In a busy and hectic technological world, automating processes have become the go-to for many businesses. While the merits are undeniable, it is important to think about the segments and sectors of people that get displaced along the way. Bringing someone who works to bring humans and tech together, Dr. Diane Hamilton sits down with Kate O’Neill, the CEO of KO Insights—a strategic consultancy committed to improving the human experience at scale. Here, Kate takes us deep into the important conversations to be had when it comes to automation, highlighting the importance of human relationship with tech. Follow along as Kate reminds you in this episode about the critical piece to understand as we go into an increasingly data and tech-led future: thinking about how to keep humanity at the center of that.
Have you ever wondered what happens behind the walls of the executive-level? Taking you into the boardroom where big decisions are made, Dr. Diane Hamilton talks to Karl Post, the President of TallGrass Public Relations and the co-founder of the C-Suite Network. Karl discusses with us how he is helping executive leaders become the most strategic people in the room. He shares how to be more proactive and what are the five keeps on making a business thrive. Listen to what Karl has to say and more, providing you some helpful insights on running your business in this day and age.
I’m glad you joined us because we have Kate O’Neill and Karl Post here. Kate is the author of Tech Humanist. She’s a keynote speaker and the CEO of KO Insights. She’s also a Thinkers50 Radar Nominee, which is exciting. Karl is the President of TallGrass Public Relations. He’s also a Cofounder with Jeff Hayzlett of the C-Suite Network. We’re going to have a lot to talk about.
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Creating Meaningful Experiences Between Human And Technology With Kate O’Neill
I am here with Kate O’Neill who is the Founder and CEO of KO Insights, a strategic consultancy committed to improving human experience at scale. She’s the author of Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans. It’s nice to have you here, Kate.
We’ve postponed our get-together and this conversation a few times, mostly because of the pandemic, but it’s wonderful to be able to connect.
I think we’re going to have a lot to talk about. It will be fun because you and I are in all these different groups together and yet we never chatted. It’s a weird coincidence that it took us this long though. I’d like to start a little bit on your background because you’re known as the Tech Humanist. You’ve been added to Thinkers50 Radar as one of the top minds to watch in the world and for a lot of your work in this area. How did you get to that level?
It’s been many years in the making that I’ve been in the technology space that long in one form or another. Within the last decade or so, it dawned on me that everything that I had been doing in tech from the earliest days that we’re the pioneer doing the first of this and the first of that. It was always about the human relationship with tech. It was always about how humans use tech to syndicate with other humans or to improve our lives in some way or to have a more meaningful experience of something.
That started to sit with me and I started to examine that more and more as time went on. I had an agency and in the early, 2009 to 2014, where I got to explore a lot of experimentation around the idea of emphasizing human experience and seeing whether that would ultimately be beneficial to the company’s bottom line. It turns out that is true. We’ve been able to do some fun validation of the hypothesis. Business is what drives tech and tech is what drives human experience. If business and humanity can be better aligned in their objectives, then it stands to reason that we’re going to be able to bring better and more meaningful human experiences to scale in alignment with business objectives.
You’re talking about many things that fascinate me. One of my jobs early in 1985 was working and selling System 36 and 38. I worked with IBM. We wore a little bow tie, a white jacket, and a blue blazer. It was the actual IBM look at the time. It was cute. I can remember taking tech support phone calls at that time and we would laugh because they would say, “Did you see what I did on my screen?” It’s like that could ever happen. Now, you can do all these things. It’s such a different world. You got into technology. Women weren’t known for what you do. We don’t have as many women in technology as we’d like to see. You’re one of the first 100 employees at Netflix. What got you interested going into this area and what’s that like to work at Netflix at that time?
Netflix was amazing to be in the early days. Speaking more broadly about what got me into it, I was a linguist by education. In some ways, it’s completely unrelated. It turns out that language and linguistics and the semantics framework of how and what we’re trying to communicate, at any given time. That’s been incredibly helpful for me in the work I do with tech. In my undergrad, I was German Major in Russian and Linguistics, several minor with concentration in International Studies. I’m all out on the language side. I was supervising the language laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago when the web came about.Businesses drive tech, and tech drives the human experience. Click To Tweet
I wasn’t born in ‘85. It’s early ‘90s. I’m in college at UIC and the web comes about. It blew my mind. I’d seen the textbase web and which came out in ‘92 or so. The first time I saw Mosaic Netscape, the graphical browser, it’s what made me go, “This is going to change everything.” The idea that we can do all of these embedded images, formatted texts, and all kinds of goofy stuff that now looks primitive as we see it in 2020. At that time, it is, as you say, the things that we’d only dreamed of being able to do in the ‘80s or ‘90s are now commonplace, but it still has enough of the door opened when I saw that. I said, “This is going to change everything,” and it has.
I ended up building the first website at the University of Illinois Chicago for the Language Lab. I built the website out of curiosity. I know you’re a big proponent of curiosity. I went like, “I wonder if I could build one of those for the Language Lab?” I did. I was told it was the first departmental website at the school. At that time in the early ’90s, people were manually curating lists of what websites were new every day. It’s always something that blows young people’s minds that there were few websites coming online every day, but you could teach them manually.
My Language Lab website made it onto one of those lists. It got noticed by a guy at Toshiba in California. One thing led to another and they recruited me to come and build their intranet for them, which I didn’t know how to do but nobody else did either. I got to employ curiosity and figure that out. This session of being curious, engaged and being willing to adapt and figure out. This isn’t language but it seems like the language framework plays into this somehow. One step after another, a few years later I ended up at Netflix. It was a fun time, but everything in my career has been like that. It’s like, “This looks like an interesting place to go with what I’m working on. Let’s go that way.” It’s been like that for you too.
With the show, for example, I had no intention of doing this and somebody interviewed me and I go, “That’d be cool that I have a nationally syndicated show. How’d you get that many hits? You have two weeks.” They have an opening. I had to figure out in two weeks and you just do it. You figure it out and a thousand interviews later here I am. I’m still doing this as a fun thing. I’ve had more than 500 shows. When you get a couple of people on the show, I know I have so many. It’s quite a few. As you’re talking about that, it reminded me of some of the stuff. I had to program my Calculus homework in basic back in the day and I don’t even remember how to do that anymore.
It’s a thing that you find something that’s interesting and you think, “Why not?” I wish I could get more people to think that way. A lot of people fear technology. They think it’s going to take their job away. Even back in the ‘80s that we were talking about, everybody was freaked out. They’re going to lose their jobs. Nobody had ever heard of a social media manager back then or of the new jobs it was going to create. We only knew of the jobs that it’s going to destroy. Do you think that it’s destroying more jobs now than in the past that we have to worry about it more? It’s not the insignificant jobs or menial jobs. There are a lot of jobs that technology can automate.
It’s true. There are specific job roles and functions that will be either displaced or completely replaced by certain kinds of technology. The concerns that people had in the ‘80s or before that people often bring up to say, “That never came to be. This won’t come to be.” Those are apples to oranges comparisons in some ways because we have such an acceleration. All of the emerging technologies around automation, AI, and the Internet of Things. All of what encompasses that set of technologies are all about capacity and scale. The opportunity is much bigger for capacity and scale for businesses. A lot of those job functions will get displaced or replaced.
I think that certainly there will be new job functions created. Social media manager was an unheard-of thing years ago. Another part of it is that the job functions will morph than that we will see reconfiguration of what roles there are. There’s a lot of creation along with the distraction. The main thing that concerned me though, whenever we had this conversation is, I want to make sure that we’re not overlooking the workers whose jobs are likely to be replaced. Nobody’s going to be all that concerned about finding new jobs for them.
People like truck drivers, cashiers, and people who are in what we would typically call it low-skill kinds of jobs. Although, I’m sure there’s a great deal of skill to driving a truck that I wouldn’t know how to do. The issue around those types of jobs, especially truck drivers, for example, they have a disproportionate impact on black and brown people. We have a social justice issue embedded within this. We need to be mindful of the ways that that’s going to affect the whole demographics of people, whole segments of the population.
Those are the conversations that are important to surface along. It’s nice to be optimistic about the jobs that are going to be created alongside the jobs that get shifted. We also need to be having that eyes-wide open social justice conversations too and making sure that we have pathways for people to move into new roles and be provided for it. That opens up all kinds of conversations about universal income or whatever other kinds of programs we may innovate between now and whenever that becomes the default. We need to make sure that that’s part of the conversation.
You bring up many good points. It’s such a different time of what we’re dealing with. I know you and I both speak a lot about different issues. Engagement comes up a lot. A lot of people are disengaged. If they’re going to be removed from their job somehow, I think that’s why I was interested in developing curiosity so people can explore different areas. As people are moved around, would it be great to have them engaged because they’re doing something that they want to do? Maybe they didn’t want to be a truck driver and that was the only thing that they saw as an option. It’s going to be a different time. I was looking at some of the stuff you talked about, I watched your Google Talk. I’m fascinated. It was good. I am always interested in Google Talks because it seems like there were talks at Google that it be hard to talk to a group. They’re not super excited kind of people. They’re sitting there. How hard was that to talk at Google? You talked at SHRM and they are HR people. You talked at this group and they are different people. Is it sedate?
Yes, it’s funny. You’re right. There are these different characteristics of different audiences. I love the thing that has gone around. It was a thing where an opera group or a chamber orchestra was playing to a symphony hall that was filled with plants. I thought that was such a great visual and a great metaphor. I was joking with someone that some audiences suck all the oxygen out of the room. It’s all different. I’ve spoken to a variety of Google audiences several times. I even have one coming up whenever they reschedule it for. Talks at Google attract the programming and engineering crowd and that is interesting. It is a funny dynamic because they’re watching you with a lot of skepticism. There’s this culture of calling out what they don’t intellectually get on board with right away, something that they’re going to disagree with. It’s weird.
As I was watching that, it reminded me of my son in law who works at Apple. I’ve gotten to the Apple campus before with him. I was watching him. He sent me a video of him taking a video of U2 on stage. Everybody is taking a video. Nobody’s dancing, everybody’s got their phones up. It’s a funny thing. It’s different crowds. I love that because I’m a technology geek. I love all this stuff. As we look at all this, you have to empathize with different groups. I guess I brought this up because you brought up something in your talk about automating empathy. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on emotional intelligence and its impact on performance. This empathy aspect is a big part of emotional intelligence. You had these four things about how we can automate the meaningful and all those. I’d like to go into those four things because they were interesting. Can you touch on that?
I love the fact that this point resonated with you because that’s one of the things that I’m inspired by in my own work. I’ve had this mirrored back to me in many different ways. I have been a student of meaning all my life. That’s the recurring theme throughout my work. I talked about being a linguist by education, but it turns out that there are all these different kinds of meanings. I have a model of meaning that I work with and semantics. What we talk about within the Linguistic Communication is there are patterns, significance, relevance, and purpose all the way out to these macrocosmic and existential kinds of what’s it all about and where here. There’s this rich framework for meaning that we don’t talk about in a disciplined way.
There’s a lot of use of the term meaningful or of meaning as this throwaway word. We want the experience to be meaningful, but few people examine what it means to make meaningful experiences. What I’ve found is that we also talk about meaningless things a lot. When we talk about automation, a lot of the time that the focus of that discussion is on, “Let’s make sure that we can reduce the routine and mundanity in our job. Let’s focus on automating the things that we do a lot of and it will buy us back some time, the more meaningful paths in our day,” which is true. That’s a valid approach to automation. What I point out in my work is that if you bring that to its logical conclusion, then you have only automated the meaningless menial routine and mundane tasks. What you have built around you is an entire experience model and an entire world filled with automated experiences that are mundane and meaningless.
What I advocate for is to look for the opportunity to infuse meaning into those experiences. We can do that through any of those levels that I’m talking about. The significance, relevance, purpose, existential, or whatever it is. We have a proxy for meaning in terms of this, “Is the experience memorable? Does it solve a problem that align between what the business needs to accomplish and what the human needs to accomplish?” We have all of these rubrics and frameworks for making sure that experienced makers and experience designers are thinking about meaning in a disciplined and focused way rather than having to throw away ideas like, “Let’s make sure the experience is meaningful.” I do think it’s important as we build more and more algorithmically-optimized and data-driven experiences that are automated, brought to scale, and are surrounding us every day in all of these contexts that they have as much opportunity for meaning in them as possible.
What humans thrive on is meaning at every level. That is meaningful to me that it keeps coming back in a lot of the work that I do. In a lot of the research I do, I keep finding little footholds that are like, “There it is again.” All these discussions with strategic math-driven leaders and thought leaders in the space around leadership. Talk about purpose and business. Purpose is another word for meaning in a sense. That’s talking about an intentional application of meaning specific to how the strategic organizational focus of a business is. It’s a critical piece to understand that as we go into an increasingly data and tech-led future, that we’re thinking about how to keep humanity at the center of that.
You were talking about your research now. As you research, are you meaning for your books, or do you do other research in addition to what you publish in your books like Tech Humanist and other work?
Generally, it’s for my books, my writing, and for my speeches. I do some advising and consulting here and there. I find that it’s always interesting. I had two expert calls with agencies in different places that are working with clients that have big banking clients or big retail clients. They want to talk to someone who’s an expert and experienced strategy about what the next five years are going to look like for the future of retail. What are we thinking about is going to be the most important technology that shapes customer experience in the next few years?We want the experience to be meaningful, but few people examine what it means to make meaningful experiences. Click To Tweet
I get to have those conversations with agencies, brands and people who are thinking proactively about experience. I do a lot of research going into those discussions. I try to make sure that I’m up to date on what the scholarly research out there is and pulling together what’s happening in the experimental space around those disciplines. Try to synthesize that into what it looks like it’s happening and instead of making my off the cuff recommendations about it. It’s fun doing that on a regular basis than contribute to you as I build the books and the talks and the rest of the work. It’s pulling from that body of research and that body of discussions as well.
I like anecdotal stories and things like that when I’m talking about curiosity with people in different things. I was listening to your talk on Google Talks. You had referred to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I hadn’t thought of that in forever. My sister used to make me read all the weird old books. I had to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I hadn’t thought about some of that. Sometimes adding some of these stories can add a lot of perspective for people when we’re trying to, share what technology means and what we’re trying to get a point. My next work is in perception and all that. You’re talking about how we make meaning. As I was thinking about the people I’ve interviewed on the show, I’ve had Richard Stallman, creator of New Linux Software, Jurgen Schmidhuber, the Father of AI and all these different people have these ideas of where the future is going with technology. Jurgen said that robots will take over and we’ll be a great part of it all, but then it’s over. Are you optimistic or pessimistic? What is your view of technology to how everybody’s like worried about it taking over of the humans and you’ve got the I, Robot thinking? Where do you stand on that?
I love this quote. One of the times that Google hired me to speak, I asked the executive who was hiring me, “Why are you bringing me in?” She said, “We love your optimistic take on the role of tech in the future of humanity and the future of the world with a healthy dose of realism.” She’s like, “Don’t pull any punches. We want to hear it. The truth be told. We do want that optimistic view.” That was perfect. I felt like it was one of those moments when I ever felt seen. I was like, “That’s a great synopsis of what I feel.” I feel like we have an opportunity to create the most optimistic scenario.
Let me back up and say, one thing about this is we have a limited vocabulary for talking about the future in our culture. When we think about science fiction, we only have two modalities for thinking about the future. One is dystopia and one is utopia. We all agree that utopia is never going to happen. That’s not even in the discussion. It’s the degrees of the dystopia from then. I find that to be an inherently depressing and discouraging approach to what the future can be. It’s worth it to keep an optimistic view to think that what we need to do is be aware of what all of the potential drawbacks, slots, and harms are and work around those. Work to mitigate those and make sure we’re creating the best technology and creating the best algorithms. When we catch ourselves infusing bias into them, we go back and do the work that we can possibly do to pull that out to mitigate that.
I remain optimistic because I think that there is a way forward that is positive. That we can use technology to improve human lives at scale. I think about the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. The seventeen goals that have been identified on how we can improve the quality of life on Earth for every human. There’s an exercise that I’ve gone through and pulled a bunch of headlines for projects that relate to AI and other emerging technologies. I’ve color-coded those according to the SPG visual. You have a color-coded periodic table for the SPGs and my list of headlines. What that visual is meant to suggest, I use it in my keynotes a lot. There is a way that we can align the emerging technology potential with what benefits all of humanity at once. There are plenty of commercializable opportunities within that. You can see this as being plausible roadmaps for businesses to adopt some pieces of that work. There’s incredible potential for us to use data and technology to improve the human experience and for it to improve humanity overall. I think you have to stay focused on it.
It’s easy to get locked into the negative thinking of all the bad things. I tend to be more positive having a hopeful but realistic expectation. I think what you’re saying is all critical. I know that there are many people who have different focuses of what they speak about. You have a unique niche. I know that you and I are in these different speaking groups where everybody shares all these ideas. They’ve been helpful to me and to others. I’m curious with all this going out with COVID, how much has this changed your speaking and what your focus is?
It’s completely the same but no one’s speaking in person. Maybe there will be more people speaking in person. It’s been a strange time. Everything has gone to either canceled or postpone indefinitely with uncertain rescheduling or virtual. It’s been an interesting pivot because it’s not as if I hadn’t done virtual events before. I’m sure you had too. You’ve probably also done plenty of webinars and virtual discussions. It’s different when that’s the only modality that everybody has. It creates this entirely new context. You have to know that people are dying for there to be some new dynamism to it because the screen is all they’re looking at. It’s an entirely new level of challenge.
A lot of people have been likening the virtual experience trying to replicate the stage. The people who are getting it most right are the ones who are understanding that this was most like watching TV or movies and trying to create more cinematic experiences. That’s an interesting creative opportunity, but it is a challenge. All of us who were making our living as speakers have had to do a major pivot and figured this out. I think it’s going to be for the best. Even when we get back to speaking on stages more often, I don’t imagine that organizations are going to set up offering a virtual companion product to the physical experience now that we’ve figured some of that out.
It’s been an interesting experience to go through this. You spoke at huge events. You spoke at SHRM and I was there and all these unbelievable events. It will come back, but it is a challenging time. I know that I’ve seen a lot of the postings that you and others have made in some of these groups. I know everybody’s doing much great things. Hopefully, a lot of people are still doing a lot of these virtual speaking engagements. I know that you and I will get to meet probably in London for Thinkers50. We’d love to read your book and learn more about you if there is any site you’d like to share or social media, how can they follow you?
My company website is KOInsights.com. People can find an awful lot of information there including links to books. If people want to connect on social, I’m on all the big socials. The one I’m most prolific on is Twitter. I’m @Kateo. I look forward to seeing some of you there.
This was so much fun, Kate. Thanks for being my guest. I enjoyed it. I’m glad we finally got to do this.
Me too. Thank you so much for having me. I look forward to meeting in person and getting through this period.
Making Strategic Business Decisions With Karl Post
I am here with Karl Post, the President at TallGrass Public Relations and the Hayzlett Group. He’s also the Cofounder in the C-Suite Network. His experience includes a distinguished background in international franchising, business consulting, and corporate business development. It’s nice to have you here, Karl.
Thanks for having me, Diane. I’m looking forward to our conversation.
We have our mutual friend of Jeff Hayzlett. I know I’ve done a lot of different things with your groups. I had a lot of TallGrass PR people contact me for the show. Jeff has been kind to introduce me to many people through the C-Suite Network. I’d like to learn on how you two got connected. Was it through Kodak or some other way?
It’s much earlier than that. Jeff and I have known each other since 1993. We are both in the graphic arts and printing industry at the time. He was a lobbyist for the National Association of Quick Printing. I was working for a franchise organization at the time. In the time since I’ve been his customer, he’s been my customer. We consulted for the same companies. I did work for him from 2006 to 2010 at Eastman Kodak and now we’ve been operating three businesses together.
They’re successful. I know you have done a lot together. I’ve been to a lot of the C-Suite events. They’re great. Jeff was kind to introduce me to everyone from Steve Wozniak to amazing people from Shark Tank. How did you guys get this idea for the C-Suite Network?
It started years ago. It was an idea of an organization for CEOs. We wanted to create something different because people often ask us, “Are you like a YPO? Are you like Vistage?” While we’re a membership-based organization much as they are, our intent around our value proposition to our members is different. We like to say that we want to help our members be the most strategic people in the room, not always the smartest. All of our content, all of our meetings and everything we do has a strategic intent for a C-Suite leader. When we realized that the target audience could be more than the CEO.Be the most strategic person in the room. Not always the smartest, but the most strategic. Click To Tweet
It was along the lines of the C-Suite itself encompassing 4 or 5 different titles traditionally in companies, we wanted to develop an organization that helped us accomplish that and help those strategic people who are responsible for driving the direction of organizations to be more successful in their roles. It was that initial thought that drove us to launch the C-Suite Network. At the same time, Jeffrey had a television show on Bloomberg called the C-Suite with Jeffrey Hayzlett. The premise was taking you into the boardroom, where companies are making big strategic decisions. It was the popularity of that show that made us think about making the C-Suite Network as opposed the CEO Network.
I’ve been in some of your meetings where he’s filmed some versions of the show. It’s fun to watch them do that. I know my show has been on the C-Suite Radio. You’ve got all these different aspects to what you guys are doing. I am curious because when I was looking at the information you guys had sent me about what you’re doing, you’re also doing something about business continuity. What is all this that you work on in addition? Do you have a message as a speaker or as a consultant? What are you working on that you like to promote?
What we’ve been working on and what everybody’s been working on is the challenge that business is facing and our personal lives as well. We’ve been focused on what businesses are facing in this challenging time. It’s common for businesses to have a business continuity plan. I don’t know that they fully embraced the challenge that we faced. We didn’t expect what we as a country and everybody has been through. Early on, it started internally. We said, “What are we going to do? How does this impact our business? How does this impact our employees? How does this impact their families?” The reach has been broad that the considerations were vast. We said, “How are we going to handle this?”
We were looking internally at that. We quickly realized we consider ourselves leaders in the business space with our C-Suite Network. Not only should we be considering what are we going to do internally, but we need to quickly evaluate what does this mean externally? How can we take a leadership role in helping companies determine their path forward as we all navigated this challenge that we’ve been in? That was when we took the business continuity theme and started applying it to the pandemic we were experiencing and what exactly did we think that businesses needed to do to address this.
It’s important to ask questions like that. With my work with curiosity, I worked with organizations to help them develop the things that hold people back from being curious. Sometimes they use Kodak, Blockbuster, and different examples of how we have to look at our core model and realize, “Are we doing things in status quo ways when we need to be proactive and have foresight?” I don’t know if anybody had the foresight for this. We were going to have to go through. What have you learned from either working at Kodak or working with C-Suite about being more proactive?
Our experience at Kodak was helpful. Jeffrey and I were there from 2006 to 2010 which is a time of significant transition for the company. Transitioning from the brand that most people knew it as a film company into a company that was moving more into commercial graphic arts and printing. The film business was declining significantly. There was a lack of awareness. There was a rest on your laurels type of attitude. That experience shaped me personally and shaped a lot of our thoughts around the business. You can’t run and hide. You can’t avoid it. The business continuity theme that we initially addressed for our organization was Drive and Thrive. We wanted to be what we were calling business first responders.
We took that theme from a first responder, whether you’re a firefighter, a medic, or someone in the military. Someone who’s on the scene first and has to assess the situation, make quick decisions, and then most importantly take some action. It was interesting when we first started talking about Drive and Thrive, we were in some ways criticized for some people saying, “I can’t believe you’re pushing Drive and Thrive. Now is not the time.” We said that we disagree with that. We wanted to say, “How are we going to be focused on business? What are the needs in the community that we serve?” That community extended beyond our business and beyond our employees because of the nature of our organization. Our attitude was what do we need to do to move? Take action and keep moving first.
That was the theme that we launched. I’ll say that we transitioned a little bit, and we’re talking about open for business. It’s very aggressive and action-oriented. When you look in parallel to Open for Business around our country, not without its challenges, we’re seeing the early Open for Business, I would say in Florida. We’re seeing Texas. We’re seeing some hotspots from a case reporting around the pandemic. We knew that there would be some issues for that, but we didn’t want to run and hide. We felt we had to take an aggressive stance and direction in helping businesses make decisions.
You talk about five keeps as in keeping. What are the five keeps on making a business thrive?
We’re big on messaging and positioning for all of our businesses. As we looked at Drive and Thrive and Open for Business, we said, “How can we bring focus to this?” The five keeps are designed to do that. I’ll mention all of them and then we can come back, maybe talk about a couple of them. The first is keeping your customers engaged. The second is keeping your employees focused. The third is keep your cash flowing, keep continuity, and finally keep your spirit. We felt that each of these keeps addressed an aspect of all businesses, all things that are important to the business. I don’t care if you’re on the Main Street or Wall Street. Everybody has similar challenges when it comes to customers, employees, cash, and some of the operating principles within your business. We rallied our Drive and Thrive around those five keeps in our content and our topics. Whether it was Jeff on his podcast or webinars that we’ve hosted and the meetings for our members, it has been all focused around those things.
I’m curious where curiosity falls into all this that you do. That’s my focus when I go around the world and talk about how to improve curiosity. How important do you think is it to thriving and driving?
I think the importance of sitting back and asking questions and evaluating the situation. An important part of curiosity is listening. We are fortunate to have a broad base of membership that we could also listen to and gain perspective. If we weren’t asking those questions, I don’t know that we would be a good listener. We asked those questions to find out, what was different in your industry? How has it been impacting you? We have members ranging from thousands of employees down to individual owners of their companies and wanting to understand that. We had the CEO of Crunch Fitness as a keynote during our High Stakes Forum. It’s an interesting business for me. When you look at 375 locations. When you look at some of them are company-owned, some of them are franchise-owned.
The employees in that organization are not all direct employees to the franchisor. How do you help your franchisees with their employees while managing your employees? It was interesting to ask him a few questions and gain his perspective on how they’ve put a business continuity plan in place. It was a 79-page document he shared that they wrote during the downtime. They had some free time and they’ve taken a document that existed previously. They had business continuity of locations that had to close in Florida for a hurricane and things like that. As we were talking about, it had to be expanded. It had to take to new considerations. They came up with a 79-page document that outlined their plan. It was interesting to hear his perspective on operating a gym which is one of the last in each of the phases and the different states of what was reopening. For some reason, gyms and nail salons were lumped together. They were the last to get to open.
That would be challenging to keep. You’re talking about keeping customers engaged and keeping employees focused on some of the things that you were mentioning. This is such a time that no one has ever lived through. Nobody knew how to do all those things anyway and in some respects. A lot of problems with workers, feeling engaged, to keep them focused. There are a lot of engagement issues tied into that. If I had to get people passionate about what they do, how can you keep them focused and still engaged?
There were two elements to it that we had to deal with. The first was work from home. About a third of our team was already remote-based, a third was based in our office in New York City and a third was based in our office in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We had an interesting dynamic in our company, in that our office in New York was based in the hot zone. The most impacted at least in the early days of the pandemic. Our office in Sioux Falls, South Dakota is the only state that did not put a shelter in place order. We were balancing for our team, some remote workers, a New York office, and an office in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As we move everybody home, the third of people that already worked at home were used to the distractions of that environment. Having to focus on that and having children’s presence since they weren’t in school, or walking into the kitchen, which doesn’t do good for people’s diets all the time.
All of those factors about our personal lives for many of our teams suddenly blended into their daily work life. We had to keep them focused around hours, availability and accessibility. They had to learn a little bit about how to plan their day and coordinate with people that weren’t in the cubicle. You could no longer visit at the water cooler. You didn’t sit in the lunchroom together. You didn’t do a lot of those day-to-day things that created engagement and interaction. We had to create that. We immediately put in place a daily huddle. Every day towards the end of the day, our entire company would come together on our favorite partners, Zoom. We would spend a few minutes together in a personable way. On Mondays, they were more about what’s going on in the week, what do we need and who do we need. On Friday afternoon at about 6:00 Eastern, we had a Zoom happy hour every day. It was more social, more of the water cooler conversation. It was, “What have you got going on this weekend?” From that perspective, we had to create focus and engagement internally.
The second area we had to focus on was, how are we going to stay focused on our goals and objectives because they suddenly changed? We are an organization that hosted probably 80 in-person meetings. We had a number of meetings planned. We had a big event in Norfolk, Virginia on a battleship scheduled for early March that we postponed. We had an event in Las Vegas. The High Stakes Forum was originally scheduled in Las Vegas. It’s an online event that we’re holding on. For an organization that was event-focused, we had to suddenly reevaluate our business model and get our team focused on how are we going to engage our clients, our customers, our partners, with a model that was dependent on meetings? The priorities changed and that required focus to say, “What do we need to get done now?”
I’ve been to some of the locations you’re talking about. I was thinking of when you said New York. My book was on your C-Suite book club. I don’t know if that’s near your office down there, but I imagine everything in New York would be different than in Iowa or in different locations in the world. You guys are always reinventing. I’ve noticed that. I’ve only known Jeff maybe a few years. It seems like every time he’s always thinking of the next thing. I noticed you’ve got some new things. You’ve got C-Suite Loans and C-Suite Supplies. I haven’t seen that yet. What are those? Tell me a little bit about what that manifested from.An important part of curiosity is listening. Click To Tweet
Jeff is a naturally inquisitive person. He calls himself a Millennial. He doesn’t believe it’s defined by age. He believes he’s defined by attitude and approach. I think it does tie back to that curiosity and the question we’re continually asking is, how can we help? That’s what led to the C-Suite Loans and C-Suite Supplies. As businesses were shut down for an extended and in many cases an unknown period of time, suddenly, cashflow became an issue. We were focused on, is one of our keeps. How do you keep cash flowing? If you need access to cash, how are you going to get access to that cash?
The traditional route, your personal banker, or a local banker was going to be a little more challenging. They can be challenging if you haven’t developed that relationship as a business in advance and have that in place. Have a line of credit and things like that. Doing it this time was going to be challenging. The federal government stepped in with a Payroll Protection Plan, the Economic Injury Disaster Loans, EIDL and PPP. We were talking about cashflow. We were talking about, “Go to your bank.” We spent a lot of time in the early days trying to understand exactly what those programs were because they were changing daily so we could make recommendations to our members. That became a lifeline for many businesses for access to cash. If you didn’t qualify for the PPP or the EIDL, where could you turn?
That’s when we said we found a partner called Vetted that had a platform that allowed you to fill out and take your ten minutes of short form online. That information would be automatically processed to twenty different lending institutions. We were saying, “How can we help people get access to cash?” We worked with that partner. We took our brand and we put it on C-Suite Loans and you can go online and apply for a loan, get a response in less than 24 hours from $5,000 to $2 million. It’s even a bit competitive. You might get one, or you might get 3 or 4 responses from those twenty lenders that will come back to you with an offer. Once you get to that stage, you then go into more of an in-depth application process before you could get the loan. We knew this isn’t the least expensive access to capital but it was another lifeline and another way for businesses to access capital. Maybe even only to carry them through until the PPP or EIDL came through because those took some time. Our goal there was to help and provide incremental access that people might not have otherwise found.
That’s interesting having worked in lending and for a mortgage broker. I could understand that having access to multiple banks and different scenarios like that. What kind of terms of length of loans are people looking for? Is it a year? Is it longer? Is it shorter?
They could process anything from 90 days up to 5 years on the C-Suite Loan site. It’s shorter-term, but in the context of a common term, someone might use would be a bridge loan. If it was going to buy them some time until they got access to the capital or they got cashflow going again in their business. Keeping their employees paid so that they could stay in business. The ultimate terms, the interest rates and everything were still driven by the individual’s credit application. You had at least multiple providers taking you less time because no one had a lot of time to go out and try and find capital. It was very well-received. We helped a number of companies with that program.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the loans are determined with people’s credit. Everything’s impacted from all of this. I even sold subprime loans for a while. You think of the level and that’s an individual thing instead of corporate. Everything’s going to have to be reinvented of how everybody’s determined of who can pay things and whose credit is impacted. That’s an interesting area to grow in. Not only that, but you have the C-Suite Supplies. Was that a staples kind of supplies that we’re thinking? I’m curious what you mean by supplies.
The industry term is Personal Protection Equipment, PPE. We came to market with that. We look for themes and everything. For us, the most important asset in your business is your employee or your employees. When we launched C-Suite Supplies, we wanted to protect your most valuable asset. Especially since we were the ones talking about Drive and Thrive and Open for Business, we thought it would be important to back that up with access to personal protection equipment that you might need to your business, depending on how your team interfaces and with your customers. We also saw an environment that was fraught with fraud. There were major national news stories, the FBI, price gouging, and also even what you might call unethical competition.
You saw our own federal agencies competing for products. You saw states competing with the Federal Government. This was a big issue. How is a business on Main Street going to compete or get access? What price would they have to pay in order to get something to open for business? We saw an opportunity again to help. What we wanted to do was go out and we didn’t want to have to create it all ourselves. We had to work with a partner who had the shopping experience, the engine in place. We worked with multiple people within our C-Suite Network who had access to manufacturing and distribution of supplies. We put the C-Suite Supplies site up, which carries a range of PPE that would be appropriate for business on Main Street.
We have access to the famous N95 masks and they’re not $18 per piece. We have a wide variety of masks. We have vinyl gloves. We have a whole range of products that we have sourced. The positioning on our side talks about a trusted source. We have a fair pricing guarantee. We want to do address all of those challenges that we’re seeing in the macro market around supplies. We try to eliminate them and at the same time, make them available for the average business in America.
You two have been busy with your whole company because you’ve added all that since the last time I’ve had a chance to talk to Jeff. It sounds like you’re proactive and you’re thinking about many aspects and I think that’s important. I know you guys are doing some great things and a lot of people probably will be interested in finding out more. Is there a website or something that you’d like to share so people can follow?
There are a couple. If you want to visit and learn more about our C-Suite Network as a whole, it’s C-SuiteNetwork.com. If you’re interested in either the loans or the supplies, we follow the same domain, it’s C-SuiteLoans.com and C-SuiteSupplies.com. Any of those sites will get you the information that you would like to have about our community.
Thanks, Karl. This has been helpful. I’m sure a lot of people will be interested in checking it out. I’m glad to hear you’ve got great things going in all of your companies. Please say hello to Jeff and thank you for being on the show.
I will. Thanks for having me and we’ll talk again.
I want to thank Kate and Karl for being my guests. I hope you enjoyed this episode. I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.
- Tech Humanist
- KO Insights
- TallGrass Public Relations
- C-Suite Network
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
- Richard Stallman – Previous episode
- Jurgen Schmidhuber – Previous episode
- @Kateo – Twitter
- Hayzlett Group
- C-Suite Loans
- C-Suite Supplies
About Kate O’Neill
Kate O’Neill is the founder and CEO of KO Insights, a strategic consultancy committed to improving human experience at scale. She is the author of Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans.
About Karl Post
Karl Post is the President at TallGrass Public Relations and the Hayzlett Group and a Co-Founder in the C-Suite Network. His experience includes a distinguished background in international franchising, business consulting and corporate business development. He worked in a variety of roles that included responsibilities for strategic relationships and partnerships, worldwide marketing, financial consulting and contract negotiations.
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