Photo courtesy Small Giants & Rooney & Company
This year’s Small Giants Summit, held in Detroit, Michigan, included two full days of learning and relationship-building with like-minded, purpose-driven business leaders from around the globe.
There’s simply no way that one blog post could cover all the topics and insights we uncovered alongside one another: from Kirsten Ussery of Detroit Vegan Soul, to Jonathan Raymond, Author of Good Authority and CEO at Refound, to James Goebel of Menlo Innovations, to David Dussault of P1 Industries—there was so much insight-packed content for the kind of entrepreneur who puts purpose before profit. (And that doesn’t even include the Day of Mojo which included an eye-opening trip around the city thanks to The Detroit Experience Factory.)
Choosing to Grow With Purpose
The theme of this year’s Summit was reinvention: after all, we were in the Motor City, a city that is truly in the midst of transforming itself. “It’s necessary for us to do more than just adapt to what’s around us. Sometimes we actually have to reinvent ourselves,” said Carla Walker-Miller, perfectly stated as we kicked off this year’s Summit.
What became clear to me and others during the Summit was just that, and also that we are all in the middle of some kind of “reinvention” ourselves. If we aren’t evolving ourselves, evolving our business, and evolving our communities, then we can’t say we are truly advancing ourselves or our business.
The Summit, which was held in the exquisite Garden Theatre, included a combination of TED-style talks, panels, and interactive sessions—all of which left me energized about being more intentional about how we design our culture and how we consciously grow ourselves and companies with purpose. Here were just 3 of my most memorable takeaways from the Summit.
#1: Get Vulnerable
A topic that resonated with many: one of the clearest ways we can grow as leaders is through vulnerability.
During Corey Blake’s talk, “Vulnerability is Sexy,” he focused in on an idea we all fundamentally know: that business is built on relationships. Despite all of us having heard that mantra, Blake helped us reflect about our ability to show our fears, concerns, and weaknesses. What are we doing each day to get vulnerable with those we lead? What are we doing each day to truly be more connected with our people—and people throughout our lives?
There’s a process or “norm” that we use in life to invite people to get to know us. Turning this typical process of getting to know someone on its head, Blake showed us that getting vulnerable and showing our weaknesses is actually a sign of strength.
As a group we took time to be vulnerable with a partner, but Blake also shared advice on how to get started being more vulnerable at work.
To start, look to work your “vulnerability muscle” with someone you feel safe with. “Go first to someone who is awesomely safe and practice there,” said Blake. “Where you find reward in that [is when it is] overwhelmingly positive [and] that confidence builds a little bit, and then it’s like muscle,” he said.
“There are two ways you can work out that muscle. You can either do more reps so you can share [heavier] weight with the same kind of person who’s relatively safe, or you can ease into someone who’s a bit less safe.”
The more you show vulnerability, the more trust you engender as a leader.
“If you continually repeat that process, eventually you have a bunch of ambassadors around you, to protect you if anyone has a negative response to what you’re sharing—which is an incredible gift to have,” said Blake.
Blake said the process of being vulnerable across your relationships is a gift to the other person to get to know you on a deeper level. “When you share, it’s a gift to the other person. It’s not coming from an agenda. It’s a sincere invitation.”
His other key points for the group included:
- Be more intentional about getting vulnerable at work—after all, it helps us to build trust
- Consider and understand where you “default” to on your vulnerability ladder
- Embrace how vulnerability can be used as a business development (or relationship-building) strategy
#2: Honor & Respect the Past While Creating the Future
Bruce Hendrick joined RBB in 2000. He became president when the tech bubble burst, and at the time, the founder—who had run the business since 1973—was seeking a successor. That successor would end being Hendrick.
Fast forward about 15 years, and Hendrick had the experience of handing over the company himself, a process he told us about during his session, “I don’t know. Have you asked Jim?” Having been in both positions (successor and predecessor) during such a leadership transition, Hendrick shared some key lessons he learned with the Small Giants group.
Hendrick maintained one of the most critical components to any successful leadership transition: a strong relationship between generations. “Nothing else matters if you don’t have a relationship with the founder or the owner above you.”
Second, Hendrick shared just how critical it is for the successor to acknowledge and respect all the risk that the founder has put into their business. “Respect the founder’s risk, their knowledge and their blood, their sweat and tears. If the founder understands that you are more for you than for the business, and you don’t learn to respect what they came and did for the organization—then you’re the one off base, not them.”
Hendrick said one way he lived this out was when he showed his personal commitment to the company, another key piece of advice for other successors. “In my case, it was moving my family out to the middle of nowhere. I’m not suggesting that you need to [do that], but put some skin in the game. Show the first generation that you are willing to take some risk and that it matters as much to you as it does to them.”
Hendrick explained that when taking over a business, the next generation leader must also fundamentally have the ability to address the biggest challenges at hand. That can sometimes seem unfair or it can feel like a departure from the past, but it has to be that way, said Bruce. “You personally have to address the biggest challenges of your organization,” said Bruce.
It doesn’t matter who founded the company or who caused the issue—it’s up to you to be the one who steps up to the plate to address it.
“Lower your pain tolerance,” added Hendrick, acknowledging how many leaders carry too much pain, or put up with too many issues, for too long in their position. In this context, it can hurt the leadership transition process. “We don’t get awards for how much pain we can endure. We don’t,” said Bruce, explaining how sometimes we aren’t helping the company, or ourselves, when we bear the burden of something for too long.
“Go to the icky place with your company, with yourself, and look in the mirror. Figure out what those issues are and deal with them. Don’t just tolerate them. And I said that because I did,” said Hendrick. The takeaway: truth-telling can be painful, but is critical when it comes to leadership transitions.
Hendrick said it’s important to honor and respect the past—but not to live in the past. “It can be very easy to be sucked into the world view of the previous generation, and there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact, we’re encouraged to do that by all the wonderful founders and owners,” said Hendrick. But Hendrick made the distinction that the next generation can’t only look back.
Instead, the next generation must respect the past, but also must bring new value, new energy, and new life to the company.
“If we’re not bringing it [as the next generation,] we’re not adding value, and we’re not really helping the organization.”
While Hendrick had a great deal of advice for founders who will transition out of their company, one of the biggest takeaways was the importance of successors to be moving towards something else when they exit or begin to exit the business.
One of the reasons many founders/owners can have trouble walking away from the business is because they aren’t “walking towards anything else in life,” said Hendrick.
After seeing this first-hand, he says he was able to make sure he had a path he wanted to go on both personally and professionally after changing his role at RBB.
“I consciously wanted to start a new business, a new venture,” Hendrick explained.
“Walking towards something gives life; walking away from something is so much harder to do when you’re not walking towards something at the same time.”
His other key points for the group included:
- Truth-telling is a powerful foundation for better business relationships
- Alignment between generations is critical for a successful exit
- You must let the new leader/successor fail, which will help them in the long-run
#3: You Can Scale Culture With Your Values Intact
The Small Giants group also heard the story of FreshBooks’ humble beginnings from co-founder and CEO Mike McDerment during his session, “How I Overcame My Fear of Growing Headcount.”
Mike talked about his fears and concerns as his company grew: specifically, he didn’t want the culture to suffer as they experienced growth. McDerment said he also didn’t want the product or their customer service to suffer as a result of growth.
McDerment shared some of his tips along the way to help FreshBooks successfully scale their culture, keeping their values intact along the way. “These are culture hacks—deliberate hacks that have downstream effects on your culture,” he says.
“As you scale, you have to take on more of these in a purposeful manner,” he explained.
First, he made sure team members always had proximity to their customer. As you scale, it’s easy for parts of a company to become more distant from the actual customer. You want to work against this tendency, said McDerment. “How do you keep everyone in the business close to the customer?” he said. McDerment knew he needed to put into place practices that would help all team members be empathetic towards customers if he wanted to successfully scale their high degree of customer intimacy.
One way they keep that proximity to the customer is that everyone who comes to FreshBooks gets customer service experience. “Everyone at FreshBooks spends their first month in customer service. Everyone,” said McDerment, calling the practice the “single most important culture hack that we put in place.”
The team also uses quick surveys in their customer service department (who they call “rock stars,” not reps) so that they can get a sense of how customers are really feeling about their level of service. Those are just two examples of how they make sure everyone on their team has their finger on the pulse of the customer.
Proximity to leadership is another focus they’ve had as the company has grown to more than 250 employees. “That’s where the number of people starts to become really problematic, because people don’t feel connected to the leaders if there is [too much] distance between them,” said McDerment, a lesson he really saw first-hand after they hit their 150th employee.
The last focus is “proximity to each other.” One thing McDerment does is “think like a designer”—where he focuses on the design of the office so that he can create an environment where people naturally interact with each other as much as possible. McDerment has been involved in the design of FreshBooks’ last three office spaces because he wants to cost-effectively design a space that supports their values, collaboration, and connectedness. “I think connectedness is what helps us keep proximity to one another,” he said.
He’s opposed to having an office with two floors, which can end up separating workers and dividing up teams, which works against cultivating an environment where team members are close to one another. “I want FreshBooks to be like the best cocktail party you have ever been to,” he said, explaining that at a cocktail party, you’ve often been invited by a friend that you know. At the same time, you certainly don’t know everyone. “You probably know a few other people in the room, but you probably don’t know everybody,” said McDerment. The idea is that you have a core group of people you know, many familiar faces, and people you don’t know, but you’re excited to meet and connect with.
His other key points for the group included:
- Continue to consciously communicate your vision, values, and expected behaviors as your team grows
- It’s okay to “stay fearful” as you grow with the intention of staying purpose-driven. “The day I’m not worried about this, is the day we are in [serious jeopardy],” said McDerment.
- Learn culture “hacks” from other companies and make them your own
“Value Before Velocity, and People Before Profits”
What does it mean to be a Small Giants company? In short, it means you’re dedicated to growing your business with purpose. You put employees first, and you choose to be great instead of big. Head over to the Small Giants website to learn what it means to be a Small Giants, about the Small Giants Community, and much more. If you’re in Cincinnati, stay tuned for our next Small Giants Community meet-up which will take place on June 22, 2017 at 6 PM. Stay tuned for details on the dinner.
READ MORE: “Why Join the Small Giants Community?”
Kim Sykes is a marketer at Edoc Service, Inc.