Lay down a vision. Determine where you are, where you need to be, and a broad sense of how we get there. Then, have the energy, conviction, and belief that you can get there. Eliminate any doubt and negativity.
As a part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Papay of Waggl.
A proven HR technology pioneer with over 20 years of experience building and leading technology businesses focused on Human Capital Management, Michael Papay currently serves as CEO & Co-founder of Waggl, an Employee Voice platform that crowdsources real-time insight to drive faster action and alignment around critical business topics. Michael is a frequent author and contributor to advancing the thought leadership around organizational learning and employee engagement, and his work has been published in Fast Company, Forbes, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and other leading business publications. He has presented at SIOP, ATD, HRWest, and other prominent industry conferences. Michael is on a mission to make the workplace more human by empowering the voice of employees and cultivating a more connected and engaged workforce.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve always had a passion for entrepreneurship. My mentor was Cal Wick, who I worked with at Fort Hill Company, where we worked with enterprise clients like Deloitte, Kaiser, Boeing, Cisco Systems, and more on how to successfully implement change management initiatives within their organizations. I spent my time there learning a lot about how leaders manage change, and how to take good ideas and translate them into action. What I’ve learned is that, most of the time, it’s about central concepts like empowerment, transparency, focus and design thinking. The trick is to take complex ideas and make them really simple for people to implement. That led me on the journey to found Waggl, where we empower the voice of employees to drive change and betterment inside their organizations.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One time I was on a pitch with a large new business prospect, and while my colleague was giving a demo of our product, I was leaning back in my chair. All of a sudden, the legs snapped on the chair and I found myself on the floor of the conference room. The best part of it was that my colleague didn’t miss a beat — he looked over at me, could tell I was fine and just continued presenting. I still tend to lean in my chair, but my key take-away from that experience was “Lean forward, not back.”
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?
The most influential teacher I’ve had in my life is a gentleman by the name of Court Dunn. He taught me a number of subjects in middle school, and he was also my ice hockey coach. An amazing individual who flew airplanes, skied moguls in Telluride, and had many fascinating stories about leadership on and off the ice. We ended up playing in a tournament in Canada, and I remember him describing the rulebook for our trip and to start it was only going to be about a millimeter thick. Based on how we conducted ourselves, we would ultimately determine how many rules would be added — so in essence, he was letting us know that he trusted us, and we’d start with very few rules. That’s where I learned that extending trust is an important way to begin. If leaders can show that they trust their people from the start, it lays a solid foundation for the relationship going forward. This is even more true now, given the shift to remote work — begin with trust, and you may be surprised by how well things go.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When we founded Waggl in 2014, we saw that many organizations were struggling to achieve a more agile way to operate. We also recognized that managers and leaders want to be included in the conversation and feel like their voices matter. And yet, the reality is that no one wakes up in the morning wanting to full out a survey. So, we recognized a huge opportunity in helping organizations to thrive by giving people authentic voices in the workplace, and in the process, make work a better place. The reality is that we’re working now more than ever. The average person will work over 70,000 hours in their lifetime (8 hrs/day x 5 days/week x 50 weeks/year x 35 years in a career). This far exceeds the amount of time we will even spend with our own families, even in the midst of a pandemic. And in fact, 40% of the US population believes it is impossible to succeed at work and have a balanced family life. So, it’s important that we make work a positive place to be. Our purpose is to help organizations thrive by giving employees a more authentic, genuine opportunity to be heard in the workplace. This, in turn, will help employees and their organizations thrive.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
We are operating in unprecedented times, and are collectively experiencing some of the biggest challenges we’ve experienced as an organization, a society and a nation. I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have immense faith in my team and in my organization’s ability to thrive. I don’t have a crystal ball in front of me, but I do have the steadfast resolution to keep confident and view challenges as an opportunity for my organization to get stronger as we go. Believing is half the battle, and it takes a confident predisposition to accomplish huge things. So, the constancy of belief needs to come first, followed by the conviction that things will get better — this is the key to getting through difficult times. And on a daily basis, that brings a lot of meaning to my work.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I definitely haven’t considered giving up — it’s not part of the entrepreneurial mindset. But there are certainly days when I feel beat up and I’m tired. However, when I see the sacrifices that my team members are making to show up every day, overcoming challenges like homeschooling their kids, stepping up to cover expenses on one salary when their spouses being laid off, and when I see my own child sitting across from me at the dining room table — these are the things that give me the strength to refill my tank and hit it hard again the next day.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Having the practicality to acknowledge challenges and confront reality quickly, then moving forward decisively with the best info at hand. In challenging times, you can’t drag your feet. Leaders have to make decisions more quickly than they might otherwise, without the luxury of time to debate all sides and collect more info. Then you need to stay positive and have the conviction to stay the course, knowing that you’ve made the right moves based on the information at your disposal. People need to hear over and over again — that they can weather the challenges and that things are going to get better soon.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
At Waggl, we’ve gone with the notion that “We’re all in this together.” We are facing a collective challenge, so, let’s unite and meet it together. That unifying mindset has been galvanizing and comforting for the team. We all know that we’re not alone in this.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Early and often. I once had a professor of Strategy and Policy at Babson College named Stewart Ward, who was a former partner at McKinsey. He taught me that when you have bad news, the best course is to deliver it as quickly as possible. If you try to shine people on with good news while concealing the bad, it erodes trust. So, share the bad news ASAP, find ways to collectively turn that tough news into a better outcome, then communicate frequently on the progress. One way to do that is through regular and consistent feedback loops, which is what Waggl focuses on.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
For one thing, the time horizon for planning has moved in considerably. So, instead of forecasting what things will look like in 3–5 years, or even one year, we might be focused on what next quarter will look like, or next month, or tomorrow. In times like these, we need to double down on what’s mission-critical, like our vision and our values. But it’s also important to let your mind re-imagine the future. For example, what will office space look like when we get back to the “new normal”? Perhaps we have smaller satellite offices, rather than one big space. It’s okay to let your vision expand a bit, so that you can think creatively about future possibilities.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Putting employees first. There’s simply no way to get through the strain of turbulent times if you don’t have the commitment of your team. If organizations want to continue serving their customers well, it’s crucial that they keep the heart, soul and minds of your employees engaged. The only way to keep employees engaged is to genuinely and empathically understand their needs, and to make them a top priority.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Don’t forget to listen. From what we’ve seen and experienced at Waggl, the worst mistake is not listening to employees. In difficult times, you can’t just put your head in the sand and try to drive your standard agenda in the same way. Even right now, during the Pandemic, many organizations are failing to check in with their people. Without listening to people, it’s going to be hard to raise their energy and efforts to take the organization into the future
- Avoid a false sense of security. No one knows for sure what’s going to happen in the future, and pinning your hopes on a specific idea can be misguided. So, leaders need to embrace and accept some level of ambiguity, where you aren’t placing too heavy a bet on a future reality that may never magterize.
- Double down on what makes your organization unique. There’s a reason why your organization is doing what it does, so focus on what’s core to your DNA — organizational values, and your value proposition as a business. Rather than making rash moves into unchartered territory or trying to completely reinvent yourself, make small pivots within your own arena.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
At Waggl, we’ve maintained our primary focus on the experience of our employees and our customers. We adopted a servant mindset, and made a deliberate decision to do as much as possible for our existing customer base, with the knowledge that, in turbulent times, it becomes more difficult to write new business. So, we created a model for our customers to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, then extended it to the broader marketplace. And for us, this strategy is working — our pipeline has increased by 30–40%, due largely in part to our quick response, and to the goodwill we generated by getting out there and helping others. We are grateful to be in a very unique position to be driving toward double-digit growth in the midst of a pandemic and a recession.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Lay down a vision. Determine where you are, where you need to be, and a broad sense of how we get there. Then, have the energy, conviction, and belief that you can get there. Eliminate any doubt and negativity.
- Ignite enthusiasm across the organization. Make it clear that you can’t do it alone — every team member has accountability for their contributions.
- Encourage a collective mindset. “We’re all in this together.” Teamwork, togetherness, camaraderie.
- Empower your people to make decisions. Everything is happening exponentially faster, which puts more pressure on the traditional business model. So decision-making and action need to be delegated accordingly, and people need to be empowered to achieve the objectives necessary to move forward quickly.
- Communicate frequently. This is true of both wins and losses. Make sure that people know where the organization stands, in terms of progress.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s not a quote specifically, but more of a recommendation for a book that I find myself coming back to more frequently over time called “The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War.” This book about the Battle of Gettysburg contains a story about General Chamberlain, who had a rag tag group of defectors who were on their way to an army prison. The General treated them with a great deal of respect and made sure that they were clothed, fed and treated properly. These soldiers had already served their term and wanted to leave, but as the Battle started to heat up, General Chamberlain asked if they would stay and fight with him and they agreed to do so. He ended up getting assigned to the left flank the evening before Pickett’s charge. That group held the line, even after they ran out of ammunition. The General called on them to fix their bayonets, and they charged the Southerners, even though they were outnumbered by a ratio of 10 to 1. Amazingly, the Southerners ended up retreating. Had they not held that line, it very likely would have been the turning point for this battle and for the entire war. I take great inspiration from that story, because it shows that treating people with respect can pay dividends to you down the line.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!