If you work on a team that never imagines its best possible outcomes nor organizes to achieve them, you’re probably doing mediocre work. You aren’t gaining the skills and victories that make work professionally fulfilling.
As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deidre Paknad, CEO and co-founder of WorkBoard. She’s led high-growth organizations as founder and CEO of several companies and as an executive at IBM. She has over a dozen patents and has twice been recognized for innovation by the Smithsonian Institute. Deidre and the WorkBoard team pioneered Strategy & Results Management solutions and a proven proprietary methodology for rapid enterprise success with the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) technique.
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 love solving process problems — identifying business processes that are too slow, don’t reliably do what they’re intended to do, that cost too much and so on. In my first job out of college, I saw an opportunity to hack a solution to a production problem that was costing the company $200k a month in quality issues. It worked, I got promoted, and that was a career springboard.
We founded WorkBoard to tackle perhaps the most important processes companies have: aligning, measuring and driving their strategic priorities and growth plans. This process is managed like the kids’ game of telephone so it’s terribly slow and ineffective at most companies, but aligning and driving the growth strategy should be the single most effective process in an organization.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’m fortunate to be working on really interesting problem with really interesting people. This problem affects the CEO and every employee in virtually every company. But I’d have to say the most interesting day I’ve had recently was meeting with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to talk about getting everyone aligned on strategy, cohesively measuring progress and operationalizing OKRs (objectives and key results) in large companies. He’s brilliant of course and understood the challenge and opportunity instantly. I have huge respect for the transformation he’s leading with both speed and compassion, so that was a great day for me.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We try to fall in love with problems rather than projects, and I’m very passionate about the problem WorkBoard addresses. To drive value for shareholders, companies need to grow at a fast rate. To stay competitive, they need to iterate and respond quickly to new market obstacles and opportunities. That means they need growth strategies that everyone understands and the agility to shift strategic priorities as they encounter market opportunities and obstacles. Few companies do this well today.
Many business leaders say their biggest challenge is getting everyone aligned and executing the strategy; they want more accountability for outcomes. Ironically, most employees don’t know the strategic priorities so they lack clarity on the outcomes they should contribute or the value of the work they do. WorkBoard closes that gap.
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?
Most of us come to work every day to do something that matters, to do our best work. We all have the potential to imagine and do awesome things.
There are two dynamics in play that make work less fulfilling that it can be:
1) When you don’t have clarity on how you add value and contribute meaningfully to the bigger picture, work can feel intellectually bankrupt. If you work at a company where there is no place to see the company OKRs, the company’s progress and your specific connection to those OKRs, you’re left wondering whether your work matters and whether the company is succeeding or not.
2) If you work on a team that never imagines its best possible outcomes nor organizes to achieve them, you’re probably doing mediocre work. You aren’t gaining the skills and victories that make work professionally fulfilling.
These two reasons are why you see workforce flight to startups. Young, fast-growth companies get these two dynamics right and provide people with a higher sense of contribution, purpose, clarity and inspiration. It turns out that part of the reason they are high-growth companies is precisely because people have that high sense of contribution, purpose, clarity and inspiration.
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?
These things are intertwined. It’s hard to have happy customers without happy employees, and companies exist only because they have customers. The connection between employee experience, customer experience and profitability is both intuitively obvious to us as consumers and well substantiated (Bain, Accenture and McKinsey have all done great research here).
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. Have an outcome mindset: Instead of managing output, focus on the outcomes of work. What value should the work create, and how is that value measured and realized? People are more empowered and enabled to do their best work when they have clarity on the impact that work has.
2. Articulate company objectives and key results (OKRs): What are we trying to achieve this year, and how is success measured this quarter? Establish both direction and the mile markers that matter in the next 90 days. These are table stakes for leaders.
3. Localize OKRs to each team: Bring the strategic priorities of the company or division into focus for every team. When teams author OKRs in their nouns, verbs and numbers, every team member has clarity on what they’re working toward and how that adds to the big picture. Without this, people operate on assumptions with the low-grade anxiety that their work may not be as impactful as it should be, and they’re probably right.
4. Be religious about transparency: Everyone should be able to see company and team OKRs and progress toward them at any time and in real time. If we can’t see what results we’re trying to achieve, our progress toward them, how far we need to go and where the roadblocks are, we simply aren’t delivering our best results.
5. Be fearless about feedback: Great athletes and teams know the value of coaching. Feedback is the breakfast of champions; it’s how we know what to do more of and where to make adjustments. When people coach each other forward, everyone wins.
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 we are in the middle of a transformation in our expectations and models for work — we have been for the last five years. As we bring more software tools to more parts of our businesses, we democratize data and decisions. Generational change in the workforce, work from home and flexibility, the deconstruction of stiff corporate offices to spaces designed to feel fun, young founders making big impacts … all of these things are positive culture changers on a broad scale.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
WorkBoard is a very fast-growing company leading a new market category. I lead with vision and passion, keen attention to customers, delight in working with great people, and a level of urgency paced to our fast-growth market. Building a company involves a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, so a growth mindset is key — ideate, implement, improve relentlessly. I like to think leadership style can be tuned to what you’re leading but this has been my style for years.
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?
There are so many people that have helped me along the way. Without question, the person who has helped me the most is my husband. He’s cheered me on in my professional journey, appreciates my ambition and encourages me to be all that I intend. It’s time intensive starting companies and leading businesses, to state the obvious. Very long days, very short weekends, being always on and traveling frequently are even tougher without that kind of support and a “№1 fan.” They say if you’re a woman, the most important career choice you make is who you marry, and I made an awesome choice!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The simplest thing I can do to bring goodness to others is to create a workplace that seeks and celebrates a diverse mix of people, experiences and perspectives — a place where it’s about the content not the template. I’m committed to helping people get access to new experiences that help them grow and helping young women lean in to their full potential.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Turn fears into fierce” is a phrase that I use to turn anxiety of what might not work into the energy, ferocity and drive to make it work. Shifting the negative force of fear into the positive force of will. You need a lot of durability, courage and resilience to start a company, raise millions and millions of investor dollars, and invite people to believe in the vision. That can be scary, so this phrase helped me own the fear rather than letting it own me.
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. :-)
Equality of opportunity and education.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!