Implement a freedom policy. This means letting your employees work when they want, where they want, with no restrictions on time off. This approach requires an understanding and commitment that they get their work done, plan ahead, and communicate proactively. Essentially, be an adult. I have had this policy at each business I have run for the last 10 years and never had an issue with abuse. If anything, I have had to encourage people to take time off. And I’ve learned it is important for me to model that behavior by taking real vacations myself.
As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeb Banner is CEO and co-founder of Boardable, a board management software company serving nonprofits around the world. Previously the CEO of SmallBox, a creative agency he co-founded in 2006, Jeb is also the founder of Musical Family Tree, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading Indiana music, and co-founder and past chair of The Speak Easy, an entrepreneurial co-working nonprofit located in Indianapolis, IN. Along the way Jeb has co-founded or invested in a number of other Indianapolis-based businesses. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife Jenny and their three lovely daughters. In his spare time, Jeb collects vinyl records, records music, and cooks as much as possible.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My previous business, SmallBox, works primarily with nonprofit organizations. We had spun out a software company to build products, and one of our customers, United Way of Central Indiana, came to us with a request for a board portal. We looked around and saw that there really wasn’t anything built to serve the nonprofit market. So we took a chance and launched a beta version of Boardable and shared it with some local nonprofits. They liked what they saw, and we decided to double down and continue investing in it. Within a year we had a company, and shortly thereafter I left SmallBox and went full time at Boardable. My wife, Jenny, now runs SmallBox, and we are in the same building, which is nice.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think the most interesting thing has been managing the dynamic of handing off my previous company, SmallBox, to my wife, Jenny. That has been a real challenge. SmallBox wasn’t in the greatest shape when I stepped out, in part because of my focus on Boardable. She felt a little like she was coming in to clean up my mess, and I felt really guilty about that. It’s something we are still working through. Fortunately, she has done a great job with the business and it is much healthier than it was when I handed it over. We are starting a podcast about this called “The 321 Podcast,” which addresses the 3 kids, 2 businesses, and 1 marriage that we have to actively manage.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are excited to launch an app for Boardable. It will be focused on the experience for board members and helping them get more engaged with the nonprofits they serve. Board member engagement is a real pain point for nonprofits. There is little accountability for board members, which leads to dysfunctional boards and can really undermine the effectiveness of the nonprofit and sometimes even push them out of business through mismanagement. Our goal is to build an experience that pulls them into the organization and increases the overall health of the board. We know people want to help; we want to make it easier for them to do so.
Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
The number one reason I see is chronic underinvestment in employees. This includes little to no training, particularly for managers who need it the most. But it also speaks to a mentality among business leaders that is fueled by high turnover. It’s something of a catch 22. With so few workers staying at a job for more than 4 to 5 years, many companies have a mindset of seeing investment in their employees as a waste of money. So this is one reason many are unhappy: They have managers that don’t know how to manage, and they feel like the company isn’t interested in their growth.
Another reason is that many employees aren’t doing work that they find meaningful. As Daniel Pink outlined in his book, Drive, a creative worker needs autonomy, mastery, and purpose to thrive. There are very few businesses that actively cultivate those three conditions. And with the rise of the creative class, it is imperative that businesses course correct or get left behind. I believe that of these three, purpose is the most critical. The best creative work is always done by someone who cares. You can’t buy caring. It is best generated from an alignment of the company’s mission and the employee’s passion.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
In the long run, all three will be negatively impacted. The challenge is that, in the short run, you can see significant gains in company productivity and profitability by pushing employees in unhealthy ways. You see this at many tech companies where the motto is, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Elon Musk has modeled this behavior and set an unhealthy standard that, I believe, drives bad business practices. Companies like Basecamp are pushing back on this workaholic mentality and focusing on running a business that has healthy employees and profit. But in the long run, an unhappy workforce will eventually drag down your productivity and profitability as talent burns out and leaves, taking their ability and experience to another company that isn’t cracking the whip day and night.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
- Implement a freedom policy. This means letting your employees work when they want, where they want, with no restrictions on time off. This approach requires an understanding and commitment that they get their work done, plan ahead, and communicate proactively. Essentially, be an adult. I have had this policy at each business I have run for the last 10 years and never had an issue with abuse. If anything, I have had to encourage people to take time off. And I’ve learned it is important for me to model that behavior by taking real vacations myself.
- Define and live your values. Too many companies come up with vague and aspirational values that they put on a poster and never talk about. Real company values speak to the way you want to work as a team. They are how you hire, fire, and inspire. If you define and live your values early on, you will be building scale into the culture of your business. One easy way to find your values is to identify the top 5 to 7 employees at your company and list all their attributes, then cross-reference them to see which 4 to 6 attributes keep showing up. Chances are you have a great rough draft of your company values right there. I’ve seen this work many times in my companies and others I have consulted with.
- Win. You can make serious investments in your company culture, but if you aren’t winning then it might not really matter. Winning isn’t everything, but it’s close. You need to give your team real ways to win. That means setting realistic, attainable goals that they can have an impact on hitting. When a team wins together, it is a powerful experience, and as humans we are wired to compete. At Boardable, we keep a scoreboard of key metrics and update it weekly. We recently hit a goal and took the team out to a “fancy lunch” for the reward. It’s amazing how much a “fancy lunch” can motivate.
- Make it safe. A great team is able to get real with each other, be vulnerable. To do this, leadership must make it safe for people to be themselves, to speak up, and feel valued. Making it safe doesn’t happen overnight. It takes consistent effort, and leadership has to constantly model vulnerability. I’ve found that when I lead with what I’m struggling with, the mistakes I’ve made, and what I’m learning, it immediately makes it easier for others to do so. That is when the real opportunity for growth happens. When the walls come down and everyone starts to connect on a deeper level, real trust begins to build. There is little that can stop a team with that kind of connection and trust.
- Listen. This might be obvious, but so many managers forget to listen. This speaks to the chronic underinvestment in management training. Make time to talk with your team, listen to what they are saying, and try not to immediately solve the problem they are bringing to you. I’ve always found a coffee or lunch offsite is a great way to listen to what an employee has to say. Getting them out of the office space changes the conversation.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
We need to reject the myth of workaholism in all its forms. The “always on” mindset of modern work, where employees feel compelled to answer emails and texts at all hours. The fear of leaving before your boss. We need to embrace real vacations where your phone is off and email is ignored. We have this ethos in America that working harder and longer is what you need to succeed. And yes, there are times for sprints like that, especially at a startup. But if those sprints turn into marathons, then burnout is inevitable. So we as a society need to stop celebrating those that burn the candle at both ends and begin looking at healthier models as the ideal.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I delegate aggressively. I am very careful with how I spend my time and look to empower those I work with to take over areas of the business that I do not need to have a hands-on role with. I also consider what my strengths and weaknesses are and look to hire those who augment both. Then I work closely with my direct reports — and everyone on the team — as much as possible, to advise and coach them as they increase their share of the business. I see my role as something of a “chief quality officer.” I do sample deep dives into different areas of the business from time to time to understand if we are executing at a high level across all touchpoints. But I don’t micromanage. I give employees autonomy to work the way they feel is best.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It would have to be my father. He ran an automotive remanufacturing business in South Bend, IN, that employed mostly lower-income workers who had at most high school diplomas. I saw him treat them all with respect. He invested in them constantly, creating a profit-share program, building pay-for-performance opportunities that encouraged focus and efficiency. He also put together wellness programs to encourage weight loss and smoking cessation. In return, he had some very loyal employees who worked for him for over a decade. And I saw his employees rise out of poverty, raise families, and live better lives. This is a model for how I wish to treat everyone who works for me. I want them to grow and become fuller human beings across all aspects of their lives during our time together.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Early on, with my previous company, we began putting together programs — we called them cultural institutions — which gave us a platform to serve the community. We launched 24 Hour Web Project to build a website for a nonprofit in 24 hours. Nice Grants to give $1,000 grants to nonprofits. We also did a lot of pro-bono work along the way for great local nonprofits. This then led to the founding of two non-profits: The Speak Easy, serving the entrepreneurial community, and Musical Family Tree, serving the music community. My current business, Boardable, is built entirely on the premise of helping nonprofit boards with the tools they need to realize their organization’s mission. I also serve on local boards and volunteer my time to local nonprofit organizations when I can.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It would be something my dad said to me when I was a teenager: “Don’t lie to yourself.” He caught me in some kind of white lie, and he made a point of explaining to me that it was much more critical to know the truth myself than it was to lie to someone else. He didn’t want me building an internal fiction that wasn’t aligned with reality. Seeing and accepting things as they truly are is very hard to do. We all want to spin reality to our personal narrative, and when facts fly in the face of that, it can be very tempting to build an alternate narrative that aligns with what we want. So I have tried my best to tell myself the truth even when it isn’t a truth I want to hear. This is critical for business. Leaders that aren’t living in reality can take a business down with their unfounded optimism. I have struggled with this myself and often come back to my dad’s advice.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would like us all to re-embrace the idea of grace. Giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Being willing to forgive and accept others for their faults and failings. It feels like we are living in a world where everyone is constantly judging everyone else. This is not about excusing bad behavior, but about seeing that people grow and change, and we need to give each other the grace required to evolve.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!