Take your ego out of the equation. Going from good to great requires undergoing an honest examination, which means opening yourself up to the possibility that you can do better. If you’re busy defending your ego instead of listening to criticism with an open heart and mind, you’ll never make the necessary changes to level up from good to great.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing both Jim Estill and David M. M. Taffet.
Jim Estill owner and CEO of Danby Appliances, a niche manufacturer of specialty appliances that produces and distributes over 2,000,000 appliances per year, and David M. M. Taffet, Co-Founder and Venture Builder at JukeStrat. Estill is a Canadian technology entrepreneur, executive, and philanthropist. Coming off a year of resilience and growth amid an economic downturn, Estill decided to make the leap and work to transform Danby from Good to Great through its largest ever investment in organizational well-being and company culture. This joint interview highlights a business transformation led and implemented by Taffet and JukeStrat, a purpose-driven consulting group. Over the course of 50 days, Taffet conducted 100 interviews with Danby staff and architected a number of initiatives the company has since embraced on its way to becoming a happier, more productive, and less-siloed place as a result of this transformational work. This interview includes both Jim’s and David’s perspectives detailing how they’ve worked to strategically and sustainably transform Danby’s culture by investing its most critical asset, its people.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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?
Jim Estill (CEO of Danby) and David M. M. Taffet (Co-Founder & Venture Builder at JukeStrat) met through a now “paused” startup called Petal — producer and inventor of the world’s first zero-odor-germ-freezing waste bin for compost, diapers, and anything that stinks. Think about it like this: if your freezer and your trash can had a genius baby, Petal would be the result.
As a large North American manufacturer of small appliances, Danby was the perfect manufacturing partner for Petal, whose technology also has roots in Ontario, Canada. Thus, a partnership and friendship was created between Jim and David, who planned to make Petal ubiquitous throughout households in the U.S. and Canada.
Then, the pandemic hit. Understandably, due to the COVID vaccine’s refrigeration requirements, Petal got knocked out of the production line. Moreover, the cost to produce Petal rose ten fold amidst the urgent need to manufacture freezing and refrigeration devices to transport and house the vaccine. Things came to a standstill.
However, serving as CEO of Petal, David had cemented high profile partnerships (e.g. Danby, Rainfactory), raised capital, built an outstanding team, and got Petal featured in Fast Company, The Hustle, and several other popular media outlets. Jim had a front row seat and was impressed by David’s business acumen and people management skills.
When Petal was forced to hit pause, Jim asked David to help him take Danby from Good to Great. In the process, Jim adopted David’s recommendations to promote “rock stars,” eliminate toxicity, and create a committee of “Culture Champions” who exemplified the best of Danby. The Culture Champions vet candidates for promotion and hiring and instill Servant Leadership best practices across the organization.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced on your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
David: At this moment, I’m finally on the rise from my greatest life and career setback. Approximately 10 years ago, I came face-to-face with my worst fear — the dissolution of my marriage and my family. It happened when my first wife confessed that she loved me, but wasn’t in love with me. Although not altogether unexpected, her confession turned my world upside down, drove me into a dark depression, and set me down a path of self-destruction.
Other than a handful of people, everyone turned their backs on me. My parents, extended family, friends, and professional network all ousted me from the communities I once helped to nurture and grow. I had lost everything, including the home I personally restored to its 1890s glory, the place where my children grew up. I was homeless, car-less, and penniless. I thought about killing myself, but it pained me to think of putting my children through more loss. Only a miracle of God was going to renew my once unflinching optimism.
And then I met my second wife, Christie, who had the daring to stick with me as I was besieged by the fury and disdain of family members and former friends. She has always appreciated me for my being as opposed to my doing. She saw me for me, not my circumstances. She helped me learn to love myself. Her belief in me sparked my Phoenix story and has culminated in the beautifully fulfilling life we enjoy today. After falling so far, we like to say that we “rose in love” together, which is a line from the Toni Morrison novel, Jazz.
I firmly believe that opportunities flow from staying open to the world and the people in it. Often, when we’re feeling discouraged, we close ourselves off to the world. Everything seems bleak and hopeless, and that’s only compounded by the self-imposed isolation that often stems from depression. Had I not opened my heart to the possibility of finding love and happiness again, I am certain I would not have recovered — personally or professionally. Getting here wasn’t easy, but I’m now living my best life.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Jim: Danby Appliances has a heart and we want to have a positive impact on the world. In 2017, the news of the war in Syria was front and center (and disturbing). We wanted to do something to help, so we decided to privately sponsor 50 refugee families to resettle in Canada. That sponsorship reframed us as a champion of refugee sponsorship, and we have gone on to sponsor many more refugees.
This program attracted exceptional talent to Danby. In fact, my assistant, Cherie Bauman, applied to Danby because of our reputation as a socially conscious organization. I’ve heard similar things from a number of employees, who feel good about working at a company that cares about people.
David: JukeStrat is a standout company for so many reasons, chief among them is our commitment to only provide services to companies with a social impact mission. No matter how profitable the opportunity is, we refuse to work with organizations that don’t seriously consider how their business affects people and the planet.
We also have a “zero toxicity rule” that applies both internally to who we hire and externally to our clients. We actually fired a client who introduced toxicity into our lives. We decided to work with them because we believed strongly in their mission and vision, but soon we realized that, although their intentions were good, their approach to work was hostile and stress-inducing. It’s a complete luxury to work in a toxicity-free environment, and we’re not willing to give that up for anyone, whether they pay us or not.
Also of note, we are a woman-owned and majority woman operated company. My wife Christie Zwahlen is the owner and our team members come from diverse backgrounds, but most of them have a history in the public and nonprofit sectors. In this way, our personal and professional goals are aligned to produce mutual thriving. The work we do on behalf of our clients serves a social purpose, and it’s the reason we all get up in the morning — to contribute to the public good.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Jim: To properly answer the question, we have to understand what causes burnout. Burnout happens when people are stressed. The two primary stressors are doing things that are not in line with their values and working with leaders and peers they do not trust. Solve those two problems and burnout rarely happens.
Yes, it is important for people to look after themselves too. Health is one of my primary values (I call myself a health guy) so people need to feel supported to look after themselves.
David: I agree with Jim wholeheartedly. First and foremost, if you’re working for as opposed to with the people at your organization, you’ll probably end up burning out sooner or later. When we work with people, we’re not focused hierarchically on who’s in the lead. We’re leaving our egos at the door and collaborating to achieve the best results. This process brings out the best in people. It provides motivation and inspires trust.
That being said, a lot of people don’t have this luxury. They often work for people. They’re relegated to following commands versus collaborating and exercising their creativity. If your work environment is truly causing you distress, you should speak with HR about it. If it’s a pattern they’ve been made aware of on enough occasions, they can take necessary action.
If HR is unresponsive, it may be time to consider a new job or career change. Staying in a job out of complacency or fear will not benefit you in the long run — even if you’re poised for a promotion or a raise. Just because you have more authority or increased say in your new role doesn’t mean the culture of the organization will change overnight. If the issue is your boss, taking on a new role might solve your problem. If the issue is organizational, thriving at work will be difficult no matter your role or responsibilities.
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?
Jim: My father and mother both had a huge impact but not necessarily in the way, you would think. My father impacted me because I was a rebel. When I told him I was starting my business he said, “that’s ok because you are an engineer, and when you fail, you can get a job”. I think that made me set out to prove that I could never fail. He had worked for the same company for decades and eventually got downsized in his mid-fifties. After that, he came to work for me and became my biggest advocate. From my father, I received a high work ethic. Work ethic was highly valued in the Estill family.
From my mother, I received politeness. There was no tolerance for poor manners while I was growing up. Those manners translated in business, to high customer service and just old-fashioned politeness. It is surprising how this little characteristic can be uncommon and become a competitive advantage.
David: I am grateful for one of my dearest friends, Bob Gionesi, who died from cancer a little more than nine years ago. Prior to his death, we worked together for 10+ years in lots of different capacities. We respected each other so completely that we never worried about who was the lead. Sometimes he would serve on the board of one of my companies and I would report to him. Sometimes he would serve as a direct report to me.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
David: A good company is, at minimum, a profitable company. It has a reputation for producing quality goods or services, a decent public image and better than average employee retention rate. A great company is not only profitable, it has an inspired vision for how its product(s) will change the world. It also has a strong social impact focus, a high employee retention rate and is making an authentic effort to increase the diversity and inclusivity of its employees, board members, and shareholders. In essence, culture is what makes a company great.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- “For, in the end, it is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.” (Jim Collins) At a great company, every single employee knows the mission and vision by heart, because it guides all of their decision-making. When people are united by a vision larger than themselves, their work becomes meaningful and fulfilling. Often, this allows people to more easily leave their egos at the door and instead engage humbly and productively towards a collective goal.
- “Great vision without great people is irrelevant.” (Jim Collins) I’ve learned in the process of going from Good to Great that “who’s on the bus” is critical to leveling up. David and JukeStrat conducted 100 interviews of Danby employees to determine whether there was proper team alignment in various verticals. They also listened carefully to feedback from employees regarding their managers and colleagues. This was crucial to identifying who should be on the bus helping guide Danby towards greatness.
To a fault, I am generally very accepting of people and am willing to forgive repeated mistakes. While I still believe in forgiveness, it’s important to understand that underperforming or toxic team members can drag down others who are doing everything right, and that’s not fair to them. As CEO, it’s my responsibility to ensure the health of the entire organization, not just individuals. If an individual employee is not contributing to the health and happiness of Danby, we have a problem, and we must address it.
- Take your ego out of the equation. Going from good to great requires undergoing an honest examination, which means opening yourself up to the possibility that you can do better. If you’re busy defending your ego instead of listening to criticism with an open heart and mind, you’ll never make the necessary changes to level up from good to great.
- Likewise, it’s important to remember that you are not necessarily the audience for your brand or company. Leaders who make decisions based on what they themselves like or want (instead of the target audience) are not serving their organization well.
- Embrace your discomfort. Or, as Mark Twain recommends: “Eat the frog.” The only way to achieve greatness is by conquering the hard stuff — the gnawing stuff in the back of your mind that you’ve put off doing again and again and again because it’s messy or stress-inducing or scary. Most people avoid pain and conflict like the plague, which is why few people live great lives and most just live mediocre ones. If your organization is unwilling to embrace discomfort, it will never work through the roadblocks preventing it from being great. Humans learn and grow through discomfort; it’s the only way. And, it’s the same for enterprises.
- Be willing to take risks. If you’re not willing to be bold, you’ll likely never achieve greatness. It’s one of those clichés that happens to be true. Being cautious has its merits, but in today’s business landscape, people are hungry for innovative ideas that “disrupt” the market. These are the interventions that garner press, funding and consumer interest. Differentiating yourself from competitors by taking a bold stance may be what’s needed to jumpstart your journey from good to great.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Jim: From both a consumer and internal company culture perspective, the power of purpose cannot be overstated. Recently published research by Porter Novelli shows that people are more likely to remember a brand with a strong public purpose. More specifically, people make stronger mental connections with words that convey Purpose vs. Functionality.
People are also more likely to want to work for a purpose-driven brand, which gets back to the effect of purpose on internal company culture. When people are motivated by a higher purpose than just “paying the bills”, work no longer seems like such an imposition. That’s why investing in purpose is a total game changer. It creates meaning and fulfillment, which increases employee engagement and job satisfaction.
But, the commitment needs to be authentic, not just lip service. Employees know when their company is truly committed to a cause, and consumers are becoming increasingly shrewd in discerning authentically purpose-driven companies from those fabricating a commitment for the PR boost.
What’s more, authentically striving to make a difference in the world requires connecting across sectors and industries, opening up partnership channels which can lead to increased reach, business growth and of course, increased social impact. It’s a win-win-win for everyone involved. There is no dearth of pressing social challenges that require our collective attention. The fact that working to address these challenges is good for business and the world makes pursuing social impact a complete no-brainer.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
David: Infinite factors can lead to business stagnation, so it’s hard to give specific advice. However, in my experience, people are usually the reason for a failing or flatlining business. No one can control market forces, so you can’t rule that out, but usually, poor leadership is the root cause.
Specifically, stagnation ensues when toxicity in some form is allowed to fester — whether it’s obstructionism, insecurity, arrogance, fear or complacency. It’s impossible to separate “the team” from “the company.” They are one and the same. If there is dysfunction within the team, the company as a whole suffers, too.
These days, we’ve seen even the biggest companies get outed for mistreating their employees. If the culture of your company is toxic in any way, the truth will surface eventually. That could mean the toxicity is publicly exposed or it could just mean that your business fails, leaving you subject to public criticism and personal dejection.
My advice is to open yourself up to the possibility that something is truly wrong and ruthlessly attack the issue with passion and tenacity. Try not to let your own biases interfere with your pursuit of the truth. Be prepared to tackle your own demons and make yourself vulnerable. It’s possible that the problem is you, and if you’re unable or unwilling to embrace that truth, your business will likely continue to stagnate.
If you feel you’re unable to uncover or resolve the issues yourself, engage an outside party who you trust. There are many agencies dedicated to turnaround consulting. Ask to speak with their references and make sure you have proof of their success on behalf of other entities. The people engaged should be experienced business professionals with extremely high EQ. In fact, when it comes to turnaround work, I would argue that EQ outweighs business experience.
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?
Jim: My strategy for maintaining traction amidst turbulent times is well articulated by Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association: “While there’s no denying the complexity of managing through crisis, leaders can find clarity by testing every decision against touchstones that define their culture.”
The world will always be in flux, as will your business. Making decisions against touchstones that define your culture creates continuity and builds trust amidst changing market conditions.
As I mentioned earlier, companies who are authentically purpose-driven maintain stronger, more lasting relationships with their customers and employees. During a difficult economy, these companies have an edge over their competitors. If customers are making purchases more sparingly, they’re more likely to spend money on brands who they remember and feel connected to.
What’s more, by staying focused on your organization’s culture, you’re signaling to employees that nothing can detract from your concern for their happiness and wellbeing — not even a bad economy. When employees feel valued, their loyalty increases as does their care and concern for the customer experience. In essence, staying true to your mission and vision during trying times increases consumer confidence, employee loyalty, and customer satisfaction.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
David: Without a doubt, focusing on people and culture. Nothing is more important, yet companies often ignore it. And, it’s usually by choice. Maintaining a healthy and thriving company culture is difficult. It requires tremendous emotional energy and constant attention to detail. It requires true connection with people, not just small talk around the water cooler. I mean cultivating trust with and genuine affection for your team members.
How can one minimize the energy required to maintain a great culture? Spend the time (whatever time it takes) to hire the right people from the get-go. Defining the role and its expectations are critically important, but so too is the cultural fit. Many skills can be learned on the job, but teaching someone how to be an honest, hardworking, compassionate individual who has chemistry with the rest of the team? That’s not easily taught. And, sometimes, it can’t be taught at all. The chemistry is either present or not.
In many of the companies I’ve run, I’ve referred to my team as “Bad News Bears.” Younger readers might not be familiar with the reference, so I’ll explain a bit. Bad New Bears don’t always have degrees from the fanciest schools or the most relevant industry experience. They’re often “misfits” who may have been overlooked because they don’t conform to traditional social standards of excellence. I tend to get along really well with people who don’t fit in, perhaps, because I never did either.
Several things united the Bad News Bears in my companies: team chemistry (they liked one another), curiosity, empathy, creativity, and a willingness to go against the grain. To me, these are incredibly valuable assets. But, often, companies want to hire people who will just “follow orders” or not ruffle feathers. I’m fine with ruffling feathers, especially when it results in problem solving or getting to the truth of a situation.
Conflict avoidance isn’t the key to a great team culture; it’s a sure fire way to brush things under the rug and delude oneself into thinking that everything is fine. Conflict should be dealt with in a healthy and constructive way. Unfortunately, most people lack the know-how to effectively navigate conflict and reach a favorable resolution.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Jim: From my perspective, the best way to earn a reputation as a trusted brand is to create high quality products at a lower cost than your competitors. Danby is not a flashy brand. In fact, we don’t spend all that much time or energy on branding efforts. We focus on our competitive advantage and ensuring that we’re meeting the needs of our target audience. This may be an unconventional perspective, but it has worked well for us.
David: I agree with Jim in that it’s important to know your target audience inside out. Everything your company produces should have brand integrity and should appeal to your target audience’s needs and desires. When I say everything, I really mean it — from something as tiny as a reply on an Instagram comment to something as critically important as your investor deck. Everything should align with your company’s stated values. Your voice (tagline, website copy), your brand visuals (logo, color palette, font), your partnerships, all of it should serve to authentically build a community around your brand.
Once you develop brand awareness, it’s essential to then follow through on your values and commitments. Don’t state your brand values as one thing and then act in a way that negates those values. Even a whiff of inauthenticity can damage your brand, so don’t let it happen. If something does happen unbeknownst to you, use it as an opportunity to double down on your brand values and show the world who you really are.
For example, when I found out that an employee at our recently “paused” start-up, Petal, had posted horribly offensive racist and homophobic cartoons online, we engaged in a difficult company-wide conversation about diversity, inclusion, and empathy. The basic gist was, if you want to be part of this team, you must adhere to these values. If you don’t adhere to these values, then you don’t belong here. The employee was stripped of his leadership position and barred from supervising anyone until he demonstrated a true change of heart and behavior. He wrote a lengthy public apology and published it as an editorial in his hometown newspaper.
Rather than sweeping the story under the rug, we felt it was important to share publicly with our customers, investors, and anyone else who would listen. Our aim was two-fold: 1) to ensure clarity around our utter intolerance of racism, homophobia or bigotry of any kind, and 2) to share our perspective that people can be redeemed. Even though that employee had committed an appalling misstep, he was still an important part of the company and contributed immensely to our team and our success. His willingness to educate himself, apologize, and publicly make amends for his actions was commendable and serves as an important example of how people can change.
Instead of a “black mark” on our record, the incident became an opportunity to check ourselves and reaffirm our brand’s authenticity.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Jim: Danby’s company-wide motto is “Do the right thing” and that applies to everything from internal operations to the customer service experience. I have been personally involved in the customer service department from day one, taking phone calls and listening to feedback from customers. Customer feedback is incredibly important to me and to the success of Danby. We’ve invested heavily in this area to ensure an exceptional customer experience.
We have implemented a “closed loop” system so that we can get to the root of any customer service issues and solve them quickly. For instance, if customers are reporting an issue, we immediately review and revise our manuals to ensure clarity and reduce frustration. Learning from and valuing customers is essential to operating a thriving business. I can’t state that strongly enough.
David: I am frequently shocked by how petty companies can be in this regard. It’s so easy to say “yes” and make someone’s day, but 99% of the time, the person on the other end of the phone is provided little to no discretion to favorably resolve situations on behalf of customers. This leads to disgruntled customers and employees.
Research consistently shows that employees who feel empowered are more engaged and more satisfied at work. As a result, customer satisfaction also increases. So, in order to create a “wow” customer experience, give your customer service representatives the power to make calls based on individual circumstances. In essence, allow them some room to be human! I promise, it will pay off.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Jim: Social media allows us to have direct and meaningful engagement with our consumers. It’s a great platform to share everyday household tips and tricks with our audience. It’s also a great space for consumer feedback, which as I stated previously, is essential to growth and improvement.
Of course, it’s also a great way to expand brand awareness in a way that allows us to share stories about some of our social impact efforts (i.e. how we strive to “Do the Right Thing”).
David: There’s no longer any question that social media is a necessary part of the modern day marketing mix for companies, organizations, and brands everywhere that are seeking to remain relevant and visible in today’s fast-paced world.
Of course, how important it is and how it should be used really depends on the nature of your company — B2B or B2C — your target audiences, and where and how you can most effectively reach them.
Let’s face it: the digital age has forever changed the rules of reputation management. As a business owner, you would be foolish to ignore both the reputation management opportunities and risks that come along with it. My best advice is to treat it as you should all other elements of your business: with thoughtfulness, integrity, and intention.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
David: One of the most common mistakes I see has to do with the concept of “sunk costs.” Psychologically, when we invest resources into something, we become blindly committed to it. For instance, think about how many people stay in toxic relationships simply because they have “invested so much.” The same goes for companies that are stagnating or failing. CEOs become so wedded to the idea that they’ve invested too much to let something die. They’re unable to accept reality, and as a result, they don’t take the necessary steps to stop the bleeding.
No matter how much you’ve invested in an idea or an enterprise, if it’s not working, the best and most logical thing to do is either pivot or move on to something else. It’s not smart to make decisions about the future based on what happened in the past. The past can inform your decision making, but it shouldn’t dictate it.
If this concept interests you, check out Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. How can our readers further follow you online?
David: You can learn more about my work and my fellow Jukesters at JukeStrat.com. Personally, I am most accessible via LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!