Admittedly, when a business owner would ask me this, I’d sometimes struggle to answer the question. I’d share anecdotes and success stories from our 200+ CEOs and more than 12,000 employees who use our product in 15 different countries (stories of which we had plenty)… but those stories alone didn’t feel like enough. I wanted a bit more data to share.
To better understand exactly what impact Know Your Company has, we conducted a survey with all of our customers — from which 96 CEOs (28% of our customer base) and 143 employees (7.9% of our customer base) across 30 different companies ended up participating. Here’s a breakdown of the size and industry of the companies who participated in the survey:
#1: What Know Your Company does best is create a more connected company.
The most consistent finding that was revealed in the survey responses is that both employees and CEOs feel connected to one another as a result of using Know Your Company.
The consistency of those responses — it is such a high percentage for both employees and CEOs — stood out to me.
In particular, a lot of the feedback we got was about how helpful Know Your Company is for connecting remote teams or companies with several offices. Employees reported feeling especially connected to co-workers they don’t see regularly, and to new hires just joining the company.
Creating a greater sense of connection in a company matters. Studies show that 33% of employees don’t trust their CEOs — but when they feel connected to their CEO, that trust is increased. As the study describes, the more employees trust their CEO, the more-likely they are to be loyal, work harder and speak highly about the company.
Connection between co-workers increases employee engagement, as well. As stated in this HBR article: “Companies and leaders who want productive, happy employees should make it their job to foster more intimacy at the office.”
#2: The more your employees knows each other, the more engaged they are.
Another finding from our survey is an overwhelming majority of CEOs see higher employee engagement and a positive impact on company culture as a result of using Know Your Company.
These results are important, given how critical employee engagement and a healthy company culture are to a team’s success. Without a healthy company culture, turnover increases… and that’s expensive. It costs the average company 150% of an employee’s salary to find a new person to fill that position.
Employee disengagement is expensive, as well. A 2009 Gallup poll of more than 1,000 U.S.-based employees found that for every disengaged employee, a company loses between $3,400 and $10,000 in salary due to decreased productivity.
#3: Know Your Company gives employees a voice.
The survey also revealed to us how muchKnow Your Company enables employees to have a voice. Almost 8 out of every 10 employees feel the Know Your Company gives them more of a voice. This has always been an intention of our product — to help employees speak up at work — so it was rewarding to see employees’ outcomes matching that intention.
Numerous employees also shared how Know Your Company helps create a safe, friendly environment where they feel more comfortable voicing their opinions. In fact, some employees admitted noticing how employees are more honest, because of Know Your Company.
When employees are given a voice, they can help you overcome your blindspots as a CEO. By contrast, when employees lack a voice, they are more likely to be disengaged. Gallup found that 4 out of 10 workers become actively disengaged when their managers don’t communicate or ask for feedback.
#4: Know Your Company helps you make more informed business decisions.
One finding that I found particularly interesting is the number of CEOs who have used Know Your Company to make more informed business decisions.
Through dozens and dozens of phone calls and meetings over the past three years, I’d heard how CEOs use Know Your Company to improve their companies’ benefits, employee onboarding, marketing, sales, design, product development, customer support, etc. But the survey data gives us the ability to objectively say that this is an outcome that a large majority of our customers are experiencing.
#5: Know Your Company helps employees know what’s going on in the rest of the company.
Another statistic that surprised me was the number of employees who better understand what is going on in the company because of Know Your Company.
This isn’t the primary function of Know Your Company as a tool (the primary one being to help a company feel more connected). But it’s crucial — the bigger a company gets, the easier it is for employees to feel silo-ed from other areas of the company. When employees feel like they’re “on the same page,” it’s easier for them to see how their individual contribution is helping to the company forward. This can lead to increased motivation and a sense of fulfillment in their own work.
#6: The importance of ease – employees love Know Your Company because it’s easy.
The survey also showed that ease of use is one of the core reasons Know Your Company works so well. We didn’t ask any specific questions about Know Your Company’s ease of use or user interface. But, when asking employees, “What’s the one thing you love about Know Your Company?”, there were many comments in this vein…
Overall, the survey we conducted ended up being formative for us. It confirmed what’s really working with Know Your Company (e.g., we help CEOs feel more connected, have more engaged employees, and make better decisions). This way, we can better market our tool (we recently built a page on our marketing site to address this), and make smarter product development decisions that benefit our current customers (we recently built the Agreements feature, in part based off feedback we got back from survey data).
And, it now gives me a much better answer when someone asks me, “Does Know Your Company actually work?”
Yes, it can feel draining and counterproductive, but here’s why arguing is a good thing…
“Did I hire the wrong person?”
I remember thinking that right after I’d gotten into a heated argument with our programmer, Matt, for the very first time.
This was back in 2014. We’d recently hired Matt at Know Your Team. A few weeks into his time with us, I disagreed with how he was handling our support requests. Matt had replied quickly to a few CEOs… but in my opinion, it was too quick. I didn’t think he’d answered their concerns thoroughly enough. We ended up arguing about what was more important in customer service: speed or quality.
Man, it was frustrating. To feel like your teammate is not on the same page as you. To feel the tug, the push, the pull, the back-and-forth of opinions. We got into it. No yelling or name-calling or anything… but it was an intense exchange.
At the time, I thought: “Uh oh.” If we’re arguing this early on in our time together, maybe this wasn’t going to work out. Were we irreparably incompatible? Perhaps I shouldn’t have even hired him, in the first place?
Then I reminded myself: Arguing is a good thing.
Why? Arguing is a sign that you care. You care enough to have strong opinions about how to make the company better. You’re willing to bring those opinions forward, and battle it out for the best one.
Arguing is how you vet ideas and ensure you’re not submitting to groupthink. Arguing is how you make the best decisions.
In his well-known book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins echoes this sentiment:
“All the good-to-great companies had a penchant for intense dialogue. Phrases like ‘loud debate,’ ‘heated discussions,’ and ‘healthy conflict’ peppered the articles and interview transcripts from all the companies.”
The key is to argue well. To put forth your point not because you want your point to win, but because you want the best point to win. It’s not about ego — it’s about the outcome. You want the outcome that’s best for the company, plain and simple. It can’t be about anything else.
Whew, is this hard to do, let alone remember. When I’m arguing with someone, it can feel negative and draining. My energy feels like it’s just wasting away…
But then I remind myself that what’s worse is the opposite: I don’t want Matt agreeing with me all the time. I don’t want Matt to stifle his thoughts or bite his tongue in exasperation. It’d mean he’d feel like it wasn’t worth the effort to share his opinions. It’d indicate he’d given up and checked out.
Constant agreement is a sign of apathy. When your team is agreeing with you all the time, it means someone doesn’t care enough to bring her or his opinion forward. Someone doesn’t care enough to challenge existing assumptions with a contrarian viewpoint, or to let you know that something is bugging them. She or he will just keep it inside…and it’ll fester, bubble up, and later explode.
That’s when you have a real problem on your hands.
Constant agreement is also an indicator of something deeper at play: fear and futility. If you find yourself in an echo chamber, it’s often because your employees have grown to…
Fear the repercussions of arguing with you. For instance, they’re worried about being viewed as “difficult to work with,” or even are scared about losing their job.
Feel it’s futile to speak up in the first place. If they were to argue with you, they believe you’d simply brush their reasonings aside. So why’d it be worth arguing, at all?
Fear and futility are in fact the top two reasons why employees don’t speak up at work. And so the lack of arguments could be pointing to broader malfunctions in your company where honest conversations are not happening as often as they should.
Pay attention to this. The absence of arguments should warn you that something more is brewing below the surface. Whether it’s apathy, fear, or futility, you should be concerned if your employees are not arguing with you… rather than the other way around.
I’d much rather have an employee who argues with me, than an employee who nods their head, blindly agreeing with me. I’m lucky that Matt is the former.
After all, you’ll never avoid arguing. Arguing is a natural by-product of humans being humans. No two humans are 100% alike, so no two humans will ever 100% agree with one another. Put two people in a room and they will always end up arguing at some point.
Don’t let an argument demoralize you. And don’t succumb to the temptation to avoid it for the sake of saving perceived time and energy in the short term.
The conflict that comes with arguing is worth it. If you want the best ideas to surface and the best decisions to unfold, you have to be willing to face that friction. Embrace the arguing, and focus on doing it well.
One in three employees don’t trust their employer. As a CEO, here’s what you can do about it…
I recently came across a 2016 study conducted by Edelman where they’d surveyed 33,000 people in 28 countries. From it, they discovered: One in three people don’t trust their employer.
One in three people don’t trust their employer.
I found this statistic astounding. As I read on, what surprised me even more was that only 24% of employees in this study believe their CEO exhibited highly ethical behavior.
Clearly, there is a trust gap between leadership teams and employees.
This alarms me because, as a CEO myself, I consider trust to be the bedrock of a successful team and a successful company.
If you don’t trust your employees and your employees don’t trust you, everything fails. You move slower because you’re questioning every move the other person makes. You find yourself micromanaging your employees, unintentionally weighing down the speed of progress and stifling employee morale.
As an employee, if you don’t trust your leadership team, you’re less likely to be inspired to work as hard or come up with innovative ideas. What’s the point if you don’t trust your manager to recognize you fairly or hear you out? You’re also more likely to withhold information that could benefit the company — whether that’s noticing a trend in the market, or observing something worthwhile a competitor is doing.
“Without a foundation of trust, people in the organization may comply outwardly with a leader’s wishes, but they’re much less likely to conform privately — to adopt the values, culture, and mission of the organization in a sincere, lasting way. Workplaces lacking in trust often have a culture of “every employee for himself,” in which people feel that they must be vigilant about protecting their interests.”
Even further, in the Edelman study, they found that employees who trust in their leadership team are more likely to advocate for their company and its product and services.
To build more of this trust with your employees, the author of the study and the EVP and US Practice Chair for Employee Engagement, Christopher Hannegan, gave a clear recommendation. He said:
“Our study shows employees want to really understand who their CEOs are at a personal level, including the values that drive them, at levels higher than the general public want to understand CEOs…Employees want to know their CEOs as people.”
Employees want to know their CEOs as people.
It’s that (seemingly) simple. The anecdote to the trust gap is to open up more as a person.
Of course, the execution of this is what gets tricky. It’s one thing to say “Yes, I want to open up more as a leader and as a person”… and a totally separate thing to actually do it.
How do you go about sharing more of yourself? And what exactly do employees want to know? Here are a few places where you can start…
Share what you’re working on
One of the most common sentiments I hear from the employees we serve through Know Your Team is that they feel in the dark about what their leadership team is doing. Especially, if their CEO is often out of the office traveling, or the team is remote or has multiple offices. Employees want to understand on a high-level what’s on your plate as a CEO. It gives them more context about why it’s a taking you a while to respond to one of their emails, or why a certain initiative in the company was kicked off. So share where you’re traveling, what are your big to-dos, etc. Many CEOs do this in the form of a monthly or weekly CEO address that they’ll type in an email or even film a short video on their laptop.
Share your personal values
What matters to you as a CEO? What inspires you? Who are your personal heroes? The Edelman study revealed how 80% of employees wish their CEOs discussed their own personal values. Consider discussing this the next time you’re talking about the company’s values. For example, when you welcome a new hire to the team, feel encouraged to reveal your own personal values as well.
Share the obstacles you’ve overcome + your personal success story
Who are the people who’ve influenced your life the most? What’s the hardest thing you’ve faced? What are you most grateful for? What do you do to stay resilient? The Edelman study showed that 73% of employees want to know the obstacles you’ve overcome, and 68% want to hear your personal success story. You might open up about this the next time you take an employee to lunch. Or it might be a personal anecdote you mention when you explain to the company why a certain decision was made.
Share your personal hobbies
How do you spend your time outside of work? What’s a new skill you’ve been trying to pick up? What makes you laugh? What you’ve been reading lately? The more you can provide a clear picture to your employees of who you are as a person, the greater connection they’ll feel. Don’t hesitate to share these things the next time you’re at your company’s happy hour.
Share the long-term societal impact you want to have
The study found that 68% of employees believed CEOs focused too much on short-term financial results, and not enough on positive long-term impact. Even more interesting is that 8 out of 10 employees believed that their CEOs should share how they feel on societal issues such as income inequality, public policy discussions, and personal views on societal issues. Something to chew on as you look to be more transparent as a leader.
For some of you, the idea of sharing all of this (or even some of this) feels nerve-wracking. Perhaps you’re an introvert (like myself!) who’s fairly private and doesn’t really like disclosing this kind of stuff with anyone.
That’s totally fine. You don’t want to force it. But I might suggest starting small. Perhaps start with just giving a monthly update on what you’re working on in the company. And gradually move to sharing some of your personal hobbies or what you did over the weekend. You want to do this in a natural way, and you want to sound like yourself.
For others of you, you might feel like all of this sharing is too much. How much do my employees really want to know? Do they really care that I like going to yoga on Sundays or that Kevin Garnett is a personal hero of mine?
It might feel trivial. It might even feel like extra work. But we’re humans. Finding points of commonality and better understanding who we are as people are important parts of being able to work with others — and it’s fundamental to building trust. You can’t build trust without being vulnerable, without sharing something of yourself first. You have to give first, to get.
My greatest weakness, and how I’m learning to overcome it…
My parents were in town last week. During one conversation we had, my mom shared an opinion that I strongly disagreed with. And as I responded to her, she said this to me:
“You’re getting defensive.”
Throughout my life, I’ve heard this quite often. Getting defensive is my greatest personal weakness. It’s a terrible habit of mine that I’ve been aggressively working to counteract, especially in the last few years.
When I hear something I don’t want to hear, I jump to conclusions about why that person is saying that thing. Instead of trying to genuinely hear out the other person, I’ve already decided in my head that they’re misinformed, or have an ulterior motive, or don’t have my best interest in mind.
This tendency of becoming defensive doesn’t just show up in my personal life…
As the CEO of Know Your Team, I’ve felt moments of my own defensiveness creep up when our programmer Matt has made a suggestion about how to respond to a customer support request, or when he’s critiqued a layout of a design I’ve mocked up.
This defensiveness is dangerous. Because when you’re defensive, you stop listening. And when you stop listening, you shut out critical information that could benefit you. Whether it’s from your mom or from your co-worker, you have an opportunity to learn something meaningful… such as, how you need to be more generous with your time to others, or an idea that leads to increased sales in your business.
But when you become defensive, none of that information reaches you. Defensiveness cuts you off from learning.
Over the years, I’ve noticed the root cause of my defensiveness: I misread the intention behind what someone is saying.
For example, when I react defensively to my mom’s critique, it’s because I think she’s just being negative. Or when I react defensively to a suggestion Matt has about a design, it’s because I assume he’s trying to advocate for something else that he created.
When you accuse another person of bad intentions, you create defensiveness. Instead, assume good intentions, and your defensiveness goes away. That is the best way to combat defensiveness.
My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, “Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.” So “assume positive intent” has been a huge piece of advice for me.
Now when I feel myself starting to get defensive, I remind myself to take a step back and assume that the other person has good intentions.
With Matt, if you know him, you know one thing is clear: he’s vocalizing a suggestion because he truly cares about Know Your Team.
And if you know my mom… Well, I don’t think there’s another person on the planet who has more of my best interest at heart!
Recognizing this doesn’t mean I’ll submit to whatever Matt’s suggestion is when he offers it. And it doesn’t mean I’ll always end up agreeing with my mom when she shares her opinion.
But it does mean I’ll widen my mind. I gain a greater understanding and perspective of a situation. By truly listening to the other person’s viewpoint, I can make a more informed decision.
So when your employees raise a concern, don’t assume that it’s because they’re just miffed about their current job titles or how long the last client meeting was. That might very well be their underlying motivation — but you shouldn’t rush to that conclusion right off the bat before even hearing them out.
Assume positive intent. Thank them for their feedback. And then listen. Don’t interrupt. Ask questions. Clarify where they’re coming from. And then form your own opinion about the content of what they’re saying and what their true intentions might be.
Is it a bit more work to navigate the friction that comes from assuming positive intent, and not merely brush off someone’s idea?
Absolutely. But that friction is productive energy — it pokes holes in my own thinking and strengthens the actions I do take.
When I choose to assume the best intentions in others, I become a better leader, co-worker, family member and person. I don’t practice it as often as I should, but I’m vigilantly committed to working on it until I do.
I explain why I pursued speaking gigs as Know Your Company’s main means of marketing, and if you should do it too…
“How do you get the word out?”
As the CEO of Know Your Company — a two-person company with over 12,000 people using our software — I’m often asked this question. Figuring out how to attract customers is always a tough thing to do.
For us, we’ve relied on three ways for people to find out about Know Your Company: Inbound marketing + press (stuff like this and this), customer referrals (CEOs who love our product tell their friends, or employees will recommend us to their CEO), and speaking at events and conferences.
Of all the channels we’ve tried, I’ve found speaking at events and conferences to have been the most interesting experiment for us. While speaking wasn’t the biggest source of sales for us last year (we saw 47% of our sales come from inbound marketing, while 38% came from speaking opportunities) — it’s where our greatest learnings have come for me as a CEO, and for our business.
In fact, because of this, I purposefully chose to focus on speaking gigs for the past two and half years as our primary way to get the word out.
From pursuing these speaking opportunities, here’s what I’ve learned…
You get directly in front of your customers. Fast.
Instead of waiting around for potential customers to find us, speaking has enabled me to go to where our potential customers already were. At Know Your Company, our target market is business owners with 25 to 75 employees who’ve felt growing pains. So for us, it made sense to zoom in on conferences where business owners with 27 to 75 employees were attending, and go directly to them.
The most perfect example of this is an event called Owner Camp, run by the Bureau of Digital Affairs. A few times a year, they host a three-to-four-day gathering of about 30 CEOs of digital agencies — all who have 10 to 100 employees. It’s right in our sweet spot in terms of our target market.
I’ve spoken at this event about four or five times, sharing best practices on how to get honest feedback from your employees. We’ve also helped sponsor it for the past few years now.
At each Owner Camp event, we ended up selling our product to between two and seven different companies. With our average sales per month being four to five companies last year, speaking at and supporting Owner Camp has been a fruitful partnership and significant source of sales for us.
So if you’re a company looking to get traction, consider seeking out speaking opportunities like Owner Camp — where you can be a “subject matter expert,” and the audience is specifically in your target market range.
You build trust and credibility with your customer.
At its core, selling is about trust. The person who’s buying from you needs to trust you — that you’re an expert, that you’ll deliver on your promise. What better way to establish that trust, especially as a young company, than to have a customer watch you speak.
When I started speaking at conferences (particularly ones that were more high-profile) I saw how my association with those events helped build trust with a potential customer and influence a sale. For instance, we’ve gained about four or five customers who had stumbled across my Big Omaha talk on our website. These customers told me they liked the content I’d presented in that talk, or learned something useful from it. In other words, watching me speak gave us credibility as experts in helping CEOs solve this problem.
You hone in on your messaging.
This is perhaps the greatest benefit we’ve had from pursuing speaking gigs. Early on when I first took over as the CEO for Know Your Company, I had some general ideas about how to frame our service to our potential customers. However, when you give a talk, that’s completely taken up a notch; you have the most ripe opportunity to test your messaging with a live in-the-flesh audience, and refine your talking points firsthand.
For example, after presenting “The Top Four Questions to Ask Your Employees” at a conference, I watched people’s reactions to it. Everyone took out pencils and started to frantically scribble down what I’d put up on the slide. I made a mental note that information was very useful to people. And I’ve since included that in more talks, podcast appearances and media appearances that I’ve done.
Another learning I had was after I gave a talk at the 99U Conference this past May. I similarly saw a strong reaction to the data I provided on the top blindspots that CEOs have. So I turned it into a blog post, and now it’s been one of our most popular pieces I’ve written to date.
I also learned that the simpler I can boil down a message, the better. For example, a lightning talk I did at Business at Software was one of the most well-received talks I’ve given (you can watch it here). It’s the most concise talk I’ve done, and it hits on two key takeaways: “Ask for feedback in the right way” and “Act on feedback in the right way.” And that’s it. I keep this in mind as I write blog posts, speak on podcasts and write copy on our marketing site.
Lastly, it’s different.
Speaking is a medium that stands out. You’re able to showcase a bit more of your personality, your emotion, who you are. Blog posts are everywhere (ironic, as I’m writing this blog post right now, heh…) In a day and age of information overload and constant message bombardment, it pays to have your voice be different and memorable.
Now, there is one giant cost to these speaking gigs…
It’s time consuming and highly involved. A fellow business owner once told me, “Preparing for a talk expands to fill all available time.” So if you give yourself two days to prepare, it’ll take all two days. Give yourself a week? It’ll take a week. That’s time and attention being taken away from other areas of the business. Not to mention the amount of time, energy, anxiety and stress you’ll expend while you’re at the conference giving your talk.
Don’t get me wrong though: it’s also the most rewarding thing when someone comes up to you and says they’ll use the best practice from your talk at their all-company meetings. Or when someone emails you a month later and tells you that your talk helped them through a difficult situation with an employee.
I never take for granted that with a talk, you have an opportunity to really make an indelible impact. You can share your perspective in a very personal way that text sometimes can’t do.
Is it worth it?
For us, especially in the first two years of business, this time and energy has been totally worth it. As I mentioned earlier, it accounted for 38% of our sales last year (over a third!). And the learnings alone have been priceless. It’s how we’ve been able to level up our marketing — to figure out what to write blog posts about and, to refine our marketing content. For us, it made sense to sacrifice what goes into preparation for the sake of learning and the immediacy of simply getting in front of our potential customers.
Now as we’ve honed our message more and transitioned the product to allow more people to sign up more easily via self-service… that time-energy cost is something I’m more conscious of. So this year, I’ve pulled back on the number of speaking gigs I’m doing (around six, instead of more than 12).
I still find speaking gigs incredibly valuable for our business — it’s just that tradeoff is now something I am a little more conscious of, now that our business has evolved.
Should you pursue speaking events, too?
If you’ve been reading this, thinking, huh, I’m in the same boat as Claire — I’ve been running a business for a few years, and I’m trying to refine our messaging and get in front of more folks quicker. Or perhaps you’ve been in business a bit longer, but you’re looking to differentiate yourself from the competition… Awesome! I think it’s totally worth giving a shot.
Here are a few things I’d recommend doing as you approach getting speaking gigs…
(1) Apply to a speaking event where they’ll video you. The very first speaking gig I did was actually before I was the CEO of Know Your Company. I’d started my own consulting practice helping CEOs get to know their employees better, and I gave a short lightning talk at Ignite Chicago (you can view it here). And the neat thing about Ignite Chicago is they video your talk. This means my content became package-able and distributable. I could take that video link and send it to prospects, or put it on our website. On top of that, a lightning talk via video is effective because it’s short and to-the-point. There are a bunch of Ignite talks and similar organizations in a bunch of cities. You can look them up here.
(2) Before speaking at a conference, attend one. Before I sponsored and spoke at the Owner Camp events, I simply attended one. Greg Hoy, one of the founders, invited me as an attendee. From there, as an attendee, you can first see if this is a conference where speaking would be helpful to your company. And secondly, you can get to know the organizers and understand what their needs are. If the opportunity is right, you might offer how sharing your expertise in a talk could add value to their event and be helpful to their audience.
(3) Be nice and genuinely interested in everyone you meet. How I ended up getting invited to speak at MicroConf is I met the co-organizer, Rob Wailing, in Thailand (of all places) the year or two prior. I’d seen Rob give a talk in Bangkok, and I thought it was phenomenal. I went up to him afterward, over lunch we chatted about Know Your Company, and I got his thoughts on our business. When we parted ways, I had no ask. I didn’t try to sell Know Your Company to him or get anything from him. I was simply genuinely interested in hearing his perspective. And then several years later, he reached out and asked if I wanted to speak at MicroConf. It pays to be nice and genuinely care about the people you meet at an event.
(4) Find which conferences attract your target market. To get the most out of your speaking opportunities, you’ll want to figure out exactly who the attendees are and get in front of them. For us, that meant conferences where CEOs are, like Business of Software and Owner Camp, and where employees of small to medium-sized businesses are, like Big Omaha and 99U.
(5) Aim to be helpful, not self-promotional. When pitching your talk to the event or conference, look to provide helpful insights — not to sell your product or service. What’s a burning question or pain that your audience has? Address that. For us at Know Your Company, it’s employee turnover, company growing pains, being the last to know as a CEO, and not knowing how to give and receive feedback from employees.
(6) Provide a unique discount or offer at the end of your talk so you can track the ROI of the particular event. One of the trickier things with speaking events is that it can be difficult to track if an actual sale came from an event. I tried to track this in several ways. When I would give a presentation at Owner Camp, I announced to folks that if they told me before the end of the conference that they wanted to buy the product, I’d offer a 10% discount. And at MicroConf, I told folks that if they did end up buying the product I’d give them five free employee accounts if they mentioned that they saw me present at MicroConf.
Hopefully my experiences give you some context to decide whether speaking at conferences as a CEO is something that would be useful to your business. I’d seriously weigh the time-energy trade off against the benefits of getting in front of customers right away and the learnings you’ll gain around messaging… But if the weight falls on the right side, go for it. I definitely don’t regret it.
Here’s how the tiniest Know Your Company feature that took 20 minutes to code led to the biggest impact on our business…
A few months ago, we moved Know Your Company to self-signup. This means that when people come to our site, they can sign up for the product themselves, give it a spin for free for two weeks, and decide whether or not they want to purchase it. (Prior to this move to self-signup, we sold our product manually, via in-person demos that I would do myself.)
After we launched self-signup, the first month was a little slow. We typically see 4–6 sales a month. But in May, we only saw three sales come through self-signup.
Hmm. Three sales wasn’t abysmal, but it wasn’t promising either. If Matt (our other employee at Know Your Company) and I wanted self-signup to work and help more people benefit from Know Your Company, we needed to find a way to get more than three sales from self-signup in a month. Like a lot of folks who run software products that offer a free trial period, we needed to figure out: How do we improve our trial to convert more signups into sales?
To answer this question, we set out to talk to the people who we knew would know: our potential customers.
Going to the source
We emailed a handful of people who’d signed-up for Know Your Company but had not bought the product. We asked if they’d like to jump on the phone for 10 minutes to help us figure out what we could improve. If you were curious, here’s an example of an email we actually sent:
My name’s Matt, and I’m a programmer with Know Your Company. Just wanted to say hello and say thanks for checking us out!
I’ve got a small favor to ask…
I’m doing some research to better understand why people try Know Your Company. Would you be willing to chat by phone for 10 minutes?
If so, just let me know when (and a good number to reach you)! Thanks Josh — this would be a big help as we improve our service 🙂
We sent this email to about twenty “good fits” — CEOs who’d signed up for the product and had 25–75 employees (this is who the product works the best for). We ended up getting on the phone with about six of them.
From these conversations, we found that the #1 reason why these CEOs didn’t buy Know Your Company after trying it out was because of the participation rate. The number of their employees’ who responded to questions was lower than what they expected.
These CEOs were typically seeing ~25% response rates with Know Your Company. On the flip side, companies who had purchased Know Your Company had seen at least 50% response rates during their trial. Interesting.
We walked away with a huge insight from those customer conversations: For CEOs, participation from their employees was the indicator of success for the trial. Seeing their employees actively participate with Know Your Company is when they have the “ah ha moment” that this is something that adds value to their company. It’s the barometer they use to see if Know Your Company is working for them.
And I get it. Know Your Company is about helping you to get to know your employees better. And if only three out of your twelve employees you’ve added to Know Your Company are answering, the quality of the insights you receive are going to feel underwhelming.
So Matt and I started wracking our brains… How do we help our CEOs achieve what they see as a successful outcome with the trial? How do we help them see the participation rate that they’re expecting?
Direct, small, and easy
We decided to approach it from the most direct way possible: What if employees simply got a friendly, nonintrusive email reminder asking them to respond to a Know Your Company question, if they hadn’t yet?
I could imagine how easy it was for an employee to forget to respond to the Know Your Company question or even outright ignore it — especially if they weren’t 100% convinced yet that it was a genuine effort on the part of their CEO.
We chose to design the email reminder around the Company Question — it’s a rotating question we ask every Wednesday about something specific in the company (for example: “Do you think the company is the right size?”). The Wednesday Company Question is the one our CEOs often tell us that they receive the most insights from and feel the greatest impact. That being the case, our thinking was… if a CEO could see a significant response rate to the Company Question during their trial, perhaps she or he would want to buy the product.
Here’s what we came up with. For anyone who hasn’t yet answered the Company Question she or he receives an email that looks like this:
In this example, the email is coming from Victor, the CEO in the company (all Know Your Company questions come from the CEO), addressing the employee, Jared.
You’ll notice a few things about this email. It’s friendly, and natural-sounding. It was important to us that this email didn’t bug someone or didn’t feel nagging.
In fact, we were so worried about bugging people, that if someone also forgot to answer the Company Question during the second week of the trial, we created an alternate email with different wording to send to them so it wouldn’t feel too stale or automated.
The email reminder also points out the importance of answering the Know Your Company question (note where it reads: “it’d really help us see how Know Your Company could be a useful tool for the company”). We wanted to make sure this was clear to employees — that answering this Know Your Company question would help their CEO understand if the tool was a good fit for the company or not.
What were the results?
Since launching this feature on June 7th, the average company question response rate amongst trial signups has gone up to 41% (it was previously 25%).
We saw our sales for last month triple — we did nine sales in June. If you recall, we’d only done three in May. This is the highest number of sales in a month we’ve done this year so far, and it matches the highest number of sales we’ve done in a month ever.
Six of those nine sales came after the launch of this feature, with two of those companies seeing their response rates improved by 3X and 4X than what they had previously been before.
One caveat is that we had a high increase in the number of inbound leads: We saw more than 3,000 visitors come to the Know Your Company website week that this Fast Company article was published, and that traffic bump continued throughout June. So we did have a significantly larger pool of leads coming in June.
Yet in spite of this, there’s a distinct difference in our conversion rate before and after we launched this feature. Our conversation rate from signup to sale was 15% for June. In May, it was 5%.
As a whole, I think it’s fair to attribute the dramatic boost in sales last month to this one, tiny little email that barely took any time to code.
A few lessons learned
It blows my mind that something so small, and required such little time and technical complexity, was able to have such a profound impact on our business.
It was an important reminder for me to “play detective” in our business. To look in the nooks and crannies of our business for insights and learnings that can help our customers get more of the outcomes that they want to see.
Specifically, it reminded me to…
1) Ask yourself: What barometer do potential customers use to judge whether or not this product is going to work for them? What’s the equivalent of a “high participation rate” in your business?
2) If you don’t know the answer to the question in #1, go talk to your potential customers to answer this question. It’s easy to forget that your customers and potential customers truly do have all the answers. They will tell you what they were doing before they used your product, when they decided to switch and purchase your product, and the forces that influenced them along the way. All you have to do is ask.
3) Don’t be afraid to try something direct, small, and easy. Matt and I looked for the most direct way we could impact the outcome that our CEOs are looking to have. And we didn’t dismiss an idea it because it wasn’t technically advanced enough or “a big enough idea.” It’s amazing how something as small as one email can make a difference in your business.
For you, I hope sharing this reminds you as much as it did me to be on the look out for truffles like this. Even the smallest lever can have a big impact.
Detailing Know Your Company’s most unusual business model… that works! We’ll go behind the scenes and share the numbers to show you exactly how we’ve done it.
“Can I ask you a weird question, Claire?”
“Sure,” I reply.
“How do you make any money?”
I get asked this question fairly often. People hear about the pricing model for our software, Know Your Company, and they’re a bit perplexed.
We charge $100 per employee, one-time, for life. That’s it. So if you’ve got 20 employees, it’s $2,000. You pay that once and that’s it. No recurring costs, maintenance fees, etc. The only time you ever pay again is if you hire someone new. Then it’s $100 for that new person.
It’s weird, I’ll admit. With software, you typically see a subscription-based pricing model. Say, $5 per user per month. Or maybe just $100 per month for unlimited usage.
To most, a one-time, per-person fee sounds like we may be leaving money on the table.
Why would we ever price something this way? Does it work?
We’re now two-and-a-half years into running Know Your Company as our own separate company (we spun off from Basecamp in December 2013) and I want to share the answers to those questions. Here’s the nitty gritty on the reasoning behind our business model and how it’s been going. Read on and I’ll share our revenue numbers, customer retention numbers, etc.
First off, why did we price the software this way?
The biggest reason we went with one-time pricing, versus a subscription model, is because it best aligns with the value we’re trying to create.
I believe that a business owner should get feedback from an employee for the entire time that she or he is at the company. Not just for a few weeks or months — but for how ever many years an employee is with you.
A subscription model doesn’t encourage this. It’s easy to go for a few months using a product, paying, say, $50 a month, and then turn it off. In the case of Know Your Company, it’d be even easier. It’d be convenient to get a piece of feedback you don’t particularly like, and say, “Ahh I don’t need to hear this right now,” and turn off Know Your Company.
But for me, that’s not good enough. If you’re truly invested in creating the best environment for your employees, you’re getting feedback from your employees for life. Our pricing model encourages CEOs to start to see getting feedback in this way.
Our one-time pricing model also brings an advantage a subscription model doesn’t have: It encourages a high commitment from CEOs when they use the product. When you’re putting in $3,000 one-time upfront, versus $30/month or $300/month, you’ve got some skin in the game. So now you’re more determined to see that value returned to you on the other end.
As a result, CEOs put more energy behind Know Your Company when they roll it out. They talk it up to their employees, and they act on the feedback that comes from the software. Know Your Company becomes an initiative, a program — not just another web app they’re playing around with. And these CEOs see meaningful outcomes in their company because of it. For us, it’s been extraordinarily helpful that our pricing model helps influence the outcomes we want our customers to have.
So do we make money doing this? Let’s pull back the curtain on our numbers…
Since becoming our own standalone company in January 2014, we’ve generated $712,076.64 in revenue. We’re profitable — our average monthly profit margins are at a healthy 30%.
More than 200 companies have purchased our product, and 12,000+ employees use Know Your Company every day in more than 15 different countries across the world.
We do this all as a two-person company. It’s just me as the CEO, and our programmer, Matt De Leon.
We’ve never taken a cent of funding from outside investors. When we spun off from Basecamp a few years back, they didn’t give us any cash or team members — just the product and the existing customer base the product had acquired at that point.
Our customers are companies who typically have between 25 and 75 employees. The average size is 31 employees. Our smallest customer has six employees, and our biggest has 380 employees. (They were at around 70 employees when they first started using Know Your Company.) The industries of companies range across the board — from software to retail to hotels to ad agencies to nonprofits. We even work with a few churches.
The biggest surprise though: where our revenue has come from. Last year, 70% of our revenue came from existing customers adding new employees to the system, as their companies have grown. About 50 new employees were added every week by existing customers. The remaining 30% of our revenue resulted from new companies signing up for Know Your Company.
In other words, 70% of our revenue in 2015 was “recurring.” That’s more than two-thirds of our revenue generated off a business model where we’ve got one-time pricing per user.
So while the pricing model doesn’t inherently feel like there is a recurring component — there is. And it’s directly tied to the value that we’re creating for our customers. We’re supporting them as they grow and become more successful.
How this one-time pricing model has been helpful for us
Over the past two and half years, we’ve built a solid, profitable, bootstrapped company with just a two-person team. And our pricing model has absolutely enabled that.
I didn’t realize it when we started, but our pricing model has played a large role in helping us become profitable as a bootstrapped company early on and continue to stay profitable.
Our one-time pricing has allowed us to see cash a lot sooner than if we were operating on a monthly subscription pricing model. As a bootstrapped company, cash flow is the lifeline we depend on. On average, an initial $3,100 invoice is paid out to us the first week a new customer comes onboard. That’s significant. With a subscription model, how many months would we have to wait until we see that same $3,100?
Some might argue, though, while we’re able to capture a large portion of cash upfront, we’re missing out on the entire lifetime value that a monthly subscription model would capture. I initially had concerns about this, myself. However, the math proves something different.
For us with our current one-time pricing model, the average lifetime value of a customer is about $4,600 per customer. Companies add an average of 15 employees to our software during the time they use Know Your Company. The average amount of time a customer stays with us is 19 months.
To attain that same average lifetime value of $4,600 with a subscription model (let’s say we were to charge $5 per employee per month), we‘d need a customer to stay with us for about 30 months.
Thirty months is a much longer time than 19 months. And while I’d love for a customer to stick with us for two-and-a-half years, right now the average customer uses us for one year and seven months. Plus, with a one-time model, we see 67% of that lifetime value upfront. No waiting on our end required.
In fact, this one-time pricing model is what has gotten us to profitability so quickly as a bootstrapped company. We became profitable during our first month of running Know Your Company as a separate company because of this pricing model.
Allowing us to capture a larger chunk of the lifetime value upfront has also afforded us to take our time. We’re not in a rush to scoop up as many customers as we possibly can, regardless of whether we’re a good fit for them or not. Rather, we can focus on taking on customers we believe we can actually help, ensuring we’re truly solving their problem and serving them well.
Our one-time pricing model gives us room to treat each customer with thoughtfulness and personal care. Whether that’s sharing data on the best questions to ask employees, providing questions that other CEOs have asked through Know Your Company, or adding them to a Basecamp Project where there are hundreds of other customer CEOs — we’re able to pour ourselves into making sure our customers get the most out of Know Your Company. And these investments for our customers have paid off. Last year, we had a 98% retention rate. (Unfortunately, we had one company decide to stop using the product.)
This isn’t to say that a subscription model and solving your customers’ problems are mutually exclusive. Instead, I just want to share how for us, a business that’s getting off the ground, trying to get its legs under it, this is something that’s worked well.
It’s still not easy
Let’s be clear: A one-time pricing model doesn’t make everything easier. Running a business is still tremendously hard for us, even with this pricing model.
While we can capture a large chunk of lifetime value upfront, we still run a very, very lean business in order to be profitable. One of the ways I try to reduce overhead is that I don’t pay office rent. Basecamp is kind enough to let me work out of their office a few days a week over in the West Loop in Chicago, free of charge. I use a table in a conference room they don’t use very often, and I try to minimize getting in anyone’s way. It’s generous of them and an arrangement for which I’m grateful. You might be able to propose something similar and borrow an unused table at a friend’s office. (It never hurts to ask.) Or, you can always work from home to save on office rent — which is what I do about 50% of the time.
Another way I’ve reduced overhead is that I’ve only hired one other person (Matt, our programmer, who I mentioned earlier). Perhaps we could afford to bring on another person, be it part-time or full-time. But I’m highly cognizant of the costs — in salary dollars, and also in time and training. I’ve watched fellow friends who are business owners hire too quickly, and I’ve seen the strain that puts on the business. Get too big too fast, and it’s hard to rewind.
It’s also taken us an arduous, painstaking two-and-half years to hit $700K in cumulative revenue. Up until two months ago when we moved to self-signup, if a business owner was interested in purchasing Know Your Company, she or he had to do a 30-minute in-person demo with me via GoToMeeting, Skype, or WebEx. Not a demo with a salesperson — but with me, every time. In fact, I’ve done almost 500 of these in-person demos over the course of two-and-a-half years!
Every single Know Your Company product feature we shipped was conceptualized, designed and engineered by Matt and me. Every single article written, marketing site redesign, social media push, conference talk (I’ve spoken at more than 30 conferences, CEO groups, company events, etc.), and conference partnership was something the two of us executed. All the support requests, account setup, account management, invoicing, billing for 200+ companies with 12,000+ employees in 15 countries — were handled by just two people.
Matt and I have pushed ourselves to do everything we can as a two-person team, ever mindful of staying profitable each month. And we’re still wary about bringing someone else on board. When we do, we want it to be measured and truly, truly needed. (We only recently brought on a part-time data intern for the summer.) Yet it works for us.
I prefer our slow, intentional, in-control growth. It gives me the time, focus, and energy to feel we are doing right by our customers, creating the best product possible, and building company that lasts for the long haul. (My goal is to run Know Your Company for the next 10, 20 years, if I can!) And our pricing model supports that.
As a two-person company, with more than 200 customers, $700K in cumulative revenue, less than three-years-old, profitable, and bootstrapped… I’m proud of how far we’ve come.
Plus, with our recent move to self-signup, things are looking up, more than ever. Last month, we had our biggest month of sales to date… and we’re on pace to hit $1 million in cumulative revenue by the end of the year (fingers crossed!).
Will it work for you?
Who’s to say that this exact pricing structure will work for your business.
But here’s what I will say: if you focus on helping your customers get the outcomes they want and keeping your overhead low, there’s a clear path to profitability.
What matters less is if the pricing model you’ve decided on is “popular” or not for your industry. Who cares if the way you price something or the way you sell something or the way you run your business is unconventional. Who cares if people are saying to you, “Can I ask you a weird question?”
What’s most important is that you’re running a business on your own terms and providing real value to people by making some aspect of their lives better.
I hope by sharing our numbers — and making ourselves a bit naked — it’ll help you reach your own conclusions as to whether this one-time pricing — or another model — is something that will work for you.
So, to anyone out there who’s starting a business and trying to figure out how to make money and have an impact on others: Charge people what you think it’s worth, do what you can with what you have, and focus on doing a really damn good job.
When I was an employee four years ago, I felt stuck.
I had some ideas about how I thought the company could be better… but I had no clue how to bring it up to my boss at the time.
How could I mention these ideas without it feeling like an attack on him? I didn’t want him to think I was arrogant, assuming I could run the company better than him. And I didn’t want him to become defensive, and brush off my ideas outright.
I was torn about what to do. Comments can easily be misconstrued — and in this scenario, it could cost me any good will with my boss, my reputation in company… and even my job.
I decided not to do anything. I didn’t share my ideas with my boss. I ended up leaving the company later that year.
I’m not proud of my silence. Looking back, I often think: What should I have done instead?
Now four years later, after consuming every article, study, and book I could get my hands on, working one-on-one with companies through a consulting practice I started, and speaking with hundreds of business owners as the CEO of Know Your Team… I know exactly what I should have done to give feedback to my boss.
If you’re an employee and you want to give your boss feedback, here’s are the lessons I’ve learned on what you can do.
Set up a time to talk
The worst thing you can do to your boss is surprise them with information or create a situation where they feel caught off-guard. Instead, you can send over a note to your CEO or manager to set up a specific time to talk with them.
Here’s something you could start with:
Hey [your boss’s name],
I know how much you care about maintaining a strong culture at the company… I have some thoughts / ideas on that I’ve been thinking on lately! Would you be up for chatting sometime? Perhaps we can grab 30 minutes over coffee next week, when things slow down for you? Please let me know! Looking forward to it.
Ask for feedback about yourself
Another way to kickstart the conversation with your manager is to ask for feedback about yourself. This will help your CEO or manager let their guard down, and realize that you’re not looking to blast them. You’re showing you’re open to a two-way dialogue.
For example, you could write something like this to them:
Hey [your boss’s name],
Lately, I’ve been thinking hard about how I can improve in my role. Would love to get some feedback from you and riff on this together. I’ve also been chewing some ideas about the company that I’d love to share with you too, if you’re open to it! Got time for coffee sometime next week?
Just make sure you’re open and ready to hear this feedback about yourself. In other words, don’t be willing to dish it unless you can take it.
Make your intention clear upfront.
When you do sit down to give feedback to your CEO or manager, begin the conversation by making it very clear why you’re wanting to give them this feedback.
For example, let them know: “I’m saying this because ____ matters to me, and it’s something I could see benefitting the company as a whole. And just to be clear, these thoughts aren’t coming from a place of disrespect or mistrust in you or your ability — I completely understand and accept that this is your thing to have the final call on.”
Another way to do this is by reinforcing what you have in common. You’ll want to remind your CEO and manager that you’re on the same team. “I’m only sharing this because I care about the company culture and am worried about ____, and I know that’s something we both care about.”
Acknowledge that it’s only your opinion
You don’t want your words taken as a critique on your boss’s character. Your words are not a definitive stance on their value as a person — and they shouldn’t be interpreted as so. So you’ll want to reinforce that your feedback is coming only from your personal point-of-view. This will show humility on your part, and encourage them to not take your comments personally.
For example you could say: “Keep in mind this is only my opinion and I could be way off here… I thought you might want to know though, regardless, and I wanted to share these thoughts with you for the sake of transparency.”
One last tip: In preparation for this conversation, I’d highly recommend writing down what you want to say beforehand. (I even do this today as CEO when I give feedback to an employee.) Consider… How do you want your boss to feel after you’ve had the conversation? How can you frame what you’re saying to help them feel that way? Articulating the points clearly to yourself first will help make sure you articulate them clearly to your CEO.
Granted, this all is much easier to do in theory than in practice. I remember all too well how nerve-wracking it was to even consider reaching out to my boss like this. But take that first initial step to schedule the time to sit down with them, and you’ll be surprised at how open most CEOs and managers are to hearing what’s on your mind.
Don’t get too hung up on anticipating how your CEO might react. You can never control another’s person’s reaction. You can only control yourself — what you put out into the world, and your own intention behind it. So focus on that. Fear should never get in the way of you sharing something you think could truly benefit the company.
If the content of what you’re trying to express is worth it, there’s only one way to find out how they’ll react: Speak up.
You’ll never know, otherwise. It’s what I wish I would’ve done four years ago.
P.S.: This was originally published on the Know Your Team Blog. If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊(And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)
As the CEO of Know Your Team, I often get asked about my opinion on asking employees for anonymous feedback. Is it a useful approach? Would I recommend it?
My answer is the same each time: I hate anonymous feedback. I hate giving it, and I hate receiving it. Here’s why.
Anonymous feedback breeds a culture of distrust — especially in small teams and organizations.
When you ask for anonymous feedback, the first thing that oftentimes runs through employees’ minds is, “Hmmm will this really be anonymous?” They speculate: “I wonder who’s viewing the data? Or if they’ll be able to tell what I wrote?”
You’ve immediately injected a tone of suspicion and skepticism into your company.
On top of this, when you receive this anonymous feedback, you frequently end up feeling suspicious and skeptical yourself. You think: “Hmmm I wonder who wrote this?” It’s a completely natural human tendency. And in some cases, you may even be able tell who the person is from someone’s tone or word choice, thus nullifying the purpose for anonymity in the first place.
This suspicion and skepticism is poison for a healthy company culture. Particularly when one in three employees already don’t trust their bosses, you’re only furthering their distrust. Asking for anonymous feedback fuels an existing an assumption that CEOs do not have their employees’ best interest in mind.
After all, if you’re trying to foster truthfulness and transparency in your company, why resort to a covert, opaque way to get feedback?
But even greater than these cultural repercussions, the biggest reason anonymous feedback sucks is because it’s difficult to act on. I hear this from dozens and dozens of CEOs who’ve started using Know Your Team after running anonymous surveys.
These CEOs told me that after collecting feedback anonymously from their employees, they’d get stuck — they didn’t know how to follow up on the feedback, or implement any of it. They couldn’t go talk to the department that the problem was brought up in, or have a one-on-one with a specific employee and resolve the issue.
Anonymous feedback didn’t help them act on the feedback, itself. This is counter to the very purpose of getting feedback in the first place: to be able to take action.
So what can you do instead of asking for anonymous feedback? How can you encourage employees to honestly speak their minds, without resorting to hiding behind anonymity?
Here are a few things you can do…
State your intention clearly
When a leadership teams wants to start getting more regular, honest feedback, they’ll often kick off a survey or software tool or initiative without any context or explanation as to why. This can be a huge mistake, as your employees might not understand what your intention behind wanting to get this feedback.
Rather, you want to want to be upfront and clear about why getting feedback is important to you — and not just assume employees already know this. This helps clear the air and create an environment where people feel safe giving candid feedback, without having to be anonymous.
If you want your employees to be transparent with you, you have to start by being transparent with them as the leader. Showing vulnerability — that you don’t have all the answers, that you want to improve as the boss — helps your employees feel comfortable giving you feedback non-anonymously.
For example, when you announce to your employees that you’d like to start getting feedback transparently, you could say something like: “I feel a little disconnected from everyone and that’s been bugging me. It’s my fault, and I’d like to make an effort to get better.”
As a leader, simply saying or writing the words, “it’s my fault,” signals to your employees that you’re open to hearing the truth of what they really think.
Ask specific questions
A huge part of getting meaningful, honest feedback from employees has to do with the questions you ask your employees. If you want answers, you’ve got to ask questions. You can’t expect the answers to come to you.
These questions have to be good — they need to be specific, relevant, and well-thought out. If you ask a general, half-hearted question, you’ll get a general, half-hearted response. For example, ask someone “How’s it going?” and the most-likely response will be, “It’s fine.”
Instead ask, “What’s one thing about the last board meeting we held that could’ve been better?” This specific question zooms in on “one thing”, one event, and asks for an actionable takeaway. As a result, the responses to the question are far more likely to be more focused and actionable too. And because you’re asking it non-anonymously, you’ll be able to follow up with the specific person to clarify the thought or implement the idea.
Taking action on the feedback you receive is the most powerful way to encourage your employees to be honest with you. This is because, more than anything, seeing some action or response to the feedback given is what employees want.
Now this doesn’t mean you need to go and implement every single piece of feedback that you receive. Nor does it obligate you to make any changes that your employees might suggest.
Rather, you can take action on feedback to show your employees that you’re listening. For instance, when you decide that an idea isn’t feasible or that you aren’t going to implement a piece of feedback you received, be sure to explain that to your employees. Pull back the curtain on why the company isn’t going to take a certain direction, so employees don’t assume a reason for why something isn’t happening, or that you ignored their feedback.
And then when you do receive a piece of feedback that is worth acting on, you’ll want to jump on it immediately. Knocking out a quick win — especially when it’s low hanging fruit — can shift your company’s culture. This could be as small as getting an employee a new office chair, or changing your company’s phone service. But that responsiveness matters, and it’ll prompt employees to be honest with you the next time you ask for their opinion or feedback on something.
When you do these things, you create less of a need to have people hide behind anonymity. You demonstrate trust, and empower your employees to be accountable for what they believe and what they say.
I understand that this can feel scary. It’s much easier to have a box of anonymous suggestions that you can keep at arm’s length, versus having to face the opinions of people who you work alongside everyday.
But it’s worth it. I talk with hundreds of companies every day who choose to ask their employees for feedback in an open, honest way. And they see the positive results firsthand. CEOs have shared me that their employees will say things to them like, “Wow, I’m so impressed with how open the leadership team is,” or “This means a lot that you’re asking such tough questions so openly — my last company would have never done this.”
After collecting data from the past 2.5 years through Know Your Team, I’m sharing the most surprising things CEOs overlook…
“What’s the hardest part about being a leader?” A few years ago, the Washington Post interviewed Peter Thiel, cofounder and former CEO of PayPal, and asked him this question.
This was his response:
“As CEO, you’re somehow both the total insider and the total outsider at the same time. In some ways you’re at the center of the organization. In other contexts, you’re like the last person to know anything.”
You’re like the last person to know anything.
Of all the things that make it tough to be a CEO — the burden of decisions you have to make, the psychological toll of risk you bear, the interpersonal politics you juggle — Peter felt that “being the last to know” was the hardest thing about being a leader.
He’s not alone in feeling this way.
I hear this sentiment all the time. As the CEO of Know Your Team, I talk with hundreds of founders, CEOs, and business owners who tell me: “I had no clue that a project was falling behind,” or “I was completely blindsided when our senior employee decided to put in her two weeks notice.”
As a CEO, it can feel utterly maddening. You want to know about issues in your company before they bubble up into something bigger, and you try everything in your power to be “in the know”: employee surveys, suggestion boxes, one-on-ones, town hall meetings… You tell your employees that your door is always open, that you want to hear their honest feedback, that you can handle the truth…and yet it doesn’t seem enough. You’re still always the last person to know anything in your company.
At Know Your Team, this is what we do best: we help CEOs clear the air in their companies, and not be the last to know. With our software tool, we ask the right questions, in the right way, at the right time, to help CEOs get the insights they want. Our belief is you only get answers if you ask questions.
We’ve done this for the past two-and-a-half years, asking carefully crafted questions to over 200 different companies with 10,000+ employees in more than 15 countries… and it’s been fascinating to see the data come together.
I decided to pull the most surprising insights from that data, and share them for the first time in written form here.
Based on the questions we ask thousands of employees through Know Your Team, here are the three biggest blindspots CEOs overlook…
Blindspot #1: Your employees feel like they could be contributing more.
When asked through Know Your Team, 75% of employees said, “Yes, there’s an area outside my current role where I feel I could be contributing” (688 employees answered this across 107 companies). This is contrary to a common perception CEOs have: that their employees are slammed and completely at capacity.
Now, that perception may still very well be the truth. Your employees often do have a whole lot on their plates.
But they still hunger to grow, learn, and further their own abilities in ways that we as CEOs might not always be aware of. This might be a management role they’ve always wanted to take on, or perhaps a new skill that they’ve been wanting to develop.
Employees have untapped potential that you could be helping to encourage… if only you knew about it.
What can you do about this? Find a way to help your employees develop the skills they want.
You want to nurture your employees’ interests and abilities that help them grow professionally and personally. This can be as straightforward as asking your employees, “What professional skill(s) have you always been wanting to develop?” or “Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn professionally but haven’t had a chance to yet?”
Another way to uncover this information is to consider that employees oftentimes love to learn from their peers. Ask your employees, “Is there anyone at the company you wish you could apprentice under for a few weeks?” This is one of the most popular questions we ask through Know Your Team. When asked across 145 companies to 1,756 employees, 92% of employees said “Yes, there’s someone in the company I’d like to apprentice under.”
You don’t need to go hire expensive consultants or create elaborate training programs to help your employees develop the skills they want. It can be as simple as utilizing the talents of the employees you already have.
Blindspot #2: Your employees think your company is behind the curve.
From the responses gathered through Know Your Team, we found that most employees believe their company is behind the curve in a certain area. In fact, when asked directly, “Do you think our company is behind the curve in something in particular?” 66% of employees said “yes” (1,072 employees responded to this across 147 companies).
On top of that, employees frequently notice competitors pushing out ahead and doing things they wish their own company was doing. Seventy-six-percent of employees have said, “Yes, I’ve seen something recently and thought to myself, I wish we’d done that” (1,119 employees answered this across 165 companies). Even further, 65% of employees said “Yes, I’ve seen something a competitor has done recently that’s really impressed me” (564 employees answered this across 104 companies).
Yet, how often do you have employees actively coming up to you, telling you about the latest neat thing a competitor’s done that you should be aware of?
My guess is… not that often. You’re sitting on a wealth of helpful observations and good ideas with the potential to improve your business. And you’re oblivious to them simply because, as leaders, we forget to ask.
What can you do about it?Don’t kill an idea too quickly.
We all have a bias against creativity in time of uncertainty. So when an employee brings up an idea or suggestion (especially if we’re feeling overwhelmed or flustered at that moment), our knee-jerk reaction is to cast it aside. “Not now,” we tell ourselves.
To combat this natural bias, ask yourself: “What are the ideas I’ve been hearing right under my nose that I should be listening to?” Force yourself to recognize that you might have a mental model or preconceived notion about what ideas are good and bad, which may be closing you off to ideas that are actually worthwhile.
You can also try spending 15 minutes each week writing down questions that challenge the status quo. This technique, often used to promote innovation in a company, will help you shake loose your predisposition to move things along in your company the way they’ve always moved along.
Lastly, you can simply ask your employees: “Is there anything in particular you think we’re behind the curve on?” From this question through Know Your Team, we’ve had companies make tangible improvements to business development, customer support, software security, and employee recruitment.
Blindspot #3: Your employees want more feedback… but they don’t want more performance reviews.
Perhaps this isn’t a surprise to some. It’s well documented that employees today, more than ever, crave to understand what they could do better at their jobs. In our data collected through Know Your Team, we found the same: 80% of employees want more feedback about their performance (1,468 employees were asked about this across 138 companies).
However, employees don’t see performance reviews as the best way to get this feedback. Sixty-three percent of employees feel that, “Yes, we do performance reviews frequently enough” (650 employees responded to a question about this across 73 different companies).
It’s no secret people don’t like performance reviews. Have you ever sat in one? They’re awful. We hate giving them. We hate being on the receiving end. Why? They’re a long, stressful, giant dump of information from the past year, often arbitrary with ratings and scores.
What employees want instead is regular, helpful feedback. The more regular this feedback and interaction is with managers, the more engaged employees are. A recent 2015 Gallup study show that managers who hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not hold regular meetings with them.
It’s more than evaluating employees at the end of the year just to “check a box.” It’s open, frequent conversations that are centered around mentoring and coaching employees.
What can you do about this? Communicate consistently.
Consistent communication from a manager — be it via in person, over the phone, electronically — is proven by Gallup to be connected to higher engagement. This could be one-on-ones, all company meetings, social opportunities, all-company get togethers.
In particular, Gallup found that managers who are most successful at engaging their employees use a combination of face-to-face, phone and electronic communication. And, the most engaged employees report that their managers returned calls or messages within 24 hours.
The key here is consistency. If you want your company culture to be open and transparent, you’ve got to practice open and transparent communication regularly. The more often you do it, the more natural it will feel. Practice makes habit. And those habits will evolve into your culture. This is how you create a culture of openness.
I understand how difficult this is to do. But your employees want to know you’re listening and are responsive — and your consistent communication shows this.
It’s not a one-off, “do it once and I’m done” sort of thing you do. It’s not transactional. It’s genuinely caring about the relationships you’re building with your employees, and showing that you care.
This means getting to know your employees outside of work as well. Gallup reported that employees who feel as though their manager is invested in them as people are more likely to be engaged. So creating opportunities for people to engage socially, share a bit of their lives outside of work, is a way to increase your employees’ engagement.
In sum, as a CEO, founder, or manager, you’ll want to keep these blindspots in mind…
Employees feel like they could be contributing more.
Employees think your company is behind the curve.
Employees want more feedback… but they don’t want more performance reviews.
Now granted, these are insights we found across the 200+ companies who use Know Your Team. For your company, your blindspots could be different. Depending on how big your company is, what interpersonal dynamics you have, how well you communicate across the company, etc.… what you don’t know varies from company to company. And it changes over time, as you grow and hire new folks and other folks leave, as the market changes, and as your business offering evolves.
But by understanding what’s most commonly overlooked, and seeing what’s been surprising to our CEOs who use Know Your Team, you can avoid the blindspots that others have failed to see.