How A Zero-Turnover CEO Nails Career Pathing

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"When you can interact with, and meet, and present to a group that's like-minded, that cares about the same things that you do, you can spend a lot less time convincing people that these topics are important and more time collaborating with each other about how can we do these sorts of things to create good workplaces. "
Kevin McMullin, Founder and Managing Partner

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Well, I was introduced to TINYcon because I met one of your employees who talked about the product, who talked about kind of the mission of the company and this idea of employee engagement and creating a happy, fulfilling place to work is something that I spent a lot of time thinking about and trying to do at my own job. When I was invited to come and speak about what we do at our company, there aren't a lot of opportunities for people like me to talk about that, and it was really exciting for me to be able to come here and get the chance to do that with people who are interested in the topic. Collegewise is a company that helps kids get into college. Families hire us to kind of guide their kids through the process. I started this business 19 years ago out of my apartment, and as it's grown, as much as we've thought about how to do a great job for the families who hire us, it's been really important to me to make it a really great place to work for people that feel like the happier our employees are, the better we take care of them, the better service they're able to extend to our customers. It's something that we spend a lot of time focusing on. The best thing for me about a conference like TINYcon is that people are here by choice and there are a lot of conferences where you can tell people are there because they're expected to be there in their industry or because their boss has told them to go. When you can interact with, and meet, and present to a group that's like-minded, that cares about the same things that you do, you can spend a lot less time convincing people that these topics are important and more time collaborating with each other about how can we do these sorts of things to create good workplaces. It's a nice change of pace from a lot of the conferences that I get to go to. When I thought about what I wanted to talk about and kind of what I hoped people would take from this conference, again, it's really nice to know that people that don't need to be convinced that these topics are important. I always approach a presentation, what change would I like to make? What would I like people to actually do with this information? What I'm excited about is I tried to give people specific ideas they could take back to their places of work without having to launch large programs, without having to secure funding or to convince people that it was a good idea. Just simple things they could try that actually make a big difference for the people that work there. Well, I feel like in a lot of companies, culture is something that they talk a lot about and that represents itself by a mission statement on the wall or represents itself in words only. I think that company culture is really a byproduct of what you actually do every day. We spend a lot less time at Collegewise talking about our company culture and more just thinking about what are the things we're actually going to do to make people feel like they found a good professional home. I feel like culture ultimately makes itself based on what you do every day. We try to focus on those actions more than we do a goal of what kind of culture we're trying to create. It's a little bit of both. We spend a lot of times soliciting feedback from our employees, and we don't always get this right cause it's hard to do, but we spend even more time trying to act on that feedback. That it's really important to not just do the figurative version of a suggestion box that you read, and then don't necessarily even respond to. We think about what would make a healthy workplace. We think like a leadership team about what are the kinds of things that drew us to work here? What are the things that we would care about? One of the things I talked about in my presentation that can kind of help us separate ourselves from our work view is if you think about how you would want your partner, or your child, or your best friend to be treated at their place of work, what would you like that to look like? And, if you try to do similar things in your own place of work, you'll probably get pretty close to making people feel fulfilled. From our leadership team approaching it that way and then spending a lot of time actually reaching out to our employees and asking them, how can we do better? How can we create a place that you feel even more comfortable and engaged in? We were able to do a lot of things that have good results for us, and then we repeat the things that work. For us, and it can be somewhat labor-intensive, but  we make it a part of every manager's responsibility to actually sit down and have one on ones with their employees where the manager comes only with questions, and the manager's job is to listen, to empathize, and to learn rather than just to sit down and say, here's another session where you're going to get feedback from your manager, where you're going to get coaching from your manager. I think those things are important too, but it's even more important to give employees the space to talk to you about it. I think the worst way to do it, which we avoid is just to say I have an open-door policy because that puts all the onus on the employee. The employee has to initiate that conversation where if the manager goes first, most engaged employees will walk through that door and share the feedback if you go first and ask them specific questions. One thing we got right in picking our managers is we picked people to be managers that we thought had the talent to manage verses we're moving you into a management position because you've just progressed to a stage in the company where you need to be promoted. I think great managers, the real talent they have, is that they can see and capitalize on what is unique about an individual. The people that have that talent, they want to spend the time learning about this employee. They want to figure out what makes this person tick. They want to figure out what weakens this person, what do they find challenging, what drains their energy? If a manager themselves are engaged in learning those things about someone, then it's not a big challenge for us to convince that manager to, hey, at regular intervals, sit down with this person and ask them specific questions about how things are going, about what they're most proud of in the last six, about what they're struggling with, about what you as a manager could do differently to help them feel better about the work that they're doing. Most of our managers are pretty receptive to that and they appreciate the opportunity and the space to be able to do it. In fact, we invite anyone in the company who wants to, to come to management training because we want them to know if you pursue a management path here, this is what it's going to look like and this is what's going to be expected of you. One of the things that often happens is someone will leave and say, that was really valuable. Thanks for bringing me here. I've learned I don't actually want to be a manager. I would rather do other things in this business. We've created a structure in our company where that is okay, that does not halt someone's progress, but the people that feel emboldened by that initial training, they then seek out those opportunities. They know exactly what it's going to look like, what the expectations are going to be, and then we regularly throughout the year will run training programs for our people about how do you do a good check-in meeting with an employee? How do you do a six-month progress report? How do you do a performance review annually? How do you have a good discussion with an employee who's struggling? What does that look like? We want to make sure that they have the training and tools they need to address those things because that's a manager's job. My favorite thing about the culture at Collegewise is that people treat their work as a way of life without making work their life. It's not healthy if work is the most important thing in your life, but if people say to themselves, and if we communicate as a company, every day you come to work, at the end of the day you're either going to leave the workplace a little better or a little worse. Make it a little better every day. People want to be able to do that. They want to be able to see themselves making an impact. They want to be able to show up to a job where they feel engaged, where they get to do what they do best, and they feel like at the end of every day, I see an impact that I made. If we can keep giving people opportunities to do that, watching them take us up on that opportunity and watching them do things that we never could've said, this is what's expected of you. It's just them bringing their own unique strengths and their own humanity to their work, that's really exciting for us and I think it makes us a special place to work.