Transcript of Episode 22 – Sara Kindsfater-Yerkes on the Evolution of Business

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Sara Kindsfater-Yerkes. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Howdy, this Jim Rutt, and this is the Jim Rutt Show. Listeners have asked us to provide pointers to some of the resources we talk about on the show. We now have links to books and articles regarded in recent podcasts that are available on our website. We also offer full transcripts. Go to That’s Today’s guest is Sara Kindsfater-Yerkes.

Sara: Hi, Jim. I’m glad to be here.

Jim: Yeah, Sara and I go way back. She went to work for my office of the CTO at what’s not Thomson Reuters right out of college as I recall. Is that right?

Sara: That is correct, 21 years old.

Jim: Oh, my God. Kids today, or kids then. We had a position we called the assistant to the assistant. It was essentially a slot we reserved for high potential people fresh out of college, basically worked as a troll for my administrative assistant, did all anything needed to be doing, and the plan was to quickly promote them and to something in our line department if they showed themselves to be worth, and Sara definitely did. Was quickly promoted into your recruiting and HR organization where she did all kinds of good things.

Jim: She then left I guess after I left sometime and joined webMethods, a very fast-moving DC area tech startup where she he helped drive their talent acquisition strategy, then she went on to a career of bringing her expertise in HR, organizational design, leadership, culture, strategy, etc. to many companies through a consulting career. I loved that I picked this up on her, I think, LinkedIn bio, and she’s a co-founder of something called the Badass Women’s Network, which I can say is definitely not a lie even though I know nothing about I think that. If somebody out there in listener lands wants to get a hold of you for consulting services in these many areas, how do they get in touch with you?

Sara: Probably the best way is through my LinkedIn profile or just, and we also have a website out there.

Jim: All right, that’s good. She’ll do you good work. To our first topic, one of the things we wanted to dig into a little bit is what’s today’s multi-generational workforce like? How does it differ from the way it was back, say, 21 years ago?

Sara: Yeah, that’s a good one. Although, I did want to add one thing. Do you remember when you left Thomson and you went to Network Solutions, I did a brief stint with you there. You had sent me in to go find out what was going on with the HR department and they well put a bounty on my head. Do you remember?

Jim: I do. I thought you worked there and I looked on your LinkedIn. It wasn’t there, so I said, “Maybe I hallucinated it,” which is certainly possible. I do remember giving you a lecture on how to live $10,000 a year and I thought it was there.

Sara: No, that was actually when I was trying to get the job at Thomson. You tried to convince me that I didn’t need to live in Arlington, that I could find a cheaper place in Herndon, that I could live off of beans and lentils, have all the nutrition I needed. It might’ve been $10,000 a year. Whatever it was, it was ridiculous, but the Network Solution thing ended quickly because the webMethods guys came to meet with you and you introduced me to them because they were looking for … They were growing quickly, so they were looking for help and you were like, “Hey, go check these guys out.”

Sara: I was a little nervous at the time because I’d worked with you for a good bit at that point and obviously it’d only been a couple of months, maybe weeks, since I’d left Thomson and been at Network Solutions, but I didn’t end up leaving. Obviously with your blessing, you’re like, “Yeah, go do it. This is going to be a cool thing,” but it was a crazy brief stint at Network Solution nonetheless.

Jim: Yeah, I think you didn’t get along with the HR queen as I recall.

Sara: No, she sucked.

Jim: Ah, yeah. That was not the kind of really cool HR organization that we built at Thomas. That was for sure. We eventually cleaned it up and got it better, but it was never as good as the one we created from scratch. That’s for sure.

Sara: Well, I think it also has a lot to do … I mean, the people that you had both at Thomson vice the people who were … You had a person that was much more the traditional HR, but there were a lot of different things askance in that culture, as well, so not just HR. Bunch of different stuff.

Jim: For damn sure. That was a turnaround from almost top to bottom.

Sara: Yeah.

Jim: Well, we had two good departments. We had a really good finance operation and a good legal operation. Pretty much everything else was definitely in a very serious rebuild, restructure, in some cases even restart, but we did it.

Sara: Yep, yep. You did.

Jim: Anyway, let’s hop into our topic, the multi-generation workforce today and compare it to when you entered the workforce.

Sara: Well, I think the thing that I found most interesting about the workforce today is first of all, we’re dealing in some industries. We’re dealing with the potential to have five different generations in one organization, and I think that that just presents a whole lot of different challenges, not necessarily bad, some good, but challenges nonetheless, particularly for managers as they’re trying to figure out how do I manage these people with different generational approaches to work and different needs? I think that that’s pretty interesting that we haven’t seen that and yet here we are, everything from pre-Baby Boomer to the current generation Z.

Jim: Is that really any different than back in the day when we had those all generations? I don’t think we had them at Thomson Reuters’ technology operation, but most businesses in those days had people from 18 to 65.

Sara: Yeah, but I think that the difference between … If I think about you being the oldest and me being the youngest … No, I’m totally kidding. You weren’t the oldest, but that traditionalist, what’s called the traditionalist, so pre-Baby Boomer and then gen X. I was at the gen X. That was when everybody was like, “Oh, my God. This gen X group, they’re crazy. They’re asking for too much, engaged in too much,” but now we’ve got other generations that have come since then and they have a completely different take on work how they want to work, everything from simple things like when are they going to show up. We’ve got a 9:00 to 5:00 environment. Yeah, screw you. I’m not going to do that.

Sara: I think that just the differences in the generations is now so much more present, but I think back then, we really had probably three that we could think of in our office.

Jim: Yeah, I guess that’s right. We have Boomers. There’s still some of them hanging around for sure. There’s Xers and then there’s millennials and then the beginnings of whatever they’re going to call the post-millenniums.

Sara: I think it’s gen Z.

Jim: So four. We went from three to sort of four, so we’ll see how different the newbies are with the millennials. I sort of see them as a continuation, but that may not be right. We’ll see. How do you see the millennials and then gen Z differing from, compare them and contrast them with the gen Xers and the Baby Boomers?

Sara: In all honesty, I think it really, in large part, has to do with the influence of technology in their lives. Generation Z, they are true digital natives. They’ve not known anything different, and it encompasses their life not necessarily in a bad way. That’s who they are, so they see the world very differently than what’s left of the Baby Boomers and even the millennials at some level, but I also think that that also influences their appetite for … It’s not necessarily traditional work. It’s just traditional ways of working.

Sara: I know that here in Charleston, something that I’ve found that’s really interesting is that we’ve got an influx, especially an influx in technology, so the state’s trying to make it really beneficial for companies to come to down South Carolina through tax incentives and whatnot, but really the paper are coming here in droves because they want this quality of life, and there’s a lot of people at a college in their 20s that want to be here because they want easy access to the beach and they want year-round climate, and they work for home for companies all over the place.

Sara: I think that they just decide for themselves what’s the life going to be that I want to live, and then I’ll figure out how to get to the work or the work will actually find me because their talent is in high demand. I would’ve never done that. I was all about how am I going to get to work at a great company and be around really smart people in a position where I can learn and I can grow and I can work my way up, and I don’t think that that’s their mindset. Does that make sense?

Jim: I’ve seen it with some. Of course, I’ve seen it with millennial and Xers, too. I know Xers who, especially as they’ve gotten, say, a bit older said, “Screw the corporate rat race. I’m going to go live in Portland, Oregon, and I’m going to get gigs on the internet,” so it’s not like that’s an entirely new thing. It may be that the percentage of people of the newest generation may be a larger percentage of them doing it.

Sara: Yeah, and then I think it’s that that’s their mindset off the shoot. I’m definitely a part of that gen X who said, “Yeah, I’m not going to do that.” That’s in large part why I went to consulting because I foolishly thought the consulting that would be something that would give me more freedom, and that’s not the case, but I think especially generation Z is that way out of the gate. Their personal lives and their careers are not different. It’s one in the same, so they’re driving their life and the ways that they want to work and where they want to live and all that on their own. I don’t know that I’ve ever known a gutsier generation from that perspective.

Jim: That reminds me when the Boomers when we were young. Hell, I hitchhiked around the country for two years, screwed around, did this and that, slept under bridges, didn’t really give too much of a fuck about career for a couple of years, and I quit jobs to go do startups based on the sketchiest imaginable fundraising, so I think that a fair number of us Boomers were like that, too. In fact, I’ve often said that I see a lot of similarities between Boomers and millennials and maybe even more with the new gen Zs or whatever they’re going to be called less set on having to follow our nose through a career, so I see that as a good thing and not that different than at least the hippie-ish aspect of the Boomers.

Sara: I can see, and I think there’s a lot about especially generation Z that’s still undefined, but I think that to your point, they’re very community-oriented people. I think we see that play out obviously a lot on social media, which they’re very comfortable with, and I think there’s a good and a bad aspect to that, but nonetheless, they’re very community-oriented. I think they’re realistic similar, I think, to Boomers, but again, I think there’s parts of that generation that are still evolving and undefined.

Jim: That’s for sure. I also suspect that the kinds of digital nomads you’re talking about are very heavily concentrated in the cognitive elite, people who do things like computer programming or video editing or podcasting. I suspect in every demographic group the vast preponderance of people have fairly normal jobs, work at Walmart or work in an Amazon warehouse or what have you, so I think we should be a little careful to make sure that this conversation is most likely about the college-educated cognitive elite and probably working in heavily tech-influenced careers.

Sara: Absolutely. Yeah, again, it’s a lot of what I surround myself here in Charleston with is some of the technology startups and technology companies in general that are … There’s not a ton of them, but there’s a good and growing number, and the struggle I think for any company quite frankly, but certainly in technology with talent and being able to find talent.

Sara: In fact, some of the interesting things I think since I left the DC area that I have been able to do is really help DC-based companies that need talent, especially technical talent, access that down here. It’s not expensive, and quite frankly, in many ways, it’s better quality because you can get all kinds of quality, but it’s saturating. Now that Amazon is opening up a big footprint up in the DC area, it’s going to become more so, but yes, for sure I agree. It’s really the tech sector or the tech community that we’re speaking to.

Jim: Yeah, the DC area was an interesting to build tech companies. What I remember of it was it was dominated by the Beltway Bandits, and the Beltways Bandits had a strength and weakness. One, they had a zillion jobs, but the weakness was because the way they had to pay people based on government contracting scales, A players got paid the same as C players. If you remember, our strategy was to essentially strip mine the Beltway Bandits and steal all their A players and some of their better B players and leave them with the C players.

Jim: In fact, I still remember Bob Hall, who was our rabbi at Thomson corporate headquarters, he was on the business round table or something, and he had gotten a call from one of the big time CEOs at one of the Beltway Bandits saying, “Hey, Bob, your Thomson technology group down there in DC, they’re being very, very aggressive in their recruiting and they’re grabbing a whole bunch of our best people. Please tell them to stop.” Anyway, Bob immediately got on the phone and called me up and said, “Hey, Jim. I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but I got this call from blah blah at blah blah,” I won’t mention, “And whatever you’re doing, keep doing it,” and so we did.

Sara: Yeah. Yeah. I had a little bit of experience out in California in my webMethods days because we had an office out there and had made a couple of acquisitions out there, but the technology environment in DC, yeah, everybody’s getting into that game and you do. You’ve got your Beltway Bandits, which is different than other … The San Franciscos, the New Yorks, and the Bostons, they don’t have that massive federal government influence, and it’s a bear for them to be able to pay for the type of talent that they want which makes it interesting for technology companies to be able to go in and grab people, but it was a very aggressive environment, nonetheless, to recruit in. We had to pull out all the steps.

Jim: Yeah, and again, you have to use tricks as we did. We differentiated ourselves. I still remember one of the problems with the Beltway Bandits is they make everybody take drug test, so we decided screw that. If you want to smoke reefer, go right ahead. In fact, I fought a big battle with that clown who was the head of HR at Thomson at the time. Who was that weasel? I don’t remember his name now, but anyway, he wanted to force us to do drug test, and I wrote a letter to the CEO for Thomson making that argument saying, “I don’t give a shit if people smoke reefer. Blah, blah, blah.” I’ll give him credit. He sided with us and said, “If that’s one of your competitive recruiting advantages, then go for it,” so we did.

Sara: Yep. You remember back in the day, too, when Thomson’s strategy was really shifting to become more technology-focused … In fact, it’s crazy to think about that particular point in my career. Obviously, I was very young, but that point in time, that was a big inflection point for Thomson to really go from more of that traditional brick and mortar to just using technology in new ways to deliver data to deliver information, but remember, we had a big college recruiting effort all over the country, and the Harvey Mudds and the MITs and all kinds of awesome schools with great computer science programs, and that was a benefit even in those environments because a lot of the places that those kids were looking to go to work had the stiff upper lip, and we didn’t have that or we were trying to not have that brand.

Jim: Yeah, we had to communicate the brand, too. As you know, I famously said fuck at least once every time I was interviewing somebody for a potential job because I didn’t want them to get a false perception of what our place was like. We’re the kind of place where the CEO says fuck if he feels like it. Whenever I think about recruiting, for instance when I write ads, I used to write a lot of recruiting ads, and I wrote them to both attract and repel.

Jim: I want to attract the people we want, but frankly, I wanted to repel rigid people who weren’t going to fit into our culture. I suspect all that today would get me into HR jail, but oh well. It worked back in the day.

Sara: Yeah, you created a very narrow funnel for us.

Jim: Yeah, although of course we got lots of names. Remember the radio advertising we used to do?

Sara: Yep.

Jim: That used to bring us large numbers of, I thought, pretty good … Well, actually it brought us all kinds of crazy stuff, but in that-

Sara: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with creating a narrow funnel. It takes too much time and effort from your HR team to … Good Lord, when I was at webMethods, we went through thousands of resumes and you needed the ability to really cut through all of that paper reading and figure out both in terms of experience and skills as well as personality and cultural fit who are going to pick up the phone and call and who do we want to bring in to interview? You need to create that narrow funnel, so I was saying all that to give you kudos because in my mind, it’s a good thing. You want to cut out who you can, who needs to go as fast as you can.

Jim: Yeah, I think that was the big problem and that why we had a nice unfair advantage against most of those DC people. They were bland and bureaucratic to a fault. You read their ads, and no one could tell whether this was for them or not, so they’d send their resume it, so they got every Tom, Dick, and Harry while we did the repulse or attractor thing, and as you said, we got a more concentrated flow, and I think that’s the right way to do it.

Sara: Yep. 100%.

Jim: Okay, let’s go on to the next topic. Something we’ve talked about over the years is leadership, what I means. Is it changing? What are the challenges? What do you see out there in the nature of leadership in business land today?

Sara: Well, always, I think the topic of leadership is a fascinating one, and I think that especially in what I do specifically because a lot of it is not just … I work with leaders. I do a lot of individual coaching. I also do a lot of team level work, and I really have seen a big shift to, number one, people who get into leadership positions and then they don’t stay still. They’re evolving. They’re openly evolving, and they’re more inclusive. They’re inclusive of not just their leadership teams, but the broader organizations around them, which I think is fascinating and I think it leads to …

Sara: I think it can lead to some scary things for leaders. I mean some vulnerabilities and exposing things about yourself that might not be textbook, but I do think it’s very different than in the maybe … Well, 10, 15 years ago, I think leadership has evolved, the topic of leadership, learning about leadership, learning to become a leader. I think it’s evolve quite a bit.

Jim: Would you say the net result is leadership’s on average better today than it was 15 years ago in your experience?

Sara: Yeah, I don’t know that I can say it’s better or worse, organizations large or different. Organizations in large part are evolving too, and I just feel like nothing stays in place for very long anymore and that we’ve got leaders that recognize that and are creating capability within their organizations to harness that power of change and evolution, and they don’t just expect it from the broader organization and teams, but they understand good leaders that I have worked with, and I don’t work with all good leaders, but that I have worked with really understand how there’s an evolutionary aspect to them even that is associated with that.

Sara: Not good, not bad, just different, and not changing, not staying the same. Leadership isn’t the same, I think, 15 years ago than it is today because of the pace of change that we see in organizations. Does that make sense?

Jim: Yeah. I think I like what I’m hearing here. As you know, I basically retired from the business world 20 years ago, which is hard to believe, but it is almost … Actually, not quite. 18 years ago, and back then, we had some of that flexible leadership that you talk about, but particularly in larger organizations, it was not the rule. There was a lot of people that came up a hierarchical structure and felt most comfortable in a well-defined hierarchical structure with boxes on a chart and all that sort of stuff, and we obviously didn’t operate that way, but we had to be very, very careful in selecting out those people who we thought had leadership capabilities in a more dynamic environment. Sounds like there’s a lot more such people today.

Sara: I definitely think so, and there’s a lot of research out there about the benefit hierarchy, so when you think about … Some people I don’t particularly care for use the “church” as an example or the police force as an example of the military as why hierarchy can be important and necessary. I think there’s benefit from less structure, and we see that maybe not in those types of organizations, but I think we do see that being a little bit more pervasive that you don’t have that org chart view. Org chats drive me fricking crazy.

Sara: Not every organization thinks of itself in terms of how … People don’t think of themselves in terms of where they fall on an org chart. It’s a lot more fluid and it’s a lot more flat, right?

Jim: Yep, and some of that I think is good, but I also think there’s some risks associated with it. As you might recall, we always had an org chart, but we didn’t worship it. We moved stuff around. We redefined things on the fly, etc. but I do think it is useful for the org chart, but just not for it to be worshiped. I have seen some companies that try to go completely without the org chart and I think it’s still out on the evidence on whether that really works or not.

Jim: There’s a company called Valve which runs the Steam game network, which is a radical non-org chart self-organizing place, and last I saw, they were starting to run into some organizational issues, and they got to about 300 people where some organization they may be finding might be necessary, but back to your other points, it’s hard to imagine that somebody could operate in the old 1975 command and control structure in today’s very rapidly changing environment. Every business almost is being reinvented every few years.

Jim: The speed of change brought on by technology, by the marketplace, by globalism, it’s amazing, and if you’re not prepared to adapt much more rapidly than you were in 1975, you’re going to be dead. How do you see the speed of change as a stressor to management in organizations?

Sara: Well, let me just say I also find it amazing how many companies try to create this … Not try. They do create an external brand that does not reflect really who they are inside, and I think that is … I don’t think. I know that is something that just absolutely drives me crazy because, number one, it’s false advertising, but there’s a lot of companies I think who don’t know how to act, don’t how to behave, don’t know how to manage, don’t know how to lead, don’t know how to operate outside of that tight command and control traditional top up, bottom down type of structure, and yet they are forced at some level to create a brand, especially when it comes to talent attraction.

Sara: They create a brand and maybe they’re not even forced. They just do it because that’s the evolution, but it’s not true to how who they really are, and I see a good bit of that, and that creates organizational challenges, as well. I think in terms of the pace of change, I think sometimes it can be industry-specific, and I think it’s tightly coupled with technology and how pervasive technology is within your organization. I don’t know that there are many types of companies and organizations anymore that don’t use technology, whether it’s just for internal email, what have you, all the way to technology playing some major role in our offering and whether it’s you physically build something, but you’ve got a supply chain, so you’re using technology from that perspective to you are a technology company.

Sara: I think the use of technology has always been in the past 10 plus years the major driver of change. I think the thing that I tried to foot stomp for a long time, especially with leaders, was really understanding culture and change and at a different level than they had before and starting to think about change from you’re not going to send you leaders just out to go get trained or your managers on good change management skills. You can’t boil this stuff down to a two-day training seminar or a matrix of steps that you need to take in order to be able to “manage” change within your organization. That’s really a mindset shift.

Sara: Having that talk about mindset and what that change and working with people to really go through that change where they can accept change, they know how to work in it, they know how to manage in it, they know how to lead in it, I think has been a big inflection point within organizations and for individuals, as well,

Jim: You think they’re doing it better than they used to?

Sara: Managing change?

Jim: Yeah.

Sara: Yeah. I think that there’s more organizations that are better at it now than they were in the past, and I think there are more and more organizations that are starting to harness that power, that energy, that evolution so that it’s like the air they breathe. It’s not this thing that comes around and socks them upside the head, but they’re learning how to really embrace it more. It’s so prevalent to the world we live in today. How do you get away from it?

Jim: Yeah, exactly. One would expect, if nothing else, evolutionary pruning would make people better at change. As the rate of change continues to accelerate, those companies that haven’t figured out how to manage in a highly changing environment, a lot of them are going to die, right?

Sara: Yep, and have.

Jim: I remember the example back in DC area. We had a really big home improvements chain called Hechingers kind of like a Home Depot or something like that and it covered Maryland and Delaware and Pennsylvania, parts of Virginia, and they were actually very, very mediocre, but they were big enough that the Home Depots and the Loweses of the world decided not to go after the DC area until the very end, but when they finally did, the they folded in about 18 months. They just did not change in this coming huge threat they had to see company, and they just folded.

Jim: It’s hard to imagine companies that have survived over the last 20 years in any kind of dynamic environment haven’t got at least a bit better at the change management game.

Sara: Yep. I think the other interesting piece about organizations that are looking at change as constant and the pace of it that as it speeds up is that I feel like a lot of companies have gotten closer to and better about understanding their customers.

Jim: Yep. I’ve always been [inaudible 00:29:24]. If you don’t understand your customer, how can you be in business, right?

Sara: Yeah. Even in clients that I’ve worked with in the federal space, it’s really interesting. Without going into too much detail, it’s really interesting to work with organizations that have never had to think about customer because if you think about … The government a lot of times, they just don’t, or they’ve never done it, so they don’t understand how what they do impacts whether it be the American people across the board or other people within their organization and just having that concept of everybody’s got a customer I think has evolved. I see organizations getting better about and closer to that customer piece, which I love. I love it.

Jim: Yeah, it’s certainly something that I’ve always believed and it’s something I counsel. All my startup people that invest in or on their boards or whatever go out, and when you’re even still just thinking about your idea, go to the biggest annual conference in the industry you’re trying to enter. You’ll learn a tremendous amount face-to-face with people. There’s only so much you could learn from internet research. If you don’t understand your customer and what problem they’re trying to solve, you really shouldn’t be in business.

Sara: Yep.

Jim: Well, in this fast-moving customer-centric world, clearly a key factor is you’re going to need to have employees who are highly engaged or committed, and yet we talked earlier about the fact that perhaps the newest generation of employees don’t want to be all that committed. They want to think of themselves as free agents. Talk to me a little bit about the issues around employee engagement and what companies are doing to get better employee engagement in the this world.

Sara: Yes, that’s a good question. I think employee engagement is one of the big HR-ish topics and hot buttons out there right now because there’s a whole world. There are entire companies that just do employee engagement, and that’s everything from what’s our growth strategy to how do we deal with our culture, how do we make sure that there’s alignment within our organization between what we do as a company, our overall strategy and our people, job fit and compensation?

Sara: Employee engagement, it’s a big term and it’s a big effort within organizations these days, so I think there’s a lot that’s going on to help organizations really focus on what does employee engagement mean for us. What is our overall strategy? What makes sense given the business we’re in, the type of workforce that we’re creating, etc.

Sara: From my perspective, I really think about employee engagement when I’m working with clients essentially to think about belonging, growth, and environment. How do you create that connection with your employees, that sense of pride and belonging so that they feel that this is an organization that they want to be a part of, and of course, that reflects in how they work with customers. It’s how they work with their colleagues internally. From a growth standpoint, how are organizations commiting to their employees? How are they supporting their development? How are they supplying growth opportunities and how planning for that on a bigger scale than they have in the past, and lastly, alignment.

Sara: Do we understand what employees are looking for and can we line up our expectations both in terms of the organization, leadership, managers, and our employees so that we’re growing the commitment that we want them to have both to our customers as well as to the strategic goals of the organization?

Sara: I think when you think about all of those pieces … There’s different models out there in terms of what encompasses and overall employee engagement strategy, but again, I really think about that belonging, that growth, and the alignment and how that creates an engagement and gets all the major pillars, people, organization, leadership involved in driving that engagement.

Sara: I really think organizations are paying a lot more attention to it. I feel like there was a period in time maybe … We still do it at some level, but there was a big focus on feedback like getting feedback from our employees. What do they like? What do they not like? Let’s keep it simple. Let’s blow it out and start doing focus groups. What do we do with all of this data? Oh, my God. We’ve got employees that are unhappy, and then you get HR and sometimes leadership into a position where they’re running around frantically trying to correct things from this new data that they’ve collected, and that I think can have its own negative consequence, because surveys and trying to respond to them can be I think really dangerous if not done well.

Sara: I think having an employee engagement strategy is really getting people to shift mentally about how they think about how we get information and share it and how we put new strategies in place to create a holistic approach to keep this organizational machine movie, but on the flip side of that, these younger generations, the gig economy, we are the gig economy, and there’s a lot of people that don’t want to go to work for organizations.

Sara: They want to do the work, but they don’t want to be a part of your organization, so they’re figuring out ways that they can stand on the periphery and just 1099 their way in. I don’t know that I can speak to how … I have in my mind ideas about what role that’s going to play in organizations down the road. I’ve seen a lot of companies who are getting rid of their infrastructure. How great to not have to have that office building? What a tremendous cost, but then that comes with its own set of challenges. I dipped into a couple of different topics there, but I think I answered the question overall.

Jim: Yeah, the engagement area’s an area I’m quite interested in. In fact, I’m going to put a little plug in for one of my investment companies called Vohtr, They’ve got a very cool product for what I would call continuous lightweight surveying. They do a survey question every day. Often it’s just a fun question, would you rather be rich or famous, that kind of thing, but they recommend that their clients put about one-third of the questions to be business-related and actionable, and the results of that thing are to my mind much better than those tedious once a year 60-question questionnaires that are administered by some consulting firm.

Jim: Takes four or five months for the consulting firm to analyze the results and finally present it to management probably too late, and then nothing ever happens.

Sara: Yep.

Jim: I’m a much bigger fan of real-time measurement, but of course you have to have a management team that’s committed to listening and actually doing something with it.

Sara: Yeah. Absolutely, and I’ll tell you I had a client once who wanted to do a survey every year and mainly because he really wanted to win an award that was given to companies in the DC area every year, and I was coached. They brought me in obviously as a consultant and I was coached by his leadership team that I had to take him downstairs to a restaurant and feed him a couple of martinis before I gave him the results, so that not just listening, but being okay with the fact if things aren’t great.

Jim: Yep, absolutely. In fact, when we’ve been selling the Vohtr product, we have found a surprising number of companies that really are not intellectually honest. They really don’t want to hear the truth.

Sara: Absolutely.

Jim: That’s pretty sick if you ask me, because if as you’ll recall, our number one value in all Rutt companies is intellectual honesty. Let the chips fall where they may, but perhaps maybe more than back in the day it seems like there are people that want to live in cloud cuckoo land and don’t want the truth. What’s that all about?

Sara: Well, and I think the other thing that you really impressed upon me was being able to speak your mind, and I remember, and I’ve got it somewhere, a very crisp statement from you that said, “And if you feel like you can’t, don’t work her anymore.” This is not a punitive organization where if you say something … If you think something say it, basically, but there’s a lot of organizations out there that don’t have that kind of culture and you will. There could be punitive action if you … I’m talking like at there intellectual level, not like what do you think of this guy over here. I mean, hey, we’re working on this project. It’s going sideways. What do you think we need to do? No, you got to tow the line. It’s incredible to me how many organizations I have met that, number one, do that and don’t try to squelch that piece of it and then don’t want to hear the truth or flat out will say, “I don’t really think that that’s the way that things are and we’re not going to do anything about it.”

Jim: It seems like there’s a lot more of that going. One of the classic examples, I don’t remember if you remember this, there was an engineer at Google who wrote a long, thoughtful, and controversial piece on why Google was having problems hiring women as engineers. I think his name was James Damore, and as far as I could tell, he was attempting to be intellectually honest. He violated some shibboleths of HR politeness, but he ended up getting fired for that for floating a document on an internal discussion board that was meant for the purposes of discussion of ideas, including fringe ideas, and this thing violated some level of political correctness sufficiently badly that they fired him. Now what kind of signal does that send to your organization?

Sara: It sends that you need to shut the fuck up signal.

Jim: Exactly, and of course, part of that is being driven by today’s HR departments. I must tell you when I talk to friends who are still working in big corporate America, they all go on endlessly about how much HR sucks. We used to think that it wasn’t done well. It was a waste of time, but now I hear a lot more about it being a positive evil. Any of that in your experience?

Sara: Well, it’s funny. Even though I started off my career in HR, from the consulting perspective, I have never gone into a client effort working with human resources. They might become a part of the process once I’m in, but I somehow became the anti-Christ of HR in a lot of ways, and I think that in and of itself says quite a bit about HR like you don’t need any improvement, especially given the work I do, leadership developments, culture change.

Sara: You would think that HR would be my caveat into the work that I do, but it very rarely is. That said, I feel like there is just … I don’t know. Maybe there will always just be some aspect of HR that is a “necessary evil” like you said in terms of they do recruiting, they do employee paperwork, they do … But I still don’t feel like across the board HR has done enough to really try to understand and evolve in a way that’s like, “Hey, people are the most important part of an organization. That’s clearly in your wheelhouse. Can you do something more revolutionary than what you’re doing now?”

Sara: It feels like, again, clients that I work with, they just want to work around HR because HR has never given them anything to really drive any part of the business, drive any part of the … That’s probably not fair across the board, but they … I don’t know. It just feels stuffy and it feels old school.

Jim: Yeah, that’s the kind of complaints that I’m hearing from people out in the field. I remember we built our HR organization at Thomson that it was central to our strategy. People ask me how I spent my time. I said I spent a third of my time on making sure our HR organization was the best that we could possibly have out there, and as you may recall, we divided it up into three parts, basically recruiting, retention and development, and then the third part for the transactional management of insurance programs, that kind of stuff, and I thought that produced a pretty damn good result for us.

Jim: Some of our alums have taken those ideas with them and I think it worked out well for them, but what you’re seeing and what my friends are seeing is that in general, at best, HR is a nuisance, and at worst, it can be a big obstacle.

Sara: Yeah. Well, you were talking about the guy from Google. I don’t know. I’m sure you did at some level paid attention to everything that happened to Uber, and I was reading along as different things unfolded at Uber, what amazed me was the role that HR was culpable in that situation or women filing complaints about things that were happening in the workplace and soft pedaling, just not jumping in and doing their job, and I was really blown away and I was even more blown away when they fired the CEO.

Sara: I’m like, “You need to walk the head of HR out,” because that person did a grave injustice to the organization and to the employees that were saying, “Hey, we’ve got some sexual harassment issues here.” I was really surprised and I really felt like that was an opportunity to shake up HR, the concept of HR, the role of HR, but I also feel like they’re so in the pockets of other executives in the company that in a lot of organizations, they’re probably towing the line instead of really able to say, “Hey, this is not okay. This is not what we’re doing. We are not going to soft pedal this. We’re not going to bury this. We’re going to deal with it immediately,” so they get a bad rap from all angles.

Sara: Yeah, there are those organizations out there that are much more futuristic, but I feel like they’ve got some coverage up above them that gives them the freedom and the flexibility to be different, and not all leaders want to deal with HR problems.

Jim: Yep. This goes back to my prime directive, intellectual honesty at all levels at all times. It still amazes me. Why would you want anything else but the truth, because if you’re trying to make decisions, you’re always in business trying to make decisions on limited information, and if the information you have isn’t the best available and isn’t the truth to the best of your people and your organizations knows it, you inevitably will make worst decisions, so it strikes me that this Uber kind of coverup is you had another example of people failing to live to the code of intellectual honesty.

Sara: Yeah, and I think it’s just also at some level just good common sense. If you’ve got an individual, let alone a number of individuals who’ve come forward to say, “We’ve got a problem because this person over here has done something to me,” you’ve got responsibility, number one, to take action. It’s not necessarily in that moment make a decision, but there is something type of action that needs to come from that to get to the truth about what’s happening, but where’s your moral compass in all of this?

Sara: You don’t let things like that just fester and go away or get to the point where now you’ve got people who are leaving their jobs because you’re not doing your job and taking care of that situation at some level. I would hope that it’s in large part speaks to the type of people and type of leadership that’s within the company. Like I said, they walked the CEO out. They should’ve walked the head of HR out at the same time in my mind.

Jim: Yep, absolutely. Let’s move on to another topic that’s related to the things we were just talking about which is one of the things that I think has actually been a good movement in general in our workplaces, but there’s been some issues and there’s some ways to go, which is the issues around women and men in the workplace, right?

Sara: Yep, one of my favorites.

Jim: Yeah, a lot more women in senior positions, though not yet pro rata. Though, if you look up the pipeline a little ways, it’s quite interesting to see that the percentages of men and women in the elite MBA programs and law school, medical school, almost exactly 50/50. In four-year colleges, it’s more like 58, 59% women, so the pipeline should be driving a continued closing of these gaps, but they still exist. Love to hear your thoughts on, I’m not sure what the right word is, gender dynamics in the workforce, I guess.

Sara: A lot has happened there, for instance, since we’ve worked together, and one of the things that has really stuck with me is that what we want to see and we still, as you mentioned, have a ways to go just across the board and women in leadership positions, women in leadership positions in Fortune 500 companies, women on boards, just the presence of women in organizations I think some aspect of, dare I say, now we’ve got the Me Too movement, so that has put a whole other, I think, layer of complexity around men and women in the workplace.

Sara: Have a good friend who we enjoy the fact that we don’t see eye to eye on everything because we can really noodle around topics, and we were talking about Lean In and she’s like, “No, man, we got to lean out, and everybody just needs to … Women need to do what they’ve got to do and we’ve got to encourage men to want to have better relationships with women in the workplace as women want to have better relationships with men,” so I have not, and I mentioned this to you. I’ve not been in a position where I’ve seen personally … The relationships I’ve had with men in the workplace have all been really great ones, whether it be the men that I’ve worked with or the men that have worked for me over time.

Sara: Long-standing relationships similar to ours where I’m in the company of equals, and I’m always in learning mode and I’m always looking for people that I can learn from, but I don’t know. I think that’s there’s probably a tension that’s growing. I work with some organizations that are women-owned businesses and they’re pretty proudly all women, some of them, and that gives me a little bit of pause like, wow, if you’re only focused on … It should be the right person for the job, and they’re not necessarily just not focused on hiring men. It’s just how their growth evolution has gone.

Sara: What are we going to do? Are we going to see more organizations that are all men or all women, and are we going to stop learning how to work together? I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know where this is going. I just think there’s a lot happening that’s really fascinating and that needs to driver a bigger conversation certainly within leadership teams within organizations.

Jim: Yep, and I’m hearing all kinds of weird things about that that here we are seeing very qualified women come to the workplace. We see women moving into executive ranks, but now it’s a backlash around this Me Too thing. You hear men say, “No, I’m not going to hire any women. I’m just opening myself up for a potential problem down the road even if I’m pure as the driven snow,” and that’s certainly not the result we want.

Jim: This idea of a woman-only company, to my mind, that’s every bit as bad as a men-only company. Let’s hope we can get past these challenges. I got to tell you the Me Too thing is real. I know a number of women who have horrifying stories from the workplace, and I’ve known some perpetrators on the male side. In fact, you probably don’t even know this. At Tier, we had one who sexually harassed one of the women in the most gross and crude possible fashion, and being old school, rather than dealing with HR, I called him up.

Jim: Well, I account went down to his office and said, “If you ever tried such a thing again,” I’d break both of his fucking legs. Two weeks later, he resigned, right?

Sara: Yeah.

Jim: Now, that was probably a little politically incorrect, but it worked. Those foul people are out there, but we can’t let a tiny percentage of foul people ruin gender equality in the workplace. There’s some signs that it might.

Sara: Yeah, and you can’t let it ruin the power that comes from just hiring great people whether they’re men or women and creating teams that have different perspectives and have different experiences and can create really amazing outcomes within organizations. You don’t want to pass that up either, and I know. There’s definitely been an impact in my life. It’s just it hasn’t been so grotesque that I haven’t been able to fight back and at some level get closure around things, but I think everybody needs to be more mindful of our behavior.

Sara: Then let’s harken back to your interview style at Thomson where you always made a point to say fuck in an interview so that people understood what they were getting themselves into. Do you think that that would be okay in this day and age?

Jim: I don’t know.

Sara: Would you still do that?

Jim: Yeah, if it was at my company, I sure as shit would. If I worked for a big corporation, my guess is they wouldn’t like it. In fact, I got to tell you a funny story here. It’s one of my favorite HR stories. The first day I went to work Network Solutions as the new CEO, I brought my top 30 people together. Here’s an interesting bad sign. Those top 30 people had never been brought together before, which by itself was a sign of how screwed up that place was, and I gave them a 45-minute pep talk and vision of what I had in mind for the company and what needed to be fixed and where we were going, but what tremendous opportunity we all had together here, and I used the word fuck three times.

Jim: Quite humorously, the next day, I get a call from the head of the organization that included HR at our parent, SAIC, which was this big Beltway Bandit, and at the time I took the job, they were actually the majority shareholder, but one of my terms and conditions for taking the job was that they would, within two weeks, sell down their stock to less than 50%, but anyway.

Jim: During that interim two-week period in theory, I reported to them. I get the call from the head of … actually one level above HR. He said, “We got this report that you said fuck three times. Is that true?” I go, “Fuck yeah.” You’ll love this. An HR person we will not name so we don’t embarrass her, I had had her actually research the use of the word fuck in a nonsexual sense as an intensifier by at Thomson, and she had written this nice four- or five-paragraph analysis that said it’s absolutely not sexual harassment to say fuck as long as it’s an intensifier and not referring to a sexual act.

Jim: It was brilliant written with a complete straight face, but fortunately I had it on my email and I pulled it up and I read that back to this guy, and he said, “Oh, yeah. I guess you’re actually right about that, but we really wish you wouldn’t say that,” and I said, “Fuck that,” and I hung up.

Sara: I love that. Well, I’ll tell you a similar, rather. John Gleason, remember him?

Jim: No, not really. Remind me.

Sara: Yeah. He was our IT guy.

Jim: We had a lot of IT guys.

Sara: Well, I mean he fixed our computers up in Octo.

Jim: Oh, okay. Oh, Eason. Eason. John Eason, not-

Sara: Eason, Eason, Eason. You’re right. John Eason. My bad.

Jim: I’ll never forget John Eason.

Sara: After I left Thomson and did my ever so brief stint with you at Network Solutions, it was my … I’d maybe been webMethods for about a week and we were a startup, so we were in a space that we were subletting from a sublet from a sublet, and it was like boxes and used furniture. Anyway, Eason came over because he was dropping off a CD-ROM that he burned off my computer of my old emails from Thomson, and instead of writing Sara’s emails or whatever, he wrote Sara’s porno files and left it on the front desk and said, “This is for Sara’s Kindsfater,” and left.

Sara: I was in HR and I got in trouble with HR, and basically it was me and two other people, and I thought that was really funny. I’m like, “We got to lighten up at some level. It’s clearly a joke,” but it created a little bit of a tiff in my new HR capacity.

Jim: I don’t like that. I still think you should be able to say fuck as an intensifier. Why the hell not? For the reasons this HR professional laid out in exquisite detail. I don’t know what the argument would be against it other than general squeamishness.

Sara: Yeah. No, and I totally agree with you and I also admittedly tend to be squeamish and I use it as a general intensifier pretty often, and I also think that when I look back on my career and the teams that I’ve worked on, there was a very work hard, play hard mentality that has always been something that career-wise has followed me. I’m a play hard kind of person, so I think about times when we would go out to happy hour or our Christmas parties or what have you.

Sara: That really helped build a sense of team having the opportunity to know your coworkers, your colleagues, in a different setting and to be able to learn more about them, burn off some steam, have some cocktails, whatever. I really feel like that is essential to becoming a team. We are not one-dimensional people. You and I have talked about this at the Lincoln Financial Leadership Summit where you don’t come to work as one person and then you go home and you’re a totally different person.

Sara: When we get into these levels of sensitivity where people just … They engage, but they do it in a very vanilla fashion and they don’t engage outside of whatever the very specific work thing is, what does that do to our sense of team, our sense of camaraderie, our ability to get things done at a firing on all cylinders level?

Jim: Yep. I think that’s one of the things that’s really given up if you allow the HR police to censor all kinds of goodhearted honest interactions because they violate some shibboleths of the HR ordinances, and I know damn well that you’re not supposed to say fuck in corporate America anymore. Well, I think that’s stupid. I think that’s a bad idea and just the kind of the … It serves no purpose. There’s no sexual harassment involved in saying fuck as an intensifier. It’s just a run amok sense of schoolmarmishness or something.

Sara: Yep. Well, and it’s CYA, and that’s pervasive. How are we going to cover our ass and just strip out all of the things that might make individuals individuals, but then won’t offend or upset others?

Jim: Yeah, well, I say tough shit. If people get offended, fuck them. In fact, my view is the word offended is the first sign of a bullshitter. I’ve spent a lot of my last five years studying neurocognitive science and cognitive science itself, and one of the areas I’ve studied is emotion. Well, guess what? There is no emotion called offended. It’s a pseudo-emotion people use to manipulate other people, so whenever you hear someone say, “I’m offended,” why don’t you just put in square buckets, “I’m a phony bullshitter trying to psychologically manipulate you”? It’ll provide a lot of insight into what’s really going on.

Sara: Well, but the word offended, it strikes a chord with me. It strikes an emotion that is real. When I hear somebody say, “Well, that offends me,” I’m like, “Oh, my God. It makes me react in a certain way.”

Jim: In what way, good, bad or indifferent?

Sara: I don’t think it’s good or bad. it makes me want to back away from that individual.

Jim: Exactly. I’ll go farther. It makes me think they’re a bullshitter and a manipulator.

Sara: Yeah, I think people fly that flag too fast and too often sometimes, but anyway.

Jim: Let’s use a different word. It makes me angry. I feel insulted by it, right?

Sara: Yeah.

Jim: I feel humiliated and diminished. Say something that’s real. Fuck you if you say offended. That’s what I have to say about that. And the horse you rode in on, right?

Sara: Yeah.

Jim: This hyper over-sensitivity, that ain’t the way to do it. At least in my opinion, I’m an old fogey. I’m retired, but hey. That’s the advice you get for paying exactly what you pay to listen to the Jim Rutt Show Podcast, which is nothing.

Sara: Yeah, but you know what else, Jim? Think about it. If you’ve got people around you that are offended, what do you do? You put distance between. This is a part of a growing systemic problem. Okay, I’m not going to hang out with that person because they’re offended. They’re too easily offended. They use that term too often, so then you feel like, God, what do I do? How do I talk to them? Then you end up trying to twist yourself into a pretzel, or you don’t, and you’re like, “I’m not going to hang out with that person. I’m not going to be around them anymore.” It’s like one of those social stipulations I feel like that just makes us more divisive. Anyway, we’ve probably beat that horse.

Jim: Yep, and I think we’re coming up on our time here, so I think we’ll wrap her up. I want to thank you Sara for a very interesting and perhaps a little wild conversation that we’ve had here today.

Sara: Well, thank you for having me. As I looked at your other interviews and I’ve listened to them and they’ve all been fantastic, I wasn’t exactly how I was going to pigeonhole myself on the Jim Rutt Show, but it’s been great. We always find our self in a situation where we cover a broad number of topics certainly with different opinions, and I’m really grateful. Thank you.

Jim: Yeah, I think this has been great. Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at