How to create a fantastic work culture, with Nick Manolis and Chaya Weiner
The solutions are not always obvious or expensive. If you listen to the team, you’ll find that the difference between a fantastic work culture and a bad one is the basic and obvious needs of any employee. Communication, collaboration, understanding the direction of the company and strategy, participating in the creation and execution of the strategic plan, line of sight to how they specifically contribute to the success of the company and rewarding those that drive the company’s success.
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Manolis, chief executive officer at Escher, a customer-engagement software company that helps postal organizations and couriers with digital transformation and engaging customers on the customers’ terms. To simplify, Escher makes it easier for people to ship their packages. Nick has a successful track record of leading high-performing software and software as a service (SaaS) technology companies across a wide variety of markets.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have always enjoyed a challenge, which is what draws me to technology. I started out as an auditor at Deloitte & Touche and went on to work at several technology and supply chain companies. Before my current role at Escher, I spent ten years in electronic data interchange and in private-sector supply chain. I loved it but I decided I needed a change and again, had that itch for a challenge.
A friend of mine introduced me to Escher and right off the bat there were several things that drew me in. The first is that it is an established company in a mature market — the postal industry. I also loved the fact that it is a smaller company executing against a global footprint — there is a potential to touch every person on earth through their postal operations. That is rare and thrilling, especially when you consider we aren’t a massive enterprise. Small, but powerful!
Lastly, the reason my friend thought of me for Escher was because at the time, the company was facing a set of challenges around commercializing its products and services. My experience lies in fixing things and the opportunity to help excited me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the more exciting things that I discovered after joining Escher was that the technology was even better than I could have imagined. As I came up to speed on everything, I found out that Escher’s core message platform is built to function as a distributed ledger in our customers’ environment. The distributed ledger technology is all the rage these days because it is necessary for blockchain. Myself, along with the rest of the company is very excited to have a core technology platform that gives us blockchain options. We also recently discovered that our very first customer — who implemented our platform 20 years ago — has been up and running ever since with 100% uptime. Literally tens of billions of transactions process over 20 years and the platform has never gone down unscheduled. Having such a versatile, time-tested and dependable platform is something we were excited to discover and, I am very proud to talk about.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I can’t name the country right now, but we recently took on a major project with one of the largest and most innovative postal operators in the world. This will be Escher’s most significant project to date and includes implementing our customer engagement platform to support their counter point-of-services in every Post Office in this country. It will transform the customer experience.
This country has been at the forefront of digitizing their operations and they are willing to embrace innovation to deliver a better customer engagement and services. We’ve actually partnered together previously on their kiosk technology and it has been a great relationship because we share a common purpose. We both believe postal operators need to focus on making it easy and enjoyable for customers to engage with the post on their terms whether its shipping packages, picking up packages or using letter mail delivery. They also understand how Ecommerce has impacted their business in terms of the number of parcels shipped daily and the change in expectations from customers who expect to receive their packages on their own terms with current, up-to-date shipping information at their fingertips. More to come, but at the very least you can say that we are very excited!
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?
From my experience, the biggest influence on workplace happiness is how well you engage your employees. Most companies focus on the employee and how productive they are working within the enterprise utilizing the business processes, tools and lines of communication. I have found that if you give employees the information they need to do their jobs, the tools they need and two-way, honest and open lines of communication, employees are much more productive, engaged and happy. However, when a company gets stuck using outdated processes, antiquated tools and/or communication is poor, the employee and ultimately the business, will suffer.
For reference, I want to share a few things we implemented that I believe had a positive impact on our culture. The first is a quick 15-minute ‘huddle’ meeting each day for each level of leadership in the company — executive, vice president, director and manage. We use the daily huddles to communicate important information and items impacting progress are addressed. In a matter of one hour, the entire organization is calibrated top to bottom and sideways. Colleagues have the opportunity to exchange suggestions or volunteer to help, which is great for learning and engagement and also makes us a more efficient company. Without regular and deliberate communication, employees can get lost. With effective, regular daily communication, employees feel like they are part of something bigger than a job, become more vested in the company and engaged at a higher level of purpose.
We also worked hard to define accountability and responsibility within Escher. We invested a lot of time and effort into the basic things like organizational, functional, and process documentation that we shared with the team. It sounds so basic, but it was a simple way to connect the entire company as a team. A little structure and efficient processes helped everyone to understand their role and the role everyone else plays.
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?
Negatively across all three for sure. I think you will be hard pressed to find a leader who says employee happiness doesn’t impact business. This goes back to my earlier answer, when an employee is not engaged because the environment they work in is inefficient, ill-equipped and not communicative, the result is poor engagement and unhappiness.
Most people want to feel like what they spend their time on matters. If the company doesn’t focus on the environment their employees engage in and leave them to work in a sub-optimal environment, employees don’t give 100%. Engaged employees always think of how to do things more productively, they spend the company’s money like it was their own, and just have a better disposition on things.
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?
1. Know when you have a problem. You won’t have a fantastic workplace when the organization has an unhealthy culture. Recognizing when you have a problem is important. Most of the time a fantastic work culture can be achieved by incremental improvements. Other times, the culture is so off the rails it requires transformational change. The best measure of the culture is employee engagement. Some early warning signs that employees are not happy is when business results start going flat to declining. At the same time, there is no sense of urgency, no volunteering for projects and teams seem to be misaligned and adversarial. Fix it fast.
2. Ask the team how to create a fantastic culture. Ask the right questions often to better understand where the organization is in terms of a culture and employee engagement. Most CEOs think they know how to solve culture challenges with their playbook from past experiences. This is a mistake. You need to ask the employees where the problems are and look for suggestions to improve.
3. The solutions are not always obvious or expensive. If you listen to the team, you’ll find that the difference between a fantastic work culture and a bad one is the basic and obvious needs of any employee. Communication, collaboration, understanding the direction of the company and strategy, participating in the creation and execution of the strategic plan, line of sight to how they specifically contribute to the success of the company and rewarding those that drive the company’s success.
4. Know when to make a change. Often leaders are focused so much on pleasing the minority of people that they forget about the majority. Leaders need to act on what’s right for the company, not just popular. Leaders need to identify and differentiate skill-challenges versus behavior-challenges. You can fix skill with training. In my experience you can’t fix behavior, quickly help them move on.
5. Create together and share a common set of values. Think of these ideals as the rules on how you should behave when no one is looking. Hire with them in mind, recognize them often and publicly with the team and company, provide example through stories that make them real.
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?
I think it starts at the top. Leaders need to create an atmosphere that is fun, flexible and a place that employees want to be. As the leader of the company, I feel it is up to me to ensure everyone is engaged and happy.
Things like beer Friday or a foosball table can fool executives into thinking their atmosphere is fun and employees are engaged and happy. The reality is it’s not that simple. People need to feel valued, and that means they need to be looped in, their opinions need to be heard and they need to be given freedom to decide. It is up to the leadership team to constantly assess employee engagement levels and to make a change when something isn’t working. A foosball table can only go so far in making people happy, but in the end, it is the basic things — the things that take time to implement and keep up — that truly impact the atmosphere.
I also believe with today’s digital world, leaders need to be flexible with their team. With phones and laptops, employees feel like they are constantly working, because when they aren’t working, they can still be contacted. I think we need to focus more on results and less on time committed to the office. I think it’s important for an employee to feel like they have the freedom to manage their daily lives without the company imposing or making it harder. If you need to leave the office to meet the cable installer, I want my team to feel like they can, and I also want to trust that they will still get their job done. As a workplace society, I think we are too focused on activity when results are really what’s more important.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I believe in clear and frequent communication. That is how I lead. Leaving something up to interpretation or sugar coating a tough topic doesn’t work. It is my job to give my team what they need to be successful and that includes clear, direct and sometime unfiltered information.
I believe that teams should work together to create a strategic plan and then work the plan together. Freedom to execute the plan and make decisions is a motivator. What we do and how we do it is shaped by our annual strategic plan, which is created through collaboration and input from the entire company at all levels every year. The annual plan is then broken down into quarterly objectives. We have metrics for everything we do and every role we fill, and I believe all goals should connect back to our strategic plan. This gives everyone accountability and purpose and by getting everyone’s input, we get buy-in and a greater sense of ownership as well.
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?
Looking at my life overall, my parents who instilled good values and a strong sense of family helped me the most. From an early age, my parents consistently taught me ‘how to decide’ rather than telling me ‘what to decide’. They would give me all the information — pro’s and con’s, good and bad — unfiltered and then they would give me the opportunity to decide on my own what to do. I learned quickly that I own my decisions, including the ones that went wrong. It taught me to be comfortable deciding, to watch for when things go wrong and to quickly correct decisions. In business, I try to do the same. I want decisions to be made at the right levels and empower people to decide — fail fast if it was the wrong decision and fix it. I think leaders should enable the people they lead with the same view — decide, fail fast on the wrong decisions and quickly correct.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Right now I believe my biggest contribution is through Escher. I touched on this briefly before, but Escher has the potential to unite every postal operator in the world. We currently serve 35 postal operators, but by putting every Post Office on the same software platform and access to a wider partner ecosystem, the post will be able to do more, reduce costs and greatly improve their customer experience. Customers using the post will be able to ship and track their packages around the world with ease.
One of my favorite things about Escher is that we enable posts to take their services outside of the Post Office with different business models that are lower cost. With mobile phones and tablets, we enable the post-delivery teams to transact directly with customers anywhere they are, including the doorstep. As posts continue to see declines in their core letter mail business, enabling them to transition to parcel delivery is key. The viability of the post is dependent on their ability to compete for and win in the parcel business. We are fortunate at Escher to be in a position to enable the posts in this transformation. Our customer engagement platform unifies all of the customer channels and helps them to solve three fundamental business challenges: increase their revenues by offering more services outside of letter mail; reduce costs by allowing the post to serve their customers in a variety of lower costs ways; and improve the customer experience by enabling the posts to provide streamline services to their customers anytime, anywhere, and on their terms. We like to think that we are helping the postal operators around the work stay relevant and better service all citizens around the world — 8 billion in all.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Phil Crosby, the late businessman and management theory author, once said, “Selecting the right person for the right job is the largest part of coaching,” and I believe the same is true when it comes to leading a company. I am not a believer in management ideas like, “cut the bottom 10 percent,” but I do believe leaders need to understand what people are good at and where their skills lie. From there, you get them the tools they need, and they will make it happen. Everyone is valuable, it is up to the leader to make sure their value is being utilized.
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 have spoken about this several times now at this point, but I really think we are at the brink of a postal revolution. We are seeing a confluence of movements — an increase in parcels being shipped, technological advancements, third-party shipping solutions and skyrocketing customer expectations — and Post Offices need to make a digital change. It’s just a way of life now, but expecting digitally savvy people to go to the Post Office between 9am and 5pm is an antiquated operating model. No one really wants to be restricted this way. But I believe we are at the place now where with the right technology, the postal experience can be as good, if not better than the revolutionary Ecommerce companies. No other operation touches the world the way the post does. There is such a major opportunity right now to digitally transform and for posts to provide an experience that gets people excited about using and depending on such a trusted entity, but it is going to take the adoption of new and purpose-built technologies to get us there.
Thank you for all of these great insights!