by Mike McHugh, CEO
Among all the accomplishments we have had in the last year, our recognition last week as a finalist for Best Places to Work in Kansas City by the Kansas City Business Journal is the one that is the most meaningful. It’s not about the award from KCBJ so much as the vote of confidence and support from our collective employees.
Since we pretty much researched every great company we could to see what they are doing in the area of employee engagement, it only seems fair for us to contribute back to the community on the topic. Seriously, we read through the Netflix company culture deck about a million times and almost all quit and moved to the Bay Area hoping for jobs. There are so many great companies really redefining what it means to engage with their teams and doing it in legitimately valuable ways. We took ideas from all of them to try to help us along the way. The goal of this piece is not to brag about what we have accomplished so much as to share some of what we did in the hopes it will help somebody else researching what they can do to be a better company. We still have lots of problems and work to be done so don’t think we are even close to perfect. We do care though and we are constantly working to be better.
So with all that said, below are some of our big areas of focus as it relates to our team and company culture.
The last few years we had company goals such as “Defend the Turf” or “Hold the Line”. All our goals this year switched to aggressive posture around growth, excellence, thriving, striving, driving, and all the other “ivings”. Just trying to improve was no longer the benchmark, we needed to set lofty targets that would be impactful when we accomplish them. Within employee engagement, where in the past we worked to improve in our areas of weakness, we cast instead an aspirational goal of being recognized as a Best Places to Work…by 2020. The goal for the year was to define everything we needed to work on and have a multi-year plan to get it done. Over the course of the year, we made way more progress than any year in recent memory. We didn’t hit all our goals, but even when we missed we pushed harder because of the ambitious approach.
Going through a company split, business redefinition, company rebrand, office space change, and personnel changes is a lot of change to throw at any group of people. Our collective team has weathered it like champs and come out on the other side even stronger. Through it all, we tried to always err on the side of more information sharing and transparency. We cover financial results versus plan and last year even when it shows us with some misses. We held town halls, actively blogged internally about everything going on, made sure there was at least one all company meeting every quarter to share what is happening and going to happen next. We solicited questions and gave direct answers about anything asked. While some leaders approach sharing from the perspective of only highlighting the positives and avoiding any financial information, we embrace our problems and want to share that info. After all, the best people really care about what “all” is going on and those are the most important people to keep in the loop. If you don’t tell them when things are tough, how are you going to engage them to help turn the ship?
The list of people that have contributed to helping us navigate everything the last year is too long to even start to share. I would pretty much have to post our whole employee roster, and well, that isn’t what I meant about transparency. For the company rebrand, we encouraged everyone interested to join a team to brainstorm names. Countless employees hauled countless amounts of old furniture to dumpsters for our move. We assembled desks, file cabinets, tables, chairs, and an entire fitness center together. Our team gave time, money and talents to multiple philanthropic organizations, taking the time to organize events out of their personal time. The more we asked, the more everyone gave of their time. What we didn’t realize along the way is that the biggest benefit wasn’t that we got way more done than a small group of us could have done or saved money by not hiring contractors. The difference is that through their sweat equity, everyone felt more a part of the company and personally invested in our success. It has become everyone’s company rather than just a place we all happen to work.
The biggest tangible sign everyone can see from our company change over the last year is the new name, Thruline, with the corresponding website, logos, and marketing assets. Before we started tackling a name though, we went through an exhaustive process of reviewing our company values. This is where we pretty much obsessed over the materials Netflix has built. We took that as inspiration to try and develop as good of values and as amazing of a way to communicate them. Not sure if we lived up to that goal either, but we are pretty proud of what we developed. This gave us a chance to discuss as a group what we really like about who we are, what we wish we were more like and what parts of us we would rather leave in the past. The outcome of that was a very different way of approaching values. We took the opportunity to define the key traits we value in our team and that we look for whenever we add to our team. Those traits are being Problem Solvers, Candid, Accountable, Curious, Competitive, and Optimistic. Once we had all the ingredients, we defined how we want our team to work together to approach their work. When we do our best work we Bring Data, Win Together, Make a Mark, Fail Forward, Use Friction to Create Fire and Have Fun and Kick Ass. Traditional company values both seemed non-unique and incomplete to what we want to do. Ultimately we believe that if we carefully identify the right type of people to be on our team and then give them guidance on how we want them to collaborate together that is more impactful than cliché words like Integrity, Customer Service and Our People Matter.
We still have so much to do between our business, people, process and social goals as an education marketing agency. It is sort of daunting some days to think about what all needs to get done, but it is encouraging every now and then to look back at where we have been and to look around and see a team that is bought into making that happen. Our next step is to work to maintain the momentum and keep learning ideas from others.