“Don’t Underestimate Having A Huge Vision And Regularly Articulating It To Your Team” With Autumn Manning

“Don’t underestimate the importance of having a huge vision and regularly articulating it to your team. The team will easily start to meander in varying directions without regular alignment and communication around what we do, why we do it, and how we will get to where we’re going. It’s about setting that North Star for everybody and then breaking it down and personalizing it so that they know their role and impact in helping achieve the goal. I’ve found that it bears repeating each week, each month, each quarter.”

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Autumn Manning, the co-founder and CEO of YouEarnedIt, an Austin, TX- based human capital management company dedicated to building high-performance cultures and engaged workforces. Autumn is a culture champion and has used her background to re-examine the way businesses and employees interact and engage. In the process of building YouEarnedIt, Autumn has redefined the employee experience in today’s modern workplaces. With an industry-leading retention rate, YouEarnedIt partners with more than 400 global organizations to amplify company culture through its award-winning employee experience platform. Autumn was recently profiled in The New York Times and HuffPost and her thoughts on employee engagement, work/life balance, culture and leadership have been featured in Entrepreneur, Inc., and Business Insider. Under her leadership, YouEarnedIt has created the world’s most robust employee experience platform and was named to Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of Best Company Cultures.

What is your “backstory”?

I was raised in a very diverse household. We moved around a lot, generally every year or so, between California and Arkansas mainly. My mother was a single mother who worked a lot, so I played a big role in helping to raise my three sisters. At an early age, I learned how to quickly size up a situation, figure things out, and problem solve. Being able to adapt to changing environments and situations has helped me get very good at looking at risks or problems as an opportunity to move forward and achieve more.

I have a background in psychology and have always worked in human capital management. The merging of these two areas lead to my fascination with human behavior: Why is someone the way that they are and what inspires them or compels them to change? This interest has influenced my career choices and professional trajectory.

I’ve spent my entire career working with organizations and building processes, tools, and programs that help drive behavioral change and engage people to do awesome things in the workplace and, in turn, the world. All of this has been a perfect foundation for starting YouEarnedIt and applying this to changing how employees engage every day and working with organizations to better engage their people for higher performance.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Several years ago, I was speaking at a big HR conference, and as I was waiting to go on, I walked into a nearby hallway to take a call with a sales rep about negotiating a contract. The prospect was trying to get pricing for cheap and was using every tactic in the book on our sales rep. Needless to say, I was “in my element” — negotiating and telling him what to say and using (let’s just say) some very strong language!

When I hung up, the moderator walked over and told me my mic had been hot that entire time as he ushered me up to the stage. I wanted to die, but I had to take the stage and play it off to the audience. Fortunately, I was able to move on and the speech went well, despite the inside look at our final contract negotiations!

How exactly does YouEarnedIt help people?

Today, most of us spend more time at work than we spend with our families and our friends. With modern technology, we are constantly plugged in to our jobs via our phones, Slack, and/or email — and unplugged from happiness and the richness of life away from work and connection to people on a deeper level. In the current job market, with low unemployment rates and multi-generational workforces, employees expect and WANT so much more than just a paycheck, and YouEarnedIt helps deliver this to them. We partner with business leaders and remind them of what’s important for people, and then help them deliver that to their employees every day.

Competing priorities and ineffective solutions in the market for “employee engagement” mean companies are spending more money and more time on these things but getting less of a return on those efforts. Employers often struggle to provide a positive employee experience and miss the opportunity to engage their teams in ways that are relevant and meaningful while delivering profound business results.

YouEarnedIt helps companies solve for this problem by revolutionizing the employee experience. For me, the employee experience — or rather, the act of engaging your people, treating them well, and enabling them to be successful in work and in life — is both a cause and a social mission. When employees enjoy their days at work, when they look forward to the challenges ahead and give more than a job description can ask for, they go home to their family and friends as better people and are able to share their best selves with the people who matter most.

YouEarnedIt’s platform was developed with the science of motivation, pulling in best practices proven by behavior psychology. Our platform redefines the employee experience through real-time recognition and feedback, rewards that are personalized and meaningful, enhanced insights for leaders and the business, and modern performance management to align people to the needs and direction of the company. It gives employees the true ownership they want and need to drive positive change within their organizations.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I’ll start with the most important thing to me, and that’s the why behind what we do. We focus on the employee first and tap into what truly moves the needle above and beyond everything else. People want to connect to others in a meaningful way; they want to have an impact on others; they want to work for purpose and meaning, and they want to feel appreciated for their work and effort. We deliver this first and foremost, and we do it through a platform that is intuitive, connected to other technologies, and helps companies quantify the employee experience.

YouEarnedIt bridges the gap between how businesses and employees engage to create a better experience, one that drives personal and business results. Since our founding, we have always been employee first, which enables us to deliver stronger ROI to our customers.

Pushing culture from the top of an organization doesn’t work. While most of us know this, we still find it difficult to operationalize. When companies put employees at the top of the pyramid and listen to what’s meaningful to them, everything changes. The YouEarnedIt platform is built on this model, empowering companies to put their employees first in a simple, but profoundly unique way.

The end results for companies that work with YouEarnedIt are extraordinary — eNPS scores go up, turnover of top performance goes down, sales metrics, profitability, and safety metrics are impacted positively as well. Teams collaborate more, are aligned better to the mission and values of the organization and have a stronger foundation for growth.

YouEarnedIt was the first platform on the market to deliver a more customized, personalized rewards approach, helping companies not only understand the underlying motivations of the changing workforce, but deliver rewards at a lower cost and with more impact. For example, a few years ago when the tornadoes tore through Moore, OK, we enabled our customers to give back to the town’s relief efforts by donating points to the cause. YouEarnedIt doesn’t make money from this and our customers allow their employees to direct their giving to things of greater meaning to them. When employees have a choice to impact others or spend money on themselves, paying it forward wins out almost every time.

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?

People can learn from anyone, or any situation, if you are willing to listen and apply. While my stepdad had his faults, he did instill in me a love for education, a deep sense of discipline and commitment to the pursuit of excellence. And he helped teach me the importance of confidence. When I would tell him an answer to a question, his response was always, “Are you sure?” After I expressed my assurance the first time, he would nudge again and make sure, “Are you absolutely sure that’s right?” When I would waiver after that second prompt, he would offer, “You were right. Don’t doubt yourself.” I think about this a lot, now as a female CEO in the competitive tech industry. Confidence is key and decisiveness is critical.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’ve spent my career solving people problems through the blend of technology and human behavior. This has allowed me to drive change at scale, building better systems that I believe truly make a difference in peoples’ lives and in their company’s success.

With the growth of YouEarnedIt (we just closed a strategic investment with Vista Equity Partners in April), and our commitment to improving and prioritizing the employee experience, I now have a platform as CEO to talk about workplace issues that are important to both employees and companies, as well as society at large.

I also have an opportunity to reinforce employee-first cultures and business practices — ones that value diversity and inclusivity and ones that want to build cultures that truly drive engagement for the entirety of the workforce. I have the unique vantage point of speaking with hundreds of leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, and employees on what works and what doesn’t. Being a conduit to help elevate these conversations is important to me. I recently started a podcast to promote these conversations, successes, and failures from the best of the best. My hope is that executives start to lean into this even more and apply the “best practices” that we share with their teams.

Helping women find their confidence and their place in life and in their careers is something I am extremely passionate about. I spend a lot of time focused on this, from helping fellow entrepreneurs who are just getting started to mentoring women (and men) at YouEarnedIt to driving awareness of why there are so few women in leadership and what we can do to change that.

Lastly, the impact I have on my kids is always top-of-mind for me. I’m in a unique position to show my children that being a great mom and a great leader aren’t mutually exclusive. We need more role models (both female and male) to show the importance of finding meaningful work, at home and in the board room, and being able to juggle both without the guilt and struggle so many have when working and parenting.

When my daughter Marin asks why I can’t pick her up from school every day, I tell her because I have a job that I love and am good at, but it means I can’t be there at 2:45pm every day. Words are powerful, especially to little ears, so I don’t apologize for my job when she asks me this, but instead I let her know that I am not only her mommy, but I am a great leader too, and I have chosen to be both.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. There’s not a formula for what makes a successful CEO. Everyone tries to tell you that there is, and everyone is quick to tell you what you should do as a CEO. I wish I would have quieted this earlier. Being a CEO is dynamic, it’s different for everyone, and it changes as the business changes. For me, being open and authentic with my team, driving strong collaboration, and focusing on aligning the team to the huge mission in front of us are things I try to put into daily practice.
  2. Don’t underestimate the importance of having a huge vision and regularly articulating it to your team. The team will easily start to meander in varying directions without regular alignment and communication around what we do, why we do it, and how we will get to where we’re going. It’s about setting that North Star for everybody and then breaking it down and personalizing it so that they know their role and impact in helping achieve the goal. I’ve found that it bears repeating each week, each month, each quarter.
  3. If it’s a worthy mission, the CEOs who make it are the ones who simply didn’t give up. To build a successful software company, with the competition and the funding landscape and the competitive talent market (to name a few things that you have to navigate), one has to possess an immense amount of resilience. As a leader, I’ve found this to be one of the most important attributes over the years. This includes not taking “no” for an answer, selling your heart out (when you likely shouldn’t win, given the competition), and pushing through when things get really, really hard. When you hear “no” from another investor, you have to believe that they are the ones missing out. When a key leader quits, and you have to stand in front of the team and explain why, you must have the clarity of purpose and the grit to keep going.
  4. Learn to fine-tune your intuition and use it as a powerful tool. I’ve found that I have a strong instinct for this business and team, but I should have listened to it more in the early days. To fine-tune this, I’ve surrounded myself with people who know me and believe in me, will challenge me if I’m wrong and will remind me to listen to my gut if I’m questioning it. Early on as a CEO, I spent a lot of time ignoring or discounting my own internal voice, when it would have saved me a lot of time and effort if I’d listened to it!
  5. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. Many decisions you make won’t be the popular ones. You can’t make everyone happy, so the sooner you can align yourself to where you are going, why it’s so important, and build a team that believes in those things as well, the sooner you can worry less about hurting feelings or making tough decisions along the way.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. who you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see just see this. :-)

I’m going to adjust the question, and answer with someone who is no longer alive. Someone I have always been fascinated by and wish I could’ve shared a meal with is legendary boxing manager Constantine “Cus” D’Amato.

I have always been obsessed with boxing and watched it religiously with my step-dad, growing up. Over the years, I learned a lot about Cus and what he did for the sport of boxing. He’s most known for being Mike Tyson’s former manager and trainer during the beginning of Tyson’s career and through his early rise in the boxing world.

I really admire what Cus did for Mike Tyson, seeing him as unique and special, and as someone with talent and the ability to go far. Especially when others seemed to discount Tyson as a young man without much worth, and treated him in the way that we, as a society, often treat others who don’t “look the part”. Cus saw a champion so he developed a champion, instilling discipline and a drive in Tyson that helped him achieve success in a way few people have ever done. Seeing the good in others, and recognizing raw talent is a leadership trait so few people possess, and I’d like to understand how Cus did it.