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Every CEO wants to see their people grow. But doing it in a digital workplace takes a different focus.
Chris Byers has been leading Formstack since 2010, and the team has had remote workers nearly the entire time. The transition to a fully distributed setup was relatively easy, but now that the dust has settled, Chris is thinking about how to keep his people growing.
Essential skills for growing digital workers
Chris says that the one skill he wants all his team to grow in is their written communication. A digital workplace is almost completely dependent on textual communication. If you can’t get your point across and communicate effectively with people, your teams will start to break down.
When things are shared in a meeting room (Zoom or live), they are rarely captured and can disappear in the collective conscious. When they are written down, they are set forever and can help move the organization forward.
Chris also sees personal development and self-awareness as essential for succeeding in a digital world. Formstack has recently used Enneagram and Predictive Index tools to help people understand themselves better and also give a common language to helping the team move forward.
Systems for growth
Growth usually doesn’t just happen on its own. You have to plan for it.
Chris says the best place to start when developing a system for growth is with onboarding. When you plan out how you want someone to start in the organization, you are creating the foundation of the growth plan for them. Onboarding also requires you to be intentional and think through what people will need to grow to a new level.
Formstack also uses a NPS score to help people gauge where they are, whether they are an individual contributor or a manager. This helps to encourage sharing feedback.
Being aware of who’s doing great
Chris said one of the biggest challenges in individual growth right now is visibility. In an office setting you often overhear when people are doing well and you can keep an eye on how they are doing.
But in a digital workplace, it’s hard to overhear those things. Especially across departments, you may have no idea what is going on and who is doing well. Teams need to build in ways to share information so that they don’t miss out on these chances.
“I tell my team, I have no idea about the people who are working for you, I have no idea if they’re doing well or not. Because if you don’t tell me, I don’t know.”
“If bad conversations flow through the organization, you’ve got a really big problem, because you’re never moving anywhere. Because people are trying to move. It’s not like they’re ill intent. It’s just they’re not having the right conversations.”
“It’s the CEO who needs to start by assuming I’m wrong. Let me assume I don’t have the answer. And if I’ll do that, I just tear down a ton of walls.”
Today we are welcoming back Chris Byers, the CEO of Formstack. Hi, Chris. How you doing today?
Chris, I feel like you’re a great guest to have back on the show because you’re the CEO of a company that even before the pandemic had multiple distributed offices around the country. So introduce us to Formstack and what we should know about it.
We started like so many in an office many years ago, way back in 2006 was when the company was founded. But in 2012, we began the journey of remote and really, by 2013, we were what we would call a remote first company. So we’ve got two offices, one in Indianapolis, one in Colorado Springs, but of 250-ish people there are maybe 30 -ish who live around Indianapolis, and 30-ish who live around Colorado Springs. And realistically, especially today, nobody goes into the office very much. And so we’ve had to learn remote, we’ve had the opportunity to learn it for a long, long time. So I’d say even when COVID hit, that far has not been new for us. That’s been a fairly normal part of life.
What were the biggest hurdles you felt like you had to face as you, a company that was already very digital, made this switch to fully remote work?
We still probably do a lot of planning and solving big problems, small problems, not so much, big problems, big strategic problems by getting in a room together. So I’ll fly to Colorado Springs and get some people together and we’ll spend a couple days together and just plow through things. Our leadership team operates that way. And so even for us, that in person interaction, as you know, is a little bit easier at times, when you’re trying to have a collaborative conversation. And so we’ve had to say, all right, what do we do, and we’ve had to try some different things like, we have literally plugged a couple whole day Zoom sessions, and we’ll do things to make sure people can walk away and take a break from video, because that’s tough. But we’ve said we still got to figure out how to get through these problems. And I’ve found we’ve actually pushed off more often than we normally would, digging into those big strategic problems. So I’d say that’s the biggest thing we’ve been trying to learn how to do better and better in a remote world.
That is a huge challenge for remote leadership teams to try to figure out how to make those decisions. Most of our conversation today, we’re actually going to look at another aspect of it about how to grow the employees that you have in a remote environment. I think it’s a challenge that a lot of people face when it comes to actually getting work done. I feel like most of us figured that out pretty early on April, May, it was pretty well set, we knew how to be productive and to get most things done. But now we’re deep into the fall of 2020. We’re trying to figure out what’s coming next. And what does it mean to develop leaders to make sure people are still growing and not just stagnating in their work? So I’m going to turn that over to you. What do you feel like are the biggest challenges that face leaders who are trying to grow their employees?
The nice thing is, is because we chose at least remote first we happen to have offices, it is a place you can go and meet. But we need to make sure we’re building systems that are focused on assuming you’re remote basically. And so a couple of things we’ve done over the years is, first of all, we’d have moved more heavily to written communication. So in an in person environment, you and I can be in a room chatting, and we’re fine with other people overhearing what we’re talking about. And so they pick up on things, they hear the way we talk and the way we think, and so like there’s this nice rumor mill of sorts and this osmosis, I suppose, that happens which now if you and I are talking, unless we record this and broadcast into the world, no one will ever have a clue what we talked about. It will never go beyond these walls. And so that written communication to both document process, to share philosophy, culture, becomes really valuable because it’s something people can kind of read in their own time. It can be reread, so if I didn’t quite understand it the first time, I can go back to it. It’s documented forever. And so we’ve had to at least push that quite a bit more to get messages across because that video barrier can be tough to get messages really fully across.
Yeah, I definitely love the emphasis on written communication. I do feel like there is something missing from that because a lot of times if I think in my own world, if I experience something that I want to type it up and send it to somebody else, there’s going to be something that’s missing there, almost like the osmosis you talked about, either the tone of my voice or my very unfiltered thoughts that are going to be there. Or if I want to hear from somebody else, I want to hear it raw. And that’s where I feel like a lot of growth and leadership development comes from is being able to see that. So have you seen any good solutions to that?
One thing we have done more recently is try to rely on… So enneagram is a fairly popular conversation these days. It’s a bit of a how does my personality work a little bit? What are the root ways in why I operate in a way?
Yeah, and if you happen not to be a millennial, we will put a link in the show notes for you.
Perfect. And so but what something like that allows you to do, at least in my thinking, is help guide a conversation. So somewhere in an in-person environment because you and I maybe go to lunch on a regular basis, we have coffee together, we just naturally dig through who we are. And really digging through that is how we end up growing because that’s where we discover, I think, things we’re bad at and things we’re good at. Enneagram has actually been one we’ve been using a lot this year to help understand what drives people and bring out some of that, we’ll call it more emotion or more who they are, and especially these days when every conversation is a tough conversation about what’s going on in the world. That’s been a really good guide to take that. I think you’re right that the written communication is black and white. It’s not very friendly or it’s brutal in some ways, because of that, but that’s helped bring some life to conversations.
Yeah, makes sense. So written communication is obviously a big one. You also mentioned setting up systems. It’s a big thing for you guys. So what are the ways that you actually have systems created to make sure that you’re developing leaders along the way? Can you give us some background into what you’re doing at Formstack?
As a starting point for us, we discovered in a remote world that at that first moment in time onboarding was important. So of course, you’re talking about how do we over years develop people, but setting the stage becomes really important. So in an old in-office environment, we’ve all been in jobs where we showed up the first day, and it’s like, here’s where you’re going to sit, here’s your computer, see you later. And while that’s still not a great experience, we shouldn’t be bringing people on that way, it works because you’re like, oh, and there’s a person sitting next to me, and I’m going to strike up a conversation, and they’re going to tell me where things are and how to get things done. Well, onboarding for us is a multi week, like heavy, it’s a long set of tasks, basically. But it’s anything from how do you get introduced to how do you find out where HR systems are to we’ve got people who’ve been around for a while, who are typically not in your department who can kind of be your friend for a while to help onboard you. And so those systems, I think, have turned out to be really important. And then we use a lot of systems to surveys effectively, to help understand where people are on their journey. So we’ll run NPS, basically. So NPS typically is for a product, like would I recommend your product, but we use it for people a lot to gauge where are people as managers, how are people gauging them? And we do this on a quarterly basis, we get constant feedback coming in to say, hey, as a manager, you’re not getting great feedback right now. How do we help you grow? Sorry for the dog in the background. Thankfully, we’re in times right now where it’s perfectly fine.
Yeah, no one cares anymore. Tell us about your dog, Chris.
Yeah, maybe we’ll get her to come in here in a moment. That was a beautiful aside for the conversation. So I think with those systems, we also use from a culture perspective. So we have a list of six culture values. And we will actually rank employees on those culture values, like during their review. And so that becomes a way to start to discover where are they doing well, and where they’re not doing well. And hopefully, create systems for seeing who could be promoted over time, who is growing and who’s not. We rely on way too much in some ways on surveys and things like that to answer those questions.
Let’s talk about cross functional team and cross functional growth even that happens. I think one thing that gets lost in digital environments and remote teams is that you typically have your team, maybe your manager that knows what you’re doing, they know you’re doing a good job, but maybe you have a manager who’s not really good at expressing that and not really good at telling other people in leadership team what’s going on. Whereas an office environment, it may be easier to see, hey, wow, that person over there in that team, they’re a real star performer, even though you’re not necessarily, they’re not on your team, you get to see those things outside. So have you found a way to make sure that that happens, that everyone on the team, everyone in company knows when somebody’s succeeding and when somebody is doing well.
So this goes back to where I think some people will get in our organization are in our little shocked by the amount of email that we still send, but some of the email is around this exact topic. So our sales and customer success leader sends out an email every single Tuesday. And it lists people who are like, this customer said this wonderful thing about this person, and this sales rep just closed the school deal, these three people just worked together to do something really successful. And in a way, it’s a little too much, like every single week, it’s a lot of information, but to your point, you are never otherwise going to get that information. And so that turns out to be really valuable. The same point, on Fridays, I try to always do is every Friday, but I try to, I send something out that is a little bit more philosophical, a little bit more culture, a little bit more inspirational to continue to set the stage for what is the culture we’re trying to build, Who are we? Because, yeah, it’s just hard to read these days. You can’t pick it up nearly as well. And I’ll cover anything from how are we tackling issues of race and racism today versus how do you just think about growth and how do you personally dig through that? And so I’m not saying those systems are great. I actually think you’ve identified a problem that I’ve been talking to my leaders more about to say, and I’ve literally said it to leaders in the past couple months more than ever, I have no idea, the people who are working for you, I have no idea if they’re doing well or not. Because if you don’t tell me, I don’t know. Like I can tell at a macro level how’s your department doing probably, but it’s really difficult to do. And so we’ve tried some systems like a bit of a nine box system, which was I think one of those like McKenzie style, Boston Consulting Group, things where you can actually rank based on some qualifications say the people who report to you, but that helps you communicate up how people are doing, but I think it is a key problem we still need to solve.
So you mentioned personal growth, we feel like as especially when we look at, we have these levels of digital workplace and levels of leadership. And as someone moves towards those higher levels of being a digital leader, you do need to focus on not just, hey, can this person do the task? But how are they as a human? How are they growing in their own development? What are some things that you’ve been able to focus on and maybe even put some programs and systems around that really help people to understand who they are, what motivates them, what their strengths are, what they’re good at, and understanding that human journey about that?
I’d say at a baseline level, obviously, we’ve started talking about enneagram. Predictive Index is a tool we’ve used for a number of years, and it is supposed to help you understand how do you operate, what motivates you a little bit, what are ways that you’re going to tend to respond to a situation. And the nice thing about that is it’s fairly scientific. So you can actually, they’ve got a ton of tools where you can mash up a team, basically. And it can map for you what this team look like, therefore, how does the team operate? And what are the team’s tendencies, but then I can go to an individual level and see how does an individual tend to operate. So I think that’s been pretty strong. I’d say we’ve just hired a new CFO, bringing in that level of role into an organization is tough anyway. But today in a remote world, one of the things it took us forever. It took us like seven months. But one of the things that just really got through for us was this person was a tremendous communicator, just like really clear in their communications, got to the point, was succinct, and in today’s world, that’s vital, because you’re just not going to detect the problems that are going on if you can’t get to the point pretty quickly. And so I think for us, we’re still probably trying to figure it out a little bit. But I’m still actively still traveling to make sure I can spend enough time with him to get him on boarded to talk through things. We’re trying to do some more skip level meetings with managers who work for whomever maybe works for you. So that you can really understand what’s going on in the department because that’s a tough thing to see. You can’t roll into meetings quite as easily. You can’t overhear to your point. And so I’d say I think your thinking is that you really have to force yourself to uncover things that you don’t normally have to think is hard at.
Just speak as a CEO for a second, Chris, about what are those fears that you have of ways that you think maybe your company could get stagnant if you don’t do something? So what are the things that keep you up and make you think, oh, maybe this team isn’t doing well? Or maybe there’s something I’m missing? Like, what are those things you’re worried about in terms of the growth of the people in your company?
For me, the things that goes over and over again in my mind is when I hear someone say, at face level, we’re not aligned, or our departments can’t communicate together, or we all set out on the same project and somehow we’ve each accomplished our tasks, and they don’t fit together in the least, we were talking about two different things. And I keep going back to this idea that, and communication is actually really, really tough. And most of it’s because I won’t dig far enough, like I won’t ask enough questions, I’ll say, what do you want this project to look like? You describe it to me, and I’m like, I hear my version of what you just said. And I didn’t ask five more questions to get to the bottom of it. And therefore, we just waste time over and over and over again. And eventually I think if that flows through the organization, you’ve got a really big problem, because you’re never moving anywhere. Because people are trying to move. It’s not like they’re ill intent. It’s just they’re not having the right conversations. And as you know, we’re rarely taught to have good critical, healthy conversations. I mean, the world’s politics today teach us, we can yell at each other on the other side of the aisle. But we have a tough time sitting down and saying, okay, I know we’re probably going to disagree on something. But I’m willing to ask enough critical questions, push back a little bit and say, maybe you’re not thinking about this right. And that missed skill set, which, again, clearly our world is missing, we have to teach people this. But I think that, to me, is what over time will unravel and cause an organization just stagnate and not get anything done. And in a remote world, it’s tougher.
Absolutely. So you brought up communication so many times in this conversation. It’s obviously very, very important. If you can go to a group of people in high school, or people in college, or you’re even thinking about your own children or people around you, what are those core communication skills that you feel like, especially now that so much of the work world is digital, and it is going to be remote, communication is going to be important. What are the things we’re not being taught? What are the things we don’t come out of college with that we should be? And if you could just magically have everyone your company be great at this one skill or these few skills in communication, what would those be?
I don’t know what the skill set is, but I would probably take a couple tough topics and call it politics, call it race and racism, and I’d say could you formulate a class on harder conversations. And I’m aware that exists, and take those topics, which are tough, like neither one of them are easy, there’s some unfriendliness in the middle of a bunch of those, and how do we actually start to have productive conversations, and begin to respect people who don’t agree with us, and yet, be able to hold our convictions and our own beliefs and weave through that because if you can do that, if you can have those conversations, I think you can fly through learning a job, becoming a great leader, because I think that’s so much of it is just being able to assess the situation, unpack it, unlock it, and begin to make progress through it. And so much of that is just understanding what’s going on and asking enough questions, and caring about what people have to say, and building relationships and stuff like that. If you can do that, well, I think you can succeed wildly.
To be able to engage in a conversation that seems like it’s heated, one, to know, okay, don’t do it over a text message because that’s not going to work. But how to actually have a real conversation with somebody and to see things from their viewpoint, to empathize, to be able to assume what the other person is saying is true. And to work through that. Yeah, those are exceptional skills that are really great to have. Chris, it’s been great to talk about this topic. We could go on for a long time, but I appreciate how you set in the things we always talk about, about how important it is to get to a higher level when it comes to communication, when it comes to collaboration and leadership, the role that that plays in there. We talked about even one of our themes of a digital workplace just has to be a better workplace. If you’re going to do this, you have to get better at communication. You have to get better productivity, about figuring out how to align things with objectives and not just on the activities that people are doing. So that’s great. So as you think back to the big picture, with the people on your team, they’re growing, you want to make sure that they’re growing. What kind of encouragement can you give to CEOs right now who are thinking about, I got to keep this going, what’s the one thing you want to leave with them?
The thing that comes to my mind is, I know you and I share a common joy for other cultures and engaging with other cultures. And the beauty of when you land in another culture is you assume you’re wrong. Because you know you’re saying, I’m coming to appreciate your culture in a way, it’s not my own. And I think it’s the CEO, sometimes starting with the, let me assume I’m wrong. Let me assume I don’t have the answer. And if I’ll do that, I just tear down a ton of walls. And I listen to people and I have an opportunity to hear what’s really going on in the world. And I think if you can start there, and sometimes I’ll go into a conversation and just say, I’m just assuming this situation is not going well that maybe I’m involved in, tell me what’s going wrong. And that just starts to help people share what they really think. And that’s tough for them to do sometimes as CEO, especially. And I’m like, I don’t know, I’m just a guy, but other people don’t feel that way. And it’s harder for me to register that sometimes and know that I have to actively tear those walls down to help people engage with me and get me the real information I need.
You and I have known each other for a long time. That’s one thing I really appreciate about your style of leadership is just, you don’t walk into the room assuming everyone knows how important you are and how great you are. I feel like everyone knows, yeah, he’s in the right position, but doesn’t mean like he’s the best engineer on the team, or he’s the best salesman on the team, or he’s the best at any of these things. But you’re the best at being able to, hey, let’s have a conversation about this. And let’s make the right decision going forward. Chris, anything new going on at Formstack or anything you want to share with us, websites we can go to to checkout things?
If you land on our website, we are beginning to tell a new story to the market, I suppose, that’s still the same that we’ve probably always thought of, which is this idea of reimagining your world of work. And I think it beautifully ties to what you’re talking about, which is we are in a new digital world. And we’ve got to work hard to make that a better world. Otherwise, it will just be digital, and that will eventually drain you of your energy. And so we’re in there in that battle with you trying to figure out how to make it great.
Absolutely. We talked about that, what we call the level two digital workplace is just you’re replicating everything that was there in the physical and the digital world. And that is a horrible place to be because it sucks. It’s really bad. So yeah, let’s move forward. Thanks, Chris, for being on the show. We appreciate you. We look forward to having you again for another time sometime.
Thanks, Neil. It’s been great.
Chris Byers is the CEO of Formstack.