Can an Organization Be Human and High Performing? Clio is Proving the Answer is Yes
By Marty Parker
When I talk about high performance cultures and balancing the needs of the organization with the needs of its employees, I will often use the example of a scale. If you put too much weight on one side, you end up running a sweat shop; put too much weight on the other side and you end up running a country club. The key to success is finding balance – that sweet spot where you’re meeting or exceeding the goals of the organization, while also meeting the needs of your team.
One organization that is doing a great job of finding that balance is Clio. I sat down with co-founder and CEO Jack Newton to talk about their approach to balance – something they call being human and high performance – and how it’s helping to drive success on a number of fronts.
The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.
Talk a little bit about your role in the development of the Clio culture today.
Well, I think, in a lot of ways, as a founder, as a CEO, and I view those as two different roles, not every CEO is a founder and not every founder is a CEO, but in both of those roles… I need to look at the culture that I see on a day-to-day basis as a reflection of what I am carrying as my own personal values, and the way I behave myself in a day-to-day basis in the meetings I’m in and the people I interact with. So I’m very conscious of the weight that that carries with the organization, and the very direct role and the very intentional role that I should play in helping set the bar for what culture looks like at Clio, what living our values looks like in Clio.
And I’m really intentional about, for example, lacing in discussion about our values into decision-making. When I’m explaining why I’ve arrived at a decision, I explain how, in at least some decisions, those decisions are anchored very strongly in our core values. Or I’ll explain how they’re aligned to our mission statement. And I think those kinds of actions really help crystallize for my leadership team and others at Clio that interact with me how the values and how the mission that Clio’s pursuing is more than just words written on a wall somewhere, or hanging on a banner at headquarters. These are really things that we use in our day-to-day decision making. And I think that’s the true power of culture, is allowing high-performance and allowing high quality decision-making to happen throughout the organization, without me necessarily being involved in every decision.
It’s a great segue to the next question I wanted to ask you, because on the whole area of improvement and development, in the 2019 submission that Clio put forward to the Canada’s Most Admired Culture Award, you write about wanting to be an environment that focuses on being both human and high performing, which is not always an easy balance to build. So how do you, as the leader, help your team find that balance?
If there’s a mission statement for our people team and our motto almost, in terms of how we approach culture at Clio, the aspirational state is for us to be what we call a human and high performing organization. And just to explain what we mean by that, what we see as being possible is to have a culture that is one of the highest performing cultures, one of the highest performing organizations in the world. We want to be one of the highest performing technology companies on the planet. And when you read about some of the highest performing technology companies on the planet, you read about high performance, but you also read about people crying in their cubicles after work. You read about people churning out after two years at the company. You read about the company actually looking at employees as being fungible commodities, that they burn out and spit out and replace with new people. And that is very much the antithesis of the kind of culture we want to create.
On the other end of the spectrum, you might have what you call very human organizations, that again, maybe almost veer towards this ruinous empathy end of the spectrum. They’re human organizations, but what might be middling or even low performance organizations, that are just not having the impact that they want to have on the world.
And our vision is that we can actually have both, that we can have a high performing, high impact organization that is accommodating the needs of its very human employees in the process. And to me, what’s at the heart of actually succeeding at what you pointed out, what I think on the surface maybe might seem like contradictory ideals, what is at the heart of reconciling that, I think, is being a deliberately developmental organization that is really plugging in and supporting your staff in stepping up to the challenges, and the significant challenges that the company is throwing at them.
So the idea is, we’re going to throw some big audacious challenges at you. We’re expecting you to work hard and step up to those challenges, but you’re going to have a whole suite of support systems around you to step up and succeed at those challenges.
So just to give you a few examples of what we do to help people with that, we developed a custom leadership development program called Base Camp, that every single one of our people leaders and individual contributors that put their hand up and say, “I want to go through this program,” will go through this Base Camp leadership development program, to obtain a really core set of skills that we see in helping them navigate this high performance environment. We have a dedicated internal coach that works with our team members to help develop them, help them tackle the significant challenges that might be ahead of them. And finally, this radical candor and ongoing feedback loop that we provide to employees puts them in a really productive space, where they’ve got continuing ongoing feedback on where they can improve. And they’re being pointed to resources that they can go to, to increase their bench strength, and go and tackle a new challenge. And those are some of the ways that we think we’re moving forward with, and helping achieve that vision of being a high performing and human organization.
Spectacular. Now you’ve got a number of team members that we could call boomerang employees. What makes Clio this kind of an employer of, I’m going to call it re-choice, where in this very competitive tech space, and you’re in Vancouver. So what is it about your employer brand that brings people back?
So I think there’s a few things we see come back from our boomerang employees. I think one is, it’s interesting. Clio is, in many cases, someone’s first real job out of university, out of whatever program they might have gone through before joining Clio. And sometimes they leave Clio and go to a new organization, and don’t realize how special what they had at Clio was. So I think that’s one category of boomerang employee, where sometimes when all that you know is an organization that is as engaging and is as dynamic as Clio, and you go to a place that is maybe a more traditional, typical job. They find it really tough and come back.
The other class of boomerang employee that we’ve seen, that’s always a really exciting journey for me to see happen in real time, is where somebody has hit some kind of a ceiling at Clio, and we just don’t have the next step for them. And part of being this deliberately developmental organization, by the way, is continually developing people, and then continually working to find them their next challenge at Clio that keeps them challenged, or helping them find the next step outside of Clio and help people realize, in some cases, hey, your next step might be to a different organization, because we just don’t have a path for you here.
But this cool evolution that we’ve seen happen on a number of occasions, is somebody who does leave Clio, go pursue a different opportunity at a different company, Clio continues to grow, and all of a sudden has a new role, a more senior role, more challenging role for that person to come back to, after they’ve gone in gained a bunch of new experience and some new capabilities and a new perspective at a different employer.
So it’s one of the greatest things I think that we can provide, as an organization. And by the way, one of the reasons that I think continuing to be a growth organization is so important, is that you are opening up those new challenges continually, and you’re able to offer new challenges to existing employees, and you’re able to continually bring in new opportunities for those boomerang employees that can bring in some new perspectives and new skillsets to the organization.
You see a lot of next gen leaders. You’ve developed more than your share. What are you seeing when it comes to those kinds of leaders, in terms of what they bring to the table, that may be similar and/or different than what you’ve seen in the past?
I think number one, that next generation of leaders needs to be able to learn from others. They need to be curious. They need to create a community with people that are both more experienced than them, that they can mentor under. They need to create a network with peers that are facing the same sense of challenges as they are. And I think ideally, try to establish a mentorship relationship with somebody that is more junior to them, because those are all going to provide you different kinds of learnings and different kinds of introspection about your own development.
I think we’re seeing the leadership landscape change so rapidly, and the expectations of leaders change so rapidly, especially, I think, with the COVID pandemic, and the new people leadership challenges that we’re all facing, learning as fast as you can, just being a sponge and engaging with as many folks as you can, to ramp that learning trajectory, is key.
I think finding an environment where you can be vulnerable and have humility around your failings is important as well. Those can be organizations like the EO or YPO organizations, or just a group of your peers that you can have a confidential session with, or finding a coach that you can work with from a professional coaching perspective, finding an outlet where you can be real and be raw about some of the challenges you’re facing. And by the way, what you’ll find in return, is that many others have faced those same challenges, or faced something that looks similar on the surface, and you’re going to be able to develop there.
And finally, I would say being genuinely curious and looking at this as a learning opportunity is another attribute that I see of the most successful leaders. They are lifelong learners. They look at leadership as a type of learning that they’re continually developing. They’re not walking into it with a fixed mindset about what leadership looks like. They’re looking to continually evolve and develop what being a leader looks like.