"I've never worked at a place that so genuinely cares for people on a personal level."
Mike Oswalt, a fairly new Stakeholder (staff member) at Illuminate Education shared this almost reflexively when we asked him the following, "What differentiates Illuminate Education from others who offer education software to school districts?" Mike put his finger on the most important success factor in the emerging work world - caring for people.
They aren't alone. Ten years ago ANZ Bank gave up on traditional growth strategies and decided to instead focus on caring for people, and as a result revenue-per-employee rose 89 percent, customer satisfaction and after tax profits rose as well (both are at the top of the banking industry). Illuminate has discovered the same formula when you take care of the people, they will take care of the production.
People First - Not Just a Slogan
Illuminate is a Participation Age, emerging work world company, with no managers, no titles, and no bosses. Everyone lives on teams that decide their own productivity, who they hire, who they fire, and how to help each other grow in order to take on more responsibility. Illuminate is a classic "self-managed" company.
Mike's statement about genuinely caring is powerful and true, and is proven out because everyone at Illuminate seems to know it, share it and live it. It's a regularly stated core value, which came through quickly and easily in all of our interviews - everyone cares about everyone. A lot of companies care - Illuminate makes caring a deliberate and stated core value.
When we asked the founder, Lane Rankin the same question, he launched. The passion came out immediately. "We really care about our people." He quickly shared the other two values that differentiate them - "We care deeply about education. And we use the power of technology to do things in a more effective way for educators, administrators, and students."
Strongly Held, Widely Shared - Culture Lived Out
Many others we talked to shared the same three values, and in that order. How do they all get it? How has Lane and the leadership team created such "alignment" around a very few things that seem to drive the whole place passionately and relentlessly forward? Because these three values are "strongly held" and "widely shared".
Having stated the other two values, Lane jumped right back into value number one - caring about people. "If you take care of your people and get them engaged, that's a huge thing. Care about them as human beings, not producers." Then he launched again into a touching and passionate story about a Stakeholder who had experienced deep personal tragedy and how they cared for this person at Illuminate Education as you would a family member. Caring for Stakeholders as family is not unbelievable, just sadly rare.
But again, research is showing that none of this caring, by itself, is actually why they are successful.
Chris Walker, who in a traditional company might be the CTO (here, he is an "Illuminator", and proud of it), very quietly and clearly put his finger on Illuminate's actual reason for success by saying, "We talk a lot about our core values." There it is - the one thing that actually differentiates Illuminate, as well as other top performing companies - they know what they believe, everyone believes it, it's shared by everyone, and they live it out.
The Seven Core Drivers - The First One Drives The Rest
Values, also known as Principles drive everything, either intentionally and well, or unintentionally and in the wrong direction. Illuminate pays attention to the most important Core Driver in business, Values, and everything else falls into place from that.
Deeply held values are important. One common traditional definition of culture is, "A set of norms and values that are strongly held and widely shared throughout the organization." The core to that statement is that the values are "strongly held and widely shared". Strongly held in that they are truly, deeply important values - they are "Core Drivers". And widely shared in two ways: shared often and in everyday contexts, and widely shared in that everyone embraces them.
You Do What You Truly Value
Endless corporate brochures are cluttered with values, vision and mission statements that are just there to make the brochure look nicer. At Illuminate Education, these core values are a passion shared and lived out first by the leadership, and as a result, strongly held and widely shared by everyone. Illuminate's three core values drive everything they do and are part of everyone's daily list of things that help them decide what to do - they are strongly held, and widely shared.
How did that happen? See the above interview with the founder, Lane. In my college Communications 101 class, my professor talked (with passion) about the key to great communications, "If you want people to bleed, you have to hemorrhage." There are seven Core Drivers of success, each one building on the one above it, and Illuminate Education has figured out the game - the first core driver is the most important - values. Hemorrhage over that one, and the rest of the dominos start to fall in place.
Illuminate Education's number one value is caring for people. And because that is such a high value, it comes out in their desire to build great enterprise-wide software for school districts. Not surprisingly, their customer retention goal isn't 90%, it's 100%. They sweat over 98% retention - not good enough.
Illuminate hires many educators to work for them (Lane was a teacher and then an administrator, so was Mike and many others). It's actually a requirement for some positions, because they want former educators who can relate to educators, not just people who build software to "meet the demands of a market". At I. E., it's about people and caring at every level - the company's staff, the administrators, the teachers, their students, and their parents. Everything they do is informed by their first Core Driver - caring about people. They care about education and build great software because they care about people.
A Focus on People Improves Production
Sue Morefield from the implementation team, is another former teacher who is such a passionate educator and Illuminator. She told us, "We hire first for culture (values). It's not easy to work here. We change our minds regularly. I judge my performance by results. We have to be flexible, be hard workers and most importantly, believe we are making a difference. Oh, and you need to want to have a good time with others. You can't just check in and out at the end of the day. You won't fit in if you don't go to happy hour with everyone once in awhile."
Do you hear the humanity in that? This isn't about great software or programming unicorns, it's about great caring which results in great software, and great care for their customers. And that's important because research is showing that when you take care of the people, they take better care of the production.
Stacy Mauro from the reports team shared about the Illuminate community, "We have a collaborative and community mindset. It's common across all the teams. There isn't just one person in a row boat." And Mike Oswalt finished this thought with, "Yes, everyone is a leader. Some people take on more strategic leadership roles to keep their finger on the pulse of the team, but everyone steps up and leads from their strengths." This "everyone is a leader" theme is strongly held and widely shared in self-managed companies as a whole.
A lot of companies have "We care about people" as a stated Core Driver. The difference at Illuminate, as Chris Walker said is that, "We talk a lot about core values." People talk about things that are important to them. Nobody is walking around Illuminate wearing a sandwich board with their core values on it. Core values are central to Lane's leadership, the leadership team also strongly holds and widely shares these values, and everyone in the company follows suit. In a self-managed company, leadership matters, and management layers don't exist.
Self-Managed Illuminate - Best of the Best
As with all self-managed companies, Illuminate performs at the top of their industry, with awards like "Top Workplace" in all of Orange County, CA, and Glassdoor's recently awarded, "Best Small to Medium Company to Work For".
The lesson for us is simple. For 175 years we were taught by the Factory System of the Industrial Age to focus on production, and use people to get the job done. Illuminate Education has turned that on its head and has discovered the right order: focus on caring about people, and they will get the job done.
Love people. Use machines. Illuminate Education has the right order.