Culture Matters to your People and your Bottom Line

An Executive Interview with Dr. Linda Wagener, CCO of Blink UX

Rick Beaton  •  Published on May 18, 2020  •  12 min read

I recently sat down with the Chief Culture Officer of Blink UX, Dr. Linda Wagener to talk about how Blink is leading the world in UX because they’re able to retain talent and develop their organization through the use of Culture.

 

Many of us have heard of the role of Chief Culture Officer, but not many of us know what a CCO does or have enjoyed a conversation with one.

Dr. Linda Wagener, CCO of Blink UX

What stood out to me right away in our conversation was that Linda explained how Blink adopted a cultural model that was based in social and psychological research. Being evidence based is a core tenant of UX design and Blink takes it to the next level by even building their organization and culture using an evidence-based approach.

I'm a Chief Culture Officer, Dr. Linda WagenerMotis People
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Linda: I’m a Chief Culture Officer. I know that a lot of people have heard of Chief Culture Officers, but not that many people have met them. It’s my role to oversee the people strategy side of the work that we do. That’s mostly employee experience from day one that they first encounter us in the hiring process all the way through to their last days at Blink. Creating a positive culture that allows our employees to develop their full potential and have a fantastic work experience, also then translate that into a great experience for our customers, and our clients, our partners really.

 

Rick: This is really interesting, because on the one hand you’re focused on designing software for people and yet you’re also then creating an organization that is to a certain extent people centered as well.

 

Linda: That’s right. Absolutely.

 

Rick: What are some of the strategies you use for that? Were there foundations to building the company that should be put in place that make Blink more exciting or interesting or safe to work at than other companies?

 

Linda: One of the reasons why I enjoy my role is because culture touches everything in an organization. It’s incredibly integrated into everything that we do. We do start with a foundational set of culture metrics that have been demonstrated to be linked not only to employee engagement (which is kind of a popular buzz word these days), but also to productivity and profitability. Those two things are linked of course. These measures come from organizational development research, and we routinely pay attention to each of these, measure them at least annually, and then develop our culture initiatives based on those metrics. In our culture, as well as in our design process, we are committed to being evidence driven.

Foundations of a High Performing Organization

To Linda and Blink, culture is the foundation of a healthy and high performing organization. Additionally, focusing on how to grow and develop the skills of employees should be top priority for any business. Often times, we hear executives and managers talk about strategies that are crucial to business. Some of them are about branding, marketing, and sales, or innovation and the ability to find the perfect product-market fit. But in my conversation with Linda, her primary business strategy is talent development and retention.

Hiring is Very ImportantMotis People
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Rick: Perhaps you can talk a bit more about how you shape employee experience both from on-boarding and then career development, and how you develop your talent in your organization.

Linda: Hiring is very important to us. I have to admit, we hire to a certain bias, and that is we’re looking for people who are really good at teamwork. Everything that we do at our company depends on teamwork. And so, while our people are incredibly smart, and of course smart and skilled are parts of the resumes that we look at, we also are looking for a good culture fit. Any by culture fit, we mean that people have the social and emotional intelligence skills to be able to collaborate. When push comes to shove for example, if we have an extremely talented person who is toxic in their relationships, we will and have let those people go. Because the negative influence they have on our ability to work together as teams. So that’s an important part of our hiring process. I interview every single candidate that comes into our company. Luckily, we’re not huge. We have about 103 full-time employees and so I can still keep on top of that. Once people come into our company, we have a rigorous onboarding and very personal onboarding process. I know that some of the larger companies are moving to software governed onboarding. At Blink, we’re still very personal. We spend lots of hours with them in our first weeks helping them to understand our mission, our values, our processes, but also our culture. So, I do a one-hour culture interview with everyone one of our new employees where we talk about what we’re looking for and what our expectations are in terms of cultural participation.
 

Knowing to Invest in Culture

Blink spends a lot of resources on the onboarding process of new employees. They believe that strong teamwork has a direct correlation on the firm’s bottom line. To have all employees understand the mission, values, process, and culture is akin to having everyone rowing in the same direction. If that’s not organizational efficiency, then I don’t know what is. It’s a powerful example of executive leadership that’s committed to producing high performing organizations. Blink also looks at the social and emotional intelligence of its people. Being talented, but toxic, is a sure way out of the organization.

 

But is that really necessary? Aren’t there talented-but-difficult employees in all organizations? And don’t those organizations get along just fine with people who are rough around the edges? Well, Linda disagrees. And she has the evidence to prove it. Blink’s commitment to foster teamwork and positive culture directly affects how clients experience the work that Blink produces.

Investing in Culture is WorthwhileMotis People
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Linda: I would say that investing in your culture and in your people is always worthwhile. You don’t have to hire superstars at the highest salaries in order to create a company that can deliver excellence. We’ve proven that at Blink. We have the greatest client base in the world, even though we’re quite a small company. But yet we work with the world’s most interesting companies to solve their most complex problems. And we have done that by bringing in extremely talented, thoughtful, kind people who can really excel at teamwork. Because our clients become our partners, we extend that culture into the client work and they feel it quite clearly. One of our clients for example who everyone would recognize has re-hired us over 460 times. Part of that is for the beautiful work that we’ve done for them but it’s also because they also really enjoying working with our people. And that’s the way in which culture will feed your bottom line.

The Right Tools for the Job

Blink has an impressive client roster. From NASA, to Microsoft, to Amazon, to Google, to Nike, to Starbucks, to HBO, every major player in almost every sector has partnered with Blink to create beautiful, useable technology. Being able to work with the world’s most innovative companies doesn’t leave much room for toxic employees with rough edges. Too much is on the line for a business such as Blink to tolerate misalignments in culture. Sure, this sounds easy, but how does Linda implement such a careful pruning of company culture? 

Linda and Blink use Motis Grow, a cloud-based system that manages the performance, development and upskilling of an organization’s workforce. Linda says Blink uses Motis Grow to create clarity and transparency in an upskilling path for its employees.

Using Motis Grow within our OrganizationMotis People
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Rick: And how has Motis Grow facilitated the development of your people and how is it tied to your business strategy?

Linda: The Motis Grow Tool is absolutely critical to how we manage employee development and upskilling. Which is of course very important, not only to us, but to our employees. Our employees, particularly the younger ones coming in, and the more junior employees are levels 1 through 3, are very invested in wanting to grow their career. We use Motis Grow to help them clarify the processes and the skill development they need to do in order to continue to grow and be promoted. Our salary ranges are also tied to skill levels within the Motis Grow tool, so as people move up and through particular levels of skills they also routinely will see raises and promotions connected to that. The whole process is spelled out and every objective. So it keeps up from falling into the trap of favoritism or affinity bias or any of the other things that so often times begin to create inequity in the system. 

Rick: And do you use Motis Grow for continuing to customize these skills in your workforce?

Linda: We use the skill function on the Motis Grow tool for the core functions of our company. So for our researchers and designers where we have clear a career path through the company. We do revise those every 3 to 5 years I’d say, significantly from the ground up, but we are also able to make revisions in those as we go along. I should say that the skills are an important part of the Motis Grow that we use, but there are some other fundamental functions that we use including monthly manager check ins. Those are really important and during the check ins, every employee gets feedback from their manager, which is documented. They have actions items. They can set goals. All of those kinds of things that are critical in addition to developing their skills. It’s really paid off when we do our culture metric each year. One of the scores we get that’s highest and I think really impacts our ability to retain talent is that people feel that their managers are really invested in their career. And that comes through really concretely and solidly in the use of Motis Grow tool in the check ins that managers have with their direct reports every month. 

Setting a Path for Career Development

The main criticism of performance management systems and manager reviews is that bias and favoritism produces inequity. Hence why Motis Grow delivers a transparent system of skills and team feedback for employees. Linda says that Blink uses Motis Grow to create a clear career path through the company, with revisions every three to five years so that the entire organization stays aligned to a positive culture. Creating an environment where managers are invested in their employees’ careers is a major factor in talent retention.

Linda says that having a great roster of clients sometimes isn’t enough to retain talent. Using a system like Motis Grow helps Blink allows the organization to focus on developing the most valuable skills for managers.

Culture is the KeyMotis People
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Rick: How do firms in your industry deal with issues around succession planning, growing high performers, and developing managers, for example?

Linda: We have similar challenges to other mid-size companies like us. We have about 103 employees, so like in all companies, there are a limited number of slots at the top. We have one particular level, level 4, where we make the decision along with the employee, whether they’re well suited to manage and develop others. At that point they can make a career choice to continue on as individual contributors and practitioners in which case they get more complex work. They’ll probably manage projects. Some of those projects will be projects that they’ll run. We have another track which is our director level. Those people have skills that they’ve demonstrated already for being able to manage and develop people. And those people will continue on as directors and will receive direct reports at that point, helping to develop the skills of levels 1 through 3 employees. 

Rick: Do you see developing people as part of the role that’s inherent to managing people? 

Linda: Yeah, and that becomes quite obvious when they have to make this choice at level 4. You can choose to become a director and which case you’re primary responsibility in addition to project success is developing talent. That distinguishes you from the principles who continue on to do that complex work but don’t develop others. And that makes that point really clear when we have that choice. In addition, all of the people who manage people have monthly ongoing training that is a requirement for them. So we keep sharpening their managerial skills. We also have a skill track in the Motis Grow tool, it’s called Teamwork and Collaboration. And at level 4, all of the skills are about managing and developing people. We compete for talent with some of the biggest firms in the world: Microsoft, Amazon, T-Mobile, Facebook. All of these are our competitors for our talent particularly in the Seattle area. But also in the San Francisco office as well where we’re competing with Google and other big firms in silicon valley. Those firms can afford to offer far more money and benefits. So in order to compete, we have to have some edge. And for us, the edge is our positive culture, and the interesting work that consulting work brings. And our ability to help our people grow their skills and their talents. We might for example develop a person over 3 to 5 years and then see them leave to go in-house at Facebook or Microsoft or one of these other big companies. We’ve accepted that. But still we continue to attract talent because of our reputation for the positive culture and for the fact that we’re a great place to work. Quite significant, we just had a very fine junior employee leave who’s been working with us and doing consulting work for five years. And she’s gone in-house at one of those big 5 technology companies and her salary and benefits are probably equivalent to 1.7 of what we can offer her. That’s a huge gap. But employees are willing to stay with us, especially in those early years to get the career development. And then we have very high retention of our senior people. Once we get through that gap, our senior people stay for years. In fact, we still have the first two employees that have ever started at Blink, after our founders, they’re still working for us. Our average retention is well over three years, which is also quite good for a company in our industry. I would say that the strongest influence is because of our culture and because of our people. Our people are really invested supporting one another and helping each other grow. And our use of Motis Grow is just a reflection of that. When Motis began to work with us, we knew that culture was important. But like so many people, it just seemed to vague and so huge that we didn’t know how to get a foothold. Motis really helped us identify the culture metrics that were important for us to pay attention to. They gave us a set that was doable, measurable. And it has had a considerable impact on us. Everyone in the company knows what our culture metrics are. Everyone knows what things they can do to contribute to a positive culture. And year over year, we have had great success in being able to demonstrate that people love to work for Blink. They love “Blinkers”. And I think that a lot of that is a result of the culture that we have consciously developed with the help of Motis.

The Power of Positive Culture

Linda says that the ability to develop other people is one of the most important skills Blink looks at when growing juniors into managers and managers into directors. The ability for a manager in Blink to be invested in the careers of their direct reports is a powerful glue that holds together the positive culture at Blink. Linda uses Motis Grow to hone in on those skills for managers with continued training and development. It’s clear that Blink’s success is due in part to the organization's ability to develop team players and leaders. Strong retention in a highly competitive tech industry is rare, and Linda says that not only does the firm perform at a higher level, clients also feel the benefits of their strong culture.

The key takeaways from my conversation with Linda is that organizations can’t take for granted the power of culture. Revenue is tied to organizational performance. And organizational performance is tied to talent development and retention. All of which are built upon the foundation of company culture and their commitment to invest heavily in employee upskilling. Employees on all levels of their organization receive training and upskilling directly related to the development of their other team members. This is an amazing example of a high performing firm that sees the correlation of their revenue with employee upskilling.

If you’re an organization that understands the value of workforce upskilling and would like to implement a system like Blink UX has, contact Motis and schedule a demo of Motis Grow.

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