The Mix Tape | The Secret’s in the Mix: Part 2 – Building a Culture from the Ground Up

In Part 2 of our miniseries featuring Mix Talent we dive into where our culture comes from: was it planned from the beginning or developed over time? Natalie sits down with our Head of Strategy K.C. McAllister and Head of Assessment & Consulting Chad Thompson for a little company and advice on how to develop a beneficial culture in your office!

Transcription

Group:

Welcome to the Mix Tape.

Natalie Taylor:

I’m Natalie, and welcome back to another episode of the Mix Tape miniseries. In today’s episode, we will be talking about something near and dear to our hearts at Mix, and that is culture. As Mix is a young organization, at four years old, our partners had the opportunity to build our culture from the ground up, creating what we affectionately call today, the Mix OS. Of those four years, that Mix has been in existence, we’ve been named a best place to work each year. And guess what? Culture has played a huge role in this. So let’s dive in on how to build a culture from the ground up. Today, I’m joined by two Mix partners, K.C. McAllister, and Chad Thompson, both of whom are repeat star podcast guests by the way. So Chad, K.C., welcome back.

K.C. McAllister:

Thanks for having us.

Chad Thompson:

Thank you, Natalie.

Natalie Taylor:

So, we’ve called off the importance of the Mix OS, and we’ve mentioned it a few times. So help us understand and explain what the Mix OS is, and how we got to this place.

K.C. McAllister:

We’d love to. So it’s okay Chad, maybe I’ll take that first.

Chad Thompson:

Great.

K.C. McAllister:

So back in the summer of 2018, when we were starting the organization of Mix Talent, so before we had a name, before we had a website, we spent about a half day together talking about what was going to be important to us as an organization, thinking about values and what that would look and feel like.

And so, everybody came to that session with ideas, put them up on the wall. And I always tell people, “It was a great experience when you’re starting a business with people to see better than 90% of what we put on the wall, aligned.”

And so therefore, you know what’s going to be important to you, is going to be important to your partners. And we were able to distill that down into the four areas that have become care, solve, deliver, and win-win.

But instead of just thinking about those as values which are important, most organizations, if not every organization, has a set that they think through. Chad really challenged us, as a team, to think of it not just as value, what was going to be important to us, but more so as how we were going to operate our business. And so, maybe I can kick that to you, to talk about where that came from.

Chad Thompson:

Yeah, I think what was important for us was to make sure that the values we came up with the way we wanted to operate, both internally, how we interact with our clients, how we interact with our candidates, what was important was that we were really clear on what that actually meant, from a behavioral standpoint.

So, it’s one thing to have words on a wall. It’s one thing to have ways in which we think about interacting with each other. It’s quite another to go, “Okay, but what does that look like in real life? What does that look like, and what should that sound like, feel like, in the people that we’re interacting with?” And so, the next step in the conversation was to say, “Okay, if creating win-win situations for us is important, how do we actually do that? What should we expect of ourselves? What should we expect of the people that we bring into this organization? What should our clients and our candidates expect from us, in terms of how we engage with them?”

And so, I think oftentimes the challenge is to be that deep in your thinking. We had a unique circumstance to be somewhat aspirational. We weren’t trying to capture our culture as it currently is. We were trying to define our culture as we wanted it to be. And I think that gave us some more degrees of freedom to play with, if you will, in having that next level conversation.

K.C. McAllister:

No, no, I think that makes a lot of sense. I think the other thing that’s important, again when starting a business and thinking about that, was this idea of, we knew we were going to grow. We started with six. Now here we sit a little over four years later, with more than a hundred teammates.

And first and foremost being intentional and thinking about to your point Chad, what does that mean? How does that manifest when you’re having this operating system and your values look that way? But even as early as hiring our first teammates, it came into, what are those competencies? What does that look like? What does the information behind this idea that we can look for, measure, interview to, so as to be able to build a team that’s very diverse in terms of experience, in terms of roles and responsibilities they’ve had throughout their careers, and also very unique humans, in terms of their own stories and lived experiences.

But yet, everyone is aligned around this true north of these things that are important. And so, they show up in terms of how we engage with one another, but they also show up in how we treat and engage with our candidates and our clients, which I really attribute to a lot of the success that we’ve had in a short period of time.

Chad Thompson:

I think the diversity point is an interesting one because you’re right, folks bring different sets of experiences both personally and professionally into the organization and we need that and want that, right?

Natalie Taylor:

Absolutely.

Chad Thompson:

That’s hugely important. And the work we’re doing is different. The work our recruiters do, is different than the work our consultants do, is different than the people who operate our business internally, the work they do. But it is important, I think, to have some overarching framework for things we all believe in, ways we all act, that looks different in a recruiter than it does in a consultant, but there is this unifying aspect of how we operate, that we really wanted to be as specific as we could be, knowing that we don’t know all the answers. In fact, that’s one of the aspects of the Mix OS, don’t expect us to have all the answers, because we won’t.

And I think that’s important in terms of what you communicate out to the people you attract into the organization. Particularly at the beginning, if you wanted to have a playbook on exactly how your day was going to go, day to day, this ain’t the place for you. And we wanted to be upfront about what we knew, what we didn’t know, and that we would try to select people who could exercise excellent judgment on their own, because we’re not going to have all the answers. So there’s a recognition of what the business environment is, including planning for scale, to your point earlier, K.C. Maybe talk a little bit about how you’ve seen that scaling part happen both in our organization and then others that we work with as well.

K.C. McAllister:

Yeah, no I think that’s a great call out. So, you think about, and we’re talking generally about culture, right Natalie? But, I think we’re also tracking specifically in this moment around these values, and how they show up. And so look at solve. Having an orientation, if you will, that is around problem solving. When we are a small organization starting out and growing, we had to figure out how to buy desks, and trash cans, and get wifi into the building, as well as figure out benefits, and how to get people paid through payroll, things that we had not done before.

At the same time, we’re trying to build solutions externally for clients, to meet them where they are in this moment in time, we’re helping them achieve a milestone perhaps through talent. And so you’ve got all of these competing things going on, and need to have that solution orientation, that biased solve so as to say, “Hey, we’re going to go really fast and furious, but if this is how we’re going to approach problems, not just listing them out, or recognizing that things are not easy, or laid out, or potentially even clear in some regards, but this is how we’re all going to approach it, regardless of the role in which I play in this organization,” that helps move those things forward.

And I do think too on the scale side specifically, that kind of awareness to say, “Okay, here are the things that we’re going to approach, and here are the things that we’re going to have to deal with, but we’re going to do it in a way that allows a lot of different people to engage in moving that business forward, and recognizing the need to divide and conquer in those moments, creates capacity, and creates trust, because you believe that people are going to do what’s best for the business, that they are going to have a proactive approach to raising a hand. “Hey, have we tried this? Or, have we thought about, or could we do? Which was really meaningful and impactful, I think, in trying to go pretty fast.

Chad Thompson:

I think that’s a really important point to underline. We often hear clients and it’s important for us as well, to push decision making down as far in the organization as possible, to create capacity and bandwidth and scale. To your point, I think where people get hung up sometimes is like, “Well, but how do I know if they’re making the decision I would make?” You maybe don’t want them making the exact decision you would make, but you probably do want them thinking about that decision with the same sort of variables in mind, that we would as partners in the business.

And so having the Mix OS, in terms of a way of thinking and a way of behaving I think probably certainly gave me and probably you too, K.C., some assurance that people would at least be looking at this, with the same type of variables in mind as we would if we were trying to decide, “Do we want orange desks or red desks?” Whatever the case might be. That’s obviously not the most important decision, but as people are building out their teams, no longer can we interview every single person, nor should we. However, do we want people thinking about the folks we bring into the organization based on these values and these aspects of our Mix OS? Yeah, we do. Put some processes in place to try to facilitate that as much as possible.

K.C. McAllister:

No, I think that’s a great point. I think the other thing too, when you think about culture, and Chad and I are very aligned in this way of thinking, we talk about it externally, is that culture is not something that you choose. You don’t get to define your culture, and then say, “Come work for us because this is our culture.” Culture is built by people. It’s built by the humans that are in your organization and every time you add to that, you’re adding to, it’s a dynamic living organic kind of thing, if you will.

And so I think as we recognize that, and again add people and talent and their experiences to Mix, which then forms Mix Talent culture, we have been again very mindful not only to incorporate the Mix OS in the hiring process, but in really every aspect of our business.

And so it’s in how we look at new business opportunities, it’s in how we develop and train and do evaluations for our teams. It’s in our kudos channel, how we celebrate successes, and highlight the great work that this team is doing in so many different ways, for different clients that we have, with different solutions that we offer. And, I think that that’s really important, as this culture has started to become something, and has obviously so proudly been recognized four times as a best place to work. But it’s because we keep all of those things so top of mind, that it’s not easy for anybody to put it on the shelf. It is truly how they operate, and how they engage with each other, and our business every day.

Chad Thompson:

I think that’s right. And the other aspect too, that I know we were mindful of, and continue to be so, is making sure that the culture and the way we want to behave, is aligned to our business strategy.

K.C. McAllister:

Absolutely.

Chad Thompson:

So when we started Mix, we had a sense that there were things we wanted to do differently than other firms that are in our space, yes, but then you can’t have reward systems and cultures that don’t align to that. So win-wins a great example. We don’t believe that recruiting is a zero sum game, where we win and the candidate loses, or we lose and the company wins. We fully believe that there are ways, and you should strive for, engagements where everybody’s happy at the end of it.

And so, there’s a series of behaviors that align to that. And so, I think sometimes words sound nice, but they’re not necessarily connected to what you’re trying to get accomplished from a business standpoint. It can’t just be a feel good exercise, it has to be directly related to how are we trying to stand out in the marketplace, how do we want people to think about us? Or whatever the case might be.

And so as your business changes, there are times in which your culture probably needs to, maybe change is too strong of a word, but evolve, certainly.

Natalie Taylor:

Absolutely.

Chad Thompson:

Right? As things are different, as the business conditions are different, as the problems you’re trying to solve are different, whatever the case might be.

K.C. McAllister:

I think that’s a great call out. And when you look at having a set of values that you live by, and recognizing or understanding what the facets are behind them, what are those competencies, how do you define it? They’re not so rigid, they’re not so narrow.

To your point Chad, that they can’t evolve over time, and be where you are as an organization, I do think it’s important to take moments along the way, because again, usually like we talked about in our story, people define those at the front end of your business. Or perhaps if you’re going through a rebrand, or a retool, and so you have these major moments where you define these things, and then move forward, where if you create it again and recognize that need for it to be this living being, and have built in moments of reflection, to say, “Okay, how does care which is a really important part of who we are at Mix Talent, how does that show up as an organization of 10 or 20 people, versus how does that show up for an organization of 110 people, that are spread across 20 states in the United States?”

When you think about that, having some fluidity and say, “Well, it’s still important that you take care of yourself, and it’s still important that you think about how you’re moving forward.” And so we add programs like more robust training, or the Mix CD which is specifically around career development, that makes sense for an organization that has matured to a point where you can incorporate those kinds of things.

Where again, early on, it was, “Hey, everyone’s going to be wearing 20 hats, and make sure you show up for each other in that way, and really pitch in, in this way.” Well now you’ve evolved to the organization. I think it’s an opportunity for people to stop and reflect and say, “Okay, so these values that are still very important to us, what does that mean today, versus two years ago, versus five years from now?”

Chad Thompson:

Yeah, I think the other thing, having a really clear, well-defined set of values, or cultural elements if you will, because it creates a shared vocabulary amongst people in the organization, so that when we talk about win-wins, everyone knows what we mean by that. When we talk about connecting to your why, and why you’re doing what we’re doing, particularly in the life science space that we operate in primarily, frankly that’s not hard.

You bring some patients in on whose lives are improved by the work you’re doing, that’s a pretty easy connection to make. And so, when we then talk about what we’re doing, or why we’re doing what we’re doing, or how we’re doing what we’re doing, when we say those words that are present in our Mix OS, it just resonates with people in a way that I think is clearer and more impactful than other words that maybe they haven’t heard consistently, they don’t understand, or why it’s [inaudible 00:15:28].

There’s a reason marketers market the way they do in terms of repetition, because that is meaningful to people, in terms of pattern recognition, and there’s a whole bunch of psychology behind that. But that’s an intentional way of talking about what we’re about, and how we’re doing what we’re doing. And then everyone just knows what you mean when you utter those words that people have gotten used to.

K.C. McAllister:

No, which is great. And again, I think that shared vocabulary and the recognition of how these values come to be in an organization, is also an opportunity for people to recognize maybe that’s not the right fit for them. I think that’s one of the things we’ve talked about as well, is having to Chad’s point, aligning your values and aligning your operating system in our language, with your business strategy, creates a clear understanding of why we believe that. We think it’s important to show up for each other and our clients and candidates in these particular ways, but that’s not the only way.

And there may be some people that because you’re so clear and forward about it, can self-select in, and others that may self-select out. And that’s positive for an organization because again, there’s not a one size fits all in terms of where people can be successful, or how they want to operate their business. But by not apologizing for it, recognizing this is who we are, this is what’s important to us and this is how we need our team to align when we do go deliver the best work for our clients, it just creates that understanding, and truly again, manifests into a impact culture, because people choose, because they’re very clear around what that looks and feels like.

Chad Thompson:

And I think that’s true on the client side as well. There’s a reason we lead with our Mix OS on a lot of our conversations with clients about the work we do. We start with how we do it, not what we do, for a very intentional reason. And I think our best relationships are with clients whose values are very similar to ours, because they get where we’re coming from, we get where they’re coming from, and there is a little bit of an expectation setting on the front end, that I think is really useful to go, “Okay, this is what I can expect out of these people, this is what they’re promising me, how they’re going to do it. I know they’re going to deliver an excellent work product in a consulting engagement, or find the best candidate for the role.” That’s expected. The how you go about doing it, and the feel of that, we want to be really clear and intentional about on the front end. And so I think it’s equally relevant with clients as it is with folks that we bring into the organization as well.

K.C. McAllister:

I love that you say that. It actually brings to mind an early example that we had as Mixed Talent was growing, with a client who based on relationships, we’ve all been in this business for a couple of decades now, which is great, some of us longer than others, and had a client that reached out based on relationships with our partnership to say, “Hey, we’re evaluating our talent partners, we’d love for you guys to jump into the Mix as it relates to an RFP.” And it was a pretty robust project. And understanding how they were working with their current, I think in that context, vendor was probably the appropriate word, and recognizing that it was very much a one way relationship. The client would tell them what to do. It was not a two-way, not what we would call a win-win, as it relates to the relationship.

And quite frankly, it felt like as we were hearing about that, was probably leading to the reason why they weren’t seeing the performance that they were hoping for. And so as a leadership team, although we were early on, and definitely looking to be growing our business, made the decision to back away from that process, because we didn’t think it was going to set our team up for success. It wasn’t how we like to work, and believe that we can provide the most value.

In the course of that follow up discussion, the client came back and said, “Wow, that actually makes us want to work with you more, because we don’t like how this relationship has come to be, and how it has developed into this very much so order taker, commodity, transactional environment.

And so, with a very open dialogue, we did make the decision to go into that process. We did ultimately engage with them as a client, and have been for three plus years in a really positive way. So again, sticking to that true north of being true and honest about who we are, and how we thought we could be, or not be, a great partner to a client, actually led to a very positive relationship, versus having that natural flinch reaction to say, “Okay, well let’s just jump in,” and then recognize that it may not be the right situation for anybody.

Natalie Taylor:

Okay, so as we think about others in a similar situation, maybe other companies or leaders, who are starting from the ground up or maybe they’re reconsidering their culture, maybe going through a rebrand, tell us a little bit about some tips and tricks, or things to consider, strategies, when going through this.

Chad Thompson:

So a few things come to mind to that very excellent question, Natalie. I am a consultant, so the answer is, “It depends.” And it depends and it depends a little bit on the dichotomy you set up. Are we building this thing from the ground up and being sort of aspirational? That’s the place we were in, or are we reacting to a change that is happening in our business environment? Or thinking about how we maybe want to change or evolve our culture, because it’s not working for us. Those are all different circumstances. But, I think a few things that we try to do with clients who are in similar situations. One is, I think you have to answer this question both from the top down, and the bottom up. So, what doesn’t work is, let’s get the executive team in the room and ask them what they think.

K.C. McAllister:

Absolutely.

Chad Thompson:

You do have to do that, but you can’t stop there. The executive team may have a really good sense for where they’re trying to take the business, or from their perspective, is or isn’t working, but you really have to go all the way through the organization both horizontally and vertically, to understand what are you actually doing? How are people actually behaving? What are the shared expectations, behaviors in the organization?

Frankly, executives don’t always have a great perspective on it. They may have a perspective but it’s not complete. And so engaging the entire organization in that process, asking them, “Hey, one of your values is collaboration. Great, what does that look like in your role?” You’re going to get a different answer from a CEO, from a sales rep, from a scientist. And the answer should be different. But, our job is to go, “Okay, here’s common, here’s the red thread through those different answers.”

And that’s really the skillset of an Iowa psychologist in a lot of ways is to what is in people’s head, and get it down on paper. So you can’t do that from just top down, or frankly, just bottom up. You have to be really holistic in that approach, is one thing that comes to mind.

The second is, I think there’s a need to be pretty clear around what are we trying to accomplish from a business standpoint? So to circle back what I said before, we have lots of clients, for example, who have been primarily clinically focused, and they might be commercializing their first asset. Those are different human beings that are going to come in and do that work. And we’re often in a situation where we’re encouraging our clients to think about what has to change as a function of that shift in the business, while simultaneously asking ourselves the question, “What has gotten you to the point where you are, that is unique, that you need to and want to retain?” So it’s both ends of the spectrum that I think folks need to think through.

K.C. McAllister:

I think those are great points. I would just add, it’s an opportunity to look in the mirror and not out the window. This idea, oftentimes, people look out to others and say, “Gosh, like X, Y or Z company down the street is doing this.” Or, “I saw somebody that has all the swag and all their people always look like they’re doing all these fun things,” which is fine, and it’s great to look around at other examples, but you really have to start with again that look in the mirror to say, “Who are we? What makes us unique, special, great? Where are the opportunities for us to improve?” And again, to truly listen to your own organization, as Chad said, I think that’s such an important part, to understand who we are, not who we say we are, but who we are, truly.

Chad Thompson:

An honest look [inaudible 00:23:56].

K.C. McAllister:

There you go. And build upon that. And sometimes, you don’t always like what you see, and sometimes you do. And so the opportunity is to look at both aspects there and to move forward in a positive way, but with intentionality and transparency. I think those are the opportunities that can make the biggest impact when an organization is in that moment of reflection, or starting out.

Chad Thompson:

And then I think once you have that defined, K.C., doing what you were mentioning earlier in terms of figuring out how to weave those cultural elements into as many different things as you’re doing as possible, is really, really important.

We certainly work with clients who say they want a different type of individual in a role as an example, but then don’t change the way they select people. Well that’s not going to work very well. You maybe need to change the tools, you need to ask different questions. You need to define what good sounds like in an interview, and an answer to an interview question differently. So it’s actually doing the work to implement that culture, and all of your different talent initiatives, and talent practices, rather than just updating the website. That’s probably not going to get the job done, in most cases.

K.C. McAllister:

But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be hugely cost burdensome, or resource intensive. There’s really ways, and I think Chad, you and your team have done such an amazing job turning that internally at Mix to say, “How can we incorporate this? How can we leverage this thinking?” And the Mix CD, which is our career development program, I know we’ve taken that to clients as well, but that’s one of those very upfront. It’s an individually driven process. It’s what’s important to me and my own career, but they even state upfront that while the Mix OS is not going to drive every aspect, because again, it’s where you want to go in your career, you should use it as your compass. And I thought that language was so incredible, because it’s such a great visual to say, “This is going to help direct you, but your path may be a lot of different ways.”

We talked about that in the podcast with Amanda on career development. This idea of it may be a career ladder or lattice, a kaleidoscope, whatever it may be. So again, that’s just one of those little ways where you stop and pause and go, “How do we incorporate this to make an impact in a program that perhaps we already have?” So again, I think it can be within reach and within reason. And that’s one of the things that I think we’re really proud of, of being able to stop and leverage again, the great talented team that we have here internally, to help ourselves get better.

Chad Thompson:

And this maybe is not what you would expect the career external consultant to say, but it’s better when you do it yourself frankly. It’s better when it’s driven by the people in your organization, maybe with some guidance, and some tips and best practices, from external folks who have done this with other organizations. But if this is a come in from the outside, and tell us how to do it thing, that’s no bueno. You really have to own it and do it yourself. We can help you with that. But ultimately, we’re not going to be sitting in your company 24 hours a day, your people are. And so you need them bought in, engaged, and all of those things as well.

K.C. McAllister:

And again, back to that phrase, we always say, “Culture is built by people, but runs on talent.” And it’s going to be the talent in your organization that’s going to make that happen.

Natalie Taylor:

That’s awesome. Thank you guys so much for this insightful discussion. I think week after week, I’m just reminded how incredible our culture is, and just what a special place Mix is. And I think if we have the opportunity to share some of our best practices, share some ideas for people building a culture, or trying to make some changes in direction, that’s what it’s all about. So thank you both for your time.

K.C. McAllister:

Thank you.

Chad Thompson:

And the Mix OS is right there on the website. You can go check [inaudible 00:27:47].

Natalie Taylor:

You can check it out.

K.C. McAllister:

Exactly. And thank you, Natalie, and to Valerie as well, for the Mix Tape and bringing so many of these insights to a broader audience. We’re so appreciative of all the work that you guys do.

Natalie Taylor:

Wonderful. Thank you. And as always, thank you for being in the Mix. We’ll see you next week.

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