Greg Besner Bio
Adjunct Professor, New York University, Stern School of Business
Best CEO Award Winner 2018, Comparably USA Today
Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year (NJ)
MBA, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
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 path started 16 years ago with a chance meeting in an elevator. I was visiting a friend when the elevator door opened and in walked a guy wearing a Zappos.com T-shirt. My friend introduced me to Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos.com and author of Delivering Happiness). At the time, Zappos had about 70 employees, and most people including myself had never heard of the company or Tony Hsieh. Over the next few years Tony and I became close friends and I joined the Zappos team as one of its handful of early investors. Over the next 16 years I witnessed first-hand how its unique culture helped Zappos inspire its employees and grow an amazing brand and company. My involvement with Zappos inspired me to launch CultureIQ six years ago to help other companies create high-performing cultures to achieve their business strategies. I’m proud that more than 1,000 companies have worked with CultureIQ since that chance meeting in an elevator.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Last year my company merged with a larger competitor. Overnight my company changed from a startup with 23 employees in one New York office, to over 100 employees located in five offices in the USA and London, in addition to numerous remotely located employees. My responsibility as CEO of the combined company was to merge two different cultures each with its own personality and traditions. This was an exciting opportunity to use CultureIQ for CultureIQ. We celebrated a common vision, polled employees to determine shared values, closed gaps in compensation and benefits, formed culture committees, and conducted an all-hands company offsite to build relationships and trust. By year-end we were ranked 8th Best Company Culture for 2018 on Comparably’s Top 50 Small/Medium Size Companies in the USA.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m very excited to be writing my first book under the working title Culture Stories. My first goal is to spark inspiration. I hope that leaders feel excited and compelled to take at least one step to strengthen the culture at their respective company. My second goal is to equip leaders with tangible ideas to drive positive change. And thirdly, I want to carry on the conversation around culture and its crucial role in business today.
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?
In my experience employees today, more so than ever before, aspire to join organizations that are purpose-driven. Employees are much more likely to be engaged and happy at their company if the organization’s mission and values resonates with their own personal values. Organizations that work to align their culture with their business strategy achieve happy and engaged employees, but it requires a meaningful commitment and unfortunately many organizations fall short. Many organizations are working to transform their culture achieving better alignment to ensure they can recruit and retain talent. I’m optimistic that the statistics in the study cited will steadily improve and more and more employees will be happy at work.
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?
There are many ways that unhappy employees impact a company. The cost of turnover alone — which on average can be 6–9 months of that employee’s salary depending on tenure and level of responsibility — is a significant hit. Turnover can also create customer disruption as well as loss of institutional knowledge. In fact, Medallia, a customer satisfaction feedback platform, has found a direct correlation between turnover and NPS scores where the branches of companies with the lowest turnover had the highest customer satisfaction.
However, we think of culture as more than engagement and happy versus unhappy employees. Our decades of research show that the most productive cultures are not only engaged, but agile and aligned. According to our research in conjunction with research from Gartner for HR, agile organizations were three times more profitable than their peers who were considered agility laggards. Therefore, organizations need to think about not only if their employees are happy –or engaged — but whether or not they can predict upcoming change and move as a team to address market opportunities or transitions.
Well-being is something that I’m particularly passionate about and an upcoming area of focus for us as we embark on our 2019 annual benchmark research. It is more than just the cost of absenteeism, which is around $225 billion annually in the US alone according to the CDC. It is whether or not those employees can bring their best, most creative selves to help the company and support their colleagues and families.
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?
Ensure that your values align with your overall strategy: After our recent merger our management team reviewed and refined our core values to ensure that these values align with our updated strategy. We also polled our employees asking them to provide feedback regarding these core values confirming some of our intended updates. It was very collaborative and resulted in buy-in from all employees since they participated in the process.
Define the culture you need to successfully execute: Culture needs to align with strategy to ensure execution. For example one of our customers determined they needed to change their culture from a “family culture” to an “expert culture” to execute their business shift from delivering call center services to creating call center technology automation. This shift has been transformational for our customer.
Communicate strategy & goals to your company: Once your leadership team finalizes its strategy and goals, in my experience it’s imperative to state and re-state the strategy throughout your company to reinforce it. My company created a strategy that we called “One Company”, which was made up of five components identified as crucial for the success of our recent merger. We communicated and reinforced the strategy and components, and all employees helped to achieve the successful integration of our merger.
Collect employee feedback to ensure that employees know they have a voice in your company: Employees not only need to be heard, but they need to see that actions have resulted from their collective feedback. My prior example of polling our employees regarding our core values led to adding one core value and deleting another.
Think about ways to reinforce your values and goals: One of our core values is to “Celebrate the Journey”. To reinforce this value, we often celebrate minor and major milestones with cupcakes, balloons, impromptu happy hours, bell-ringing, gifts, and other celebrations big and small along the way.
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?
One broader societal change that impacts all of us is gender equality. Fortunately, this topic has received a tremendous amount of recent attention and there are so many examples of companies and leaders that are shining examples of positive strides toward achieving equality. In my own experience, I’m so proud that women make up the majority of employees at my company, and I’m equally proud that our focus on this topic has resulted in CultureIQ being named one of the 25 winners of Comparably’s annual “Best Companies for Women 2018”. For the future, I’m optimistic that my own teenage daughters will have equal opportunity as they enter the workforce based upon their merit, passion and hard work, and not based upon their gender.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
My leadership style is a combination of teaching, learning, transparency and candor. Some days I’m teaching the next generation of leaders at my company or in my classroom at NYU Stern, and some days I’m pursuing my own goal of lifelong learning. Both are equally important. Over the past six years I’ve been teaching undergraduate students at NYU as an adjunct professor, and over these same six years I’ve been attending an annual week-long executive education program at Harvard Business school with 200 other CEOs from around the world. Teaching and learning are the flip side of the same coin, equally important for success. Regarding transparency and candor, employees can sense when a leader isn’t genuine, so you need to be your authentic self. I allow myself to be vulnerable and open, and my team responds in-kind.
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?
Nineteen years ago while founding my first company I was seeking direction from successful business leaders. One of my early customers was a prominent entrepreneur named Charlie Stryker. I didn’t know Charlie other than his published biography, and some routine customer interaction over the phone, but I took a risk asked him for some business advice. He didn’t hesitate to share his insights and advice, and over the next 19 years Charlie became my mentor meeting with me several times each year or jumping on phone calls if our travel schedules didn’t sync. Charlie didn’t ask for any financial incentives or rewards, he simply helped me because he could. This had a profound effect on me, and after I achieved some business success I also started mentoring young leaders and teaching part-time at NYU. Charlie recently passed away, and I’ll continue to honor his memory by helping to mentor the next generation of leaders.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m proud that my culture work helps companies focus on employee well-being, how to treat employees in a values-driven way, and affords that people can have strong families and be integral in their communities. I also try to inspire the next generation of leaders by teaching and mentoring. But unrelated to business, eight years ago I founded a non-profit foundation called Willa’s Wish to actively raise money to seek a cure for Type 1 Diabetes and to educate newly onset patients and their families. I hope that my foundation’s work helps move the needle for millions of diabetics around the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When given the choice to stay home and do nothing or go out and do something, always do something because you never know who you might meet who will change your life forever.” I said this to my best friend on a random Wednesday night in New York City 21 years ago trying to persuade him to grab a few drinks with me at a local bar. He was persuaded and I met my future wife at that bar an hour later. My friend quoted this life lesson during our wedding toast, and this year I’m celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary.
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.
The USA has 2.5 million weddings each year at an average cost of $25,700. That’s $62 billion a year not including gifts. Weddings are wonderful events but imagine if a movement started that each couple instead had very modest nuptials and allocated the wedding costs to establishing a non-profit of their choice. Instead of a one-night party, the newlyweds could start their life together making a lasting impact on society. Multiply this by millions of weddings each year and expanding to other countries, and imagine the perpetual impact on society. Sharing their love through charity, newlyweds could literally share their love with the world not just for their wedding day, but for a lifetime.