Unlocking Productivity at Work with Brian Elliott

Brian Elliott

How the Future WorSo, here’s an interesting question: What does it take to actually build teams that are highly effective in this brave new world of work? And what’s the relationship between making work better for people and the outcomes that organizations can achieve? Unlocking productivity is just a piece of the conversation that we dive into in today’s rich exploration with Brian Elliott. Brian spent 25 years building high-growth companies and leading teams as a startup CEO, leader at Google, and executive at Slack and Salesforce. He most recently co-founded Future Forum, a consortium that enables leaders to redesign work through data and dialog, and is the author of the WSJ bestseller, How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to do the Best Work of Their Lives.”

But we go in many different places with Brian. We dive into his background, into the value of breaking free from the status quo in our careers, how to maintain a legacy business while you are building the new thing – and much more.

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Episode transcript

Aga Bajer  00:00

Welcome to the CultureLab. I’m your host, Aga Bajer. This podcast helps you turn your company culture into rocket fuel for meaningful growth. It gives you the tools and inspiration to make work, synonymous with fun, meaning, and belonging. This is where we explore how to cultivate remarkable cultures, cultures that scale and evolve, as our businesses grow, and the world keeps on changing.

Brian Elliott  00:32

Culture and connection don’t just happen in an office, right? People who are given flexibility feel a higher sense of connection. And they actually are more likely to say their cultures improved, in part because they’re given the flexibility, but also in part because giving them that saying, I’m going to base my opinion of you on your outcomes. Now in your appearance is way of saying that I trust you. And that trust goes a long way towards building you know, more positive cultures and honestly, better outcomes.

Aga Bajer  01:04

Hello, friends, welcome to episode 130 of the CultureLab podcast. And, Happy New Year if you are listening close to the release date. This episode is brought to you by CultureBrained. A one-of-a-kind accelerator program, where cultural leaders get hands on support and guidance on how to reach their goals faster, especially now, in this brave new world of remote and hybrid work. CultureBrained connects you with outstanding peers on the same journey, but also with world class experts, including people you know from the show. And they will help you identify and implement new, better ways of creating a culture where people do their best work. Check it out. It’s tinyurl.com, forward slash CultureBrained. And no need to write it down. There’s a link in the show notes. So, here’s an interesting question. What does it actually take to build teams that are highly effective in this brave new world of work? And what’s the relationship between making work better for people and the outcomes that organizations can achieve? That is just a piece of the conversation that we dive into today’s rich exploration with Brian Elliot. Brian spent 25 years building high-growth companies and leading teams as a startup CEO, leader at Google, and executive at Slack and Salesforce. He most recently co-founded Future Forum, a consortium that enables leaders to redesign work through data and dialogue. Brian is also the author of a best seller, how the future works, leading flexible teams to do the best work of their lives. But we go in many different places with Brian in this conversation, and we dive into his background into the value of change in our careers in how to maintain a legacy business while you are building a new thing, and much, much more. So, with no further ado,here is my wonderful guest today, Brian Elliot.

Brian Elliott  03:19

I’m Brian Elliot. I’m a leadership advisor that helps leaders build a future of work that’s better for people and for their organizations.

Aga Bajer    03:27

Welcome, Brian.

Brian Elliott  03:28

Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Aga Bajer  03:29

I’m so excited about this conversation. I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time, because one of the things that we want to explore on this show is where are we going when it comes to work. And you are one of the people that I look to your insights to figure out what’s happening right now, you’ve been doing amazing work. So, I can’t wait to dive into that. But before we go there, every conversation that I have, with every guest starts in the same way. And the question that I always ask at the beginning is what were the early cultural influences that shaped you as a person? How did you grow up?

Brian Elliott  04:09

So, I grew up as a child of a single mom in the Midwest of the US in a very small town. I was the only child of a single mom that I was aware of in my town, me and my younger brother, were raised by her. And I was also a geek. I was a math geek, and maybe a little bit of an outsider. Growing up, I felt very lonely as a kid often, but it also meant that I you know, buried my head in books and became a learner and just sort of stuck into that. And that really shaped a lot of my attitude around life and understanding what outsiders can feel like at times. But it also sort of drove a lifelong passion around learning to which has been really fantastic for me.

Aga Bajer  04:53

Was that why you ended up working for BCG for a while?

Brian Elliott  04:59

Yeah, when I went to college in as a math major stats, Geek economics and all the rest of it actually had a side love, which was musical theater where I was a stage manager really loved the job. But Boston Consulting Group was a place where I could apply those sorts of math geek skills pretty well. And in fact, it kind of went at that point from being the outsider and being, you know, the kid that felt like he didn’t belong to being somebody who really did, right. And if anything, it actually created a different set of problems, because I was really good at it. And, you know, my ability to run numbers and do analysis kind of became a cudgel, and I got a little arrogant, more than a little arrogant, which is something I learned after I jumped out into startups, and left BCG, but I left BCG because I wanted to learn I, you know, I felt like I had stagnated, I’d stopped learning.

Aga Bajer  05:50

You know, for a lot of us, I can identify with your story, because I always felt like an outsider as well, when I was growing up, back behind the iron curtain in communist Poland, and I never felt like I belonged there. So I totally identify with that. I think it’s this amazing feeling when you find your tribe, and suddenly you’re like, Oh, these are my people. And suddenly I fit in. And as you say, it can become constraining at some point, because you’re definitely playing to your strengths. And I totally get that sense that, oh, I’m no longer evolving. And also, perhaps I’m getting a little bit full of myself. And so as you said, you, you moved into a different world to work for Google, you worked for Slack in an entirely different capacity in a different role. And I can only imagine that that was a major transition for you. What was it like for you?

Brian Elliott  06:49

It really was. It was huge. Even before I went to Google, I went into startups, like very early-stage companies. And when I first came there, from BCG, you’re absolutely right. You sort of get to have tribe that you know really well, right. And at BCG, I knew that tribe very well. And I knew how everybody operated. Matter of fact, I ran recruiting for the Chicago office for a while, meaning I knew the shape and form and attitudes of people that would be successful. But jumping into startups, I got knocked on my butt a bunch, because I really didn’t know how to lead people who had different backgrounds, who had different aspirations, who have different skill sets. And a very wise woman, Mariah De Leon, who’s a lifelong friend of mine was my ppl partner at the time. And she took me aside one day and said, Brian, you’re a jerk. And she was right. It was that sort of arrogance wasn’t helping me out right in terms of building relationships with people who had different skills and different backgrounds and different orientation. And I learned I listened to her and was really grateful that she said that. But over the next decade in startups, what I learned was building trust. Building a sense of belonging among people who have different backgrounds who come from different places, who have different challenges who have different needs in their lives, really is the key to unlocking success in a business. It’s the old trite phrase, culture eats strategy for breakfast, right. But I’ve been a strategy consultant, I had been trained that strategy was the most important thing. And I kind of had to get knocked down to figure out that that was not correct. It was actually your ability to build inclusive teams that actually was gonna drive whether or not you were able to hit your business goals. And I relearned that several more times in my career as well.

Aga Bajer  08:34

Yeah, it’s funny sometimes with these learnings, that we really get the lesson over and over Again, until we master it. I find this in my career and in my life as well, that some things they’ve struggled with. I had to try and learn them a few times. And I think it’s an ongoing journey around certain issues, that I can’t glaze over that conversation that you had.


Brian Elliott


Aga Bajer  08:57

Tell me more about how is it possible that someone tells you, hey, Brian, you’re a jerk and instead of getting defensive, and saying, okay, eff off, you know, yeah, you actually open up and listen and embrace that feedback. Tell me a little bit about that.

Brian Elliott  09:17

Yeah,I will admit, I’m not sure that I first embraced it, right. There was a head of engineering and the head of engineering and we were at loggerheads all the time, the two of us would just could not see eye to eye. And I was also running a sales team and salespeople had a very different orientation than I did. And my team was also more diverse and just kept stumbling through these things and stumbling through me being convinced that I was right and why weren’t people listening to me? Mariah gently once or twice prodded me, but I think the You’re a jerk was really the sort of her way of calling it out a little more strongly for me. It’s shocking, right? And it kind of gets to you. And at that point, I was listening a lot more because I was realizing I wasn’t getting where I wanted to go right, the style that I was using really wasn’t helping me either. And so yeah, it was a little bit of a shock to the system. And yeah, I’m sure it was defensive at first. But I also thought about it enough to realize that what I was doing wasn’t gonna get me where I wanted to go, and certainly wasn’t gonna get the team where they needed to go. And so I took it as an opportunity to sort of start chatting a little bit more with other people like my head of sales Shelley and saying, Hey, what do you need? What’s going to make you successful with Steve, the head of engineering about like, how do we work this out? What’s our relationship? And those conversations, I realized became more important than the conversations I’ve been having before about the strategy or who needed to do what in the project we were working on.

Aga Bajer  10:45

And this is really interesting to me, because a lot of people that we work with, and we’ve also built community for people who focus on culture a lot, either because they are in people and culture position, or a CEO who considers that to be incredibly important to their company’s success, like you eventually came to realize, and a lot of conversations that we have with these folks, a lot of them are on the scaling journey of their business, is how do you strike that balance between focusing on people and creating that enabling environment and having the conversations that you’ve just mentioned, and results? There seems to be a tension, maybe it’s a false tension, but there seems to be a tension. And sometimes people tell me, all these wonderful things that we do for people don’t translate into great results. So like, you can have a great culture where people genuinely have fun working together, but it doesn’t translate into results. What are your thoughts on that?

Brian Elliott  11:53

Yeah, I do think that they both can go together. But I do think you have to design it that way. So part of this is you also have to have aspiration and goals and outcomes that you want to hit, and you need to be, you know, somewhat aggressive and what those look like. But you need to build a team where people feel like they’re in it together, that they can trust one another, they got each other’s backs. Give you another example. It’s sort of like, in retrospect, I realized, you know, 25 years later, that one of the things I was actually really good at was cultural turnarounds, in businesses that were a business turnaround. So I went to Google and inherited a business called Google Express, which was a same day, next day delivery service, shopping oriented tools with a whole bunch of retailers involved. And when I took that on, as general manager of it, it was a business that had struggled. And it struggled in terms of traction with customers. And it struggled in terms of its economics, a whole bunch of other issues. But it also was really struggling internally, because people weren’t listening to each other. The heads of operations and engineering weren’t talking to each other. Or if they were, they were in very raised voices, shouting in hallways type of conversations, there were other people that were feeling like they were left out of the conversation, especially women, especially younger workers in the organization, and who felt like they didn’t have a voice. And all of that led to a lot of time and energy spent on disagreements internally, about what we’re going to do next to improve the business. So all that time and energy that was the internal lack of alignment really was holding us back. And so what we had to do was both things at the same time, we had to figure out what’s the Northstar? What are the set of goals, what are the most important things for us to accomplish. And we had to learn new ways of listening to one another, even figuring out in better defining roles and responsibilities of who was accountable to whom, and for what, and the last one that sat underneath all of this was, none of that was going to work. If people felt like the loudest voices, the most male voices, the most senior voices in the room were the only ones that were being heard. And so I spent a lot of time listening and getting groups of those folks together who felt like they were not being listened to, in order to make this feel like a place where they could actually share what they knew, which actually was critically important to achieving the goals. So you got to do both at the same time, you have to set high aspirations for a team, you have to clarify roles and responsibilities, but you also have to make the environment safe for people to say, we’re not gonna get there unless you actually take into account this bit of information that I happen to have over here.

Aga Bajer  14:27

Yeah, that makes total sense. And it’s an ongoing journey, right? You really need to keep your focus on both of these all the time. And sometimes I feel like people have a sense “Oh, right. So we fixed the team dynamics, we can now focus on getting better results.”, but we all know that this really isn’t it’s like mowing your lawn. You can’t do it once and consider it done. It requires some consistency. Next question, I guess is it’s a fascinating world of course the world startups and scale ups and tech. And my question is, how do you then decide to leave that world? And what was the thing that compelled you to pursue your next adventure.

Brian Elliott  15:12

From startup world to Google actually even was a sort of a sidestep, it was really interesting. I’ve been doing startups for 12 years, I’d been CEO of a company that had 300 employees in it. And I went to Google, because I’d sort of stalled out, all I knew was how to run an operate small companies, I hadn’t operated in a big company. And I jumped into Google and a job that had two employees reporting to me when I first started doing a job I could have done 10 decades earlier. But it was an opportunity to be in an organization where I was gonna learn something different, I then ended up inheriting this much larger business that I described already. But that was a growth career trajectory change, even within that did the same thing Again, when I went to Slack, and took on the developer platform there. But that was a similar job. But a similar like stepping into a smaller company, but with a lot of growth potential. After a couple of years of doing that, though, I started getting itchy, because I knew you know how to operate and run that that team of people. But even the work that we were doing wasn’t something that I felt deep passionate about developer platforms are fantastic. But my own level of passion is just not there for right formulation of a API and automated programming interface. I wanted to do something different. The pandemic had also just started, when I basically went to Stewart Butterfield Slacks, CEO and co-founder, along with a couple other folks and said, Hey, Stuart, you’ve talked in the past about Slack should back a think tank around the future of work, I think this is the time to do it. Because people are much more open to new ways of working than they ever have been in the past. And we’re going to learn so much through this sort of forced change that everyone is going through in terms of how we work. And so I found a Future Forum along with two fantastic co-founders, Sheila Subramanian and Helen cup, because it was sort of a learning opportunity for us personally, a way in which we could try to make a world of work that we think is more what we would like it to look like, and a way that we thought might actually influence you know, outcomes for a lot of organizations. So that’s why I jumped into the into that one as my sort of next step. And next career.

Aga Bajer  17:18

What I love about this story is the fact that you are in this organization that actually is willing to support you to kind of pursue your passion in a certain capacity. And I found that a lot of organizations that are incredibly successful, they have mastered this ability to let people pursue what lights them up. I think it’s such a fantastic example of you know, how you eventually work your way out of an organization, but still maintain these ties, because they’re still supporting you in your development, we have a lot to learn from Slack. And it just, you know, confirms my belief that that Slack is doing a lot of things well. And I’m glad that you were able to pivot because we are learning a lot from you. And that moment during the pandemic was a pivotal moment for us for my company as well, this that was the moment where I had exactly the same realization, which was, we’ve been supporting organizations to cultivate a great workplace culture. And now suddenly, no one knows how to move forward from here. And everyone feels the sense of, Wow, maybe it’s an opportunity to really re define work or the way we work and start doing new things that are more effective. I wonder, as you reach that realization, and founded the future form, Which direction did you take? And what did you learn through your research,

Brian Elliott  18:52

Future Forum itself was founded not on a set of beliefs that the research we were doing was going to be about how technology is wonderful and is going to change the world? Or that, you know, offices were good or bad, but much more about what does it take to actually build teams that are highly effective? And what’s the relationship between making work better for people and the outcomes that organizations can achieve coming out of this? And so, we did a lot of research into what was working and what wasn’t for different groups of people in different countries in different locations, based on the processes, policies and setups that their companies provided to them. And so there were three kind of key things that we learned coming out of this one was just the importance of flexibility. And that’s a debate that still rages today about remote work versus in the office and how it works.

Aga Bajer  19:41

Will it ever be over Brian, what do you think?

Brian Elliott  19:44

I wish. We’re three years into what I think is honestly the stupidest argument in many ways, because, honestly, how many days a week someone is in the office is one of the least important factors in driving, productive teams and outcomes. One thing that we found, in fact was that time matters more than place giving people a couple hours per day of uninterrupted focus time, no notifications going off, no calls, no meetings, no nothing is a much bigger boost to their productivity than, you know, being in the office not being in the office. That was one of the things that we learned coming through this was that flexibility actually benefits every aspect of work, you do have to find ways in which teams come together to build camaraderie to build teamwork to build culture, which we can get into. That was one. The other is, this sense of flexibility is actually disproportionately helpful to people who historically have not been well represented, or AAC, right, like, I’m a 55-year-old white male, who was not the primary caregiver for my kids, when they were little, I had it easy. Unfortunately, a lot of people like me are the ones that are setting a lot of the policies and rules and saying, Hey, look, we just need to get back to what works for me. What they’re not realizing is that, in particular, when we looked at the data, working moms more than working dads wanted workplace flexibility. People who are black, Hispanic, Latinx, Asian American in the US, where we could get the data deep enough to actually look at racial and ethnic differences, value flexibility in the workplace, because it gives them a break from continual code switching and how they walk and how they talk and how they show up. And you can see another aspects to one of which is even neurodiversity, right, one of my co-authors, Helen cup is very much the introvert and very much does not want to be the person who’s put on the spot, to do instant brainstorming in a meeting. But Helen is one of the brightest, most brilliant human beings that I know on the planet, give her a way in which she can think about the idea beforehand, come up with ideas, and then share them and you’re gonna get spectacular results. So you can create a new way of including people if we just rethink some of how we work and how we come together. And the last thing that we learned through the course of this is culture and connection don’t just happen in an office, right? People who are given flexibility feel a higher sense of connection, and they actually are more likely to say their cultures improved, in part because they’re given the flexibility, but also in part, because giving them that saying, I’m going to base my opinion of you on your outcomes, not in your appearance, is way of saying that I trust you. And that trust goes a long way towards building, you know, more positive cultures, and honestly, better outcomes.

Aga Bajer  22:28

Yeah, you had this fantastic piece that I’ve read recently about the relationship of trust, and productivity. And I really loved it, I think it’s a very powerful formula to talk about what really leads to productivity, because back to your points that you’ve made about a certain group of people wanting people back in the office, we know from various surveys, that there is a huge disconnect between what top CEO or senior leaders want to happen, and what the majority of people want to happen. And also perceptions around, are people being productive when they’re not in the office, senior leaders believe people are not productive, the rest of the employees are actually convinced that they’re way more productive when they are given this flexibility. So could you talk a little bit about the formula for high productivity, which, as you say, in your article, is really this combination of trust, and relentless focus on the outcomes.

Brian Elliott  23:32

Yeah, exactly. Right. So from a productivity standpoint, there’s all kinds of academic studies. But basically, if you go through every single one of them and comb them, what you’ll find is that if you give people more flexibility, they’re going to be more productive. And in fact, they’ll actually choose the setup that works best for them, including people who are more productive in the office will want the office and they will come to the office. A lot of executives, unfortunately, are nervous and apprehensive. And they’re going off of anecdotes and off of fear often right, which is, I’m not sure that they’re really working, how will I know they’re really working, therefore, I need them back in the office. If you’re an executive and you concerned about that, you’re concerned about quiet quitting, one of my least favorite terms. And your decision then is great that I need people back in the office four days a week, and you tell everybody, I need you back in the office four days a week, to be with your teams and to be productive. What you’re really saying is I don’t trust you. And that is an instant turnoff, what we’ve seen, and there’s all kinds of data out there. But Slack, actually, the research team put out a piece this summer that was really great that actually looked at this and said, if people don’t feel trusted by their managers, they are far less likely to go the extra mile, they are far more likely to simply check the box to do the bare minimum of work that’s required. Therefore, if you’re an executive concerned about quiet quitting, and you force people back in the office, what you’re creating is quiet quitting. So you’ve just got the outcome that you didn’t want to have by doing the thing you did. That’s one side of it. The other side though, is if you look at organization machines that have higher outcomes. So Institute for corporate productivity did this study where they took companies and said, Let’s take everybody in industry, and let’s stack rank them on the basis of who’s got the highest growth, most profitability, the highest customer satisfaction, and I’ll compare them to the people at the bottom of the stack. The biggest difference between the top and the bottom is do I feel trusted by my senior leadership, and a senior leadership trust the people in the organization? So trust builds productivity and outcomes. But every executive I talk with will also say, but how do I just have trust? The answer is you don’t I understand that, you’ve got to have two other ingredients, you have to have this aspiration around outcomes, right, you need to know what outcomes you’re trying to drive. And people need to have accountability to those outcomes. So you have to build systems that allow you to do two things at once, right? I trust you to deliver an outcome. But I’m also going to work with you to make sure that I know from a team perspective and an end an individual perspective, what those outcomes are that we’re trying to drive. If you can do that, you can build an environment where you let people have the flexibility, they want to be productive. But you can also, by the way, achieve higher outcomes and better results. At the same time.

Aga Bajer  26:15

What I hear you’re saying this is that, especially now, we really need to be more focused on making sure that we create that clarity for people when it comes to what the desired outcomes are. Because, I mean, people have always had this need, obviously to know, what do you expect from me? And I think, frankly, in my personal experience, this has always been something that’s been lacking in organizations. Usually, it’s quite hazy, there are some KPIs, but generally, we talk about priorities in plural. Which, of course, doesn’t make a lot of sense, even linguistically. I mean, from the language point of view, there is one priority. And so how do we create that clarity that gives people that direction so that they know what is expected from them without? Over engineering it? What is the Goldilocks zone here?

Brian Elliott  27:14

Yeah, I do think it’s hard. And it’s it’s not, there’s no simple one formula that’s going to get you there. But I do think it goes back to what are the top objectives for the organization from a longer-term perspective, right? What matters most to you, in terms of? Is it customer growth? Is it profitability? Is it you know, you want to be the best at x? You want to be the top-rated company? And why? What are those top level objectives that you’ve got? And what are the key results, objectives and key results? They’re gonna get you there over the course of the next year? And how do you measure what those look like? The trap that you’re describing is, too many organizations have all the objectives and every key result, and it basically encompasses the entirety of the organization without any stack ranking, right? It’s one of the things that I actually found most effective that I carried from my startup days, was literally being able to stack rank those things and say, This is the most important thing, right? This project this objective, the set of results for our team is the most important thing for us. Here’s number two, here’s number three. Because you do get to a point where your team is big enough, your organization is big enough that one thing alone may not be the answer. But it’s really important for people to be able to say, hey, look, I’d love to work with you on number six. But unfortunately, I’m needed on number two, I need to get that done, we need to get that done first, because as an organization, we have agreed our leadership has aligned around that. And that’s usually where it falls apart is where I’ve seen the challenge is really about leadership, being able to say, look, we’ve gotten around the table. And we’ve actually drawn a line and said, I know that Bob would like to do that project. But that project is not going to happen because we don’t have the resources for it. The art of this is not just that stack rank. It’s also here’s the things we are not doing.

Aga Bajer  28:59

Yeah, it that’s strategy. Right. Exactly. Brian, I want to channel our audience here, because I know for a lot of people who are listening, they are in a business that has a legacy product or a legacy business that is still giving them significant revenue. And there’s a movement towards building a new business and new products. And that’s the priority. But at the same time you need to maintain the old in order to make this transition. And I find a lot of organizations stuck somewhere in the middle there. And it’s a very difficult place to be, personally in my business I’m experiencing something like this as well. So I want to pick your brain on this because I know that you’ve been through these moments with the organizations that you’ve worked with. What are your words of wisdom for us?

Brian Elliott  29:50

It is so hard, Aga, that is such a great question. I’ve been exactly there. And you know, it’s challenging because people know that they are on the business that’s been cool. Don’t quit left behind, right or that is less important. And I think part of what you need to do is help people within those organizations figure out what’s in it for them. What are they looking for, personally? What are the growth opportunities that they’re seeking? And how are we going to bring that to bear. So I’ll give you an example. When I was in the startup mode, one thing that we did is we had a legacy business, right and a legacy business, we were running for cash, because the cash we’re running for that was going to build a new software business on top. And so of course, everybody wanted to work on the new software business. That was, you know, the shiny Penny, the next new thing, but we needed people on that on that kind of base business as well. So, we did a few things. One is we actually rotated people. So, we would rotate engineers across those two business units, over periods of time that were long enough that they could be productive and effective in one and then move back into the other and then back and forth. And the other is, there was some element of self-selection, too, because being in the shiny Penny new growth business was also it was higher demand, right? It was going to be harder work, it was more challenging, it was more uncertain. You weren’t sure what next week was going to look like, let alone tomorrow, some days. And so there’s also a fifth element to this too, in terms of what’s your tolerance for ambiguity? What’s your level of uncertainty around this? And sometimes those big shiny objects don’t work out, at which point there’s also more risk about what’s going to happen to you and to your job. So there’s there are tradeoffs that aren’t always easy that I think, involve us being open with people about what are your aspirations? What are you looking to do? How are you looking to grow, and what the business needs.

Aga Bajer  31:39

I love that this is super useful. So, we talked a lot about the benefits of flexibility and the importance of trusting people, and being super clear about what the desired outcomes are. But of course, there are some downsides or challenges, let’s say, when it comes to hybrid and remote work. So, let’s get honest here. What do you see in terms of those negative aspects, and are there any ways that we can address them effectively?

Brian Elliott  32:08

So I’ll give it to one that’s fairly straight, maybe a little more straightforward. One is that you still have to get people together, we use this phrase at Slack and at Future Forum. Digital First doesn’t mean never in person, there actually really is a critical element to bringing people together in person to build belonging with one another, my team would get together once a quarter for three or four days. And we would spend more than half of that time on social aspects of work, we would do meals together, we would do volunteer activities together, we would do paired walks in the woods, you know, spending that time not on just the planning of the business. But on getting to know one another as human beings was really essential in terms of just kicking up that flywheel of feeling a sense of belonging and understanding one another, especially in a diverse team. There’s evidence behind this too. Atlassian, a big software company did a study that found those quarterly gatherings generate goodwill and engagement that lasts for four or five months, right? When you do it, you also have to make sure that you don’t end up with a birds of a feather problem. There was a professor Raj Chaudhary at Harvard Business School who did a study that showed when you pull these groups together, one of the risks is, all the white guys get together and cluster, the solo female engineer does not and gets left out, like happens in offices. So, making sure that you’re mixing it up, it’s important. And that leads me to the other big concern that I’ve got when it comes to hybrid and flexible work, which is this phrase proximity bias, we still have a number of leaders who are very used to a world in which the signals the visual signals of someone showing up, especially if hustle and culture are indicators of you know, success. So Johnny shows up early Johnny stays late, therefore Johnny is going to get you know, the next big opportunity is really problematic, especially when you consider that the people coming in to the office most often are white male, older non primary caregivers. So we have to actually be aware of it number one. So the first thing that I found with executives is making sure that they understand it. And it’s always surprising to me how few are aware of the differences across race, gender, ethnicity. But the second is we need to go back to that point about managing on the basis of outcomes, right? If you put the hard work into aligning your executive team on what outcomes you’re trying to drive, if you ladder that down your organization in terms of goals and how that goes down to functions and sub teams. And if you then hold people accountable to the outcomes they generate, you can create a level playing field that hopefully reduces the risk of proximity bias in organizations.

Aga Bajer  34:48

I’m curious about the phrase that you used, and this actually got me thinking about my own research. I’ve done some primary research about the conditions that people need in order to do their best work. And unsurprisingly, one of these conditions is a sense of belonging. And what I discovered was that there was a continuum of belonging that starts with very fundamental, essential and straightforward things like seeing people. And what I mean by that acknowledging people, but use the word flywheel. And it’s really, you know, it clicked for me, because I think the continuum is actually a sort of a flywheel because of course, all these things reinforced. Next thing. So I’m curious, when you think about belonging, especially in this new world of work, what are the elements in your flywheel or stages of that? So how do you reinforce that? And is there a progression in your mind?

Brian Elliott  35:49

I think there is because part of it is, and I’m not sure that I’ve got the exact formula for it. I mean, I really do like being seen as one element of it. But to think that it has to be built step by step by step, it doesn’t just happen instantaneously, because you bring everybody together for an off site, right? Usually, it starts well before that, which is, how do you even operate as a team in the first place? Give me a couple examples. There’s a couple of tools that I like to use in doing this, one of which is personal user manuals. Think of it as a way to go deeper, faster on your needs, versus my needs, your proclivities versus my proclivities, I’m a morning person, right? And so knowing that I’m a morning person that I don’t do well, in meetings that happen after four o’clock in the afternoon, because my brain turns to mush. That’s probably a good thing for you to know about me, in the same way that like, I’m much better at reading a document than I am watching a video to get information, right. So the basics of that give us a little bit of insight into the teams that we’re working with. Once you’ve done that, you can start going deeper in terms of actually understanding what your drivers are like, what are your aspirations, but also what holds you back? Where do you come from? What are the challenges that you face? How do you interact with other people, we have to sort of take these things a step at a time. And you don’t just build it as a group, you have to build it individually to, you know, pairwise among people. And so the best teams that I’ve found that do this are the ones that invest time and doing it. One of the challenges that we face these days is we have so many meetings on our calendar that we now have gotten into meeting efficiency. And look, I’m a huge proponent of meeting efficiency and getting rid of unnecessary meetings. But your weekly staff meeting should not be okay. Let’s get into it. What do we do last week? What are we doing this week who’s behind who’s on top?

Aga Bajer  37:36

And now we have a hard stop.

Brian Elliott  37:40

Exactly. And I’ve seen people use icebreakers, right, like social questions to kick off a meeting. But I’ve also seen people use icebreakers and say, Okay, we got five minutes for icebreakers. The signals you send as a leader about like, hey, I want to hear your story. Right? That is a really big one on there. Yeah, I agree. There’s also an element from the top that I think happens on this one, which is, this comes back to vulnerability. I think a lot of leaders still feel like they have to have all the answers, right. I also think that’s where impostor syndrome comes from, it’s it comes from people believing they have to have all the answers. And I think it’s because we don’t feel like we can be open about the fact that we don’t, and that is a vulnerability, right. But one of the things that I try to help leaders understand is that you can do both things at once. You can have high aspirations, the mountain that you want the team to climb. And you can also say, I don’t know the path, I don’t fully know how we’re gonna get there. But I want us to do it together, I want your help and doing it. And so it’s an invitation to people to share with you to be more open with you. If you don’t act like the Know It All that I was when I was in my mid 20s.

Aga Bajer  38:52

Brian, I can’t help but notice, as we, as we discuss all these things, everything that you have shared makes total sense. And actually, there has been a lot of evidence over the years that these things are entirely true. Just taking the last example of what you have mentioned that leaders actually gain trust and confidence of their teams when they are willing to be vulnerable and admit that they don’t have all the answers. And yet, as we both know, the reality there’s a gap, right? There’s a gap between what we know to work and what we do in organizations. And I am really curious, what do you think stops us from basically implementing the knowledge that we have and also the, I think intuitive understanding that we have about certain things in organizations for some reason, the reality that you see is very often disconnected from that.

Brian Elliott  39:50

I think a lot of the challenges are societal and cultural in nature, right? We tend to reward matter of fact, we do reward as societies To Know It All right, the person who is highly successful and this person has become highly successful in a field or an endeavor. And then they start sharing wisdom that they may not be at all in their field of endeavor at all, they may know nothing about. But because they are highly successful, they are seen as someone who should be listened to. It’s just sort of reinforcing the sort of ego driven, I am successful, therefore, I must know all things type of aspiration that therefore trickles down in our organizations, right? Through that culture, we sort of have trained people that the signals of hustle culture, the showing up early the fast response to an email, the having good, quick response, and a quick answer is the path to success. And it just sort of continually reinforces those types of behaviors, which are actually contrary to what we know, and helps build better results inside of teams. But culturally, we reinforced them also by who we celebrate too often. And so I think that’s a big part of the challenge is how do we shine more light on leaders who are more open, more vulnerable, but also who are highly successful?

Aga Bajer  41:11

Yeah, so true, because if they don’t go hand in hand, then it kind of defeats the purpose. So you do want to find those leaders who are successful at the same time do you have I know that I’m putting you on the spot now. But in case you have any examples of leaders who really embody a lot of these things that we’ve talked about, or maybe companies where you feel like, a lot of these practices have been embraced by leaders and employees, and they are successful at the same time,

Brian Elliott  41:40

A great recent example, is a company called Cotopaxi in the US, it’s an outdoor apparel retailer, they’re a B Corp. They are a highly successful brand. I mean, I happen to have some of their jackets. But also, it’s grown like crazy. Grace Zuncic is, is a woman, I’ve gotten to know who is the Head of People and Impact there. And what they’ve done is really sort of rethink what it means to have employees really engaged in the business, in terms of not only the giving that they do in the volunteer activities, but it’s things like they have gatherings and get togethers where it’s not just the office staff, it’s actually people who work in their distribution centers that come together as well. Right. So, ways in which they’re signaling that everyone belongs, and everyone is part of this. But also, they’re there to listen to the people who work in those distribution centers who are dealing with customer complaints and returns and issues to gather, you know, feedback from it. And they do the same thing with people who are the, you know, the office workers in terms of how do we work? How do we operate? How do we help you be more effective, and it shows in the results of the company, I think, as well, which is why it’s sort of a great if recent example of mine.

Aga Bajer  </