I’m so excited to share with you today’s guest for Upright and Better’s second episode. Here’s Monica Borrell, a dear friend and mentor. Monica Borrell is currently the CEO of Cardsmith, a visual project management tool patterned after Sticky Notes, and the co-founder of Project Elevate. Fun fact about Monica, is that she’s been self employed since 1992. She’s founded seven companies including Go East, Matrix, Corner Star, LoveJoyFood, Cardsmith and now Project Elevate. She’s also a PMI Certified Project Manager and a theory of constraints Jonah. Monica is way into Sticky Notes.

In-between creating companies, she’s held various positions on contract with large organizations in change management, product management and product leadership roles. She’s also a Project Leadership Consultant, Practicing Team Leader, Mentor and Coach to project managers, helping them become more strategic and stronger leaders. Monica writes about project management on the Project Elevate blog and about visual project management and team collaboration on the Cardsmith blog.

Something I found especially cool about Monica is that she helped forge the revolutionary project management system that supported BP’s clean up efforts after the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. Her team solution notably involving multi-colored construction paper and yarn proved that low tech is sometimes the right tech. Now she’s bringing her new and improved digital version to the masses with Cardsmith.

She said that at heart she’s an Entrepreneur first and secondly and by necessity, she’s a Project Manager. 

Good afternoon, I have Monica Borrell who is the Co-Founder of Project Elevate here with me today to talk about the difference between project management and project leadership. How are you doing Monica?

Monica Borrell: I’m doing well Kristen, how are you?

Kristen: I’m well. Thank you so much for joining me today. Can we get started by talking a little bit about what you’ve been up to recently?

Monica Borrell: Sure. Last spring I co-founded a new business called Project Elevate and it’s with a Co-Founder of mine and good friend, Colleague Terasoma. And what Project Elevate is is an online training and coaching company for project managers that want to become more leadership focused.

Kristen: I want to get to what that project leadership means in just a minute. I know you talked about the idea of good project leadership being a concept of thinking of everything as a project within a portfolio. How do you define project leadership and how do you define a portfolio of projects?

Monica Borrell: Right, so as a Project Leader myself and having consulted for companies as both a Project Manager and a Project Leader, there’s a lot of gray area between what those two things are. I think the strategy of the company becomes very important as you start to move from managing an individual project to becoming a project leader.

Kristen: You defined for me what the difference between project management and project leadership is.

Monica Borrell: Yes, as far as how I view it at least, I think of the difference between leadership and management first and then put the project on top of that.

Kristen: Okay.

Monica Borrell: Leadership tends to be more vision oriented, more direction, more strategy and management is around operating something, controlling something, making sure an outcome gets provided. Project management tends to be really geared towards making sure a project, accessible outcome meaning that it’s on scope, it’s on budget and it’s delivered on time. Whereas project leadership gets into things like are we doing the right project or projects? How does the project tie to the strategy? How can we use the strategy of the business or the organization to help to motivate the team and you know, integrate stakeholders with the team and how can we develop people within the project?

Kristen: That’s actually kind of a huge departure from your garden variety project manager and maybe it’s my own bias and I’m wrong to think this. In what you’re saying I would think that project leadership is really associated with the C-Suite or with the people in a company who are actually steering that company and kind of associate the project management philosophy with the line managers who are actually getting things done. Not that one is better than the other but it sounds like you really need to have both.

It sounds like you’re advocating for companies to learn how to integrate this project leadership thought process. Is that what Project Elevate is all about?

Monica Borrell: It is but it’s also at every level so I’m not thinking so much of a large hierarchical organization where you have project leaders and you have project managers. It’s also a mindset so I believe that any Project Manager can have some components of project leadership and they’re going to get better project outcomes. It’s very much of a gray area, there’s no job title as far as I know of; project leader versus project manager out there as a definition that I can point to.

I’m sure at certain companies they might have separate job titles and they might mean certain things but that’s why I put that caveat around my definition of what a project leader is versus a project manager.

Kristen: Right.

Monica Borrell: It is very much a mindset and I do think to your point you need both so you obviously can’t be all vision and all team and human development, you have to get things done right?

Kristen: Right.

Monica Borrell: You do need both. I just believe that in the market and in the training that’s available to project managers, that the leadership piece is a missing piece and that’s why we created project elevate.

Kristen: Right, right, ti does seem like the training at least from my experience around learning and development is you know, here’s how you go and do this project. Here’s how you understand and use and develop Gantt charts right, but it’s more than that and that’s the leadership piece. One thing that you’ve also talked about is this idea of projects within a portfolio and that portfolio being really tied to the company strategy. Can you talk a little bit more about that and how you came to that understanding?

Monica Borrell: I started to look at what strategy was and I had been a Project Leader for a change management project in a very substantially, a fairly large sized company. As part of that I had to get into changing the company strategy or working with management to try to create a new strategy and the change management process that goes into you know, changing from one strategy to another. And because of my project management background, it became apparent to me that the two things are just so over related. I mean a strategy really is what are we going to do that’s unique to the market or how are we going to get to a big goal using a unique approach? And a portfolio of projects is really how you get there.

And a strategy isn’t just one thing. You can’t just say this is my strategy. Strategy is here’s the goal, underneath the goal are approaches that we’re going to use to obtain that goal. I think of it like a big tree or hierarchy where you drill down to finer and finer levels and along the way there are projects. The portfolio really encompasses the whole suite of projects that you’re doing to achieve a strategy.

Kristen: Not to simplify it too much but it’s like if I’m going to say well I’m going to clean my house this weekend but I don’t write any of those pieces down, not only am I not likely to get it done, I’m also probably going to stall out when I’m not sure what the next part is. If I said, you know, clean the house is the strategy but we’re going to start in the kitchen and then in the kitchen there’s going to be the refrigerator and then the sink and all that, is that kind of the way that you’re thinking about building these strategies out with projects?

Monica Borrell: Yeah, I mean in essence you’re talking about breaking down a goal of getting a clean house and I might ask you, well why do you want your house to be clean?

Kristen: Primarily because it’s gross you know. [crosstalk 00:08:56] those kinds of things.

Monica Borrell: Right. Do you want to be the cleanest house on the block Kristen or do you want-[crosstalk 00:09:02]

Kristen: I’m not sure.

Monica Borrell: Are you satisfied with just being 80%?[crosstalk 00:09:04]

Kristen: That’s a little bit more neurotic. I think the 80% sounds good, yeah.

Monica Borrell: Right right. Those are the kind of questions I would ask if I was a project leader or a project manager on a fairly important sized project. I ask a lot of questions and I try to tie what we’re doing to the why.

Kristen: Right, I got it. That makes a lot of sense and eventually you’d probably find out, well she’s moving and that’s why she wants it to be clean and there are other pieces there. Then you start to uncover people’s motivation and maybe resistance to change or the reason that they’re responding the way that they are. I know that from a learning and development side, oftentimes the lack of understanding of what the real motivation and the real concerns and fears are becomes a huge blocker to actually getting projects completed so perhaps it’s the same in project leadership.

Monica Borrell: Yes, absolutely. I think that covers it very nicely. It’s not just taking, when you’re a project leader you don’t just take things at face value. You don’t just say somebody comes to you and says, “We need to implement this software package.” You say, “Yes sir I’m going to go do it.” You say, “Why is this important? How does this impact other areas of the organization, et cetera, et cetera.” You learn a lot more and you can provide a lot more value to the organization at the highest levels, be seen as more strategic and perhaps get promoted.

Kristen: One thing that I find really interesting about project leadership is that it simultaneously feels really common sense and also revolutionary. It’s kind of why hasn’t somebody thought about this before. Why do you think there needs to be this push in the market and why is Project Elevate closing that gap in the market? Why hasn’t this shown up in companies yet?

Monica Borrell: I do think that it is there and leadership is certainly a market that exists and there’s plenty of leadership training that happens within companies. I think what is new here is really looking at project managers as key to the organization and viewing them as leaders and not just as I guess, Administrators or Managers to achieving a particular part of the puzzle.

Kristen: Right.

Monica Borrell: I think there’s kind of like this idea that a lot of leadership skills are very soft skills and project managers and project management tends to be very outcome driven, there’s just usually a lot to get done. There’s a lot of balls to juggle and so there’s the sense that God, we got to get going. We don’t have time to worry about some of the softer things.

Kristen: You know those softer things are where I think the meat and potatoes of actually finishing that project on time and under budget and to the right goal and the right outcome actually lives in those soft skills.

Monica Borrell: Absolutely.

Kristen: One of the things I find really interesting about your background is that you founded several companies. Is it seven?

Monica Borrell: I counted the other day, yes seven companies.

Kristen: Wow. Can you talk a little bit about how your experience as a Founder and a CEO brought you to Project Elevate and brought you to the concept of wanting to bring project leadership to other founders and other project managers?

Monica Borrell: Yeah, I’m definitely an Entrepreneur. I love having new ideas and thinking about how to create something in the world that doesn’t exist. I tend to be I guess on the creative side of things. In-between doing companies I’ve done consulting and a lot of that consulting has been project management roles or I was a product manager for example so I was kind of interweaving throughout my career being a CEO or a Founder and being a contract Project Manager within a larger organization. It gives me kind of an interesting I guess career path.

Kristen: How does your experience bring you to Project Elevate?

Monica Borrell: I think it’s really seeing both sides of things. It’s seeing the strategy piece from being a CEO and seeing how difficult it is to make choices. I have a lot of empathy for CEO’s, especially with small companies because there’s so many ways you could go. It’s very very difficult to make choices and also coming from the project management, I was side as doing that as a contract Freelancer, seeing that challenge as well and so I’ve kind of brought them together I think in a way.

Kristen: I think that idea of bringing it together is a really unique one in the world of entrepreneurship in the world of startups, especially tech startups because oftentimes what I’m seeing is people who have their product idea and don’t necessarily know how to build that ecosystem around the product or around that idea to launch it successfully. Or they do launch it successfully but then they find themselves in need of actually having folks to lead those projects that are part of the portfolio that you’re talking about.

The fact that you can bring both sides of that coin and the empathy of you even being a CEO I think is really interesting and really crucial. Considering that, what do you think the biggest mistake Founders and CEO’s make around projects of any kind?

Monica Borrell: The biggest mistake is trying to do too much and not making choices. Then at the getting things done level, the biggest mistake is multitasking your people. It’s really not productive to have people switching between one thing and another and so the more you can focus individual people on doing one thing, starting one thing, getting it done and that thing adding value, you can move on to the next thing. And working in a body of work called theory of constraints really was what showed me that but it’s become more and more popular and you can find all kind of articles, blog posts about how multi-tasking is so bad that it often comes from above.

It comes from not have clear strategy, clear priorities and the willingness to start something, get it done, get the results and of course you can iterate, you know you learn from every project that you do, especially with a startup. It’s not that you have to know everything in advance but if you can get into the habit of create something of value, see what value it added, test your assumptions, then go on to the next thing. And get that cycle time very very quick, you can start to ramp up your productivity.

Kristen: My experience being a Founder, I have definitely suffered from not making the choices when I needed to or suffered from having too much on my plate and that’s always a hard lesson to learn. I think the creative entrepreneur in each of us wants to do a lot of different things and that can really cost us from the kind of more strategic perspective. With that, how do people actually access Project Elevate and this concept around project leadership? How did they work with you?

Monica Borrell: I have a website, it’s projectelevate.co and they can find us there. There’s information about our course which is a seven week online course that includes some group coaching and some one on one coaching as well.

Kristen: Are the classes completely online or are any of them running here in Portland?

Monica Borrell: Right now they’re completely online. We are looking at doing some live courses and that is an option so emailing me, Monica@Projectelevate.co is a way that you can get a hold of me and we can put something together if there’s need for it.

Kristen: That’s good to know. Again for our listeners that’s Monica@Projectelevate.co and ProjectElevate.co to see the courses on the website. Monica I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk with us about project leadership. I’ve learned a lot, I need to go Google theory of constraints and maybe we’ll have a helpful new episode about that, sounds fascinating.

Monica Borrell: Sounds good.

Kristen: That’s all for today, thanks so much for listening to me, your host Kristen Gallagher and to Upright and Better, the podcast that shows you how to take your company up into the right and up and better. Got questions, email us at hello@uprightandbetter.com or Tweet us at uprightbetter and you can read the transcript of this episode. See extended resources and learn more about guest at uprightandbetter.com


Episode 1: Focus… On the Learner

I’m thrilled to welcome Jillian Douglas and Shannon McKenzie today to our podcast, and the fact that they are our first interview just makes my heart so happy. Jillian Douglas and Shannon McKenzie are the co-founders of the Idea Learning Group here, in Portland, Oregon. Idea Learning Group is on a mission to transform workplace learning by providing clients with creative, engaging, and custom learning experiences. I can personally attest to how amazing this pair is, and I’ve been lucky enough for the past few years to have Jillian as a mentor. She’s been absolutely integral in shaping Edify with me, and I can’t imagine growing the company without her mentorship.

Jillian and Shannon share a passion for improving how people learn. After working together for years, beginning in 2002, in the retail and healthcare industries Jillian and Shannon realized they have the same work ethic and would make ideal business partners. Shannon’s technical in business operation’s knowledge compliment Jillian’s creativity and training background perfectly. They’ve developed a brand reflective of their strongly held belief that corporate learning experiences can and should be personal, experiential, and enjoyable.

Idea Learning Group has also been named to the Portland Business Journal’s top 100 fastest growing private companies multiple times. In addition, Jillian and Shannon released their first book in October 2016, titled, “Let Them Choose”. The book shows you how to get adult learners out of their seats and into station base activities catered to distinct learning preferences, interaction types, and technology options; part experiential, part social, and part emotional, the cafeteria learning style model encourages learners to explore and absorb content at their own speed and direction, and puts learners in the best position to succeed.

Tracy Adams, P.h.D, and change and learning specialist at Nike said of the book, “Finally a book that speaks the truth about the perils of corporate training. Bravo, to Jillian and Shannon for addressing the action-oriented, give it to me quickly, learning needs of today’s adults.” Cafeteria learning will be the next evolution of design criteria to usher instructional designers, trainers, and change strategists into the future. You’ll get to hear more about cafeteria learning, choice, and corporate perils in just a minute.

Shannon McKenzie: Good morning.

Kristen: I have Jillian Douglas and Shannon McKenzie, and want to know a little bit about them. They’re both the founders of Idea Learning Group.

Jillian Douglas: Shannon and I have worked together for, gosh, maybe about 15 years in a variety of different places before we started Idea Learning Group nearly eight years ago.

Kristen: What is your role in the business, Jillian?

Jillian Douglas: Right now, my role is primarily around business development, but I also am the creative lead, so making sure that every project that we execute fulfills the vision that we started the company with.

Shannon McKenzie: My role is, Chief Operations Officer, and so really it’s leading the team to make sure that our systems are followed, that we’re in place, that everything’s running smoothly.

Jillian Douglas: Making sure that we’re making money.

Shannon McKenzie: Making sure that we’re making money.

Kristen: That’s an important part of the business. Yeah.

Shannon McKenzie: Yep.

Kristen: Okay. Wonderful. Well, thank you for that. Let’s just dive right in then. I know that both of you have a very long history of learning design, instructional design, which at some point led you to starting the Idea Learning Group. How did you decide to start the company?

Jillian Douglas: Well, it was pretty simply. We both go laid off, and the market had just tanked, and there weren’t really any other opportunities, and so it was be out of work or create your own job. So, that’s what we did.

Kristen: Yeah. Very much a make it work situation.

Shannon McKenzie: Mm-hmm. And as we work together, we always … And we were both employed at the same company. We kind of skeemed about, “How could we make this better? How can we make learning design better?” And, we had some constraints within our current organization, so when we did get laid off at the same time we were kind of excited to get started in the work we’ve been wanting to do.

Jillian Douglas: Yeah. Do you think it’s the way that we felt like they should be done without the limitations of corporate structure.

Shannon McKenzie: Mm-hmm.

Kristen: Can you talk about that a little bit, the limitations of corporate structure? What does that mean?

Jillian Douglas: Well, of course you are always constrained by budgets; you’re constrained by the political climate that you’re working within; you’re constrained by … Just, you know, people like to do things that way they’ve always done them. And, one of the things that we hoped and have confirmed is true is that, as an outside consultant we were always given greater flexibility, greater creativity, and the ideas and concepts that you bring forward are somehow magically more well received than when you are an internal employee. As external consultants, because we’re being paid in a different way, because we set outside the organization our clients view us as experts, and give us the freedom that we ask for to do things in a creative and what we think is better way.

Kristen: Mm-hmm. And, that concept of doing something in a better way reminds me of the book that you’ve recently released? Can you talk briefly about that book, and what the book is designed to do for the learning world?

Shannon McKenzie: Our book is called, “Let Them Choose”, and it’s around our method that we created called, “Cafeteria Learning”, and really what it does is brings to life the vision of what we want learning to be, which is engaging, creative, really built around custom content, but the core of it is choice, and it’s giving learners the choice to learn in a way that they feel most comfortable.

Jillian Douglas: In addition to choice, the other big component of it is experiential, and hands-on, and discovery-based. We’ve had a lot of people ask if that can be … Cafeteria Learning can be delivered in a virtual environment. And theoretically, you can bring the choice component into a virtual learning experience, but we based Cafeteria Learning on the understanding that we have of the science of learning, and the research around how people learn best, and we know that hands-on, experiential, face-to-face, emotional interactions; all those things are really critical for learning to take place neurologically. And, paring that with choice for the learner, those two components together is what makes Cafeteria Learning work.

Kristen: Right. And, in this whole conversation and throughout the writing that you do online and elsewhere, I never see you talk about training. We haven’t even said the word training until just now. Talk to me about why you think about this as learning rather than training? I think training is the very traditional way to look at what we do.

Jillian Douglas: Yeah. We say we don’t use the “T” word. I remember a long time ago somebody saying, “You train dogs.” And at the time, I was really offended. And then, I processed that because I had such an emotional reaction to it I of course remembered it, which is one of the keys that we know that makes learning happen. I spent a lot of time processing that and realized that, he was right.

Training is, to me, it means a subject matter expert is standing at the front of the room, delivering content, and you are passively receiving it as a learning. And, that’s training. And when we think of learning experiences, it’s about the learner taking accountability and participating in the learning experience, and filtering the new content through their own experiences, and making meaning of it, and that’s what learning experience is. And, that happens over time and not just in a hour and a half afternoon session, where you’re sitting down and watching a PowerPoint.

Kristen: Right. Right. Exactly. I was actually just teaching a class about learning yesterday, and I used that phrase, “You train a dog and therefore I don’t like to talk about training.” I think I might have actually picked it up from you, maybe, a couple of years ago. But, the class of ’15, ’16 people looked up and said, “What do you mean? Of course you train a dog, but would we go to training?” It was a very interesting conversation for us to talk about. Of course, I don’t think of people or employees as animals, and we don’t want to train you like animals, right? So, we want to engage you in that conversation. But, how did you even come to this realization, right? You had this early career of learning development and learning design; started to realize there were a lot of corporate walls that you’ve probably coming up against, and obviously Cafeteria Learning came out of that. Can you talk to me about some of the experiences and examples where you said, “This just has to be different. We have to think about this differently.”?

Shannon McKenzie: I think the core, at the most basic, is that when there’s a presenter in front of a room it goes to that training. That’s how traditional training is built is that, there’s somebody at the front of the room; there’s a slew of people in the audience, and they listen, and they try to stay focused, and it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for us individually, and I think it doesn’t work for a lot of people. And, the research that we uncovered supports that.

Jillian Douglas: Doctor John Medina wrote a book called, “Brain Rules”, and he’s got a fabulous website, “Brainrules.net”. And, one of my favorite quotes from him is that, “If lecture was a business, it would have an 80% failure rate.” And that’s what traditional training really is, is just a lecture. If you’ve had an 80% failure rate in any other part of your company, of course you wouldn’t continue doing that. We just haven’t evolved as companies to realize that there can and should be another way. For us, I think the “Aha” moment was, we were designing a workshop for ATD Cascadia on the science of learning. And as we built it out and took a step back and looked at it, we realized that we were breaking most of the rules of the science of learning. Most of things we knew to be true about how people learn, we were breaking in this quote, unquote, “training.” And so, we had to stop and catch ourselves, and it was in that moment that Cafeteria Learning came to be.

Kristen: That’s an interesting concept you just touched on that companies haven’t evolved or learned to think about that learning function or the training function as a business that ought to not fail 80% of the time, right? We would never keep that on our books. Why do you think that is, and how do you help your clients see that differently because obviously they like working with you?

Jillian Douglas: Well, we start by asking our clients, “What is the behavior change that they’re hoping to see as a result?” And, we really push them to be able to articulate that. It doesn’t make sense for them to invest, really, quite a bit of time and money into something that they can’t see evidence of … So, if we really push them to articulate what that is, that’s sometimes quite difficult for people because they’re not accustomed to thinking about learning in that way of … And, you know, I think the “why”, is just that it’s never occurred to them otherwise. They’ve never seen examples of people considering training as something more than training.

Kristen: Yeah.

Shannon McKenzie: Well, and I think it goes back to the art. Education system is based on presentation. That’s what they trust; that’s what they know, and change is uncomfortable, and change is different, and if we want to teach something we just need to tell people what it is, that’s it. Once we tell them, they should do it. It’s kind of compliance based, and it really does have that 80% failure rate. So, if you’re gonna invest in something make sure that it works. Otherwise, what’s the point? That’s kind of, with Jillian and I personally, as well just as we run the business and anything that we do we want to make sure that we’re doing it for a reason, and I think that that is learning.

Kristen: Right.

Shannon McKenzie: We gotta do it for a reason.

Kristen: It reminds me of my experience with Cafeteria Learning the very first time when you were piloting out the Diversity Works program. I went away from that experience so thrilled, there were just … I can’t even remember how many stations, maybe, eight, nine, ten stations; different activities, and not one of them was a lecture based station. And then, trying to go and take that to people I knew, and tell them, “Wow, I’ve just experienced this really amazing learning opportunity, and I want you to see it, and I want you to understand it.”

I think, for people who haven’t seen something outside the box, if you will, that it’s almost like this is pretty far outside the box. This is pretty far away from, you’re sitting in a classroom, facing the front, listening to somebody. It can be kinda hard to wrap your mind around. How do you explain Cafeteria Learning? You talked earlier about the choice, and the opportunities to discover and to experience, but how would you explain the concept of Cafeteria Learning to someone who might be, let’s say, not a believer.

Jillian Douglas: Well, we’ve put together a video on our website, “Cafeterialearning.com”, and that I think does a pretty good job of explaining it. I think that there are some frequently asked questions or, maybe a better way to say it is, frequently … Frequent concerns that people have, and one of them in particular is, if everybody isn’t doing the same thing how do we know that they’re all learning the same thing? My quick, flip it answer is, “Well, what makes you think they’re all learning the same things anyway?”

Kristen: Right.

Jillian Douglas: But, to be a little more respectful, I think it’s to say, we’ve actually tested that, and we’ve put groups of instructional designers through several Cafeteria Learning programs without telling them what the learning objectives were at the start, and then asked them at the end to write learning objectives for the experience they just had. And, consistently, we find that they are coming up with remarkably similar learning objective. They’re telling us that they’re learning the same thing, and the quotes from the participants that we get throughout a variety of our workshops are things like, “This was amazing. Why didn’t we do this ten years ago?” And, “I was really nervous coming into this because I heard it was going to be different, but it was so cool to learn from my peers, and to have conversations that we wouldn’t ordinarily have had.” So, people are really getting it, and it’s resonating.

Kristen: Yeah.

Shannon McKenzie: And the other piece of it is, a really strong instructional design based on those learning objectives. So, there’s the framework; it’s not just showing up and jumping into activities because, for me personally as a learner, that makes me uncomfortable. I need to have a little bit of structure and know what’s the foundation that we’re going off of. There’s a real framework that we built into Cafeteria Learning, so it isn’t just jumping in and doing this, but you know it’s organized into tracks, on each activity in that track rules out to me a certain learning objectives.

Kristen: Okay. You guess what’s coming next.

Shannon McKenzie: Mm-hmm. That’s kind of a big part of it is the design. There’s a little bit more design work up front, but you get-

Jillian Douglas: You get that time back in the facilitation because it’s so easy to facilitate. Mm-hmm.

Kristen: And, it sounds like there might even be a business case there in terms of, maybe there’s more learning design that has to take place up front, but because it was more successful than a traditional learning experience, traditional training, you’re not spending money over and over again as a company to continue to invest in something that’s not working.

Jillian Douglas: Do it once, and do it right.

Kristen: Right.

Jillian Douglas: It’s by quality instead of-

Shannon McKenzie: Quantity.

Kristen: The other thing that I really liked that you just talked about, that I have never thought about before is the idea of testing your learning objectives after the fact. And, that actually is more of metric to me on your own instructional design skills. It’s also a metric on how well the class, actually, or the learning experience went, but that’s a really fascinating way to check yourself that you actually are designing for this learner so that they understand what is going on; that they’re getting something out of it.

The last thing I want to ask you about is, how do you connect this choice that we’re talking about, could really designing for learners needs? How do you connect that with the businesses needs? Again, we talked earlier about the 80% failure rate. If were to convert that into dollars, how are you connecting the learner needs to dollars?

Jillian Douglas: I don’t know that we’re making a direct connection to dollars when we’re talking with clients, but it’s really … And, our philosophy, it certainly doesn’t work and resonate with every potential client. We certainly have had to say goodbye to some clients that weren’t able to be philosophically aligned with us, and we’ve had to turn down some clients, but by and large most organizations who I think have a belief that, if you take of your people they will take care of the business, or if you take care of your staff they’ll take care of the customers. If they have that philosophy, then learner centered learning experiences make sense to them because it’s the same thing. Let’s take care of the learner, make sure that they have the best learning experience possible, and they will then be able to carry that forward into the business.

Kristen: Right.

Jillian Douglas: So, I think it’s for us making sure that we’re finding clients that are aligned with our philosophies.

Kristen: Right, that makes a lot of sense. Well, Shannon and Jillian, thank you so much. If there was a place that our listeners could go to learn more about the work that you do, learn more about Cafeteria Learning, where should they go?

Jillian Douglas: Idealearninggroup.com is our primary website. We also have an additional website, Cafeterialearning.com, for that particular methodology. And then, we’re also on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Kristen: Wonderful. Thank you so much.

Shannon McKenzie: Thank you.

Kristen: That’s all for today. Thanks so much for listening to me, your host, Kristen Gallagher, and Upright and Better. The podcast that shows you how to take your company up and to the right, and up and better. Got questions? E-mail us at, “Hello@uprightandbetter.com” or tweet us @Uprightbetter. And, you can read the transcript of this episode, see extended brief sources, and learn more about our guests at Uprightandbetter.com.

Welcome to UpRight&Better!

Hello, and welcome to Up, Right, and Better, where CEO’s, experts, and thought leaders challenge conventional business wisdom  to help you scale your company up and to the right AND up and better. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

UpRight&Better is a new podcast, produced and edited by me. UpRight&Better isn’t a product of my company, Edify, but it is informed by the work Edify has been involved in. If you’re familiar with the tech scene or venture-backed business world, you’ve probably heard that successful businesses are going “up and to the right” – or maybe you’ve heard of the ubiquitous “hockey stick” plan. Well, we think there’s more to life than profit and growth for growth’s sake – and that’s what we’ll be talking about in UpRight&Better.

We’ll be talking about culture, development, management, people, benefits, and knowledge. This podcast sits at the intersection of Organizational Development, Company Culture, Knowledge Management, and Learning & Development. It’s your bi-weekly opportunity to to hear about major wins, big screw-ups, and hard-won lessons learned from people who are trying to grow their businesses up and to the right and up and better.

So who should listen to UpRight&Better? We think CEO’s, Business Owners, Venture Capitalists, L&D folks, Change Management Professionals, and human resources professionals might wanna drop in.

We’re gambling here, but we think people will listen because:

  • Engaging bursts of conversation around a multi-faceted topic are interesting (and useful!)
  • Jargon is the worst, and we won’t use it
  • There will be actionable chunks of things you can try right now at work
  • We’ll make sure that each episode is relatable and accessible
  • It’s useful to hear content that combines fields that need to be talked about together
  • If you want to help your business succeed AND do the right thing (both for your employees and the bigger picture), then you’re in the right spot (just put in your headphones)

There is nowhere that people can learn about both the people side of business and the mechanics of actually operating a business that is both profitable and good. Right now, there are Human Resources and business management podcasts out there, but we think they’re not only boring and preachy, but worse, they’re compliance-focused or overly academic.

Business owners, CEO’s, HR Leaders, and idea builders need a resource that’s actionable and doesn’t take itself too seriously, so that’s where UpRight&Better comes in. You can expect to hear us be Lighthearted (and not too serious), Sarcastic, Skeptical, and honest. You can expect about two episodes per month, plus mini-episodes that dive into a particular topic in depth. In general, each episode will be about 20-35 minutes.

We hope you’ll join us – UpRight&Better could become the best place to learn about building sustainable, intentional businesses with your help! We look forward to having you along for the ride. See you next time!