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People Process Interviews: Jacqueline Throop-Robinson

Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to the People Processes podcast, where we dive deep into the tools, laws and processes that you need to know in order to scale and grow your organization. We help organizations all across the USA, streamline, awfulize, implement, and revolutionize their HR operations. We’ve helped hundreds of companies, thousands of HR leaders across the world get their people processes right. 

Today we’re going to be interviewing Jacqueline Throop Robinson. Did I get that name right? Jacqueline? The Thoop Robinson?

That is correct.

Awesome. And she is the founder and CEO of Spark Engagement. A Spark Engagement is a Global Analytics Company in human resources. They focus on employee engagement and passion. So we’re going to be talking all about that today and we can’t wait. Before we do, I want to give you a quick reminder to subscribe to us on your favorite podcatcher of your choice, whether that’s iTunes or Google play. Check us out on our social media. We’ll have links to Jacqueline’s social media on the website peopleprocesses.com and we can’t wait to see you there. 

So Jacqueline, here we are. Got the interview together.

Yes. Wonderful. Thank you.

I’m excited to have you here today. Now, I always ask this question because we’re in kind of an interesting field because HR world of ours, not many little girls and boys dress up as HR people as children. So I have to know, how did you wind up where you are, how’d you get to running a company that’s focusing on this analytics and engagement for your clients?

Well, you’re exactly right. It is not what I thought I would be doing when I started to get my master’s in English literature. But however, interestingly, I ended up working for a very, very large corporation in my mid twenties and I had absolutely no HR background and yet I found, I just gravitated toward it. So I think because I was given a fairly senior position at a very young age. I didn’t have any baggage. So I really had to rely on the people who were reporting to me to do their jobs, to do it well. I could not give them advice from a technical point of view. I’m only in one small facet of what we were doing and they had the expertise elsewhere. So it really led me to nurturing the relationships and ensuring that I removed obstacles for them and to really enable them to do their job to the best of their ability. And seeing the magic of that is what started to lead me to look more into formal HR processes and education. And so I really went from being a senior manager in a field operations into a head office position in human resources. So it really just naturally evolved.

That’s really cool. You know, a lot wind up in HR one way or the other. And it’s so fun to kind of see the through lines. And I’ve heard that many times that the reason we’re here is because we were put in a position where you were forced to realize that your people are the most important thing. It’s not about how much you personally know skilled wise, but to really grow an organization, it’s about the quality, the talent the abilities, and passion of the people you bring on.

Yeah. So it does and it’s just so interesting because really I was recruited because the manager felt I would learn quickly and I would have a different perspective, but I really didn’t have the formal training. And it’s so funny when I think about it, I just kept listening to my parents’ voices and saying, “Trust people, just trust the people you’re with.” And I let that guide my decision making and it’s really quite amazing to see how that mantra has just kind of evolved into this whole employee engagement business and really looking at passion at work and just how much those two ideas connect.

Really a world-class career. I mean, you have clients, not just in North America, but I mean in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, all over the world.

Yes.

Do you get to travel to meet with them? Are you out there or are you more a remote person?

Well, no, I travel.

Now that you’re here, kind of you’re at maybe not the top of your game yet, but a really high point. And a lot of our listeners, especially those younger HR people out there who are trying to grow a career, they’re looking at you and going, “Man, I wanna I want to do that. That sounds outstanding.” But rather than focus on how cool things are now, I think they can learn the most from hearing about our hardest times. So I really want you to tell us a story to take us back to in the journey of your entrepreneurial career. You run your own company or being an HR person in a larger organization, what do you think your hardest point was, your biggest failure? What did you learn from it?

Two things come to mind actually. One when I was a corporate employee and one as an entrepreneur. It’s quite interesting that both of those sort of emerged simultaneously when you asked that question. I think, probably speaking of the corporate career might be most relevant when you’re thinking of younger listeners, people who are starting their careers. I rose very quickly through the corporation in which I’d been hired in my early twenties mid twenties and I had many, many ideas of what I wanted to do. I had a lot of aspirations and I loved my team. I really was sort of a natural born leader with people who reported to me and we were just kicking it like we were having this amazing time and getting a ton of support until we didn’t. And it was really quite stunning for all of us. It was just like, we’re hitting all our targets, we’re making all these changes. It’s just like an amazing time. And the support just seemed to all of a sudden go away. And I had to really sit back and look at that and think what has happened?

Our feedback was amazing. And you know what? It took me a minute to think about what really happened there. And when I had the insight, it hit me like really like a ton of bricks. That was that we were so focused on what we were all about. That we were not paying attention to our environment, to peer groups, to people in other departments. And really probably does a little bit too arrogant and just not nurturing the relationships needed across the organization to really sustain our success. And it was a hard road back up. I mean we did it, we did it! But I’ll tell you, it’s so easy to become very focused on what you want, what your team’s doing, even what your clients want, which sounds so great. But if you’re not paying attention to your entire landscape, you can set yourself up. Your success can actually hurt you if you aren’t nurturing those broad relationships and networks.

Okay. Well I think that’s an interesting idea. Now, I think a cynical listener would say, “So what you’re saying is we need to play politics too while we’re doing an amazing job?” Is that part of it or is it that you also need to just have a broader focus or how would you respond to something?

That’s a really good question because I actually don’t mean politics at all, but, I can completely see that question. And sometimes I think also, I guess it depends on what we mean by playing politics. But I think what I was really talking about and the lesson we really learned is how to be inclusive. How to bring people along on our journey, how to stay open to others’ ideas and other ways of doing things. How to see, how we can connect and collaborate with others instead of sort of staying in our silo and just being very focused on our own internal needs. I think it’s very easy to slip into that, especially when you’re passionate. I think in some ways it’s the downside of passion. You have to actually make sure that others are with you on the journey in an authentic way, but that they understand what you’re up to and they want to support you and you want to look for ways of supporting them. So that was really more what I was talking about.

Yes. And whether you’re talking about inside an organization, a larger organization with multiple silos and departments that you need to reach out to and make sure you’re all in line or even from an entrepreneurial perspective. I see this a lot in clients sometimes. There’s a focus thing, a passion thing as you mentioned for entrepreneurs where you’re building your company and it’s like, do your thing. We talk about shiny object syndrome moving from thing, whatever attracts you that day and how it can totally destroy your business. But there’s a flip side to that. Some of the greatest growth connections opportunities I’ve ever gotten have been because our business was working hard on it’s thing. And at the same time, we managed to help out a client or even a person who was not a good client or not a client at all with something outside of our mission. And it was like, “You know what? We have a little extra time. Let’s help them do this thing.” And those have turned into amazing long-term relationships and opportunities. So keeping an eye out for that, just outside your direct focus. Ability to help others really can pay off. And I think that applies whether you’re internal or external.

I think what you’re saying is 100% true. And it’s actually why I have clients around the world in so many interesting ways. You can help people and it doesn’t have to be like the new shiny object. It can be, of course you can let that really distract you. But I think there are often very many simple opportunities to really support someone else’s aspirations. And in that gift, the reciprocity that comes from that, it’s not your reason for doing it, but I think it’s just amazing how that kind of support you give others comes back. And I think more than what you give really, I have found, that has always been true. And just trying to be a good advisor to clients, small clients, big clients, challenging clients, easy clients, you know, it’s interesting. It’s one of the principles in which we operate. Like how can we always support and help the people we touch? Right? And sometimes that’s a vendor, sometimes it’s a client. I have an interesting situation right now where one of my clients through the HR procurement process has three competitors working together. And it’s been fascinating to go into that process and to just ensure we all keep an openness and an inclusivity has been a challenge sometimes. But it has really ended up creating a situation where it’s the best thing for the client and we are expanding our own horizons as a result. So, yeah.

Because you see, I have a client, it’s a weird situation actually. But my little sister is a marketing person. She’s 24, I think. I hope I got that right. She is now a marketing client administrator services rep. She’s the account manager. That’s the words for a SEO company in town. The company that she’s working for. And so they’ve given them a budget and six months or three months or something and like, “Hey, go forth.” But they’re trying. They’re trialing like four other companies at the same time. It’s a big client and they’re like, “We’re going to hire for marketing companies, give them each a budget and you’ll just go run wild and we’ll pick the one we like the most.” That’s a rough situation because it’s just like HR marketing is one of those it kind of needs to have a throughput, right? It needs to be coordinated and you can’t just go out at it alone and we were talking about that. Some of the weirdest stuff is that, If she’s finding a ton of value in working with her competitors. It’s like this is really interesting stuff. You get to see a lot more than you normally do.

It’s really interesting from a point of view of finding out what your unique offering is for that particular client cause it actually might be that the best solution for that client is all four companies stay involved as collaborators but bring different unique strengths to the table and that takes quite

Spoken like a true HR person right there. We can all be friends. I agree.

You know, what’s so interesting like this competitive mindset is really challenging both internally and externally. And yet we all have it because most of us were nurtured in that kind of an environment. And to really do your best work. And I guess, because I’m all about passion, right? And I find that people end up taking on work that is not meaningful to them. And so they never can get to that point of passion. Right? But if you really find your sweet spot and really do the work that’s most meaningful to you. Your level of fulfillment will be exponential. Sometimes it means saying no to work maybe that you’ve always done or saying no to a part of a contract that is really lucrative. So that can be challenging in another way. Right?

Well, and on that, I mean, I believe the number is something like 60%. 60% of the workforce is completely unengaged. Right? They aren’t much less passionate. They’re barely alive when they’re at their desk. Why do you think that is? And is there something that we could do about it from your world? What do you think it is that we can really move the needle on that with?

Well, that number is a little bit leading. It is one source of information on engagement, which kind of puts engagement into an all or nothing bucket. But what we have is a much more nuanced model. Where we have eight different states of engagement that we’ve been able to identify. But to your point, however, if we look at some of the states that are a little bit more challenging like where meeting’s not very high and there’s not a high sense of progress. You get a solid 25% of people within organizations that are really struggling. No.

Not really sound more right because those headliners, those like 60%. And you look in your organization. We both run companies, but we work inside other people’s organizations and numbers high. But still 25%, one in four are just not really going anywhere or not really feeling like they’re doing much. That sounds very…

Yeah. And it varies a little bit like when we find it in Singapore. It’s a solid 25, sometimes in North America, but again, North America is huge depending on what part of North America, it can be a little lower. But yeah, I think 25 is sort of a reliable number. And the other piece that’s really interesting when you look at our research, which we’ve been doing for like 20 years, so this is really robust research. There’s a state of engagement that we actually call neutral, where people are negative, but they’re not bringing positive energy into the organization either. And that’s somewhere around 35%. So those numbers often get brought together to give you like the big number. But actually neutral’s not bad.

The headlines, as you say, make it all sounds so grim, but what it is a real opportunity to take people who are looking for something a little more, looking for a little more challenge, looking for a little more meaning, and looking to feel like they’re making a difference in what they do. And you can pretty easily, if you have the right strategies, move those people into a more positive state of engagement and people want to be engaged. You know, if they’re not, it’s simply because they don’t know how to be. They haven’t figured that out. And sometimes managers in the organizations don’t know how to help. So there’s a lot of hope. We’ve worked with organizations who started off at that solid 25 with 30% in neutral or more like half the organization. And we’ve gotten them to the point where it flipped so that they were down to like 5% of truly disengaged with about 15 to 20% in neutral and everyone else in these positive states that we call energized, engaged, passionate. So there’s a lot you can do and that’s been the part that’s been so fantastic about the research that we’ve done, is that it comes down to a pretty simple formula and I think that’s the beauty of it.

Yeah. Well, let’s say, I mean, I know this is obviously a large body of work. But, for our listeners, what can you give us? Maybe that’s the formula or the shortcut that, I mean, I know there’s no one sentence. Well, if you just put smiley faces on everyone’s desk, they’ll feel great. But what would you say is maybe a nugget of wisdom that you’d be willing to share with us. That maybe are smaller businesses out there could go and implement quickly on their own or our larger businesses that could get their brain turning around an idea or a concept?

Well, the key thing to remember is to get to the point of passion at work, you need two things. You need to see your work as highly meaningful and you have to have a sense of high progress that you’re getting somewhere against those things that are meaningful to you. So the formula is, “meaning” times “progress” and you need both. Meaning alone is not enough. You also need a sense of forward movement, impact, making a difference, however you define progress. So that is the lens in which everyone needs to think about their work right before we get into the…

“Meaning”?

Yeah.

It’s progress.

Yeah. Exactly.

And then there are tactics to try and move some of those. Provide meaningful work or give them a sense of progress, some of which are probably large structural changes. Some are hopefully a bit easier to implement. But okay. So the idea is evaluated. Do you have to evaluate the person or do you evaluate each job position or how do you look at this inside an organization? Is this meaningful?

Yeah, that’s a really good question. So the reality is that it has to start within the individual. That’s just how it works. Because passions and emotion. So what we find is that the individual needs to do some reflection. We can give tips and we can talk about that as well around, “How do I identify what’s most meaningful to me?” “How do I know what kind of progress I’m looking for?” And once they’ve had that insight, then they know how to self manage their passion.

Now, managers, organizations, we can support individuals. We can create these shared experiences that say what’s meaningful and celebrate the progress we’re making. But at the end of the day, each person needs to know what that is for themselves. Because at the end of the day, no one can make you passionate. It has to come from within. So it’s very subjective. You can work on the same team. We can work with a group of people who are doing exactly the same job. Just to come back to your question, right. And they can have very different levels of engagement even though they’re doing the same job. Because what drives meaning for me could be very different than what drives meaning for you. And what I can celebrate as progress may not feel like that to you. So it is down to the individual,at least, as ultimately as where it should sit.

Well, what would you say? So, and I’m sure you have an in depth strategy to do this inside a company, but for those out there and I always think I’m a contrarian at heart. I try not to be, but I am. So let’s say we have a business that’s, I don’t know, I don’t want to pick a business then and single them out as something bad. But let’s say you’re a tire change shop. You change tires, you change oil. There you go. You’ve got five locations, 50 employees and it’s work. It comes in every day. You ask people, “all right guys, there’s progress for growing the company, but do you find your work meaningful?” And they go, “No, I’ve always wanted to play with animals. I wanted to be a veterinarian, but instead I changed oil. I find no meaning in this.” Is that something that occurs or how do you structure this so that you don’t wind up with people going, “I always wanted to involve her outside. I love painting. Oh my gosh!”

So that is so interesting. So that can occur. That sometimes happens. But what we find more often than not is that, people have made decisions in terms of the career they’re in for reasons that are authentic to them. And there was something that attracted them to that. So let’s just use that example. I actually come from a family of mechanics. It’s sort of funny that you ask that scenario, right? So my father loved to tinker with cars. I mean, he did that as a kid. He did that in his teenage years. He would buy these old jalopies and fix them up and then sell them for five times the price. Right? And so that was really a place for him where he was very passionate. He was mechanically inclined, he loved taking something that was broken and he loved the end result of making it work well again. And that for him was authentic.

Now my uncle ended up going to this big machine shop and ended up being streamlined and all he did was change oil every day. Well that became a huge blocker to his passion because he wasn’t able to tinker and to really apply his broad knowledge. He was just like an assembly line doing oil changes all the time.

And of course from a business owner perspective, we’re encouraged a lot of times in the traditional literature down to the assembly line, the Ford method, right? It’s like specializing and being able to put someone in such a simple job that they can’t screw it up. So that you can scale and grow, have standard operating procedures, and never let people go outside the line. I mean, of course not everyone says that, but that’s very much kind of business 101. So do you think that structure can lead to a block or a lot of times leads to a business structure that…

Yes. Absolutely. And in fact, what we know is that everyone has a different view of what is quote-unquote routine work, right? Everyone has a different definition of that and everyone has a different level of tolerance for that. So this is the subjectivity piece. So for one person it might be they’re quite happy to change oil 50% of the day, but they need for the rest of the time more variety or they need to challenge themselves in a different way. So everyone has their own different view of that. But what we have found is first of all, those jobs are coming out of the industrial revolution and it’s really not how people truly want to work anymore. 

And so that’s been a real challenge in some sectors of course to try to rethink that. But, I grew up in a company that also had a lot of assembly line type of structures and I say grew up because it was such an amazing thing to watch as a very, very young manager. Like how does this get, how does this actually work. And what we learned is, although it was an assembly line and people had to do certain things in a very by rote way. How we engage them as human beings became what was critical. So, for example, we got them involved in quality assurance. We got them involved in thinking through how to make the assembly line better. We had team huddles, we pulled people off the assembly lines and had them work on special projects. So although we were restricted, that was a constraint we had with the plant was to keep people working on those assembly lines. We could then activate these other drivers engagement outside of that space. And it worked really well. Really, really well.

That makes me think. You know, we have a lot of ethnicities that come from our industry. One of our main referral sources as CPAs. And I don’t know exactly when this episode will air probably. Well, before April 15th, tax time, but they are often a high level CPA. May be involved in engagement in terms of overall client, advice and tax planning. And I don’t know, profit planning, CFO work. There’s a lot of pieces in the CPA world. But many people, especially this time of year, they’re on that assembly line where your documents, I’m making the tax return, and they go spend four to eight hours per return and they’re doing 500 of them between now and April 15th. That’s a hard thing to find. You can find skill in it. But gosh, it would seem like that would preclude…

Well, so this is so fantastic. I’m so happy you raised that question because I was just telling a story last week. One of our very, very, very first clients, so this is going back a long time. We were holding a public workshop and so she attended and it was just after tax season. And so what the situation is you’re describing is exactly what she had just lived through. And if you think back to our formula of meaning and progress, what she told me has always stuck with me and she was drawn to the profession because she really does love to work with numbers. She gets very a sense of satisfaction when she’s able to balance her books. And there’s a lot in that for her is personally meaningful. But tax season is not something that a lot of people look forward to. So the store staples has this little button that if you hit it says, “That was easy.”

And so she purchased one because she wanted to get a better sense of progress cause it just felt like a slog. These 500 files that had to be sent in according to certain deadlines and the slog was dragging her down. So she put this easy button by her computer and every time she sent a file off, she hit the button, “That was easy”, and it celebrated every piece of work she successfully completed even though she had to immediately then go to the next one. That moment of celebration and uplifted furnace just kept her going and helped her enjoy her job significantly during a traditionally very stressful time. So it was her way of managing celebration and progress as she was slugging through tax season, which is a perfect example of how you maintain passion and tough times.

That makes a lot of sense. My wife and I are very different people, but we started this company together a little over 10 years ago now and it works very well. Well, I came from a background of sales. I like to go out and meet people and talk with people and I like complex problems. And if you asked me to do the same thing the same way, more than like three times, I’m ready to just, “eh, let’s sell the business and move on.” I can’t handle it. I just like things different every time. I haven’t re-watched a movie since I was like 13. I already know the ending. 

However, she loves the feeling of crossing a thing off the list. So we learned early on, that one of the ways to make this goes to that progress idea. You’ve put such good words to this. She always scopes her work, very well. She always goes, “Look, here’s what I have. Here’s the things I need to accomplish.” And at first I thought it was a matter of keeping organized, it is to a degree, but bigger than that, I think it’s the feeling that she gets by laying the project out or the 20 projects out and then being able to mark those milestones along the way. It’s like a video game. She’s like, “Yes, just one more. I’m going to get one more done. I’ve got to close that one out.” And you’re exactly right. That’s a passion. That can be applied to any sort of work. The ability to make progress. Very interesting. A very good way of thinking about it.

Yeah, it’s really important because I think in not just the literature there, just for those of us who have been in the workforce for a number of years or even decades, “meaning” has gotten a lot of attention. Where do you find the meaning in your work? And I think rightly so, by the way. However, the piece that we were able to uncover through our research was the importance of progress, that sense of progress that’s as important. And it’s just not very prominent in literature or in practice. So one of the things we do with our clients, and you can do this on a personal level at a team level or across the organization, is yes, let’s review the kind of things that help people feel a sense of meaning in this organization. 

You know, your vision statement, mission statement, values.Of course they have to be authentic. They have to be lived and demonstrated of course. But we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to make work more meaningful for people. But what we haven’t done, apart from maybe key performance indicators, is to really look at what gives people a sense of progress. And your spouse is a great example. Our organizations cater a little bit more to people who are good at setting milestones and are good at measurement in kind of an objective way that our organizations are more geared toward that. But what about someone like you who maybe not so much… your traditional…

That’s all I can ask. Maybe you have a better answer for myself.

It’s partially, it’s about helping people discover what are your signals of progress, you know? So for example, I just interviewed a bunch of millennial around progress and it was really interesting to hear how they mark progress because we might think that a lot of it is around. You know, I got a raise, I got a promotion, that sort of thing. But it can be simply gaining more responsibility, but not in a traditional hierarchical way. It could be, you’re allowed to lead an account. It could be given more autonomy. It could be an opportunity for growth, for participation in a special career development program.

So there’s lots of ways that people kind of measure progress. For some people it’s the quality of their relationships. It’s not even something that is easy to measure. It is, but they still know if they’ve evolved a relationship with a client, they know it. They know it because the client reaches out to them for advice. That’s a signal of progress. The client’s reaching out to me for advice. So there’s loads of ways to measure progress. It’s just something that we often don’t think about. So we miss it. And it can be a little bit discouraging if we feel like we’re not getting the signals of progress we’re looking for. They may be there, we might just be biased in terms of which ones we’re noticing.

Absolutely. Well, in my own organization, I’ve heard this. This is one of those things that we’ve had, you know, we’re growing. But in a small business, we’ve doubled and doubled and doubled, which is great, but that also isn’t that huge. There’s not a huge line of jobs you can go to, right? It’s like we have maybe six positions. We have like two managers. It’s hard to think about growing, on the hierarchy, at least for everybody. Not everybody in the whole organization can be a manager today. Now in another couple of years, as we continue to grow, maybe there will be more and more opportunities for that. But one thing we’ve often pushed back is, I feel like I’ve got this. It’s never ending, right? It’s that feeling of, I’m doing this work. I’m going to clean clothes, I’m excited about this thing. But next week I’m going to be doing the same thing. I’m gonna have that same pressure again.

So one of the things in terms of maybe three tips, I could leave your readers and your listeners, because we have so much data. But, it’s shocking to me how regardless of the country we’re operating in, regardless of the sector, there are three critical drivers that are not leveraged the way they could be an organization. And one of them is feedback. And it’s interesting cause that’s been like a super hot topic for a very long time, but it’s still not happening nearly enough that people need ongoing feedback, completion of feedback loops to really understand, “Am I on track? Am I off track? Am I being appreciated for the work and effort I am doing?” Like your sense of progress is dramatically supported through feedback. Plus it also reinforces meaning cause it keeps telling you this is meaningful. This is what we have to be focused on. So feedback, you can’t almost overdue feedback and that is something that sometimes is a real challenge. But if you really want to support passion in your workplace, really looking at feedback loops that aren’t just reliant on a manager but they can be self-directed, they can be peer directed. It’s a really, really critical piece that everyone knows it’s important, but our research says it’s like Uber important.

I like that. The feedback is the way that, whether you’re making it. It’s a way of creating progress. You need a way of understanding that. And also focusing in by saying, “Hey, this is important. I need you to do better at this or you’re doing great at this. Here’s the next step that feedback loop.” It’s like if you’re pulling a string, if your job is to lift a weight, that kind of thing and you can’t see what it’s actually moving. You can’t see that result. You have no feedback on it. It will rapidly become engaging. But that’s a great point. Okay. Feedback. I got that highlighted. That’s going right. That’s going as the quote on the…

A really important piece. And then linked to that like really closely linked to that is the ability to end the practice. Not just everyone has the ability, but people don’t create a practice at a celebration. And it’s funny, but people even get squirmy around celebration almost like it’s a bad word in the workplace. When I talk to organization and managers about how critical it is. Celebrating is the key differentiator between people who are truly passionate and people who are not. Not even just not passionate, I mean, it’s the differentiator between people who are in various states of engagement.

So it’s one of the things that with my clients, I never let them off the hook even though people want to be let off the hook and it’s to really think through what does celebration look like here? You know, people sometimes instantly think of big parties, right? Let’s have a big social gathering, let’s have a big party. But celebration can also be really quiet and intimate and it’s an acknowledgement that, yeah, we just did something that mattered. We pulled something off. It can be a small win, it can be the end of a big project, but it deserves to be acknowledged and uplifted and to be able to do that in ways that function at the individual level, not just at the organizational level. It’s the one differentiator around passion at work.

I can’t emphasize how important celebration is to really sustain and create. If you don’t have it, your passion at work, it’s really, really important. And the work is figuring out what it looks like for you personally and then for your team and for your organization because it can look very differently. It’s going to depend on what is suitable for you. The accountant who is hitting that easy button, that was easy. That’s a form of celebration, right? Someone was just telling me that when they close a deal that like stand up at their desk and do a little dance and that’s the celebration, at a very personal, intimate level. It doesn’t have to be like this big party, but it’s still a celebration.

Very interesting. Okay. I love that. And I know that’s a thing that a lot of, especially small businesses, I think that that work in a constant stream of work, I think that can be a huge game changer for them.

Oh, you are? I mean, you are right. Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, what you said, I’d like to underscore because I think in so many industries now and so many jobs that we’re just trying to keep up with everything. And so, you know, you get something done and you just move on to the next thing. You’re not really taking even a moment to kind of go. That was actually pretty cool. I got that done. And you know, this is the difference that made to the company and this is a difference that made to me. This is what I learned from it. This is the skill I gained. Whatever it is, like whatever the progress is, we do not take enough time and it doesn’t have to be hours.

That’s the thing about celebration. It literally can be a few seconds, but to just to make it a practice so that you really, you know, at the end of each day acknowledge the progress you’ve made or the end of each week. And one of the things we do with our teams is we build it into their meeting agendas. You know, what kind of progress are we going to celebrate? And, and even if there’s been a disappointment, how do we make that into a learning, that idea of failing forward, I suppose. But how do we really ensure that even in our disappointments, we make sure we can frame them for progress, right? Meaningful progress, let’s say it is, but we don’t feel it is. How do we really see this failure or this disappointment as a way of learning something to take us forward. Because it’s that forward orientation is what’s going to sustain passion.

Because that’s the property.

That’s the progress piece. And that’s the part that just doesn’t get worked enough.

No, you’re exactly right. I’m literally, and this happens in all of my best interviews, I’m going, “Gosh, I need this.” Well, it’s not that we don’t have anything, but this is an amazing place to move the needle.

It’s an amazing place.

This is a way to do it. You said there were three things we’ve covered, feedback and celebration. What else do you think? What’s the other?

Well, one that comes up an awful lot and you have kind of referenced it a few times and kind of referring to traditional management. And this one is part of what we would consider to be autonomy. And it’s to really look at things from a personal accountability point of view. To really understand at an individual level and of course it scales up, but to understand it at an individual level. Just how important it is for you to feel you are able to make decisions about the way your work gets done. So even going back to the assembly line, decisions are made for the assembly line. But if I have a mechanism to input, if I’m able to be part of a team that discusses problems and how to overcome or improve things. Then even if ultimately the decision isn’t mine, I’m still part of that decision making process in a way that’s real and authentic, right? And so it doesn’t have to be consensus. It’s because that often sometimes people misunderstand that, but it’s feeling like my opinion matters, my experience matters and that I’m consulted on things that are going to, especially things that are going to impact me ultimately. And that becomes both something that supports meaning and progress, right? It’s meaningful to be asked your opinion. I’m providing it’s authentic. Right? And when you see decisions get implemented, even if it doesn’t go your way, if you feel you are part of a meaningful process, then that’s going to feel like progress to you. So that can be really challenging. And organizations, I think smaller teams, it’s a little easier. Right?

Right, right. Yeah. Well you take over if you can do it, go for it. Yes. Well, there’s a counter, there’s a piece of that that is a personal experience, but I mentioned Liz and I. My wife and I started the company together and we’ve worked as a team directly and a lot of the things we do. We also tried to make little mini teams to handle. And I got some feedback. I don’t know, this was a few years ago, but it changed the way we structured a lot of things, let’s call them group projects to go back to the old. While those have an amazing and important place in work, autonomy means not just that you are able to direct your work, but it also means that you’re responsible for your work, which means you get the win.

Yes.

And one of the things we got back with our CSRs sometimes was that they were talking about that kind of never ending stream of work, but they feel like they never got a win. Especially those in like tier two or three who are always dealing with the most complex problems. Their best by the time the client gets to them they’re upset. By the time, this is a role of triage and they’re already bleeding and our win is they’re no longer bleeding. Right. But it doesn’t feel like a wind sometimes, especially because it takes a lot of different moving parts. It doesn’t as one of them put it. It’s like we work really hard and we know in the end it works out. You know, it works out and we’re good, but I never feel like I won. I feel like my best case scenario is that, no one’s angry anymore. It doesn’t feel like a win. Right. And when we actually changed that to more a one-on-one, a less team based approach. The individual was able to say, “Hey, not only I was able to come up with something here, I was able to fix this.” And at the end, they’re excited. They feel like they did it. So autonomy isn’t just the ability to do things. It’s the ability to be responsible for the wind or the law.

Okay. So this is so brilliant because that is exactly why our measures, when we have a survey that goes with the measure of passion and in the workplace and within you, our questions under autonomy are all I questions. And we know from our research that I need to connect the action that I take to the progress piece. I can be happy for my team that we won an account. But, well, I need to in order to be passionate, to have taken the action myself and had the impact that I was looking for with that action. Right? We take action because we’re expecting a certain result from the action. I mean, there needs to be a direct line in order for me to really feel that emotion of passion. So what you’re describing, I see 100% in our data and working with clients.

Jacqueline, you are an awesome conversationalist and I’m so intrigued by what you do. We could talk for hours, but we’re coming up on the 48 minutes of chills going through the stuff. And I hope that our listeners have stuck with us. But I’ve found this riveting. I got to ask, where can our people find you and what would be the trigger if someone’s listening? I mean, and again you have five man nonprofits listening and also 3000 man HR, CFO, director of HR CPOs listening ,who should reach out to you and what should be the triggering event that’s like, okay, all right, I need to call up Jacqueline. Her company is going to… It would be amazing…

Well, we’re all about generating passion in the workplace so people can feel the difference in their productivity and ultimately the performance. So if you know that you have all this untapped energy in your organization, even if it is five people or 3000 people. We can help you figure out what levers to pull to unleash that energy to get you that productivity and performance you’re looking for. And we have an automated system so no one’s too small and no one’s too big. So it really, we can size up regardless. So sparkengagementindex.com is how you find us. And I can also provide some other links to some of our social media.

There’ll be in the description down below. If you’re listening on iTunes or Google play, you may need to go to peopleprocesses.com. This will be the episode on the homepage, so you can take a listen there. If you’re listening a little later on, just go up to the podcast button and look for the “Spark Engagement Podcast-Jacqueline.” Thank you so much for your time. I think this was an amazingly worthwhile conversation and I wish you great luck in your future endeavors.

Well, thank you for having me on. It was a sheer pleasure really.

I appreciate it. Ladies and Gentlemen, that’s it for today. I hope you had a wonderful time. I hope you learned a ton. Reach out sparkengagementindex.com. Make sure to subscribe and on social media post any questions or feedback along the way. If you felt like, “Hey, you know what? This is really interesting, but I have these burning questions.” Feel free to ask about them on social media. It may be something we pass on and have Jacqueline’s team reached back out to you or maybe we can help you figure it out ourselves. Connect with us at Twitter and Facebook, LinkedIn. We’re all on there. We’d love to hear from you. Now it’s time for you to go out there, have a great day, and get your work done. Thanks for tuning in.

Learn more about Jacqueline here:

Website : www.sparkengagementindex.com

Email : jacqueline@spark-engagement.com

Contact : 902-229-8989

Skype : jacqueline.throop.robinson

 

 

People Process Interviews: Sue Salvemini

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the People Processes podcast. I’m Rhamy Alejeal and today I am so excited to bring you Sue Salvemini.

She is an author, speaker, and executive leadership coach. She helps leaders and teams align their work with their core values for maximum impact and fulfillment. She is also the founder and president of Focal Point Consulting Group. She founded it in 2016 and she is passionate about helping individuals connect with their authentic leadership style and love the work they do. She wrote a book, it came out in May, 2018. It’s called “Leadership by Choice,” seven keys for maximizing your impact and influence in the workplace right where you are and it draws on her over 25 years of experience in the corporate world and in the military to give those great lessons. Sue, thank you so much for coming on.

Thanks Rhamy. It’s great to be here today.

Well, Sue, I always start with this. Not many people dress up as eight year olds, as business consultants or advisors. It’s just not something they think they’re going to be when they grow up. So how on earth did you go from your start in this career up to where you are now? What’s your journey like?

Oh, it’s a great question. It’s been such a great journey and it’s still very much a journey. But you know, I was in the military. So right out of college, I was in the army as an officer and in leadership roles at a very early age from the military. I then had the great privilege to work in medical device sales, working in operating rooms. And over the years was through Johnson and Johnson. Gradually moved from sales representative to manager, to leader and led teams and whatnot. And fast forward, a few iterations and companies moving from the big corporate company right down to the ground level startup company. I came to a crossroad when my startup company was being acquired and I had to pause and say, “okay, so what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Now that you’re about 20 plus, we go 20 plus, we never say anything over plus 20 plus years in. And I could very easily have stayed in this amazing world of medical device technology and startup companies, which I loved. But I just sat down and got real with myself and I did. What I did was I became very prayerful. I gave myself a real month to just really dig deep and get real with what my strengths were, what my passions were, what my vision for myself, my family, and a greater vision for the world was. And it all bubbled down to, I’ve always loved people leading and working with people and leading and working with leaders. And I love speaking, training and coaching. And it was really literally one morning at like 6:00 AM after days of lots of thought and reflection that it came to me. Follow your dream, follow your heart and go work to help people be exceptional at what they do.

And the vision for focal point was formed. And I got goosebumps that morning. I get goosebumps as I’m telling you right now. And it was just crystal clear that my passion and my heart and my God given talents were around working with individuals and teams. Helping them realize how great they are and how great they can be and go out and help make that happen. And so I wanted to do that. That’s really where it started. You know, someone’s in the right job when they talk about it, you feel like they have the coolest job like that. How lucky you are to have that job. Of course it was a heck of a journey to get there. But like when you talk about what you do, it’s like, man, I want to be like that when I grow up too. That’s exactly the best job in the world for me. I have to tell you.

So now you’re in this position, you’ve got a focal point, you’re advising clients, you’re well-established. But I know along the way there had to be some pretty low lows. And a lot of our clients, a lot of our listeners are starting off their companies and they’re just getting into this world of scaling and growing teams. Some of them are in the position you were in, executives in larger companies and they’re thinking about jumping ship. Right. I asked my interviewees to tell us about the worst experience they’ve had with entrepreneurship and tell us that story. Really take us there so that we can relive it with you. Then we can talk a little bit about some of the lessons.

Well, it’s a great question and wow, there’s so many. I do have a motto, “you sort of fail forward to success and the sooner you stumble, the greater you’ll be”. So I think every good entrepreneur I talked to is just like, “Oh, there was that one time I made a mistake.” You know, it’s going to happen. So you just got to run close. The faster you run towards it happening, the faster you can say, okay, now that one’s done. So it’s funny, when you start your own business, there’s obviously the passion and the fire in your belly and you have this vision and then there’s the reality of the economics of it. And in some cases, for me this was going to be my income.

I wasn’t doing a bridge thing. It was it. So yeah, failure is not an option, which is actually a good motto because you don’t then look for that safety net. However, in a different way you do find safety nets. And this contributes to my biggest challenge and failure. And I’ll say failure lightly because it all contributes to where I am today.

Of course, failures are only failures. Exactly right. But I haven’t figured out a better way.

I know. No, it’s great. I love it. And it makes me think so, thanks to only one cup of coffee, but it’s good. So what happens is naturally, I’m building the business and I’m to get clients and my natural work was in medical devices, sales and technology and startup. So I had a lot of contacts that knew me for that. Naturally people were reaching out to me to help them with different ideas and whatnot.

So I took on some clients to do that, but that was not still truly following what I was desiring, which was building a very strong coaching and leadership development, leadership training business. But I took these clients on and I rationalize that this was the finances that was going to fund my ability to do and to follow my greater passion that I don’t think was a mistake. That was a very intentional, thoughtful view I had of it. Yes, I had to be. I talk a lot about core values and not just the surface values, really understanding why you’re doing something and how it’s serving your greater vision and purpose. So I knew unequivocally in selecting this work that it was filling one of my swimlanes in my company, which was consulting and it was also some income.

So I embraced it and I loved these clients. I love working with them and I loved the work and the work was easy for me. This is what I’ve done for 20 plus years. So here’s the obstacle though. What happened is not too long into it. I was doing a lot of this work that I did so well and I cared deeply about these clients. You became friends, you work so closely and then I would do my work. That was bridging more of the direction I wanted the company to go, which was coaching and leadership programs. And on a purely economic comparison, the ROI on the work I was doing was completely disproportionate to the work that I was wanted to be doing more of. Okay. I mean to like 10 X less. So I was putting in 20 and 30 hours for a consulting role with a medical device startup that was essentially paying me for about five, but it just required that much more work even though it was easy, but it was easy for me.

So I didn’t really calibrate that it was work. The gist of it is, I was a little fearful to leave that, but I didn’t know how to say no. And when it got real for me and so I consider it not so much a fit. It was a failure. It was a great learning moment because I got a new client for coaching and it became crystal clear. The more I worked with my coaching clients and the work I was doing, I saw the impact and I would lead a workshop, see the impact and I looked at the time it took me to invest in that and both the return from mostly what my clients were experiencing and my personal satisfaction doing it and the economic return was completely disproportionate to the other work that was now unfortunately was taking me away from my ability to do more of this coaching leadership training.

So I had to make a decision and I had to slowly migrate away from this type of work. And I think what happened was in hindsight, had I done that or been able to make that, see that so clearly sooner and make that jump sooner. My work and my ability to have an impact and influence and both and also grow my business, I would have been even further along than the businesses now. You know, I mean it was a necessary part on one level, but I held on too long. It was real and you know, I have a coach, I believe in coaching, so my coach would gently coach me around. “So what is it you’re holding onto?” You know, and it was a safety net. So the very thing I said that I tried to like run from, which is that there’s a safety net, but run from your safety net because you need to elevate your business and move forward towards your dream.

You’ve thought of it, you know, there’s a plan. There was a business plan. This isn’t just a vision for myself. I had a very strict business plan. I deviated from it because it was comfortable. And because I didn’t want to let a client down, I mean one of my core values deeply is the interaction relationship I have with my clients. It was the very thing that was an area of conflict. But from a business perspective. I held on to something that was not yielding both financially the right return and even on a deeper level, it wasn’t fueling the direction of the company appropriately. And I lingered in making that observation and then making a decision.

There are a few lessons I kind of take from that. The first one is kind of the one you already had, which I get this question a lot from people in jobs that they hate, right? Like, “Hey Rhamy, I really want to leave and start my own company. I want to go out and do my thing, but I’ve got a wife and two kids and a mortgage and like you know, I’ve got enough money saved up that we could go like two months without a paycheck.” And then I tell him, “you can’t, you do have a responsibility. The things you know that you’ve committed to, you still have to do. And so you can’t just roll, go to the casino and roll it all and gamble at all.”

So first of all, of course, have a plan, all those kinds of things. But don’t be afraid to, you have to pray. You have to think pragmatically to a degree, you can’t go out of business because you refuse to do some work that doesn’t pay quarters well, isn’t exactly what you want. On the other hand, this is the bigger lesson. I see a lot of it comes across in a lot of ways, in your case, it was getting rid of, kind of align a business or a product effectively that was relatively under-performing and not fulfilling. But it happens in a lot of different ways. You may have a client that you like that you’re doing the thing you’re supposed to do, but they’re not a good fit. They cost significant film sums. But you have to, you have real trouble making that hard decision to let that client go. Maybe it’s about an employee, maybe it’s about a product line.

Like you said, as a business evolves over time, you’re going to wind up adding and subtracting product lines. I will say, probably one of the biggest killers of those businesses that make it past that first year or two that I see is, they just add lines and they never drop any. Right. They’re just like, I’m going to do this too, and this too, and this too. And then they know that the things they did three years ago, not what they should be doing now, but they can’t just tell the client. They can’t let the employee go, who’s responsible for it or they can’t let the client know, look, you’re gonna have to find someone else to do this. 

We talked with a lot of CPAs who are in the tax world and maybe they’ve been doing tax returns for 20 years, but in the last three years they’ve gotten much more into like CFO financial work. And they have a slew of old clients who just send them their tax forms in February and are like, go get it done. And they know it’s not that profitable. They know it’s not what they want to do. It kills their soul. But they just are afraid to let that part die. And I think they’ve given a great example.

It’s the constant quest. It’s funny, I find this with a lot of entrepreneurs and the financial, the energy around finances can be so, so funky, because some people view if it’s not financially smart, does that make me a bad person? That I want to get rid of something because it’s a good thing to do, but it’s not serving the business and I help people come back to. But if you don’t have an economically sound model, then you can’t fulfill what you’re supposed to be doing and serving the people in the greater goodness. So there’s actually a financial fiduciary responsibility to yourself and your company to say no to some of these product lines so that you can do and fulfill the greater cause. You know, it’s actually very smart.

Absolutely. And as you scale your company and you have employees relying on you or contractors whose livelihood depends on you. You have to be profitable and you have to be pretty dang profitable because things will hit you. Like we had a big hit in February and I had to cut a check. I mean I had to cut a check for $40,000 that month and since then we’ve spent another 80 just fighting it. And it wasn’t in the budget. If you cannot put yourself in the position as an entrepreneurial or even as a department executive where your budget is so tight, your margin is so slim that if the client asks you to go that extra step, you can’t do it.

No, no, no. We lose, we go out of business. If we did that, you would have the flexibility to answer the client needs, to help your employees to take a hit, a hard hit and going. Otherwise you’re never gonna make it right and you won’t be any good to the people that you want to serve. You know? Right. In my business as a payroll company or an HR company or a benefits company, we have to be there, right? To be there 10 years from now. Right? I cannot allow myself to discount something across the board to the degree that like, “Guys, if I get hit hard or you got, or there’s a screw up, we won’t be in business.” I can’t allow that. We get audited and we’re rated on like how we gotta make sure we have a lot of money.

It’s an advantage. You should go with us because I promise we will charge you. Right? So you gotta switch to that mentality. And it’s a really hard one for people who move from that technician role that I do a job for an hourly wage. I’m building a long lasting business that has that sustainability. 

Well, I think those are some really cool lessons from your story. I’d love to kind of move forward now. Now here you are. You’ve got a successful company growing, you’ve got a great book. What’s got you excited and jumping out of bed in the next six months? What have you got coming?

Oh, I’m super excited. So I have in the next month, I’m heading to Louisville. I’m going to be a keynote speaker for an event for a bunch of younger or not younger, necessarily newer CEOs and executives in different nursing groups. So I was asked to come out and speak to them about sort of different leadership, rallying their team, motivating their team, running effective meetings, which sounds so parochial, but it really isn’t. When you get to the executive level, it’s really critical. And there’s no one size fits all. So I’m super excited about this program. I just finished recording my audio book so it is in public, it’s in the process of publication. So we’ll be releasing it in the fall. I’m excited about that because when I wrote my book, just under a year ago and it came out and I’ve used it with a lot of my work, but the audio book is going to be so much more fun and readily available for people because if they’re like me, they multitask and listen to things all the time. So I’m excited for that.

Making me feel guilty when my book came out. No, my book came out in October of last year. It did very well. Number one Amazon bestseller in HR. We were really excited since it was launched, I’ve been emailed like, “when’s the audio book?”

That’s so funny, Rhamy. You have to do it because it’s funny. I was at an event with a gentleman that was, you know, he had a publisher and I went with a professional publishing group but I self published and I wanted to do that intentionally. And he looked at me and he said, “I can’t do my audio book. My publisher won’t allow it. So if you have control, you need to go do it.” Honest to goodness, that was the impetus. I was with one of my clients at an offsite and this was one of the speakers. And I literally came and that was it. I said, “I’ve got to do this”, and it’s super fun. The experience was awesome. That’s another podcast series we’ll talk about. But yeah, so I’m going to launch it and I’m excited about that launch because I didn’t really launch my book.

I published it to use with my clients. So I didn’t do a big social media launch, so to speak. It’s not necessarily, but I’m excited. Lastly, I’ve got some workshops coming up and I have a client. I think one of the things I’m most excited about is one of my newer clients in the past six months. They’ve been going through some pretty incredible changes at the executive level. And I’m super excited to watch their journey over the next few months because there’s dramatic changes coming. They’re a publicly traded company and I love being a part of their journey. But mostly, what I love is watching the leadership just come into their own even stronger and more directionally focused. So I’m super excited to watch their journey over the next few months.

Busy, busy couple months. Yeah. That’s awesome to hear. Now, when are your conferences going? What date is that recording? The last weekend in August. So that’ll be in the past by the time this comes out. But, we’ll talk at the end how they can look you up and see what else is going on in your calendar. I’ve got a couple of rapid fire questions. These are just questions that I think, let us distill some of the great knowledge and stuff we picked up. If you could recommend one book to go on your bookshelf or to read, preferably to go alongside People Processes, my book, and write “Leadership by Choice.” What book would you recommend to an executive or a CEO?

Okay. So I’m going to cheat cause I have to have two. So I can only have one. Okay. The one that is most highlighted and dogeared from years past. It has always been an awesome book. It Is the “Power of Focus” by Jack Canfield, Marketer Hanson, unless you had loved, loved, loved, loved, loved that book. It’s an oldie, but it’s so good. So good. It’s got more yellow in it in dog years. Then many of the leadership books or books on the team, and I’ve read so many. Then the second book is the book that I go to daily and it’s now and hear me before it’s the “Life Application Study Bible.” And regardless of your faith, I love studying Christ as a leader. And the reason I say this study Bible is because there’s a lot of texts beneath the physical biblical text that would take a lay person and just sort of guide them through the time and the decisions and the things that were going on. But I love, I just love, I learned so much about how to communicate, be with people and I just love the historical element of it being someone that was never a history person. I have now in these years really appreciated history regardless of what one’s faith is. It’s a study Bible. It’s very key. It’s gotta be a study Bible that gives you sort of that lecture series at the bottom of the text, so to speak.

Well, there will be links in the description below to both of those on Amazon. I did have to verify there’s actually a couple of books that are the “Power of Focus.” So I wanted to verify. You said that was the one by Jack Canfield and the rest, right?

Jack Canfield. Yeah. Mark Victor Hansen and Les Hewitt.

Evil Brian Tracy has put up as a “Power of Focus” book right at the top. I liked some of his stuff too. I’m just kidding. But I know. It’s all good, but I love it. Always. We’ll put the links to those to below. Alright. So going back, if you could whisper in your ear, there it was the day you decided to form your own company and you could give yourself one piece of advice, what would you tell yourself back on that first day of starting your company?

I would say, “remember, you are perfectly imperfect. Just plow through the obstacles, get them behind you, keep learning. They’ll keep coming and just move forward. If you’re moving forward, you’re moving. If you’re standing still, you’re not moving. And if you’re pausing, you’re moving backwards. Blaze through it.”

Awesome. Okay. Outside of that, what is the best business advice you’ve ever heard? That someone’s told you? Some really cool business advice.

I think one that I always go back to and it sort of fuels a lot of what I do and what I talked to CEOs about and leaders is, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That resonated with me years and years ago leading a team. It made me pause and stop talking, and listen more and really invest in my people. That the people are everything in a business regardless of how large or small it is. Even in startup companies with one marketing associate. We had an agreement together that I would invest in her and her development and she knew I cared. As a result of that, and this is consistent in all of the companies I’ve worked with. You know, when people know how much you really care about them, their development, growth and their direction, they dig in. They roll up their sleeves and they’re so loyal. And it’s just been profoundly impactful for me.

Well, on that art, our podcast is called People Processes. Of course we think a lot about the systems and processes around business. Specifically around the people element of businesses. What would you say would be maybe a policy procedure system or training that’s had the largest effect that you’ve seen either on your company or on your clients? And is it something related to making employees or trying to extend that trust that you do care about them? And what’s that look like?

Yeah. So it’s funny, the training that probably has impacted me the most, both in my own business and I work with a lot of 1099s and so I have a team of independence. And then I work with obviously larger executives and teams of different organizations, both big companies, nonprofits and small. But really, my coaching training that I received from IPEC and what that training did for me and it’s actually communicated a lot in my book. Which also contributed to sort of how the business is running. It really taught me a better, a deeper appreciation for what it meant to be genuinely curious around people and to allow yourself to be present in the moment and listen and dispelled judgment. 

And with that, through that training and the coaching training and obviously I’m a coach but I work with my leaders. I actually tried to teach them and model how to get a coaching style of leadership so that they can be people-centric and then the value of that and therefore the value of investing in systems and other non people dependent, like face to face that can free them up to do that. Because the challenge that I find with these, with CEOs and leaders is they’re caught up in details that they don’t need to be caught up in, that’s taking away from their time of being present and curious for their people in the moment.

So a less focused on the minutia and more on the holistic person or the ability to at least focus on it.

Yeah. And it seems it can be. I was in the military, I’m sort of a get it done person. That can sound fluffy to some people and I always, I use it. But the truth is your greatest asset is your people. And that’s the one asset to that. There’s no cookie cutter approach. Right? You can get a system for payroll, you can get systems for communication, but when it comes down to people management, that presence and connection, that requires a person. And you’ve got to free yourself up from the other things that are pulling you away from your ability to be there. So it was in my coach training when I went through the IPEC certification as part of forming my business, I became incredibly, profoundly aware of the value that that could have to a much greater degree than I’d had through all of my years. Leading and working with teams.

Of course, our listeners know our Poplar Financial, we focus on designing and implementing those HR systems. Like you mentioned, payroll benefits, timekeeping, retirement, absence management, scheduling, all these kinds of pieces and you have to systematize them to free you up to actually work with your people. It blows me away, the number of 10-man companies or a hundred-man companies who are or thousand-man companies don’t matter who are investing so much time in routine monkey work that can be automated so that if they can get that off their desk, they can do so much more. I do have one add on though, which is that when it comes to those ways of interacting with people, I believe you do need a process.

It may not be a technological constraint. I don’t think it should be a lot of times, but if you don’t have a way of repeating it and doing it consistently, then you don’t have a way of doing it. And that’s one thing I often come up against with HR trainers and coaches. They have great ideas, they have awesome ways of doing things. But unless you systematize it, even though it’s a personal matter, it’s not a computer unless you make a process for it to happen every time. I feel like you can’t improve it over time and you have trouble maintaining it consistently. So we try to push it.

I think you’re absolutely right. No, you’re right in the process. It’s interesting. The process liberates you to be present. When you have a process and you have a system in place of accountability and data in place, it just allows you to be more present with your people and it also keeps you on track. So I couldn’t agree more.

Well, our listeners I’m sure, want to know where to find you, Sue. If they were looking, I have two questions for you. One is, if someone’s listening to this podcast right now, what situation are they in? Or what does that person look like that they should contact you? We have people from all walks of life. From HR managers to payroll tax, to business owners, to CEOs, non-profit leaders. What position are they in, what are they facing as a challenge, that means they should reach out to you and how should they do that?

Great question. That’s a loaded question. I like to explode with all the answers. No.

I know, I try to put a bunch of preface on there because guys have so many interviewees who are like, “well, if you have a pulse, go to.”

I know, I know, I know. It’s terrible. And you know, it’s like focus, focus, right? What was the book? I said the “Power of Focus” and now I’m going to totally contradict myself but love me for who I am and forgive me for what I’m not, no, I’ll study like that. So you’re a leader of a higher level team, and I say this because first of all, I love every team, but what I find is these higher level, these executive teams, these senior leadership teams typically are the teams that need equally as much support, but they have fewer people to talk to because the higher in the organization you go, the fewer people you can talk to about challenges.

So if you’re an HR leader and the core leadership team seems to be struggling with, they’re all great people, highly, highly successful, but not necessarily jelling the way they could to maximize the opportunity for the organization. That’s my passion because it’s real and you’re not alone in this and the people are great. It’s just sometimes the nuances of putting a bunch of great people together at the Thanksgiving table. Everybody doesn’t always play nice or figure it all out. The second person that I work pretty closely with, you might be at a place in your career or in your own business. You’ve got great ideas, you’re super motivated and you can’t get there fast enough or there’s something that is in your way and you just can’t quite either figure out what’s stalling you or what’s blocking you.

I want to talk to you because first of all, we know ourselves better than anyone. You know yourself better than anyone. You don’t need me to tell you who you are, but what I can help you with sometimes is figuring out what that thing is that’s getting in your way. Figure out a way to get over it so that you can get where you want to go. That’s awesome. All right, so how should people find you? So the best way is LinkedIn, Sue Salvo meaning or an easy way to remember is go to leadershipbychoice.com. That’s my book. That actually routes you to my website, but if you type in leadershipbychoice.com that’ll bring you to a page on my website, which is focalpointinc.com.

That’s great. Okay, leadershipbychoice.com. We’ll have links below. focalpointinc.com, we’ll have that link below. And of course, Sue’s LinkedIn page. Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you so much for tuning in. Sue, thank you for coming on the show.

Thanks so much, Rhamy. It was such a pleasure.

All right, that’s it. Ladies and Gentlemen, Sue has dropped some great lessons. I think some of the focus is, especially on the early part of a business where you’re having to make things work, but you need to let parts that aren’t working go. It was a great lesson. We’ve got links to the book. She recommended, of course, her site below. Her leadership training. It sounds like an excellent investment for many organizations out there. They’re listening. In the meantime, check us out at LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, send us any questions you have. If there’s anything you want us to follow up with, Sue about, we’d love to do it. We’ll post it on social media. I appreciate you listening and now it’s time for you to go out there, have a great day, and get your work done.

Learn more about Sue here:

www.focalpointinc.com

sue@focalpointinc.com

508-523-6253

People Process Interviews: Thomas Veeman

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the People Processes podcast. I’m your host, Rhamy Alejeal, and I am really excited today to bring you Thomas Veeman.

The co-founder of Conversari Global. They upgrade people for the future of work. Thomas has worked in the United States, Germany, Switzerland, India, and Thailand. He’s lived in Mexico City since 2012. He draws on his international background to teach executive courses on emotional and cultural intelligence. Thomas is especially passionate about using experiential and narrative methods to help teams bridge cultural and communication divides. I’m excited to have you on here, Thomas.

The pleasure is mine as well, Rhamy.

Well, Thomas, the first question I ask all of our guests, you know, not everybody dresses up as a kid for as an HR person or a business owner. It’s not the most common life choices that get us here. How did you wind up where you are now? How did you get into this crazy world?

Well, that’s a great question and it’s a long story. As a kid, I certainly never thought I would do anything related to business. Actually, I grew up moving back and forth between Switzerland and the United States. My mom’s Swiss and my father’s an American. And I think it’s kind of like that was the era before you had cell phones. But if we imagine it in today’s world, it’s kind of like every year I had to switch the SIM card in my brain to work with a different set of values, a different set of rules for how to behave. That was just normal to me. I learned later on and even growing up that’s not necessarily normal for everyone else. If I fast forward, I thought i was going to be a pilot because pilots, they travel a lot and that would allow me to do that.

Yeah. I didn’t become a pilot. If I fast forward, several years, later on after college where I studied in the U S. I Had been going to Switzerland and I studied in Thailand as well. My first real job in which I got to see a way to apply more of myself than just a job working the forests of Oregon. And later as in wilderness therapy in Arizona. And through that work when I really got to see was the beauty of it. Of people learning not only something that they can do to make themselves more effective, because the whole job and being effective as a job wasn’t very compelling to me as something to do with your life growing up. But when I saw him here, these were practical lessons that you learned. You’ve figured out, if we use this kind of plant in this way. If you use your effort to make this tool, then you get these skills that make your life happier and getting to be part of that and seeing that within people kind of switch to chip for me and said, “you know what, that’s something I need to find a way to do with my life.”

Wow. What an interesting background. Just to start with, but then to have those experiences after college. And so you said, all right, this kind of work moves me. It’s something I could see myself doing. There is great value in it. How did you go from that to co-founding an incredibly successful company?

Yeah, the road was interesting. From working in wilderness therapy, I realized, if I’m going to take this step forward in my career, what could I do if I had a family or to be able to buy a house and afford a life. I gotta pay those bills, right? Meet the practical requirements of life. Well, the next step was either go into the therapeutic side. So to be a therapist, a masters in psychology now at the time, life is complicated. 

So I was dating a woman in Monterrey, Mexico. And through that long distance relationship we had to figure out well to keep this relationship a chance, where do I go? She worked for the United Nations here in Mexico City, so she couldn’t move. I had to come here. So I thought, well, what am I going to do that’s relevant? Professionally, if I come to Mexico City. And I found this great program, Masters in Counseling Psychology that I could do here, that brought me here. Now studying in English U S school out of California and doing work with local populations here. Basically the ghetto of Mexico City with youth. Like I was working before now to make money on the side.

I was teaching English in organizations. And from that I started to not care very much about the English part, but I started to see, look, there are really creative people who have a lot to give, but who are in teams or in organizational cultures that are holding them back from bringing the best of themselves to work and through first, as an English teacher. I thought, well, why don’t I use some of the skills? Some of the tools that we used in either wilderness therapy or in the psychology training to help bring some of these creative energies out so people can really be alive with what they do. And it worked beautifully. It worked beautifully. People bloomed. They enjoyed coming to their classes. I enjoyed coming to their classes. And often we didn’t look at a single element of grammar. 

Right. The result was the ability to communicate. It doesn’t matter. It’s not about the language. It’s about the ability to actually get out there and get the ideas across. Right.

Yeah. That’s a big part of it. Getting the ideas across. And that requires also having the courage to share what you really think. To be aware of what you really think by going through a process of understanding yourself both emotionally in terms of what you really want from life, what your priorities are and what you have to give. And then finding a way also to make that work in a team and to bring value to an organization.So yeah.

And from that, you decided to launch this global organization now.

Yeah, exactly. So I knew Kevin Kennedy Anderson from my studies and he had already gone into consulting and frankly, at that time I didn’t even know what consulting was. Alright. So I thought it was going to be a therapist, a psychologist, but then working in the organization, I thought, well, how can we do this in a way that we actually get to create the programs that have a bigger impact. Sat down with Kenneth, brought him into the organization to do a special kind of course company. Loved it. They bought it for consulting prices. And from that moment, Conversari was born.

Very nice. Yes. Those kinds of consultant prices are always a good place to start a business.

Sure. I mean, it’s a big difference right here. And if you’re in the box of an English language teacher, you’re always limited. No matter how much value you add to people’s lives, that’s not going to be reflected.

In transferring from that hours for pay to value for pay. That’s the shift. Well, that’s awesome. So now you’ve got a successful organization. You guys are really bridging those cultural communication divides, helping companies and organizations out. And I know that you have had that experience of growing your organization. You’ve had to have had some amazing highs and some amazing lows. Now I think our listeners, maybe it’s because a little shot in Freud, but mainly I think they learn the most, not from the successes, the great ideas, but from failures.

So I always ask my guests to take us to the day. Tell us the story in that narrative form. You’re so good at, about your greatest entrepreneurial failure mistake. Very, very, very bad day. What came of it?

That’s a great question. I think there’s a few places it could go with this, but the hardest part is,

Picking one, right? You’ve been in business long enough.

There is one that sticks in my mind right now. We were lucky enough to work with a multinational company here in Mexico and they liked our training so much that they said, “alright, we have our partners in Krakow and in India that would like your services, are you able to travel and deliver there?” We said, “of course, right. First class ticket each way, please.” Right.

Then here’s the funny thing, we went to India, we delivered a course and it was actually relatively straightforward in terms of the cultural element. Then we got to Krakow and kind of in a way the train came off the hinges. What happened was we have our courses, we always like to do them in a way that prioritizes experience, right? Because it’s great to have theory and to have constantly and all of that. But at least for me and for the other, the other, now 16 of us. 

One thing that binds us together is that we like to see things in action. So we put that first in our training and we came to our training in Krakow, now crack coasts, kind of the European training hub for a tech company that we were working with. And you’re going to have to help me because I’m not asking for me, where’s Krakow Caicos in Poland. Okay, well it’s behind what was the iron curtain of course, as much deeper, longer history, they’re just fat. But it’s kind of the new growth area of Europe where some of the infrastructure costs are lower. But also not as much experience internationally yet. 

So we come to Poland and there’s participants being brought in from all over Europe and not only Europe, but also Africa and the middle East. So you ‘re training a group of people that’s widely diverse. We start our training the way we normally do. And that’s when things start to look a little different in terms of the response people. They had that quizzical look on their face rather than nodding the excitement that you look for as a trainer had that quizzical, the crossed arms.

A lot of questions. That doesn’t seem to go away about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it. And then we started getting feedback. All right, we’ll get feedback from our contacts there. You know, people really don’t, they’re not on board with this. They feel like it’s very American in its style and they don’t trust it. And we’re like, “what’s happening? What’s happening here?” Right. Lowest reviews we’ve ever received. And I remember walking back that night in it’s cold in Poland, in the winter and just feeling like, man, I don’t know how I’m going to get up and what am I going to do the next morning to make this feel different.

Right. And of course, these are big risks for your company too, right? I mean, not just this one training, going back. This isn’t. These are very costly to put on. I’m sure there are significant risks to the company and career.

Sure. I mean not only to the self-esteem that was happening with regard to the organization. This was our first as Conversari Global. This is our first reach into actually delivering globally and we’re being faced with this big challenge. If I don’t turn around, we will lose that continued contact and that feedback will come back to our biggest client. Right.

So of course the opportunity for more work in that area.

Yeah, exactly. So we met with the leadership, with our contacts there. We went out to dinner actually, where they tried to explain what was going on. We started reading and looking more at the cultural elements of this and part of that we were already doing, but we were missing a key element. Right. Well, it turns out as we’re looking at these things, it turns out that the main element we were missing was the difference in pedagogical styles from one culture to another. And in this sense it was shared by most of Europe and an approach that puts theory before applications.

So what was happening is, we were explaining things with examples, with demonstration, with popping people into role-plays before we explain all of the process and then working backwards to develop the process. Well that tended to work pretty well in the U S and here in Mexico. But doing that in Europe, people don’t feel open to trusting an application until they understand the process behind it.

Wow.

And even more than that, like the people, I remember people, some of them were like shaking to do this and getting angry at us because we were putting them in a position where they had to make a mistake by not being able to do something well yet.

Because we didn’t tell them what the goal, what the theory was, what the outcome should be.

Exactly. They didn’t know the criteria. So they hated us because we were putting that emotional space that was really uncomfortable.

Wow. That reminds me, gosh, so what’d you do?

Well, one part of it was really just like when you understand what’s going on, that’s half the battle, right? Pending that we just backed up. So the next day we made the adjustment of changing some of the order, putting more of the explanation of why we’re doing things and giving more space for that upfront. And then we did find that they could debate a little bit back and forth once they got the concept. There was almost you could see this palpable nod with people and that was the cue that okay, now we’re ready to put it into practice. And then it worked a lot better.

That is so interesting. At my company, Poplar Financial, we do systems design. So companies come to us because they have a great training like yours or anything that they want to systematize to make sure it goes out to everybody to keep track of, to issue certificates for all that kind of stuff and we just picked up. 

We’re licensed and we practice in the United States and we very much work in the HR function for consultation. But we had one client that came to us earlier this year. I think they started January 1. They only have about 20 employees in the U S but they have 300 contractors internationally. Some of Ukraine and some of the Philippines. And they wanted us to systematize their training, their on-boarding tools, their performance management, that kind of stuff that they already have figured out, but they wanted us to systematize it.

Right. And I’m sitting here staggering, thinking. I’m just like, because something as simple as the order in which information is presented could vary by culture. Like that had never occurred to me. Very interesting. So given your experience, our listeners, they run the gamut from an HR person and a 5,000 man company to mom and pop shop with three employees or their CPAs who have no employees but just working a bunch of organizations. 

What do you think they could take from your story of this that’d be a really rough time that you turned around and what they apply in their own businesses?

Well, that’s a great question and that’s what we always try and do too, right? Getting slapped upside the head with an experience like that. What can we do to learn from it and not make the same mistakes and open up new opportunities in the future. I think a key one is recognize whether it’s a small organization or a big one. You have to think globally in today’s business and so much of both geography and time borders are breaking down. Like we’re having this conversation across an international border. It becomes so easy to do that, that the flow of work is going to require more and more of that to happen. Whether it’s a supplier, whether it’s a business partner, globality is a norm that you have to take into consideration. So that’s the first part.

So then the second part, once you understand, okay, we have to be able to deal across the borders and also understanding the differences. It’s like, the culture is an iceberg, right? There’s the part of the surface, the part that you can see where people speak different languages. They might look different, they might wear different clothes and have music and food and all of that stuff, right? That’s the visible part of culture, but it’s the underneath part. That’s where the ships often wreck in business, right? It’s the values. The assumed, the expectations of how things work there. And even often in cultures that are seemingly similar inferences are exactly where you end up with conflicts.

Oh yeah. Not too many years ago, we were just in the Southern United States, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas. These good old Southern States with barbecue. And in the last few years we’ve expanded nationally, picked up a lot of New Yorkers, a lot of Washington tech people in California and business owners that are coming up with the next big idea. And we’ve had to do internal training and conversations about when you’re talking to someone in Nashville, Tennessee, if you don’t ask how their kids are doing and what’s up with their dog and how’s business, how’s life, how’s the weather? You’re downright rude. But in New York, if you ask that, they’re like, who the hell are you and why are you asking about my children?

Yeah. And why don’t you get cut to the chase and we’ve got work to do here. Exactly. Well, we noticed that one. That’s one of the things that you notice very quickly in Mexico, right? Mexico is very much like the Southern U S in that respect that you prioritize relationships before task in a sense. And until people trust or if they get a sense as a person, they don’t trust to open up into doing work and to rolling up their sleeves and getting into the fray with you generally. All right, so it’s a different order of business.

Interesting. So this is another ordering idea, right? So is it relationship and then task or test and relationship, or in your story, is it theory or practice first?

Right. And to be honest, I’m taking these from Erin Meyer’s, “The Culture Map,” got to get a reference my sources here, but that she offers a very useful framework for understanding culture and I’m writing a paper right now for HBR, for Harvard Business Review in Poland. Exactly applying some of those methods and some best practices for how to best do business across those particular borders.

You told me it was “The Culture Map.” Who’s the author on that again?

That’s Erin Meyer.

Erin Meyer. If anybody wants to look that book up. The one of our rapid fire questions that came up later is a book along with going alongside People Processes, my book up on your bookshelf. If you could recommend one, what would it be? I’m going to go ahead and put “The Culture Map” there.

Fantastic. There’s a few that we could get back to your earlier question too, the two really tied together. What is it that you can do to be more effective working across cultures? Well, one is, you’re going to make mistakes so it’s more of understanding the frameworks, understanding a little bit of how your own values come into play in the workplace is critical. 

But then the second part is, recognizing that there is an anthropology phase to all of these kinds of international, or not even international, but all collaborations, all work with other people. You have to take some time to understand and to listen to the cultural values, of let’s say, if you’re coming into a new organization like we do the work and the offer services, you have to understand what are the values of that place. And one part of that is the national cultures, but in other part is the organizational cultures. You know, Google is very different than working for a construction company out of Texas.

So in your studies, I guess these are some of the book references, but especially for our smaller companies, I’m thinking about some of my smaller clients right now. Where often are these cultural shocks for when someone starts with them, or even when they work with a new client in a new way. What would you say maybe is a concrete step they could take, to reorientate or this is what I feel like some of my clients would say, look, I can’t be everything to all people. I’m just going to do business with guys who are like me and anybody else can go find somebody else. What would you say to someone like that?

Well, I think the word was shrink drinking for people to be able to narrowly choose their business contacts like that. I think it’s another important point. And you say you can’t be everything to everyone. You can’t completely change the way that you’re wired and your value system that doesn’t work right. But what you can do is become more aware of it and talk about it. So I think that opens up another important point of all the work we do or I think of all the work that’s critical in today’s economy is, this idea of understanding through dialogue. We do it in terms of building feedback or a coaching culture. But I think in any sense, if you’re going into starting a business relationship, one of the ways that you can avoid some of those problems that can come by not talking about it is to say, “Hey, look, we’re starting this out.” 

These are some of the assumptions we have. These are the ways we like to work and do business. Is it similar with you guys and explain things and even if you don’t get it right, you’re opening a conversation. That difference could be here and it could play a role, but we’d rather talk about it then just deal with it, you know, making assumptions in the background.

I think that’s a really interesting point. I’m imagining one thing in our company, this is just maybe our clients or our listeners can relate to this, but our number one pet peeve, the thing that infuriates my employees more than anything is being treated like a vendor. And I know that’s a really silly thing because we are a vendor, but we’re partners with our clients. Like if a client comes to us and says, we have a problem, maybe it’s something we did, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just that they have a problem. Every single person in my organization will stay late, come in early, put their own money, whatever’s needed. We’re going to help. Like all you need to do is to get my company motivated. Anybody who works for me, it’s just like, Hey, help me and we’ll be there.

But that alternative feeling is something like, it’s not a request for help. It’s a demand for service or demand for subservience, like being treated as not a partner, but as a transactional machine that you interact and you put in quarters and outcomes policies, right? I’ve never figured out how to really explain that to clients, but the clients that love us the most and spend the most time with us and get the most out of us are those. And I don’t want to be like, Hey, if you don’t treat us nice, we’re not going to work with you. But I wonder if there’s something that we could do at our company and our listeners can do at their company to better define the type of relationship or the way in which you communicate to make that better.

Yeah. That’s a beautiful and important point you’re bringing up. And we deal with this from a few different directions. One from our own experiences. We are also a vendor that sees ourselves as a strategic partner and even sometimes the word strategic scenes, cold and distant, but they’re really see ourselves as part of the team, as part of the organization. 

We work so hard to understand the language of an organization. We speak the languages, we know how their KPIs work, how their business works. And then from there, we work on the human side. But sometimes not all organizations value or even key people in roles of value, those relationships in the same way. Sometimes they have a value system that says keep vendors at an arm’s length away, keep them unbalanced so that you have negotiation leverage. That’s a different type of psychology to deal with. 

And then there’s another kind which says, coming back to culture. Not everyone builds trust at the same pace or in the same way. So you often have organizations that are also similar in dealing with Europe. The trust happens a little later, right? There’s this image of, coconut cultures versus peach cultures. And the coconut culture is one that has, when you first come on, when you first make contact with people from a coconut culture, they seem hard and unsmiling and distant. But then once you’re in, like you really have a trusting relationship. You can make demands of each other. Peach culture like the U S is, we’re a quick, you sit down in the airplane next to somebody and you’re sharing your story, like within 15 minutes, how many times you’ve been divorced and all of that.

But then there’s this kernel of privacy in the middle. You know, after that conversation happens, you walk away and you never see each other again. And that’s kind of expected in a way. But first, let’s say, Germany from Poland, from many other parts of the world, they feel hurt by that because they expected. Now we’re friends. I think there’s similar types of values. Also work the vendor relationship in the sense that sometimes it takes longer, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody wants to maintain this arms length negotiation position with you. It just takes really close listening and I think listening not just to the words but to the atmosphere and to everything else that goes into understanding the values of a place .

I’ll tell you, I’ve done about 150 of these interviews and I think what you’re saying is startling, I’m super impressed. Our interview, our episodes normally run about 30 minutes guys. I know we’re coming up on the end of that, but we’re going to keep going. I think Thomas here has some amazing insights. If you’re having trouble, go ahead and come back on your ride home. I want to keep on diving in. 

So Thomas, I’m going to ask a few more questions that weren’t on our kind of pre-list just because I’m so absolutely intrigued by what you’re saying. In this idea, this happens a lot in HR and culture talk. There are these overarching concepts like what you’ve brought up of understanding each other’s cultures and taking your actions differently to have a better outcome at our company.

Nothing exists unless it’s a process, because having a different mentality or a different insight is a one off event. So while a suite executive may hear what you’re saying and be able to change their behavior and eventually that filter down through the whole company, for those who are thinking about this in terms of how can we improve our processes, our actual business day to day functions with this insight, do you have any ideas, like what could be the steps on implementing even the most basic bottom hit, low hanging fruit for these insights you’re providing?

Well, I think there’s many things we could talk about. The first that comes to mind is actually a project that we’re excited to begin right now. Where we’re working with one of the big six financial services consulting firms in the world to help them develop a coaching culture. Now what that means is, a coaching culture is as related two parts. It’s the culture part and the coaching part. So like many organizations, they struggle to get deeper bonds of trust internally as a model then of a relationship that they take out into their clients to build deeper relationships. Just like you were talking about with vendors. Now that has to start internally, but it’s really tricky if you’re an organization that’s based on individual performance metrics. And so what you have to do is we’re coming in and we’re looking at some of the process elements.

How is everything related to human resources? How do you measure somebody’s performance? How you measure and make the determination. How well are you doing? Your job matters a great deal because for instance, if you want a culture where people are taking the extra time to listen to each other and to help people across functions, but the only way that your performance is being measured is let’s say, the revenue that your area or your team is bringing in a month. Well, what you’re going to do is, this person’s going to internally or externally. Sometimes we are looking at the clock and finding ways to get out of those conversations where they’re helping other areas.

Well, 100%. Yeah. We talk about one of the major companies we recruit from, we want their best and brightest to belcome ours. Has incredibly skilled technicians. But one of the measurements upon which they are rated is their average callings. Lower is better. So if you can dispatch a call and get a positive rating in a minute and a half, you’re considered good. But if it takes you five minutes to get the same happy response, you’re considered low skilled. And that just the measurement of that performance is informing the entirety of your interactions with your clients on a surface call. Right?

Exactly. And that’s how someone like zappos.com goes against the flow to say no, we’re going to scrap that metric and instead highlight narrative examples of calls that last several hours because they’re building a deeper level of trust with our customers. So that’s the kind of advice, you know in the work we do, is both training and consulting in the sense. So we start in this project, we start by coming in to do a cultural diagnostic. To understand these are the values of a company. We do some focus group interviews, we do some forms that we send out and we collaborate that data to get a real picture of this is how this company works in terms of a culture. Then from there we say, okay, these are your goals that you want to see.

Okay, what are the real value drivers in that? And from that, we design a way to measure the return on investment of the programs that we do because that makes it a lot easier for an organization to go to their board of directors and defend their programs against other competing calls for budget. Because you can say, well, okay, it cost this much, but through this and this driver that we’re going to measure and see a difference in throughout the course of this program, we’re going to see this return. So then we do our delivery. Well we go in and in this case with the culture coaching culture project, it’s really establishing some new metrics. 

Team focused metrics so that the role of coach can be seen also as a way of apprenticing for a formalized leadership role and then becomes more enticing to people so that if you’re able to get some to be known as a good coach, that some people, somebody wants to go to for advice and help. Well, you’re halfway into a promotion to be a formal manager. And that tends to motivate people a little more to take some extra time.

Sure. I think one thing I’m going to take and kind of crystallize for our small business clients or listeners, you hit it very briefly with your Zappos example. If you’re in a position in your organization where you’re trying to influence culture and you don’t have the time or budget to really do a deep dive and we’ll talk about how maybe you could do that later, but for now narrative examples are one of the keys. 

Thomas, you mentioned in our previous conversations, I would assume the process would be something like find an actual event that occurred inside your company that is an example of how you want it and tell it in its full breadth as a story. Is that basically what narrative training would look like?

Well, absolutely. That’s one way to do it., To mine your own archives of your history and often in the founding moments or in other key moments. In an organization’s history, there are these kinds of parting of the ways that reinforce values. But those are gold. What we do though is also recognize in what medium or how do you come across those stories because having a leader or having somebody tell them is great, but you can’t always be there. So what we’re doing now is we’ve built a studio here in our office and we create videos of those stories. Also, so that you put them on YouTube, you put them on your website, you share them internally and externally, and those become artifacts that really build the strength.

Now that’s getting into my world. We have a video in the animation department and it’s all about turning those ideas and concepts into something that can scale and happen the same way every time. That’s our world systems and process design. It sounds boring, but it’s very much, especially when it comes to imparting culture, about making sure it happens that way every time and therefore you can tweak it and see improvements over time. Have a PR, we call that having a process as opposed to that being lucky that someone asked the right person about that story.

Right, right. The story is so powerful. You can put together bullet points and PowerPoint decks all day. But if you go back and you remember, well, how many of those to stick around in my memory and come up in important moments when I have to make decisions. They don’t. Right? But a story does, it has that kind of hardwired magic to it that sticks in our memory and that comes out, especially when we have to make decisions. So it’s critical to do that. And often how we connect those dots, whether you’re also trying to influence a customer or anyone. Getting the story right and then supporting it with the data so the rational mind can kind of calm down. You know, that’s really the thing.

Thomas, you’ve dropped so much incredible value today. Let me go on to our normal stuff and just kind of figure out what’s got you looking forward. A lot of our business owners are going through changes. They’re excited about stuff they’re rolling out in the next six months or so. What have you got coming up that’s got you excited, getting out of bed and rolling into work every day?

Well, there’s a few things right now. It is the launch of this major culture coaching culture initiative that’s really beautiful to see. We’re going to see as we roll this out to hundreds of managers. A major impact, hopefully at the level, both the personal level for people who are working in this organization. And I think also for the effectiveness of the organization. 

There’s another one thought too. You know bringing back to this example of our failure or our learning experience. Let’s put it that way. Training in Krakow and going back in a couple of weeks now to do, to lead a training in Warsaw with an organization there. And as we’re writing this paper and it’s really an opportunity now to see how well can we put into practice what we’re preaching in our theory, in our recipe or cookbook for people to do out there. So that sounds awesome.

If you’d have said Warsaw in the beginning, I’d have known where it was. Just saying.

Yeah, pull them.

Well, Thomas, let me ask you this. We have listeners, like I said, of all sizes from all walks of life. What should trigger in their mind as a reason to reach out to your organization? What’s something that maybe they’re going through or where they’re at in their entrepreneurial journey that says, why we should check this guy out. And once they know why, how should they contact you?

Oh, that’s a great question. You know, the beauty of who we are at Conversari is we’re a group of, we’re 16 of us from very different backgrounds. We have anthropologists, we have a doctor in business sciences. We have backgrounds all across the gamut. And the idea is, with that kind of diversity and also national diversity, you mentioned we have Ukrainians, we have people from Europe, Mexico, U S.

The diversity that we have. Our forte is really bringing, tailor made solutions to a variety of different problems or challenges that people face at the human factor level. From big organizations usually are the ones who have a budget to invest in those kinds of, like you said, deep dive program development type of things and they keep us going. But we also love to work with startups and acceleration stage organizations.

I’m a Google development mentor also, so we work with people at that stage to say, okay, your business, you’re focused right now on the technology part. But remember there’s always two sides to the business part. I mean to the human factor side and how that adds value to a business. One is how you deal with people internally. Often as people go through rapid growth with VC funding, angel funding, they’re scaling up quickly. 

You as a founder, you are dealing with your team of five and meeting in Starbucks or in your co-working office. Now you have a team of 20, 30, 40, you’re not meeting with the same regularity. Some of those are industry professionals that are different to deal with. You have all set of new challenges, we’d love to, you’re not alone. We’d love to listen to those, see in what way we can help. We just start with a cup of coffee virtually or in person to do that. Then we go from there.

And the other is also understanding whatever business you’re doing. You need a human being to make a decision. To either use or to purchase your product or service. And that decision is going to be motivated, through the complex emotional world of human beings. So the user experience, the customer experience is an integral part of everything. And those are really the two areas that we see trigger points that lead conversation with us.

So customers, should they reach out to you? How should they find you?

Oh, that’s great. So the website is the easiest. So conversari.com C O N V E R S A R I.com, or on our Facebook Conversari Global. Those are the easiest ways. You can see my own Pocono bio on the website. And my email is in there too, thomas@conversari.com and happy to have a conversation like this or anything else.

Thomas, thank you so much for your time today. I think you provided a ton of value to our listeners. Thank you for coming out.

Appreciate it, Rhamy. It’s always great to look at these issues that we’re all facing and thank you for hosting such a great forum where these ideas can come out and be shared with the world.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that’s it for today. I hope you enjoyed our conversation with Thomas Veeman, conversari.com co-founder, so many value bombs. We’ll definitely check out the show notes where we’re going to have some links to the books he mentioned his website, his social media. The ideas of culture influencing everything of course is something we all know, but just being able to put the concrete ideas there from his story of his time in Poland theory before practice versus in the United States practice before theory, a staggeringly good information. In the meantime, check us out @poplarfinancial.com. You can find more about the corporate services we provide at peopleprocesses.com, subscribe there. Get updated when we have new interviews. Just like this one, along with some subscriber only content including things like our on-boarding checklist. Our People Processes getting started guide. We’d love to share that with you. You can also find us at Poplar Financial on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn and Instagram. I’d love to see you all on there. Now it’s time for you to go out there, have a great day, and get your work done.

People Process Interviews: Linda Brown

Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to the People Processes podcast. My name is Rhamy Alejeal, and today we are interviewing Linda Brown.

Linda is awesome. She is a Master Certified Profit First Professional. She’s a Certified Preventive Growth coach and she’s the founder of Spire Business Inc. Linda supports entrepreneurs in demystifying their business finances and providing guidance to increase business profits so that they can bring more money home. She’s often referred to as the Voice of Reasons by her clients, Linda Equis, business owners with the tools, strategies and skills they need in order to create sustainable growth in their business and profit. We’re excited to have you on, Linda.

Thank you so much for having me. It’s a wonderful opportunity.

Well, we’re glad you’re here. So my first question is, and I have to ask this for our people in our field, most kids don’t dress up as CPAs and accountants and bookkeepers when they’re kids. How did you wind up in the field and doing what you do today?

By accident, but most people kind of fell into that one. I was actually in corporate America for about 14 years where I was a securities analyst for mutual fund companies. I didn’t have enough people interaction, so I went there to make a profit. Let’s just say I worked on a lot of estate plans. But what I realized is that, all entrepreneurs , when they were having their estate plans done, they didn’t actually know how much money they were making or how they would bring it into their business. Interestingly enough. At the same time I was a financial planning, I also had started a boat dealership with my husband. So I literally went out on maternity leave and within six weeks, my CPA came up to me and said, “Hey, you know, QuickBooks? I have a couple of clients that need some help. Would you please help them sell for the first five years?”

I actually did this for free. They didn’t charge it all. I charged nothing. I went home on maternity leave. I said, “Hey, this is really cool.” I didn’t go back to work. I just helped a couple of clients that the CPA sent to me. Yeah. It was, will you work for free? The answer is yes, I did. I helped businesses grow tremendously and then all of a sudden saying, Hey, I’m helping all these businesses grow and I’m not making any money. There’s something that’s not right here. So then I started actually creating the business. So if you were one of those lucky clients between 2002 and 2007 and there was no charge.

Well, that’s it. That’s tuition, right? That’s you. You got to really learn and do the real life work. That’s a great journey. Well, having back in 2002 you’ve been doing this a while now. A lot of our listeners are CPAs and bookkeepers. Most of them though are entrepreneurs or HR leaders who are in charge of the staffing and organization inside their company when they’re listening. A lot of our guests are very successful people like yourself. I try to bring that back because the biggest learning doesn’t come from talking to somebody who knows everything. A lot of times it comes from the big mistakes and the problems. So I’m hoping Linda, you will take us to your greatest entrepreneurial failure mistake bad day. And tell us that story, how you got there and what happened.

My bad day is actually digging out of the hole right now. To be honest, as most entrepreneurs, I was really good with numbers and business and could run my business really well. And most entrepreneurs start their business for whatever reason they start their business. Yours is HR, someone else might be interior design or engineering, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we know all the aspects of business to run our business. So mine was the numbers. I was really good at the numbers, but the marketing, not so much.

I grew for the first 14 years by word of mouth. It was really good. I had enough time to do my stay-at-home mom’s stuff and I had enough time to do business stuff. But when I decided, okay, it’s time to get serious, my kids don’t need me anymore. I had absolutely no idea on how to market. I took marketing class after marketing class and basically what they taught me is what you should do but not how I should do it. And so I got very frustrated and so I’m still digging that out. Now, learning how to dues, not what to do.

So when was the kind of moment of realization that you needed to really start investing in the marketing side of the business?

Believe it or not, it was when I joined profit first and Mike McCalla woods is a big believer in having a niche. And when I met Mike McCalla with some profit first, I had 44 clients in 44 industries. Mike’s like, you need to niche it down. You need to set up a system and processes within this one niche. And I realized very quickly that he was right because when we see my first profit to profit first clients, I couldn’t bring on staff because each individual client had an individual process or procedure. So I couldn’t actually bring staff on because there were no systems and processes. So to set up my systems and processes, which meant I made it to me show that all my clients were the same and then I could start marketing and growing it. Should you wind up both focusing totally? Actually it’s dual because it’s female entrepreneurs that work in the coaching and the design and staging industry for their homes.

Nice. Okay. Well, cool. Any lady, female entrepreneurs out there, especially those in the coaching or the interior design. We’ve got a specialist right here on the podcast for you. We’ll talk about how to reach out to her later. What do you think our listeners can learn from the kind of your journey and story? Why do you think they could take from that?

It’s not enough for two things. One, it’s not enough just to know what you know, you also have to find somebody that’s going to teach you what you don’t know. And by teaching, it’s not telling you what you don’t know. It’s how to solve the problem of what you don’t know. So just like yourself are teaching people how to get the HR into their business because it’s a big thing. Right? I can tell you, I don’t know everything. That’s why I come to you.

Right.Yeah. No and I’m in the same boat. I have a full time bookkeeper and two different CPAs and both of them, all three of them I know enough to hopefully tell if they’re trying to cheat me. That’s about it. Other than that, I’m trying to find the best people and letting them direct me.

And that’s the key aspect right there, is to find the people and know enough not to let them cheat you. I have quite a few clients who actually did just what you said. They went out and got a bookkeeper and got a CPA only to get audited and not realize they weren’t doing information correctly. So the course comes down to when you just blindly hand something over, are they actually doing what they’re supposed to do or not? And how do we as small business owners know and be able to track what they’re doing?

Right? But the reason I have two CPAs is because I still have a third party. I have a third party audit, right? Just to have someone go behind, it’s worth paying twice as much to make sure that the first guy does the job. Right? There’s a great quote by Steve jobs and he says, I don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do. I hire smaller, more smart people to have them tell me what to do. And I think there’s a balance between that and giving up the responsibility of running your own company. Right? You have to balance both. You need smart people telling you what to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s not your butt. On the line. So it’s still your responsibility, even if it’s someone else’s acumen that’s directing you.

Exactly.

Well, that is awesome. So what’s coming up in the next six months? What have you got looking forward to? That’s got you excited that you’re doing over at Spire?

Well, I’m really, really excited because we are switching over to group platforms in group training for our clients. We have a four step process of understanding the foundation of which to me, is your money. If as long as your money is working correctly for you, you should be able to do everything you need it to. So we have a money mastery class, a profit mastery class we have from the first implementation and then pump plan growth workshops going on.

So good. You’ve been doing those things for a long time, but now you’re focusing kind of on the group class version.

Right. I was doing it one on one and I realized that I wasn’t reaching as many people and my calendar got full so I was turning a lot of people away. So we’ve started implementing the cost strategy sessions.

Interesting. Are those already live? Are they up and running? Are you coming up on your first one soon?

We’ve done a couple beta ones that were word of mouth. But we’re starting to advertise this month for the first classes. That will be just 90 minute workshops in August, going into full classes in September.

Well, this podcast will air in August. So guys, we’ll talk about at the end where you can look up information on this. But by the time this is up in live, you should be able to check it out. And if you’re interested in a course , or a group class, that’ll help you dive into the money side of your business. That’s pretty cool. Well, let’s talk a little bit about what we call rapid fire questions. There’s just ways to maybe quickly share some of the key knowledge and bits that you’ve picked up. And one of my favorite questions is if you could recommend one book to maybe go alongside a people processes, how your people can be your organization’s competitive advantage, what book would you recommend for new business owners out there? Honestly, it’s a children’s book, the little engine. Yeah, I remember this book. I think my parents read to me the little engine.

What I find is that, most entrepreneurs need the mindset to know that they can go forward. I can do this, I can do this. We tend to get so discouraged and bring ourselves down, that little engine, he believed that he could get over that mountain if he just found the right partner to work with them. And so he went asking and asking and asking until he found the right partner.

Well that’s a great one. We’ll put the link in the description as well. We’ve had maybe a hundred 110 interviews or so. Never had that book recommended. And I think it’s an awesome one. That is so cool. Alright. So if you could go back in time, send a letter to yourself or whisper in your ear on the first, that first day you took maternity leave and we’re starting up your business, what would you tell yourself?

Oh, what would I tell myself? First of all, Linda, you can do anything that you set your mind to. Second of all, is set up the processes and the systems your business needs long before you need them.

Make a plan.

Well, make a plan. Yes, but more than the plan, actually have them. Because what we find in business oftentimes, possibly even yourself, is that we know the plan is there. We know what we need to do, but unless you actually have the plan working for you and the system’s there when you really need them is when you’re too busy to set them up.

Sure, sure. I have a joke that I do in a lot of my talks. It’s not a very good one, but it’s about naming your kid before you have it or at least before the epidural comes in. Because we had a very good friend who didn’t do that and then wound up having to change their daughter’s name three days after birth because she named the child after the epidural. Just saying, have a process in place before you need it. I often use it for maternity leave. If you’ve got employees, make your maternity leave policy before your first pregnant employee is wondering what’s going to happen to her.

Exactly. And I’m going to play, I was that person. I had two children, one six weeks early, one five weeks early. Neither one was named within the first 48 hours. I hadn’t gotten anything there.

And Hey, it works for some people and every once in a while you wind up with the infamous fun Yetta, as a child because that’s what you’re craving, right? Especially in all seriousness and business, you don’t want to be deciding, what’s your disciplinary policies going to be when it finally happens? You don’t want to, when you have five employees or 10 employees and you have your first complaint that you know, one of our clients harassed me or I’m worried that my manager isn’t treating me well because I’m a woman.

Those are things that are not fun to think about, but you really don’t want to be trying to figure them out in the hours after someone brings it up. Right. Oh my, I got injured at work today. Here I was, it’s an office environment. It’s a CPA or a bookkeeping shop and you know, getting into the office, I slipped and fell and I hurt myself. What do we do? Who do we call? Do we even, you know, do I go to mind? But doctor, do we, you know, just a little plans like that, that there’s not that many. But if you have a process or a plan in place when it’s actually needed, it’s going to save your butt.

Exactly. Not just the plan, but the process document. And it’s easy to find out because when we’re in the moment, we can get scattered.

Right? And it needs to be, I mean, in the long run, it needs to be accessible, right? It’s not just written down. It can’t just be in a binder that one person knows. It needs to be accessible. It needs to be communicated well. You know, someone needs to be responsible for it. Perhaps the most important thing of having processes is how, and when does it get updated? How do you review it and improve it over time? All of those pieces, the differentiator between businesses that can scale and those that don’t. Right. Exactly.

That’s where I think most people want to go. They want to be able to scale. We want to have the infamous four week vacation.

Right? Absolutely. Well, let’s go on. So outside of the wonderful book of the little engine that could, and that you have told yourself back on the first day, you can do anything and to think big and also that you need to have actual processes in place. What is the best business advice you’ve ever heard from someone else? The best business advice someone’s passed along to you?

My very first employer as an adult, I’m actually on the very first day of my job with him, said, “I don’t care what you know, I don’t care what you don’t know. The most important thing that you will ever have is who you know and what they know is. So get good contacts, find out what they know, what they’re experts in.” You know, because everybody has a background, right? Especially entrepreneurs. We all have some type of corporate background or knowledge behind us. So figuring out what they know as well so you can go and ask questions because you don’t need to know it. You just need to know the person that does.

I like that. I can’t remember who said it, but it’s something like in business there’s never a how problem. There’s only a who problem, something like that. I always keep in mind whenever I’m trying to figure something out is like, how are we going to do this? What are we going to do? Well, the real question is who, who do I know who can do this? That’s the reality.

Exactly.

Well, I like that. We’re an HR podcast. Of course a lot of people listen to us to think about scaling those people operations side of your business. What do you think is the number one policy, procedure, system training that’s had the biggest effect on your clients or your company internally?

Two-fold, if I may. First, it’s figuring out, because I work with a lot of entrepreneurs. Are they in fact an employee or are they in fact a contractor? So that’s first and foremost for any company, especially the small employer who doesn’t want that person to be an employee because it’s going to cost them extra money. So in the long-term, figure out who actually needs to work for you and then get them set up correctly. Bring in the expert HR person, make sure you’re covered with your disability and your workers’ comp. Have your employee manual inset. You really don’t want to mess up when it comes to people’s resources.

Oh, I like that. But yeah. So number one, is get your people right, especially the classification independent contractor versus employee.

You know, I always say, money is the foundation of your business. You can float by for a little bit. If something gets undone, you cannot float by if something ever happens to your people.

Right. So, money is the foundation, but money’s important because you gotta pay your people. That’s the number one reason, right? The people are the thing that executes nothing but nothing, but people execute anything in it.

Exactly. And you have to make your people happy so that your business is going to grow. Because even times these solo entrepreneurs, right, their worst boss is themselves. They could have worked in corporate America for years and years and years, but the worst boss is themselves. So yes, money is key and fundamental, but you need to make sure your people are done right because they’re going to be the ones that support you and grow with you.

You said there were two parts, the first one is getting that right.

First part is getting the people right, but the money, you really need the money as the foundation. Hence the fact that I’m here. But you are definitely the human resource aspect of any business that has to be done. Right?

So in terms of like a financial process that you put in, what would that entail? What’s it look like to actually have a process around that?

So most of my clients, I actually have trained to do their own bookkeeping and five minutes a day, the biggest problem was even if you went through and became an MBA or you’ve become a CPA, you learn the theory of business. You do not learn how business practically applies to you. So I even have actually an auditor from Deloitte and Touche who left and went out on his own, came to me and said, “Hey, can you set up my chart of accounts with me and teach me how to use QuickBooks? Because I only know how to look at it when it’s all done. I don’t know how to get it where it is.” And so we sat down and we worked through it with him. And so it’s really important that anybody understands how money comes into the business, how to have it go out of your business and how to categorize it when it’s in there.

So sitting down with an expert to really design that chart of accounts, that general ledger, so that it actually reflects what’s going on in your company. Not just like using the default and trying to hope that it’s sorts automatically correct.

Right. So whether you’re doing it or you hire that CPA to do it, because oftentimes that CPA’s trying to do tax savings for you, they’re not thinking exit strategies or growth strategies or you’re going to need a loan in five weeks or five months or five years strategy. So we need to make sure that not only is your profit and loss being calculated correctly, but that your assets are truly shown where they need to show.

Interesting. Honestly, I think you’re giving most CPAs too much credit. I love CPA’s and they’re half my audience, but most of the people listening I think would know that the majority of CPAs, at least the ones I’ve worked with.

If they’re actually looking for tax savings for you, they’re there. They’re in the top 10% already. The majority that I’ve ever worked with are just purely transactional. I’ll get the darn taxes filed one way or the other. I think it’s even a top 10% that will put the time in to advise you on how to better structure your taxes much less, go into the depth of design and that you’re talking about.

Well, I actually have created partnerships with a couple of CPAs that are tax experts. Specifically because I want to make sure that the books and my niches are set up to help the individuals but also help them tax effectively. So we’ve actually gone back and forth on, I need to see this as the bookkeeper who’s tracking the pennies too. I need it to look like this for the tax return to get them the biggest impact. So very interesting. Yes. Partnership.

I have a friend who’s not a client, he’s a small business ,who’s a contractor. He does some of the work on some of my rental houses and he set up his business about a year ago with his brother. He didn’t come to me to do any, you know, work or really a CPA. And of course almost as expected. He and his brother had a falling out and now they’re in this world where none of their books are right. They don’t know who I was. They filed an extension April 15th. Then I was telling him and he was mentioning that he wasn’t even clear that he owed his taxes by April 15th if he filed an extension. He just thought the extension, you know, gave him till October 15th. It is shocking, the level of financial knowledge that many small business owners have. They don’t really need to know more until, until they really do.

I mean, I think you’re exactly right. If I were advising any company that any new business is getting started up, I’m going to go register my company tomorrow. You need to know who’s an independent contractor and who is an employee. Get that right from the beginning and you need to get a financial process so that you know what dollars are coming in, where they’re going, how they’re being spent, how they’re being categorized, how to spend them. I think that’s awesome. I think those are the basic one and two for becoming someone other than an independent contractor yourself. To become something other than just the guy who does the work to actually run a business.

Even the independent contractor needs to know the money. No, that’s very true. That’s very true because it happens time and time again. You think you’ve got things done right and Oh, you’re mixing personal money with business money or Oh this wasn’t really a business expense. So what happens often times is that one or the other can get audited and because you’re mixing money’s up now if your business is getting audit now you’re personally getting audited or if you were personally getting audit, now your business is getting out of it. Right. So gosh, one audit is hard enough at a time. You really don’t want to have to go through two at a time.

Makes a lot of sense. Well, if we have listeners on here who are interested in reaching out to you, how should they find out more about you and what should be the trigger in their mind for when they should?

I’ll reach out before you think you need to. So if you are a small business, I would say it’s time to reach out. But they can either go to my website which is spirebusiness.com S P I R E business.com or hello@spirebusiness.com is our email. 

Awesome. And are you on social media?

I am on social media. I am N S L I N B coaching or Spire_business.

Nice. We’ll put links in the descriptions below. Linda, thank you so much for coming out today. It was great to talk with you.

Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.

All right, ladies and gentlemen, that’s it today for our interview with Linda Brown of Spire business, I’m excited to have her on. We covered some very interesting pieces, some of the key takeaways. I really liked that she crystallized that to really start a business, you need to have a financial process in place. You need to. It’s a basic setup, but you need an expert to come in and it’ll be worth its weight in gold to come in and help you design how that money’s going to come in, how can be categorized, how it’s going to be spent. I appreciate her plugging the HR side too. I’d love to help you out there. Of course. In the meantime, check us out @poplarfinancial.com and peopleprocesses.com. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can get subscriber only content, like our new on-boarding checklist for small businesses that we’re really excited to share with you. You can also find us at Poplar Financial on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Love to see you there. Now it’s time for you to go out there, have a great day, and get your work done.

People Process Interviews: Lee Caraher

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. This is Rhamy Alejeal, your host of People Processes. We’re so excited to have you tune in today. Today we are interviewing Lee Caraher.

She is the founder and CEO of double forte PR, did a double forte PR and digital marketing. She is the author of “Millennials and Management: The Essential Guide To Making it Work at Work.” She based the book on her experience with epically failing and then succeeding at retaining millennials in her business. Her second book, “The Boomerang Principle, Inspire Lifetime Loyalty From Employees” was published in 2017. It’s a pragmatic and actionable guide to creating high performing work cultures ready for the future. And we are so excited to have her on. Lee, are you there?

I’m here, Rhamy. Thank you so much for having me.

Well, I’m ecstatic to have you. I want to start with figuring out how you got into your current business, doing PR and really writing a lot about HR work.

So I started my PR career after college. I graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota with a degree in medieval history. Very helpful. I did not know what I was going to do when my friend Ramona and I were talking and she said, you should really check out this PR thing. I think you’d do well in it. And so I checked it out and here I am almost a little more than 30 years later having been in the public relations career and communications career my whole career.

30 years, man, you must start it at I guess what age, age to age, three rolled right out of college.

Sorry. You know, I’m very enhanced.

Sure. Well, in 30 years of doing this, I know you’ve had some crazy highs and some probably pretty rough lows. So what I love to do is start with our guests talking about their toughest time, because I think our listeners learn more from the failures in our guests stories and they do from the successes. So why don’t you take us really to that time, maybe even like a specific day you realized you had a problem, what happened and tell us that story. Then we can talk about maybe some of the things that our listeners could learn.

Sure. So I started my company with a co-founder, a very good friend who we’d worked together many years before we started the company. In four years he said, I really don’t wanna do this PR thing anymore, Lee. He left the company and actually he came back and then he left again. Which is about my second book, boomerang. But well, going forward, a few years ago I was thinking about what is next for the company. The company needs to transcend my tenure there and who would take over for me. There really wasn’t anybody in the company who either wanted to or could become the CEO of the entity. So I was intent on bringing somebody in. I did that. I brought someone I knew pretty well.

I thought of the company and some cultural things were a bit different as you always will. You know, everything is not static. But my gut, I was very intent on finding this person and getting that person in place which I did. After a couple of years, that thing happened, it was like, Oh well, it’s just him. He’s just different than me, etc. And then one day or one week, he lost four clients all at the same time, really for the same reason. Not for our performance, but really about him. And I was like, okay, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. I go, you have to listen to your gut. So, we parted ways and I wished him well. But it takes a long time to recover from that. You know, you don’t just like one day have a succession plan and the next day, get rid of that person and say, okay, everything’s okay. You really have to read it.

Right. The cascading. Yeah. We had a guest not too long ago, in a very similar situation. Brought on a COO with the idea of this person eventually taking over in the the investment and transition time to getting them up and then, that person not working out. It’s a morale hit, if nothing else, not to mention operational hits your bottom line as well. Right. So, yeah. Not to mention, big piles of money. Absolutely. Well, I’m sorry to hear about that. So if our listeners are in their first couple of years of business and they’re thinking about similar concerns you had. What do you think maybe they could take from your story and they could learn from your mistakes? What should they do when they’re trying to accomplish something similar?

Beginning of your business and you have a partner, make sure that you have a great prenup. Whatever that agreement is between the partners on how they will leave, what the calculation will be for an earn-out, what are the conditions, whatever that is, batter that out before you get started because you will hate each other one moment in time for sure. It’s going to happen. You can get past it if you have really good agreements. So, that was on my co-founder,, it was very clear what had to happen and what he had to do to get the maximum value out of the company for himself, which I was very happy to write the check for because he fulfilled all the agreements we had put in place before. On the second piece, bringing a successor in. Very tough. You know, it’s one of the things that big companies struggle with so much. I think that if your gut is telling you something about the person, no matter what their credentials are, no matter how much you’ve known them, no matter how much success they’ve had in the past, if your gut is telling you something, you need to listen to it. And don’t ignore what’s happening just because you want it to work out.

I like that. So on these big decisions, these succession issues, listen to your gut. If you’re feeling something wonky, timed up. Time to really zoom in on that and pay attention. I like that. Well, your book, which came out in 2017, is the boomerang principle. What is the boomerang principle? What does that even mean?

The boomerang principle is the idea that those companies and organizations that don’t just allow but actually encourage people to return to them as employees once they’ve left. Have a strategic advantage over those that don’t. Something that we’ve practiced on that one fourth day since the beginning. We’re a small company. We have 37 people right now. We have rehired 16 people and we rehired four people twice. So across the board, if you look at those companies that do rehire people, these people are the highest performers they have in their entity. So the more we will to that sort of point of view of having people return to the company when they’ve left, the better it is for the people who were there. And the better it is for your bottom line.

That’s very unique. I mean, just an interesting idea. We’ve had, you know, this is an HR podcast. My company, Poplar financial, we work on the processes and systems around human resources. So systematizing things like on-boarding and off-boarding which everybody goes through. We talk about it all the time, it’s a huge part of that. But everyone focuses on retention. How do you keep people from leaving? You’re saying, no, no, no, no, no. Allow them to leave and in fact encourage exploration, but make sure they come back. Is that the idea?

A few things. One is when you create an environment that people return to, you’re creating an environment in a culture that people have a hard time leaving, right? People don’t return to something bad. They only return to something good, number one. So if you have an environment in a culture that helps people return, you actually have a culture that helps people stay longer and retention is built into that. Number one. Number two is when you actually have someone return to you, they are more valuable to you the second time around then they were the first for many reasons. One is you already know that they’ve worked well with you in your culture. They already have proved themselves as one of you. Whatever that culture company is.

The second is they’ve gone out into the world and learned other things that they’re bringing back to you. You can apply a more worldly view to the work that they’re going to be doing. And we all know, and there’s a lot of data that says, the more different inputs you have, the better decisions you make. And the problem with retention sometimes is that we can become more inwardly focused. Right. It’s really a challenge to get outside of view into a group that stays together for a long time. And I found this in my own business now. But when you have someone come back, right, they go, I learned this thing out there. What if we do it here? They bring other things back to you and they know what could and could not work. And the third is they come on board, you know, it doesn’t, they’re not a hundred percent day two. Right. But they’re 100% around day 3540, which is so much right of a new employee. Right. A new employee takes six to six months to one year to become fully functional in any answer.

Yeah. And such an interesting idea. Obviously they’re more valuable and also, the grass is greener on the other side mentality, which has been, if they’re coming back, they’ve seen the other side. Right, right, right. I guess. Oh, interesting. So why I guess that makes sense. If an employee is going to leave you, you want them to come back, I’m assuming you didn’t like to throw them out because they’re thieves or something like that. Yeah. So how do you do that? What are the steps to actually creating a system that encourages return work?

Yeah. Well it starts on day one, right? It starts on day one. I meet every new employee in the company, in their first two weeks. And one of the first things I say to them, Rhamy is, “Hi, I know you’re going to leave us. So it’s really important to us that when you do leave here, you never take the devil to take off your resume.” And that is a point of pride that you were at double forte. And I hope you’re here for a long time. And I hope that it’s mutually rewarding. I hope that you grow, learn new things and achieve your own personal goals within the constructs of our company. But I know when you hire someone, they’re going to leave. So I know you’re probably not gonna stay in for the rest of your life, but I hope when you do that, it’s good that it’s positive and that when you’re no longer interested, come and talk to us and we will help you find what’s next. Then I hope you come back.

I say that in the first week of their employment. And of course some people are like, just got here. But I think it’s important to like to set the tone. I said, the tone I want to set is double before two, we want double forte beat to be important to your career. And we’re set up to do that. We’re also set up to do really good PR, digital communications and we have to do those two things together. And that means one, we have very high standards of work and that we’re going to be training for, be mentoring for, be fostering. And two, it’s going to be a good conversation with every employee around, what is it that is their goal? How do you see yourself? What do you want them to know about this job?

If it’s an entry level person, they don’t want to know that it’s only one path. What are the past they could take? And to have really good conversations with these people, not just at review time, but throughout the course of the year. See what’s going on. What are you interested in? My own assistant who came to the company, he’s actually just left, but he was at the company for almost five years. He came from Michigan. He wanted to be an actor, but he knew he wasn’t gonna be able to do that full time. So he wanted to be an assistant so he could then sort of get out by 5:30 and go act. And he did that. And then one day I turned around, he’s great at it, and I turned around and he was drawing a greeting card for his mother and it was amazing.

And I’m like, David, did you do that? He goes, yeah, it’s my lunch hour. I’m like, Oh man, I don’t care about the lunch hour part. I’m like, I didn’t know you were an artist. You didn’t tell us you were an artist. Well, I didn’t think you’d care. What do you want to do here? Do you want to use it? Oh, I’d love to do that here. I mean, who knew? Right? And he told us he was leaving and one of the reasons he stayed so long and was five-year for somebody under 30 is a long time in San Francisco. When he told us he was leaving, he goes, one of the reasons I stayed so long is, because I got to do the things that I love at double forte and help the company doing those things. So when you can find those interests and they can be so much more valuable within just the job description you hire, or because the job description is just one facet of those pictures, but people’s role is how people show up in the world.

So you know, he’s gone. I hope he comes back. He’s already sent us to people who might be great employees. So already, he’s come back to us in a way he didn’t have to do that. And that’s the loyal part, right? It used to be the old paradigm used to be, if you leave me like when you work for me, you’re not loyal and you’re dead to me. Well, actually not when you’re getting paid. That is a transaction. I will give you a paycheck. You’re supposed to show up, which frankly is not a skill, but you need to do it. And that’s a paid transaction. Loyal act is when you don’t expect anything in return that you’re out there in the world and you go, you know what? I met Joe. Joe would be awesome at double forte. I’m going to give Lee a call and say, Hey, you should talk to Joe.

You didn’t have to do that. You don’t have to do that for me to know that for Joe and to do it for himself, but that’s a loyal act. I’m thinking about the betterment of whoever you’re talking to, right. When you don’t expect anything in return. So that’s what I’m talking about in the boomerang principle is if we get away from thinking about loyalty just when we pay people, right? Thinking about, Oh, I want someone to be loyal to the company for their entire career. Well how does that work? What does that look like? That looks like them going out into the world and always keeping in touch with us, always being connected to double forte. And when something comes across their viewpoint that could benefit the company, they pick up the phone and they make it happen. That’s a loyal act. So how do you keep them involved after they leave? I mean, so you treat them when they’re with you, you on-board them with the expectation of understanding.

Also, one thing about your first week conversation that struck me is it also gives you a little bit more. I think a lot of employers, as you said, they’re pretending or kind of inferred anyway. I inferred, they’re pretending that when they hire someone at 27, that they’re going to retire from minutes. Right? And they’re like, well, 68. Yeah, we want you to work for us forever. And that’s our goal. And when you state your goal is that, one thing that puts you in a position is when an employee’s not though, right? When an employee has needs, whether they’re temporary or permanent, that does not fit the company’s needs. So I don’t know, maybe they don’t have the skills to generate salary or they have some issues that need to work on before they move to another step or something.

You’re putting a weird position in saying that we want you to stay here forever, but also, we can’t satisfy the immediate needs you’re presenting. Whereas, if you’re saying, look this is the place for you for now and we want you here. We want this to be your place forever. But if it’s not, we want you to stay loyal and we want you to join us at the moment, we want you to come back and be a part of us long-term. You’re also implicitly stating, if this isn’t the right fit for you, get to move on and we’re all still friends and we can continue to work together. And it takes a little pressure off the company to be like, we have to meet your immediate needs, all the time. Forever for the entire future of our lives.

Well, it also takes pressure. I think it takes pressure off both sides. Right? It’s sort of like, stating the obvious and as long as people aren’t pretending, you’re just removing a lot of pressure and anyway. Right.

Right. It’s not like any other company is going to give you a pay. Yeah. It’s just that you’re being more honest.

That is what used to be the expectation, right? The expectation used to be when my parents were working, you come, you go, and when you go, it’s when you’re getting your watch and you’re retiring. I mean that has changed,, that used to be the American dream and we could talk forever about this, Rhamy. I have a lot of statistics and data and maybe we can talk about it some other time, but that’s just not reality anymore. And instead, particularly for younger people who they already know, that whatever job they have today, will look different in five years. Unlike people my age were like, Oh, I’ve learned a skill. I can do it for the rest of my life. It’s not true anymore. And anything you do today, if you have a job title today, that job titles will look very, very different in three or four years.

So you’re also setting the expectation if it doesn’t work, we’ll help you find something that does help you be successful somewhere else. That’s what we’re all about. Right. How do you keep the most productive organizations are the happiest organizations? The happiest organizations are the most effective organizations. So you have to have the most positive high producing teams, ones that are very clear on mission, very clear on their own role and very clear on who they are as people and how they want to move in the world.

So when someone comes to you and says, look, I don’t think I want something new. I know, I’d love to see if it can be done here, but if it can’t be. I mean, do you guys as a PR firm or are you, like you said, you’ve mentioned a few times, we’ll help you find somewhere else. What does that mean?

So, as long as you’re having a conversation with us, we can do that. Right? So I’ll give you a couple of examples. One woman came to her manager a few years ago and said, she really wants to be a nurse. Well, you can’t be a nurse and be about double forte. We’re just never going to be a hospital. Right? So it was like, well, how can we help you do that? Well, we could help her do that by allowing her to work different hours with a different structure so that she could go to nursing school during the day and during the night, get her schedule. So she worked for us for probably nine more months. Her schedule was wonky and she didn’t have all the responsibilities she had before.

But you’ve got a lot of work done for us while she went to nursing school. So that’s us helping her. Right in the end, she actually had to move home to where her parents live because her father’s ill. She didn’t go become a nurse because she needed to be that earner now for her family. And she went into PR. So again, she had another PR firm. And so when she told us this is what she was going to do, I was like, give me the companies you want to talk to. I will call them all right now. So that was one way.

Another person I’m leaving actually this week is his last day is tomorrow. You’ve been with us almost eight years. I’ve been talking to him for about 18 months. And when I say I’ve been to, he came to me and said, I don’t know what I want to do, Lee. I don’t know if this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I’m like, okay, well you don’t have to quit because you don’t know what you want to do for your life, but you do have to keep up your standards and keep being double forte and what end basically we’ve been talking on and off for 18 months. At the beginning of this year we talked some more and I knew that probably this year he would leave, but we had several big things happen all at the same time.

When one of our people lost her husband and was on bereavement and he filled in for her and we had two huge projects that ended around the same time and those projects ended. This woman came back from bereavement and he came to me and said, I still don’t know what I wanted to, but if I’m going to leave this year, now is the time before I get redeployed. So then he gave us seven weeks of notice. So it’s seven weeks of notice. He’s been in conversation with us. I’m like, how can I help you? He’s like, I don’t know yet, but I’ll ask when it happens. And we were talking last week and he was basically in tears. He goes, how do you leave a company you love? I said, I don’t know, but you’re doing a good job at it.

If you go join the circus and it doesn’t work out in six months, I hope it comes back right.

We’ll come back in some way. For sure. Not at all. But what can we do to help those people fulfill their own goals? Because frankly, the most loyal act an employee can do is leave when they’re no longer excited about what they’re doing. Most loyal act, an employee who you’re paying can do, is explore other things in the company, see if there’s another opportunity for themselves. And if there isn’t to say, you know what, I need to do something different. I love this place, but my own life, these are the things I need to go. Okay. How can we help you? You know, congratulations is really the first piece of that like, Oh well, and never counter. I never ever counter because it means I did something wrong beforehand. So I need to acknowledge that mistake and not counter during the whole thing.

Yeah. I’ve stressed that in the past that I’ve probably seen, in 10 years of working inside hundreds of HR companies I’ve seen hundreds of companies that counter decision I have never, ever, ever seen it come out. Right. I mean, you kept something, a lot of times I keep the employee, but then two years later you’re in a way.

You’re in a worse position because you think everybody doesn’t know that they’ve encountered every right, just start the whole yo-yo of dissatisfaction.

Well I think you have that’s such an interesting idea and I just think it’s awesome and it’s interesting. A lot of people write books inside there. Well look, if you run a PR company, you could probably write a book about doing PR. That’s the idea, right? So I think it’s awesome. You’ve written this book and I think the concept is just staggeringly interesting. We could talk for hours, but our shows lasted only about 30 minutes. So I’m moving on to a couple of rapid fire questions, but I want to ask one question, which is like, what are you trying to accomplish with this book? I mean, do you think that you’re going to your books, I mean, are they going to write, are you going to sell 40,000 copies and make lots of money or like why’d you write it?

You know. I wrote the book for a couple of reasons. One, in the business communications, it’s all about leadership. It’s all about community. It’s about connecting, about making sure that what you say is what you do and is what people understand. And as a leader of a company, you see you have a company that I run. A company that does, right? But the company part is about leadership, about people, about vision, about the future. And that’s actually also the work that I mostly do with our clients. I mostly do deal with the C suite of our clients who are worrying about the same things I am as the CEO of my company. So at the time of my first book, when everyone was failing dramatically with millennials, I mean, you said at the beginning I had Epic failure, right?

So I had six, I had hired six people who were in the millennial category within eight weeks of each other. And within three months they were all gone. We walked in five. Walk themselves and I’d never in my life had 100% failure in retention ever. And it was a wake up call. I think for me, I was just like, okay, that can’t be us. I mean that can’t be recruiting because we are good recruiters that’s got. It can’t be them. We couldn’t have hired six bad people all at the same time. We had to start looking at ourselves, what did we do wrong? And they started looking at it and everything I read about any normal was negative. And I was like, it can’t be true that 80 million people are entitled and terrible.

They decided to ignore everything I was reading and just go back to the basics and do my own research and figure it out myself because everything I was reading was not helpful. There weren’t very many books or articles written by people actually leading people. They were written by journalists or they were written by consultants, are they written by people who actually weren’t doing anything? I really had a visceral reaction to what I was reading. I was like, every once in a while I wind up here with a consultant kind of. Right. You know? Well, it should be. They always have good information. But one of the things that really bugs me is when we’re talking about people leadership and they’ve never had an employee. No, it’s not the same.

I’m just like, it’s like the people who are in strategy and companies and go, why didn’t you get that done? Well, have you tried to warn a business? Thank you. Anyway, so I was doing all this work for my companies in the same things that we learned for ourselves, right. To a lot of trial and error, a lot of interacting, this kind of stuff. And my clients were like, you should just write a book leave because it makes it a lot easier for yourself. It’s like, yeah, no one wants to hear from me on this. And because I write, I’m a PR person, what do I know about leadership? Well, apparently I know a lot and I’m good at it. My clients would just keep on pushing me to write this book. I was meeting with the publisher for some totally different answer and something happened in the room and she goes, Oh, publish that book.

I’m like, what book are you talking about? I don’t have a book that looks about millennials getting that done. So I was also in EO. E O is an entrepreneur organization. It’s like the YPO for entrepreneurs and very much a gestalt organization sharing our experiences, not telling you what to do. More and more of the EO chapters around the country were asking me to come talk about what I was learning in my company, my little baby company. I just thought it would be valuable. And so based on that, I published the book and I think the next book came out of the reaction to the first book cause the Dorian principle came out when I was speaking around the country about the staff. I really feel passionately about who you are saying don’t lie, see what you are, do what you say and make people understand it.

I mean that as a question, right? PR is right up my alley because I believe that makes good in the world. Helping people understand how to do that, from a leadership perspective helps people have better businesses. And that’s what the books are about on the boomerang principle. I’m going around the country talking about millennials and management. And every time, every single talk and I did over a hundred of these talks, someone raised their hand and went, I’m not putting any time and it’s millennials cause they’re going to leave me. And as soon as they leave me, they’re dead to me. And I’d be like, no, that’s wrong that way. I knew that was a huge problem. So that’s why I wrote the second book around. It’s the same thing written from a different point of view.

How do you create a relevant now, today that means intergenerational, right? In a generational high-producing positive workplace. And that’s what I did, right? And of course people don’t realize, but this year is an interesting year because millennials will outnumber any other generation. Correct this year. But also we’re all working long, right? 65, that is a glimmer, right? When I started my career, I was in my last year of boomer. We all thought we were retiring at 50, all of us, right? Well that came and went and I know so many boomers and silence who are still working because they lost so much money 10 years ago and they’re still recovering from that. So we’re all working until we’re 70 or 80. And if you think about life expectancy today, if you’re born today, you have over 50% chance of living until you’re 110, right?

Well, if you’re 110 and you’re retiring at a 40 to 50 year retirement plan, the 1% of the 1% is the only ones who can afford that. We’re all going to be working much longer. We’re all gonna have the brain power to work too much longer. So we just have to be thinking about working in a fairly different way than our parents did, right? It’s a transition that we have to get used to, knowing that probably if we do the same thing our whole lives, we will be bored to tears. Right? It’s a lot of work life, right? So part of this for writing, for my book, the purpose of them was to explore other things that I can bring to my business or the things that can bring to the people I care about. Other things, other good things that can be put in the world because we’re all changing so much.

That’s awesome. Well, let me ask you a couple of rapid fire questions just to get a couple ideas out there. One, if you could recommend one book to go alongside the boomerang principle and of course people processes, what would you recommend for a new entrepreneur to read?

I would say, Hire the 18 by Winnie Johnson.

Cool. That’s in the show notes down below, if you could go back in time and whisper in your ear back on your first day of setting up double forte, what would you tell yourself?

It’s actually going to last more than five years. Be a pair.

Take a long, long, long term plan, a long term plan. Very interesting. Awesome. Okay. Well, what’s got you most fired up, excited in the next six months with your business? What’s coming down the pike?

Well, I’ve just moved my with my family to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is, I’m in the middle of the country and we are opening an office here from San Francisco, big change from San Francisco in New York, which is where I’ve been spending most of my time for the last 20 years. So I’ll be sharing my time between Auclair, which was in San Francisco in the bit of New York, but we think that there’s a lot of opportunity here in the Midwest. I’m looking forward to figuring that out.

Well, when should our listeners, I’m sure some of them are interested in your services or what do you think should be the trigger for them to contact you and how should they go about doing so?

Yeah, if people are interested in my leadership ideas around boomerangs and millennials and positive workplaces, they should go to leecaraher.com L E E C A R A H E R.com. And you can find my books and my writing and my Twitter and all that kind of stuff there. I’m @Leehereverywhere. I’m very easy to find. If you’re very interested, you can also find my agency, they’re double forte. If you’re interested in double forte’s public relations, communication services, you can go to double-forte.com or you can email me at Lcareher@double-forte.com.

That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show today, Lee. I’m sure there was so much good value you dropped. I’m excited to learn more about your processes. I’m definitely paying attention to you going forward. There’s anything you would like to come back on the show and talk about you. Let us know when your next book is coming out. We’ll do that. Have a great one. Thanks. Bye. All right, ladies and gentlemen, that’s it for today. Show appreciates Lee coming on. Shared some amazing value information. The idea of creating a workplace that people return to staggering. Now it’s time for you to go out there, have a great day, and get your work done.

Learn more about Lee here:

www.leecaraher.com

double-forte.com

dblackburn@double-forte.com

Twitter: @Leehereverywhere