What would you do for your company’s culture?
Gene McCulley’s company was growing without intention, and when the company culture began to fragment, he wanted to invest in making it as strong and positive as possible. When it seemed a harder challenge than he realized, he began to consider selling off part of the business to solve that and other challenges related to growth. Listen now to hear his story!
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In this episode, I speak with Gene McCulley, founder and CEO of StackFrame. I could tell you about his passion for banana pudding or how he unintentionally dropped out of college, but the main reason I asked Gene to be on the show was his decision to sell off part of his company, due in part, to his desire to create the culture he wanted.
Gene: And so, so that was a moment, for me, where I was like, man, I’m really not gonna be able to bridge these gaps. Right? So, that particular moment wasn’t one where I decided it’s not possible. It was a moment where I was like, “Man, this is just harder than I thought it would be.”
This was in contrast to how things grew – which was without intention – and he shares his thoughts about the importance of knowing what to say “no” to – and how building and maintaining culture requires intention and follow-through.
Gene: “Oh, this is a good point to invest, and spend some capital on improving our organization.” And then, just like you say about not being intentional, some work shows up and it was like, “Oh, well now suddenly we’re at, we’re 120 percent occupied. And I can’t say no to that. That would be silly. I– you know, we gotta like take advantage of this work while it’s here.” And so then now we lose all our momentum on, on improving the organization. And now we’re all spread across all these projects and not talking to each other because we’re too busy talking to our clients–
Gene: And so now the culture suffers again from that.
We also talk about the importance of being able to give and receive feedback, and the flaws with the “feedback sandwich” concept:
Gene: The feedback sandwich could be done better. ‘Cause I was like, “Really? You want me to say, ‘Good job. Fix this actual problem. And also, you’re a wonderful person.'”?
And about how feedback of being “wrong” can feel so different when it’s coming from a human vs. a computer:
Gene: It doesn’t hurt my feelings, it’s a, it’s a computer telling me that, right? But if a person tells you, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong”, if you have a person telling you all day, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong. You’re stupid” then, then yeah, I could see it being bad.
For now, let me throw you into our banana pudding conversation, before we get into all that other fun stuff…
Gene: So, okay. So, I’m amazing you haven’t experienced banana pudding. It is awesome.
Laura: I mean, maybe as a, maybe as a kid?
Gene: Okay, so–
Laura: Especially if you’re talking about words like–
Gene: –it’s definitely a kid thing, but–
Laura: –artificial flavoring for the banana.
Gene: Oh, yeah. Like Jello brand jello makes a banana pudding.
Gene: Okay, and so, so like that’s probably a lot of my trauma experience was with the Jello brand, artificial flavor, banana pudding. Um, but there are, there are very interpretations and schools of thought on banana pudding.
Gene: So, you ask if there’s chunks of banana. No.
Gene: There are no chunks of banana.
Gene: Sometimes there may be a couple chunks that are put in, maybe for aesthetic reasons.
Gene: Uh, or maybe–
Laura: Just like on top?
Gene: Yeah or–
Laura: Like slices?
Gene: And sometimes maybe a couple, like, maybe I think I have a vague memory of like a banana pudding with a little bit of chunks of banana in it. But no–
Gene: –the banana pudding part, which is preternaturally yellow, like–
Gene: Like, shouldn’t be that yellow. Uh, there’s still some food coloring involved. Is, is a pudding. It’s a, it’s like a custard. It’s like of even consistency, there’s no texture. But, there must be vanilla wafers. Or–
Laura: Oh, yeah!
Gene: –as it’s, as it’s marketed, ‘Nilla, with the apostrophe in front, wafers.
Gene: So now, so here’s where it comes in the different schools of thought. So, so first of all, so my step-mother, at our last time we were together, she made this enormous pot of banana pudding and I ate an enormous –like, I probably ate a third of it. There’s like–
Gene: –12 people and I ate like a third of it– But, and I really, like, I’m really careful about my caloric intake and, especially sugar, and so but this was like a special event. And hey, I have to make sure she knows I appreciate her banana pudding, which was awesome, and so I, I, yeah, I took care of it. But, um–
Laura: Took care of it. I got this. I got it.
Gene: This bowl. There will be no leftovers for you to worry about.
Laura: No worries.
Gene: My principle job is to make sure no one has to worry about leftovers. But, um, uh, but so I ate a lot of it and I love it but I eat it very rarely. But I remember, as a kid, having it a lot. Okay, so, so some people will have like the, the Jello brand banana pudding with nothing else, right? Just the pudding part. Some people will crumble up the vanilla wafers in it. Some people will put the whole vanilla wafers in there–
Laura: Mm hmm.
Gene: –so now you get this texture of vanilla–
Laura: It gets a little soggy, right?
Gene: –wafer. Yeah, they’re a little soggy but yet there’s some crunch in there. It’s like, you know, in there. So, it’s like, the pudding’s made–
Laura: Mm hmm.
Gene: –and then, and then they mix the wafers in and then chill it and so there’s still a little crunch in there. Now, and some people, uh, I can’t believe you haven’t– we’ve gotta resolve this before you go to Kuala Lumpur–
Gene: ‘Cause who knows if they have it there if they don’t have it in the rest of the country? So, um, uh, okay. But some people will put all the ‘Nilla wafers at the bottom and so–
Laura: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah…
Gene: –then you gotta kind of mix it up. And sometimes they’ll crunch it up into like a powder at the bottom and then a layer of the wafers and then the pudding.
Gene: So there’s, there’s–
Laura: Lot of varieties.
Gene: If you speak to a, a southern woman of a particular age, you, she will have her own banana pudding I think.
Laura: I see. Now is there controversy and debate about how to incorporate the wafers or are people pretty accepting of others’ practices?
Gene: Well, yeah, so I’m the wrong person to ask because I will eat all of it.
Laura: It’s all good for you–
Gene: But I’m sure people–
Laura: Not discriminating.
Gene: –have strong opinions. Yeah.
Gene: We’ll find a, we’ll find a banana pudding.
Gene: I may have to go test them.
Laura: Would you do that for me?
Gene: I would.
Laura: That’s so sweet.
Gene: I, uh,–
Laura: That’s so nice of you.
Gene: — I’ll fall on that sword for you. Yeah.
Gene: Like, I’m on a mission.
Laura: So selfless. Alright. Well, um, how about you introduce yourself to our listeners?
Gene: I’m happy to. So, I’m Gene McCulley. And I grew up here in Florida and I moved to the Orlando area in 1992 to attend UCF, the University of Central Florida for those of your listeners who may not be aware.
Laura: I went to UCF as well.
Gene: That’s right. Okay.
Laura: I’m a knight. Go Knights.
Gene: Go Knights. I am a Knight dropout.
Laura: I– yeah.
Gene: Which, I think we should have our own alumni group. ‘Cause I encounter, occasionally, I will encounter someone– like, we should have like a, like some Greek letters or something–
Laura: For dropping out?
Gene: Yeah for, for people, like, I would gladly pay a membership fee. Right? So, to be amongst those folks who have also dropped out.
Laura: So tell me, tell me the story about dropping out, ’cause it’s kind of funny to me.
Gene: Well, so, so yeah. So, I didn’t deliberately drop out, I’d like to say. My intent was to be in the computer engineering department and to get a degree in computer engineering. And then I eventually transferred to computer science. But what happened was I was on the programming team at UCF, which is phenomenal, they’re like a world-ranked programming team.
Gene: And then they were still very good then, but they’re just like amazing now
Gene: Anyway, so I’m on the programming team and almost everybody on the programming team worked at the Institute for Simulation and Training, which is part of UCF. And so they told me, they’re like, “Hey, you should come work with us because everybody works here.” And so I got this job just by being on the programming team. Like, if I had interviewed for that with no credibility, I would not have been a, probably accepted at all. Right?
Laura: Right. Networking.
Gene: Yeah. Exactly.
Gene: And so, I was working there at the Institute for Simulation and Training, really enjoying that work, and I decided to take a semester off. I can’t remember exactly why. I’m sure I thought it was a good reason at the time but it probably wasn’t a good enough reason.
Gene: So, I took a semester off. And then I took another semester off and then, eventually, UCF told me, “Hey. You gotta take classes in order to be considered a student. You’re no longer a student here.” And so I–
Laura: Weird how that works. You have to actually take classes to be a student.
Gene: Yeah, so I just kind of had this notion that I could just go back any time. A
Laura: So, when they said you have to take classes to be considered a student, did you consider taking more classes or did you just decided, like,–
Gene: Yeah. Yeah, I was like, “I’m having a lot of fun here and I wanna go back. I’ll eventually go back.” And so, but now that’s, like, silly. For every year that goes on, it’s less likely I’m gonna go back. And if I do go back, it might not even be for computer science at all. It might be for, like, economics or history or something–
Laura: Oh, okay.
Gene: –because I’m more interested in– well, and there’s no economic advantage now, to me going back. Right? So, I go back, it should be for something where I think I could provide some value otherwise, right?
Gene: So, I was at Institute for Simulation and Training and I eventually got a job at Science Applications International Corporation doing the same kind of work for a new simulator project that was starting out. So, this was a pretty big opportunity for me even though I was, uh, the, at a very low level, just like at IST. I was the dumbest guy in the room for a long time, ’til I hired somebody else. And, uh, so, but I was really, uh, really lucky to be around folks who knew a lot more than me and could teach me a lot. So, I got this job working on the close combat tactical trainer with SAIC and that led to more opportunities in the defense space where I was working, doing defense contracting. And then I left the defense industry, intending to fully leave and not come back and I went and worked for a Silicon Valley company in 1999 or 2000. And that’s right when the dot com crash happened.
Gene: I left just before they started laying people off ’cause I could kind of see the writing on the wall there. But I was also interested in doing work that was intellectually challenging again. And even though I was enjoying working in the commercial space, a lot of the work that I was doing was not as intellectually interesting as some of the simulation work I was accustomed to doing in the defense space. So, I took an opportunity to do some contractin. And that eventually turned into forming StackFrame. When I had co-founded StackFrame, we had intended to develop stuff outside the defense industry, but then all this work just kept coming in that we couldn’t say no to and so we just found ourselves being a defense contractor again.
Laura: Okay. So, at what point did some of the commercial work kind of come back in?
Laura: Because that’s, ’cause really what I’m excited to hear you talk more about is what you noticed in terms of the culture at StackFrame–
Laura: –once you really had, I don’t even like to use the word sides, but two sides of the company.
Gene: Yeah. I didn’t like these words “sides” either. I tried to get, I tried to beat that out of the culture–
Laura: Yeah, I remember that being a thing. It was, ya know, we’re one StackFrame and there were some real differences that were emerging between the people that were working more on the defense side and people that were working on the commercial side.
Laura: So, when did some of the commercial work start to come back in?
Gene: Okay, so, so yeah, it wasn’t so much that it came back in. It was that early on we had a little bit of commercial work and a little bit of defense work and the defense work was just growing a lot faster than the commercial work. And eventually that changed, where the defense work stopped growing very fast and the commercial work was still growing. But we were at the point where we were somewhere always between 50 percent and two thirds of our revenue was the defense work. It sometimes it would oscillate down to, you know, below 50 percent but that work wasn’t necessarily growing very fast. And so, so then I found myself at a place where the commercial work was easier to grow than the defense work.
Laura: Mm hmm. So, how, how intentional did it feel versus just letting happen what happened in terms of the work coming in?
Gene: It was almost entirely on the letting things happen stage.
Laura: Letting things happen.
Gene: Right. So, there would be a lot of cases where, where an opportunity would come up, you know, to put in a proposal or something like that and we’d say, “Oh. Heck yeah. We gotta put in a proposal for that and maybe we’ll get the work.” And then the work might or might not show up. So, in a lot of cases it was just us, and I should say it was mostly me, failing to say no–
Laura: Mm hmm.
Gene: And failing to value the opportunity cost when looking at something. Right? And saying, “Well, if we take this, what opportunity am I not gonna be able to take tomorrow–
Gene: –because we’re executing on this thing now?” So, when you, when you start a proposal it’s very intentional and deliberate, but even in that you have the failure to say, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t even propose all of this.”
Laura: Go for this. Yeah.
Gene: Yeah. We shouldn’t even put the– ’cause there is a, there is a considerable effort.
Gene: So, so where it’s deliberate, and intentional in choosing which proposals to participate in, you know, that itself has some interesting challenges
Gene: So you end up with all of these, you know, complications where–
Laura: Yeah. Quite a bit.
Gene: –you’re looking at a landscape and trying to figure out what’s the right team to be on and stuff like that and how to deliver value to everybody in the end in the best possible way. And, and sometimes, choosing wrongly on those things means that you’re now handcuffed to where you can’t provide value to everybody, right?
Laura: Mm hmm.
Laura: So I’m sure a lot of that ended up driving the decision that you made that I’ll ask you about, more specifically, in a moment. I’d love to hear you speak about – when did you start paying attention to the culture at StackFrame?
Gene: I guess when we got to a certain size. Um, the– at the peak, the highest number of employees we had was 32, I think.
Gene: So, certainly around that size I was noticing that we didn’t all have a unified culture and that, and coalescing on, like, what that culture is was an important thing.
Laura: What were you noticing? What’s an example of something that happened where you thought, “Gosh, that’s– they would never do that over here” or when did you notice it’s kind of fragmented?
Gene: Well, so, I think there’s two kinds of answers to that question. There’s, the cases, where I think we had all the same culture but we weren’t necessarily executing on it correctly in every case. The other kind of problem we had was where we had different cultures within the organization and that was a lot driven by the clients. So we were almost exclusively, you know, kind of a labor hour consultancy/agency, right? So a small team is working in the building of a client full-time, all day in a lot of cases, and they are part of that culture
Gene: And they have their own way of doing things and they might have even their own dress code and their own ideas about what’s, you know, appropriate hours to work and what’s appropriate ways in which you interact with each other, whether or not it’s done through email, over the phone, or face to face, or in front of a white board. Uh, whether or not, you know, a particular hair style is gonna be appropriate.
Gene: Um, so, you know, going into the defense industry, that’s, that’s something that people notice, right? Is, is that maybe so-and-so’s hair isn’t acceptable, right? And a funny thing about, about the different cultures is that you would think, well, everybody can just dress professionally. Well, people have a different notion of what that is.
Laura: Absolutely. Even and you’ve used the word “appropriate”–
Laura: –right, several times. And that’s, that’s a judgment call. We–
Laura: –there’s no absolute on what’s appropriate. That’s–
Laura: –an opinion.
Gene: Yeah, and you would think, “Well, I’ll just, I’ll wear a tie every day and it’ll be okay.” Well, some people are going to be made uncomfortable by that.
Gene: Right? And so, yeah, there’s like, no, that’s totally a polo shop over here, they’ve got this hipster uniform over there, you gotta wear a hoodie and–
Gene: –some jeans–
Gene: –with a stupid emblem on it or something.
Laura: No judgment though, of course. We’re not judging anybody. Alright. So, yeah, so you’ve got, just, there were– and how long ago was this now?
Gene: Uh, at which point I noticed a–
Gene: So, probably, uh, like five years ago or so. Maybe six years ago or so. We, we had just gradually grown to that size without, without me consciously trying to figure out, “Well, what do we do when we get to this size?” Or “What do we do when we get to that size?” And so, you know, I’m a little more aware of that now, that you’ve gotta think about these things, be more proactive about– but, you know, when you’re down in it, uh, you know, working on the tactical stuff, it’s really hard to be thinking strategically or even realizing you should be, right?
Laura: Mm hmm.
Laura: Mm hmm. So when you started paying attention to culture, were there any initiatives that you did or what did that effort even look like, to say, “Okay, maybe this is something I wanna be intentional about”?
Gene: One realization was that I couldn’t be in every interaction, to see what that, uh, to see how an individual contributor was responding to a situation and whether or not that was acceptable as you grow the people that came to you for work, they’re kind of trusting that the people you hire are gonna be a lot like you. I mean, they want the same value out of your organization as they previously got from you.
Laura: So, you’re almost trying to replicate yourself because the business was built on your reputation–
Laura: –and what people really like and value and appreciate about you.
Gene: Right. And so, as you grow, you’ve gotta somehow make sure that those people are, reflecting that work. And if they’re not with you in the building all the time, if you’re not with them, if you’re not doing that, then, then you’re gonna have trouble with that. And so that was problem I started noticing and so I tried to do things like have more frequent off-site days, more frequent staff meetings, which we didn’t do anywhere near enough. So that’s one thing I did, though, is I tried to do that. Say, “Okay, we’ll we’re gonna set aside this amount of time and spend some unbillable hours on things that’ll help us build as a team and help us try to document and improve our culture.” And then, and there were certain things that were, to me, important about, about certain aspects of the culture. Like, one of the things I like to say is that tenacity is more important than being the smartest guy in the room. Right? Like, there’s a lot of cases where just getting the thing done is more important than whether or not you’re smart. Right? But then another thing I tried was working with an organizational psychologist.
Gene: So I had spoken to you and we had some great conversations and some coaching and, and we did a survey amongst our staff and, and worked on, you know, trying to establish what those values were. And, well, I should say before that we tried to do that internally. And so, I wasn’t really happy with our success at trying to do that internally. And so, when you gave a presentation to my CEO Nexus Round Table group and I think I’d heard– oh, no, that’s right. I’d heard about you right around the same time.
Gene: And so, I was interested in seeing, uh, what your services were like because our organization, a bunch of engineers, really didn’t know anything about organizational dynamics and stuff, right? And so, I figured there was value we could get outside our organization for doing that. And then, just like you say about not being intentional, some work shows up and it was like, “Oh, well now suddenly we’re at, we’re 120 percent occupied. And I can’t say no to that. That would be silly. I– you know, we gotta, take advantage of this work while it’s here.” And so then now we lose all our momentum on improving the organization. And now we’re all spread across all these projects and not talking to each other because we’re too busy talking to our clients–
Gene: And so now the culture suffers again from that.
Laura: So I, I talk a lot about language and I’m pretty intentional about my words most of the time. And one of the things that I shifted for myself that I often invite others to do, or at least to notice for themselves, is this idea of having time or not having time. And it’s, frankly, I call bullshit when someone says they don’t have time. ‘Cause, actually, what’s happening is you’re, you’re choosing to not make time. All we do with time is make choices. How do I choose to spend my time today? And even if, even if there is a, you know, an obligation or a commitment, most of us at some point in our lives have actually changed our minds, changed our plans, and so even in that moment it’s still a choice. That was one of the things that I learned for myself over and over and over again is that, for me, ’cause I’ve been in a situation where I was burning myself out, I was working ridiculous, crazy hours. And I noticed this pattern in my life where I would continuously go “I, I just have to work like this until this thing happens.” Some mythical, mystical milestone or “destination”, which I’m using air quotes for, that at this point then it will change. And I realized again and again, I learned this lesson multiple times, no, I decide that. I make that change. This isn’t just going to change from some external force. I will be the one that makes the choice to say, “You know what? I don’t’ actually want to be in my office working past midnight. I’m going to say no to some of these things. Or I’m going to say not now to some of these things and carve out the time for what I realize is important.” So, I’m kind of, I’m hearing you talk about that and say that and it resonated– it resonates with me because I told myself that story most of my life, that this is the way that it has to be and it would be crazy to say no to this and of course I want the work. And I think, actually, maybe around the time that you and I were engaging was one of the busiest times that I ever had with the business because this idea of saying no was so foreign. It’s like, if the work’s coming in, I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna say yes.
Laura: And, to reiterate your point, well what about, you know opportunity losses?
Gene: That’s right.
Laura: Saying yes to these things, what am I saying no to?
Laura: And what about just enjoying what the hell I’m doing?
Gene: That’s right.
Laura: Like, what about enjoying life? What about having my workplace be a place that I like to be and having the work that I do things that I enjoy doing. And so I, I lived a lot of my life not nearly as intentional as I choose to live it now, where I’m much more mindful of, “If I say yes to this, what will that mean? And if I say no, as scary as that might feel, will I actually end up feeling more fulfilled and more aligned with whatever goals I have for myself?”
Gene: Yeah, so, I would say I definitely learned that lesson in my personal life. I used to go without any sleep and, or very little sleep. I’m amazed now, just looking back on it, how little sleep I got. And you try to pursue all these opportunities at once. And now I’m very serious and deliberate about getting my sleep, getting my meditation, getting my run, exercising because without taking care of myself I’m not able to provide value to anybody else.
Gene: Right? I’m not useful, I’m an asshole if I don’t get my run–
Gene: Maybe not an asshole.
Gene: But I’m less of an asshole when I’ve got my run.
Laura: It’s all relative.
Gene: Yeah, it’s all relative. Yeah. So, I’m a more pleasant person to be around and more useful to the world–
Gene: –when I’m doing these other things. And so now I’m very deliberate about that. So, that’s kind of driving my decisions now is that we had all these external constraints, right? So, now, 120 percent committed. So, now, you can’t ask your employees now to, like, do these hours and also, hey, come have a picnic with us. And we’ll do a team-building–
Laura: Let’s have some fun.
Gene: Yeah. We’ll have some mandated fun now. So, that’s driven me to say, “Okay. Well, now I really want to be more deliberate about the work we take on and whether or not we’ll be able to control the schedule so we can build in those things like, this is how many hours we need to spend, you know, every quarter or every week or every month on training or how many we need to spend on teambuilding or, or defining our culture or defining the work we wanna go after. Right? We actually need to be deliberate and plan that into the schedule, right? That this is the kind of work we want to do and what we wanna be doing.
Laura: So, take me to the moment where you made this realization for yourself with the company. You talked about it with your personal life. So, professionally, with StackFrame, what was happening for you when you realized, “You know what? I do want to make a change. I want this to, to look and feel different and I’m gonna actually do something”?
Gene: Well, there were, there were a few different forces in play all at once. In effect, we were operating an organization that was really four organizations because we were doing software development and IT
Gene: So the tempo’s very different and you’re working on a different sort of problem. Well then, we were doing that, those two kinds of work, for both defense and commercial. And so, if you’ve got these two dimensions and there’s two elements in each, so you have four different kinds of work where people doing IT for defense had a very different skill set than the people doing IT on commercial. And, and a very different set of requirements, right?
Gene: So, on the defense side, we’d have projects that were very cool, very intellectually challenging, very difficult problems being solved but the time frame is, you’re doing like a 10 week build and maybe your deliverable is, uh, gonna go out in six months or a year and your users will start using it in like a year from when you start working on that feature. The tempo on commercial software development is, is frenetic. Right? It’d be like, the, the client called and they have this feature that their competitor deployed so they would like the same feature. Can we have that tomorrow or the next day? And so it’s like– and it’s not maybe a hugely intellectually challenging problem, but it’s still a lot to write the software, test it out, get it deployed, get it – make sure the client likes it, and then get it into the hands of the users of the client in some cases, right? So in the case like of a web application, that could be from being told that you need this feature to having 200,000 people use it rely on the system could be a couple days. And that’s really fun, actually.
Gene: So, I was trying to leverage the value that we were one company doing four different kinds of work and, and as we grew value out of the fact that we had these different skill sets. Right? So, I thought, “Well, here’s these guys that have very, extensive security training on the defense side that would be valued and be of use on the commercial side.” So, we would leverage that. But you know, sometimes it would be like, well, he’s 120 percent allocated over on this project. I can’t ask him to do five hours over here on this project, right? So, there’s not enough time left there. So, I was not able to get as much value as I wanted to out of that.
Laura: Now was their culture clash an issue there as well, or was it just purely a matter of them being oversubscribed and not having the time?
Gene: There’s a little bit of a culture clash. Like, I can think of a couple cases where there was. So, one is just the expected tempo is a culture clash, right? Um, there’s, the notion of, of you know, like on the defense side, you may have more processes in place. You may have to have someone approve something before you push it out to all these systems, which makes perfect sense in that world. When you’re doing stuff for small organizations, you’re much more accustomed to just pushing a change through because you’ve already assessed that it’s a safe change to make and there’s nobody in the client organization to vet the change anyway. They’ve outsourced all their-
Laura: Decision making?
Gene: –decision– yeah, decision making to you on that.
Laura: You figure it out.
Gene: And so I remember a case where, like, “Yeah, we can’t have so-and-so over here because he frustrates the people because he won’t make those changes ’cause– they want these changes made and he says that it’s about security and he’s got all these tattoos and–”
Gene: –and that of course, wasn’t a complaint but it just stood out in my mind because, of course, no one on that side has a visible tattoo, right? And then, but, you know, a lot of guys over on this side have very obvious tattoos. Right? And that’s just, there’s a generational, uh, culture thing going on there but it, but it really drove the point home to me. I’m like, “Man. I’m really not gonna be able to bridge these gaps. Right? So that particular moment wasn’t one where I decided it’s not possible. It was a moment where I was like, “Man, this is just harder than I thought it would be.”
Gene: So, you’ve got to be able to help people where they may need help, uh, you know, adapting to the needs of the culture. ‘Cause in some cases it’s not necessarily the culture that’s wrong, it’s the person that, that needs to adapt to, to the, to the client, right? Or to the client’s culture.
Gene: And so, while at the same time I’m being challenged on how I’m gonna grow this part of the organization, I’m finding it easier to apply resources and grow this other part of the organization. And so the moment came where, you know, we had a lot of work with one client on the defense side, that client is eagerly hiring people, and, and giving us work where they can but I knew that they would like to have the people that were on our staff and so, uh, so we came to an agreement for them to acquire the defense component, so that is the existing contracts, the people, and some intellectual property, and then using that capital, I can use that and apply it on the commercial side to, to grow where I’m having less trouble growing. It’s a -real, more organic growth there.
Laura: Yeah. Wow. Okay, so when was this that you made that decision?
Gene: Well, when I made the decision and when we executed and closed was all very quick. I mean, uh, we had a great relationship with that client, um, and, uh, so it all happened really, really quickly, uh, when it seemed like the time was right. So, it happened around over two weeks at the end of April of this year.
Laura: Okay, so you’ve had about six months-ish, then, to experience StackFrame differently. So, tell me about that.
Gene: Well, we’re a much smaller organization now, which is interesting. And, and working on some internal products, which I think will further tip the balance to work that we have more control of. So, I’m very interested in us pursuing more work where we’re growing the value of the organization faster than we’re growing head count.
Laura: Mm hmm.
Gene: Uh, ’cause that’s more tenable with regard to maintaining culture.
Laura: And it’s, yeah, it’s scalable.
Laura: So, working on internal products. And so, at least to a certain degree, then you see StackFrame either now or in the future being a, a product development company that, that sells an existing product, same product, to multiple customers?
Laura: That’s exciting.
Gene: Yes. So we’ll be able to grow revenue without growing head count.
Laura: How big is your team right now?
Gene: We’re, like, 12 people total if you count part-timers.
Laura: Okay. How would you characterize or describe the culture now?
Gene: I would say that it’s, it’s a lot easier to, to talk about what our culture is ’cause there’s– we’re still, we’re doing both IT work and software work.
Laura: Mm hmm.
Gene: So, I wouldn’t say that’s perfect in terms of being able to say we’re all on the same culture because we do go long stretches where not everybody sees everybody.
Gene: So it’s, so it’s better but it’s not ideal in terms of that. We do need to spend more time, uh, working out what our common goals are and making sure that we have a common culture.
Laura: And what do you want the culture to be like? If you were to be as intentional as you want to be, say, for the next six to 12 months and really honing in on that culture and making it a reality, what would it, what would it be?
Gene: Wow. That’s, that’s a good question that I don’t have a great answer to. So,
I want our culture to be able to say that we are delivering a lot of value to end users.
Laura: What about how the team interacts with one another when they do see each other? How would you like that to be, ideally?
Gene: Ideally, I would like everybody to get along–
Gene: –but also be able to– well, we don’t have any problems with that. And we never really had any problems with that. But you do have, just in terms of people working on difficult problems, you’re gonna have stressful situations and, and things. People just have their daily life challenges combined with, um, combined with trying to work on a hard problem and a lot of hard problems require collaboration and if it didn’t require collaboration it’s probably something software robots are doing, right?
Gene: so I want, ideally, I want people to be able to-to provide ruthlessly constructive criticism and to have it well received.
Gene: So, uh, there’s some people who really enjoy constructive criticism and are appreciative for it and there are some people who will never forgive you for it. And it’s important to know, uh, you know, which kind of person you’re talking to and how you’re delivering your constructive criticism so it’s well received and maybe you’re not putting any of your own issues into that—
Gene: Into that, what’s hopefully, uh, productive feedback.
Laura: So, there’s a couple, couple things that come to mind for me around that. So, this idea of having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. I think I actually talked about this–
Gene: We did. Yeah.
Laura: –was one of the, one of the pieces in the talk I gave at your CEO Nexus Round Table. So, when and individual –and this is an oversimplification– when an individual has a growth mindset, –and I’ll just use the male pronoun for now– then he believes that he is born to learn, that effort makes all the difference, practice absolutely changes the outcome, and feedback is really useful. Really helpful. Feedback is what enables him to, to grow. So, he wants that feedback. Somebody that has a fixed mindset has a fundamentally different belief about humans and the world, which is “I am born just as smart as I am. And effort really doesn’t matter that much. Practice, eh, not so much.” And so that makes feedback incredibly dangerous. If I believe that I am the way that I am, I am who I am, my work is just an extension of me and there’s not a lot that I think I can do about that, and you tell me that what I’m doing is not good enough, I’m gonna do whatever I can to violently reject that feedback. It’s super dangerous to my self-concept. I feel horrible about myself if you give me that feedback and I don’t think that I can actually learn and grow and get better. And, like I said, it’s an oversimplification because most of us have a combination of growth mindset and fixed mindset.
Laura: We have elements of ourselves where we go, “Yeah, of course I know I can learn and grow from that” and then we have pieces where we can discover, “Oh shoot. I guess I’ve been telling myself a story the whole time that I can’t change this about myself” or “I’ve told myself that I can’t get better but of course I can.” And, well, if you choose to change the mindset then you can choose: “Oh, I can grow here, too.” So that’s one of the biggest things that changes how receptive people are to feedback. Do they have a growth mindset where that feedback is really useful or are they more fixed, where they just want to reject that feedback because they don’t want to feel bad about themselves? So that’s one. And then the other thing just has to do with how much do I over-identify with my work? Right? Like, so, do I think that I am my work or do I think I’m more than my work? Because I can produce work today. I would like to think, for example, I’d like to think that in 10 years I’ll be doing my job better than I am today. Right?
Laura: Would you hope the same for yourself?
Gene: Certainly. Yeah.
Laura: It’s sort of like, “God, I hope so.” I wouldn’t want to be doing things just as well in 10 years. I’d like to think I’ll learn and I’ll grow. So, does that mean that today I’m doing things not as well as I could? Yeah. And in 10 years, when I’m better, will I still be doing things not as well as I could be? Yeah. So, this idea of over identifying with one’s work, thinking that I am this work, and it’s like this, again, with that fixed mindset, when I believe that about the world, I don’t accept feedback well at all. But if I have that growth mindset and I believe that there’s always room for improvement and so let me just be happy about where I am and let me happily accept feedback in, then it’s so much easier for me to take feedback even when it’s not delivered in the nicest way ’cause I actually know that’s not about me either.
Gene: Yeah. So, okay, man, there’s a couple things there that I guess they’re related, but certainly I failed on both kinds of things. So, one is the notion of the feedback and the growth versus fixed mindset. And I get what you’re saying about maybe people seeing themselves differently along different dimensions there and not being able to think that, you know, they can grow in certain ways or, and then having their mind changed. Like my identity, right? That I, that I’ve been able to work on since then. Right? So, um, to take ballroom dance classes, right? That’s not something–
Gene: I would have said. I would have identified myself, I’m sure I did, you know, for the first 40 years of my life, as, you know: I’m just no good – I’m just no good at dancing. Right?
Laura: Mm hmm.
Gene: Like, at least I don’t feel like I’m good at it. But, but now at least I enjoy the challenge of trying, right? So, so I can see in myself ways in which I, even though I was pretty much, I think I would identify as a growth mindset guy intellectually, I always considered myself a fixed mindset guy on anything physical–
Gene: –and I’d just say, “Well, I’m not good at that.” And now I’m like, I’m very curious about, well, maybe I was wrong about that or maybe I need to, like, try something else. I didn’t have good coaching or I didn’t, you know, really consider the possibility that I might be wrong on that, right? So, so I think it’s very important. But the other part is, you know, the other part of that is in terms of giving feedback to others. Right? So, so just as we discussed, you know, I think, intellectually, and in terms of work productivity and, um, understanding what I’m doing, I’m a growth mindset kind of person, right? So, uh, if I feel like I’m not doing that good, well then I’ll just go figure out how to get better at it. And, and in that sense that I’m that kind of person who never wants any positive feedback, right? Like, I never– I enjoy it, when people give me positive feedback, that’s great, I love it. Right? But, but I never seek that. So, I’m, you know, I’m intrigued by it or find it useful, uh, that people tell me, “This is what’s wrong. This is what can be improved.” And this is kind of inherent in the work that I’ve been doing for like the last, you know, 30 years or so. When you write software, you’re, you’re fighting against this compiler and this program and this thing and it just, it just tells you you’re wrong all the time.
Gene: like, when you’re doing software development, you’re getting negative feedback continuously all day. You’ve got a syntax error or a unit test breaks, or the thing doesn’t work. So you get this, you get this negative feedback all day, all day long, every iteration. It doesn’t hurt my feelings, it’s a, it’s a computer telling me that, right? But if a person tells you, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong”, if you have a person telling you all day, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong. That’s wrong. You’re stupid” then, then yeah, I could see it being bad. Right. So, so I think in my own, in my own experience of being like, “Yeah. All I want is the negative feedback” you know, I go to Toastmasters and you give a speech and I give you all this feedback and, you know, you occasionally get a thing saying, “Nice speech.” That’s it. Like, “Agh. That’s not useful to me.”
Gene: Right. But if someone is saying, “You stuttered and stammered. You looked at your notes too much. You, uh, you didn’t maintain eye contact with the audience enough.” That’s useful because that’s what I need to improve. Right?
Laura: So, I would assert that if the positive feedback was specific, that would actually be quite useful. So, instead of it being “Nice speech”–
Gene: Oh, okay.
Laura: –what if, and this a really important lesson for a lot of leaders where the default is to go, “Hey, man. Great job.” Or, “Yeah. Great work.” Or, you know, “You’re a good employee. Good job.” Okay. Yeah. It’s nice. It’s great. It’s appreciation. What if the comment card said, “I really enjoyed your speech. Specifically, the lead-in that you gave was captivating and engaging and, in particular, I noticed that your non-verbals were really well synced with the words that you were using and your eye contact was spot on.”
Gene: Okay, that’s–
Laura: Something like that.
Gene: –a good point.
Gene: That’s a good point. Okay, so–
Laura: I would be like, “Wow. Great.”
Gene: Alright, so here’s a way in which I failed. Right? And I think we discussed this, early on, is that, being the kind of guy that only valued the-the negative feedback, the things in which I needed to improve and which I could improve, um, maybe I just wasn’t ever getting the right kind of positive feedback -uh – to value it. But, but, but the important thing is where I failed is that I didn’t give enough positive feedback to other people. Right? So, I’d be like this compiler, right?
Gene: They could give me a piece of work and “That’s wrong. That’s wrong. That’s wrong. And send it back.” And then I wouldn’t say anything about like—I mean, I’d say like that useful positive feedback, like,
Gene: And then, and then really think about it, today, I wrote an email just like that. “Good job overall. Here’s nine things that are wrong.” So, literally, I’m still doing that. But, but, but some people, they totally get that that’s my communication style or they get the– that’s good for them. They don’t care about the getting positive feedback. But you’re right that I could do a better job of giving positive feedback. But there’s some effort required in that, right? So, if you just assume, like, so someone does something that I’ve asked them to do and I’m just assuming that work’s gonna be stellar, and I know they’re stellar, they know they’re stellar–
Laura: Mm hmm.
Gene: –I don’t need to tell them that. Right?
Gene: So, so they’re gonna give me something and I only give them criticism back, right? And some people thrive on that and some people, you’ve destroyed their soul by doing that, right? And so, sometimes, I’d get back and we’d– not just me. I’ve seen this with other people in, in larger organizations, right? Be like, “Yeah, well, what you need to give was feedback sandwich. You need to say–
Laura: Oh, no.
Gene: –some good thing and the criticism and then a good thing.” And I’m like, “Really? You want me to say, ‘Okay–
Laura: I’m very anti-feedback sandwich by the way.
Gene: Good. but, but you’ve just made the point about how that, the feedback sandwich could be done better. ‘Cause I was like, “Really? You want me to say, Great job. Fix this actual problem. And also, you’re a wonderful person.'”?
Gene: Like, ’cause we can put this crap around the feedback–
Gene: –if you want, right.
Laura: It’s so artificial. Okay, that’s why I hate it!
Gene: And that was my problem.
Laura: So, okay, conceptually, what I can extract from that idea what I like, is don’t forget to acknowledge what people are doing well.
Laura: And be specific about it. I – the reason I have such an aversion to the feedback sandwich is that it ends up being exactly what you were talking about. I wanna give an employee constructive criticism or feedback so, gosh, let me just conjure up some generic B.S. nice things to say before and after. And it just, it muddies the information and it doesn’t feel sincere and some people actually walk away going, “Well, he said it was great overall so I don’t think that middle part was that important.” Other people completely dismiss the positive feedback and it just, it feels fake and then they don’t trust it when it comes the next time. So, conceptually I can extract, yes, we want to also acknowledge when people are doing well. I just don’t like the format of it.
Laura: So, taking the time. And I think that the way that you think about the world is really common. That, well yeah, I mean I expect you to do a stellar job. You did a stellar job and I can tell you’re doing a stellar job and this is fantastic. Let me just tell you how you can get better. Especially if you, yourself, have operated that way. There’s a lot of really, really fascinating research out there about how much more our performance improves when we receive the positive feedback. But specific. If it’s just, “Good job. Good job” then, yeah, it starts to feel really empty, really meaningless. Maybe it feels good for half a second. But what’s good?
Gene: Right. Well, and that’s a very good point about, specifically about like the Toastmasters feedback because I do get things that’ll say, you know, “We really enjoyed the, you know, the humor this way you did this or that” or something–
Gene: And so, and so, but it does make me think, okay, so when I get very targeted positive feedback about that, it makes me realize, oh, here’s a way in which I’m delivering value that only I could deliver. Right? Or that is specific to me–
Gene: –it’s not just a general thing. And so that’s something I can leverage into improving my output or, at least, making sure that, making sure I keep in mind those things that people are finding of value, right? But, okay, but at the same time, you know, you’re in a busy organization, you get an email. I need to respond back quickly about– I don’t have time to find, like, here’s the great thing that you did–Gene: –in here. Right? And so, but – I can do a better job about that. And that, so that’s a great point.
Laura: I would say–
Gene: And a great distinction.
Laura: –quality over quantity, too.
Gene: Yeah. Okay.
Laura: So, you know, when I make the choice to express appreciation or give specific positive feedback, it’s really not, it doesn’t take a lot of time. Um, it doesn’t need to take a lot of time to add a lot of value. ‘Cause it can be that moment of very genuinely and sincerely looking somebody in the eyes and saying, you know, “I really value about you, your consistency. When I give you something, every time I know that you’re gonna handle it. I can’t even tell you how much I value that and appreciate that. Thank you.” That was like, I don’t know, 15 seconds or something. But that moment, people are like, “Wow.” And the more that I want to see what other people are doing well, the easier– the more I see it. The more I notice it. I go, “Oh yeah. I really like that. I really like that.” So, like anything, it’s a habit and a skill that can be cultivated just with the smallest bit of intention, just – can snowball in a really positive way. So, even for the rest of the day today, if you want, you could go out into the world and really start to notice, “What do I appreciate about people and what they’re doing?” What do I value about this person? What is it that they do so well? Why did I hire them in the first place? Why did I give them this project? There’s something. Something about their skill, something about the way they work with the clients, some combination of things, and so just a little bit more intentionality actually starts to make all of it easier and easier.
Gene: Yeah, that’s an important point. An important way to think about it, I think.
Laura: So, fun tangent for me–
Gene: that’s good.
Laura: –to talk about. ‘Cause that all came from you saying that ideally in the culture you’d want people to, what’d you say, ruthlessly constructive criticism?
Gene: Yeah. So, that’s like a favorite phrase of mine.
Gene: So, so that’s the phase I started thinking about in terms of attending all investor pitches and stuff, right? So there, you will get very, very good constructive criticism about, like, why your idea is stupid–
Gene: –and you gotta be able to take that criticism, right? And so, anybody who gets up in front of one of these things and demos their product or demos their business model is gonna get this kind of harsh feedback, right? And really, it’s good to get it ’cause the, the market is not really interested in your feelings. The market is gonna be just as harsh, right, so, uh, so it’s good to get that feedback, right?
Gene: You’ve got some people that are very bad at, at giving such criticism and some people that have their, ya know, ego problems or whatever, their self wound up in-in-in giving that criticism and they’re giving it in a way that’s not meant to help the other person.
Gene: And yes, that’s the important thing, is that often the best criticism, really the whole point of the constructive criticism is that you’re giving something to someone to help them, something they, they would want to improve their output. And, uh, and so some people are bad at delivering it and some people are bad at receiving it. And so, to your question, I think I want an organization that is really good at having people be honest and candid about delivering and receiving that criticism.
Laura: And I think one key thing to effectively deliver constructive criticism is for me to be aware: “Am I judging this person as I’m giving them the criticism?” And that’s often a subconscious thing. So, there can be like an edge or a tone that somebody has in their voice as they’re delivering the feedback that, um, one thing I bring up as a way to check yourself if you’re probably sitting in judgment of that person is if you can easily add “you dummy” to the end of your sentence. If you can add “you dummy” easily to the end of it, then there’s a good chance that you’re sitting in judgment of them as you’re giving them that feedback and that doesn’t feel good. There’s-there’s legit energy that happens between people and so, if as I’m giving you feedback on your code I’m simultaneously in my head, consciously or subconsciously, thinking, “you idiot”, then it’s gonna come out–
Gene: Yeah. Okay.
Laura: –rough and harsh versus if I can think of, you know, “Sometimes I make mistakes in my code. And, you know, we’re all learning, getting better every time. Hey, here’s something that I think you can do differently. I think this might be more effective.” Or I can be really straight and direct and say, “This is not the right way for us to do things here.This is the how I want you to do it.” If I’m doing that but I’m not sitting in judgment, then it’s probably not gonna come out harshly. And so, sometimes when people aren’t good at giving the feedback well, it’s ’cause they’re doing it in that way, they’re really judge-y about it. And sometimes people choose to withhold the feedback because they know it’s gonna sound judge-y and they don’t know how to not.
Gene: Yeah. Right.
Laura: So, they just keep it to themselves. That happens all the time in teams and it’s so sad because they’ve got really great, useful information and the strongest teams have really strong peer-to-peer feedback channels that are open.
Laura: So, for a lot of people, it’s growing enough self-awareness that they can communicate in such a way that there’s no judgment about it. It’s just, ‘Hey. I think there’s a way to do this better. Let’s just talk about it.”
Laura: Don’t have to get all, you know, pissy and cranky or judge-y and look down on you or speak in a demeaning or belittling tone. But those are the things that just can make that so crunchy and then people don’t receive it well.
Laura: And it gets a little bit toxic.
Gene: Yeah, well and, so, so you, you brought up the point that some people are bad at doing it. But there are also people that aren’t necessarily bad at doing it, but they’ve had bad experiences with people who are bad at receiving it and so now they’re reticent to, reticent to give that feedback to that particular person–
Gene: –or maybe to people in general–
Gene: –because they’ve had a bad experience there. Right?
Laura: Absolutely. It can snowball and then they just keep it to themselves.
Gene: In an organization like that, and I’ve been in organizations where you can’t really give good feedback, righ, and you can’t receive good feedback and it’s unfortunate because you end up, you know, it’s a race to the bottom in terms of quality output.
Laura: Mm hmm.
Laura: Um, here’s a couple questions I love to ask at the end.
Laura: Um, what advice do you have for leaders who are, growing a company or who care about the culture and want to be more intentional?
Gene: I found value in a, in a few different things and I wish I had encountered them sooner. So, one is, you know, I have a leadership peer group which in my case is called CEO Nexus Roundtable and I get to be in a room with other folks who are facing similar challenges.
Gene: I get a lot of value in that because, you’re literally yanked out of your organization and put over in this different space with these different people you don’t see every day and you’re in a different context and you got a little different perspective on things, right? And you benefit from their perspective on that
Laura: Stay open, create opportunities to learn from other people.
Gene: Oh yeah. And get out of your organization, right? You end up, a-as you’re building an organization, it’s your entire world and you don’t have any perspective outside of that ’cause you’re too busy trying to satisfy the needs of your clients. So you don’t get as much feedback, as much education about different ways to solve things. Another is to consider consulting with an organizational psychologist–
Gene: –or an organization that can help you with that. And there are other, other routes one can go to do that. There’s a lot of support out there that I wasn’t previously aware of in terms of services that can help your organization -uh, to improve. And so, and I wasn’t aware of it, of course, because I was, just grew up in this, in a very narrow industry where I’m just solving the needs of my clients and then growing and not really thinking about the needs of my organization as — as it needs grow in order to, uh, better serve the needs of my clients.
Laura: Thank you. I think that’s really good advice.
Laura: Is there anything else that you’d wanna say to the listeners?
Gene: No, I don’t think so
Outro: If you are a leader who cares about culture that would like expert help, please reach out to me at Laura@gallaheredge.com. Maybe I could have you on the show to talk with you about what is happening in your organization and some free coaching and consulting. Let me know. There are lots of ways you can stay in touch with us – please follow me, Laura Gallaher, on Facebook for our Live stream on Sunday evenings. At least for now – check my page for updates to the time – we’re traveling around the world, and are still learning about time zones and which countires do daylight savings and which don’t – it’s a lot of fun! Anyway, we have social media – you can follow me @drlauragallaher on Instagram and twitter, and we also have our blog. You can find me on Medium, and keep an eye out for new video content being released each month. Let us know what you want to hear from us – we’d love to hear from you. That’s all for now – thank you for listening, and we’ll talk again soon!