Transformation can happen when listening is part of your culture
By Marty Parker
Checking-in with your team – from formal engagement surveys to informal conversations around the (now virtual) water cooler – should be a regular activity in strong corporate cultures. But how can leaders use the information collected during those check-ins to drive needed change within their organization?
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Laurie Schultz, president and CEO at Galvanize, to talk about how she has transformed the culture and the brand at the organization while driving performance. One of the key take-aways: seek feedback and really listen to what you’re being told.
The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.
Laurie, talk a little bit about Galvanize and the culture that you’ve been a part of building.
I’ve been here nine years, which is a long time to be at a tech company. And of course Galvanize has been around a long time as well. We were born in the university system in 1972 … and we were commercialized in 1987. And as you mentioned, I joined in 2011 and the great, great invitation I was given was to transform this business with an emphasis on culture. My number one priority at the time was to actually fix our culture as many respects having been around for so long, we kind of fell on this late. We’ve gotten good at the usual tricks and because our category had matured, were in dire need of some nuance.
And so over the past nine years now, we’ve transformed ourselves. We’ve transformed our category on a threefold agenda in order, focused on mobilizing talent, customer intensity and business model transformation. And I like to emphasize that mobilizing talent has really been the enabler of all of our transformation senses. It’s been anchored in having kind of the right value system and having folks pointed consistently against the right vision. We’re not an easy place to work, but we’re a great place for folks that want to change the world.
As you kind of took on the challenge of transforming the culture, Laurie, and as you talked about really transforming talent and kind of breathing new life into the customer experience and the company’s bottom line, how do you approach these large scale changes?
For anybody that walks into an organization that’s established, I don’t want to marginalize the effort, but it’s actually quite simple. You ask people what they think. And you know the story Marty, when I joined, I did 14 town halls, I think it was in my first two weeks. I spoke to everybody and I just asked them quite simply and authentically, “What’s working? What’s not working? What opportunities are we missing?” And the great thing around town halls, and I still do them today … it’s you are able to not only get great ideas because of course our employees are very smart, but you get to see who can influence the room based on the integrity and their intent and the caliber of their ideas.
And when I met ACL nine years ago through those town halls, I learned literally in the first two weeks from employees, what needed to change. And more importantly, I saw in the room who was going to lead that change. All I had to do was listen. All I had to do was notice. And maybe the hardest thing was I had to get obstacles out of the way and give those folks some freedom to try their ideas out in the hallway.
What did you learn about the link between corporate culture and organizational performance in this most recent change at Galvanize?
One of the easiest things to do in the world as a CEO, a new CEO, is to come in and financially re-engineer a business. You can lay people off, you can raise prices. You can do a few things to make your profit and loss statement look really good, really fast, but you can leave dead bodies all over the place. I was very, very lucky in that my invitation to join from the founder and from the board was really focused on culture. And the collective belief was that by getting the people formula right, they in turn will get the customer formula right and you’ll have pervasive financial results down the road.
And I think that’s the difference in the approach I was given the opportunity to take. It took longer, quite frankly, to get the culture formula right. And frankly, even to transform the customer experience. We transformed our technology to the cloud and our business model to subscription. That was really, really hard to do. But they would have never have happened as impactfully had we not first got the people formula right. And so I’d say, the linkage between corporate culture and financial performance for me is the pervasiveness and the stickiness over time if you start with people.
Now, Galvanize has the values of customer intensity, embracing ambiguity and authenticity. But how did these show up in day to day operations? And how do you see these both in your efforts to CEO, but also across the team?
Well, my favorite is authenticity. And if we describe the meaning of it as it’s being genuinely in the moment and listening to someone and receiving it the exact way it was delivered. It’s stopping the censoring in your head so that you can really learn something from someone’s opinion that you didn’t otherwise know. And that leads into the embracing ambiguity because by hearing and learning what you don’t know, you’re going to be in a position to do something that you’ve never done. That simple kind of language colors how we talk here. We measure our values on a monthly basis … we have a bi-monthly survey. We have, and I think we’ll talk about it a little bit later, we have symbols of our values. For example, we have a moose in every room.
A moose on the table for us at Galvanize is like an elephant in the corner of the room, which it’s that uncomfortable, awkward thing somebody wants to say. But being very frequent in how we talk about our values and measuring our values and having symbols like the moose, they really have become a very, very big part of our culture. And frankly, our transformation. I’ll say, until this job, I probably actually never really appreciated the impact of symbols and language like I do today. And having a moose as a metaphor for the value of authenticity has been a really fundamental focal point for our culture.
What do you see as the future in terms of being critical to aligning your people at Galvanize to the culture and attracting new talent in order to continue to build this?
We have a great business. We’ve done really well, but nothing can be taken for granted. We’re 500 employees today, we’re the leader in our space. That’s a right we need to earn every day and yet there’s so much change. And I’m preoccupied with a few things right now.
Millennials. As a tech company, we have a lot of them. Two thirds of my employee population are millennials, yet two thirds of my leaders are gen X. And some on my board are baby boomers. As I think about myself, I’m in a bit of a sandwich here in that I report to a bit more of a traditional baby boomer type board. And I’ve got millennials that work for me and for us who are very self-actualized and who don’t actually care about the typical stuff a board does. And so I think we should be very thoughtful about how to become better leaders for millennials because it’s not going to be too long before we all work for millennials.
Surround sound that with the second thing on my mind is work from home. That’s of course I believe going to be a permanent part of our reality. While I know a lot of people want to be in the office, I think that it’s going to be an optional thing. I think at any given time, I might have maybe two thirds, 50 per cent to two thirds of folks in the office. And that makes things quite interesting if you consider millennials and the fact that they’re motivated by different things and that we’re not all in the office together. When you get into kind of commoditized type roles like for example, lead development and certain sales functions, how you manage that kind of talent in a work from home situation is going to be a fascinating thing that we need to think about.
Now, those sound like productivity things, but really those are culture and things as well. And for us, as we try and repaint our path from 500 employees to a 1,000, we are going to have to be more thoughtful about how our culture stretches into that new goal, because so many things have changed for us.