This year over 40% of Americans will perform their jobs remotely. In part that's driven by the number of companies that allow employees to work from home but also by startups unwilling to limit themselves to only looking for talent within a specific commuting distance.
That's great for companies and for employees -- but a distributed workforce also creates a new kind of leadership challenge.
Here's another in my series of interviews where I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. This time I talked to Tom Hale, the founder and President of Backroads, the active travel company that hosts thousands of guests on biking, walking, hiking and multisport trips on over 180 worldwide itineraries.
Your guides are the face of your company; to many clients, their guide is the company. How do you ensure such a diverse group of people represent your company the way you wish?
That all comes down to culture.
As I look at companies, in all industries, that have started up in the last ten years or so, they all seem to think they can create a company culture overnight. That's an incredibly challenging task, especially in a growing company. In fact it's almost impossible.
We have a strong company culture, and there are a lot of very specific things we do and more textural things that are important to the outcome.
Our leaders are the cornerstone of our company culture. We find people who are great at teamwork. We find people that will add something extra to the environment rather than just be part of the environment but doesn't add to the environment.
I interview everyone, and that's all I'm looking for: fit.
Our process lets us find people who really get what we're about, like what we're about, and want to perpetuate what we're about. We have to work together but also autonomously, and in challenging and remote environments, so the right cultural fit is incredibly important--and when you get it right, it's incredibly effective.
Finding the right people is certainly important, but that's only the tip of culture iceberg. If you don't foster a culture, one will eventually be fostered for you, and that's especially true as you grow.
Once it was just myself and a handful of folks that made it all happen. Now our ability to get it right is actually stronger because we have more people dedicated and focused on the specific outcomes that are important to our business.
We didn't used to have over 100 trip and regional experts. We didn't used to have 25 to 30 leader mentors. We didn't used to have 10 to 12 people doing phone interviews before prospective employees are invited to a hiring event. The people managing those processes were among our highest performing leaders.
Here's an example of how things have changed. Years ago I spent a great deal of time trying to hold the line on certain things; one was that the guest feedback of the trip and the leader's performance is absolutely the most important thing we can track. I had to hold that line, and it was hard.
Now I spend almost no time trying to hold that line. I don't have to. It's inculcated into the heart and soul of Backroads. Everyone has bought into it. That's what culture can do for you.
Every entrepreneur is interested in how other entrepreneurs recruit and hire. Tell me about your process.
Even though our business is at least partly seasonal, we recruit and train year round. We hire a small percentage of the folks that apply. We're very thorough: we do Skype interviews, we hold hiring events, we decide who will join us... and then at our training events sometimes folks don't make it through: possibly they realize the job isn't right for them, but mostly it's because they turn out to be different than we expected.
We look at it this way: Do not come here if you think this is a cruise. We work hard and we have a lot of fun, but we are focused on the outcome, so if you're someone that doesn't want to be part of a slightly more intense environment, we're not the right place for you.
When ten or twelve of us are in the hiring decision meeting, we have a robust conversation and the primary thing we talk about is who can connect with guests and really light up a room.
The truth of the matter is that it's very difficult to shape how a leader communicates with customers during the course of a week. You need to have that skill to begin with. We can teach bike repair skills, van driving, hard skills... but connecting with guests is even more important.
We constantly mentor new leaders on how to get it right, but we tend to hire people who naturally tend to get it right.
How do you create and maintain the level of commitment you need from employees that operate so remotely and autonomously?
As a company reaches a certain scale--an owner of a shop that leads twenty trips a year can get it right him or herself--you absolutely must get good systems in place. You need replicable systems so your employees deliver what you promise and want to see happen, and then you need feedback mechanisms that tell you how good those autonomous employees are.
I don't know how good our leaders are--I only know how good our guests say our leaders are. I'm more than okay with that, because having done this for 30 years, I know the aggregate statistical accuracy of guest feedback regarding the performance level of leaders is extremely accurate. Once you get to 20 individual evaluations, you know that person.
We focus on lots of other areas and metrics, but I mainly focus on guest feedback: how are we doing relative to last year, and how can we keep driving that score up.
Due to the nature of what you do, I assume you get a lot more feedback than companies in other industries.
We are in the enviable position of being able to rely on a highly correlated measurement event to give us the feedback that tells us exactly how we're doing.
Think about it: We have guests for 5 or 6 days. During that time they can evaluate our guides, the hotels, the restaurants, the venues they visit, local providers... and they're happy to do so. Most businesses can't get that kind of highly correlated survey and feedback. Most people don't fill out surveys, and if they do it's superficial and can't be connected to individuals.
If your business doesn't have that kind of data, you better come up with an alternative way to know what's going on and find out how your people are doing.
In many companies there's an arm's-length distance between managers and employees. You need to figure out a way to bridge that gap, both for your company's sake and for the sake of your employees.