“Don’t assume the worst.” with Nathan Christensen

My advice to other leaders is to establish a vision for the culture, communicate its importance, and then turn it over to the team. At our company, we’re building a commitment culture, which means our values, actions, and ideas all stem from an emotional and intellectual commitment to each other, our mission, and our customers. […]

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My advice to other leaders is to establish a vision for the culture, communicate its importance, and then turn it over to the team. At our company, we’re building a commitment culture, which means our values, actions, and ideas all stem from an emotional and intellectual commitment to each other, our mission, and our customers.

As a part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Are Helping To Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Nathan Christensen, CEO of the newly formed union between ThinkHR and Mammoth HR, companies that deliver HR on-demand services to over 300,000 small and mid-size businesses nationwide. Nathan has been named a “Game Changer” in the HR field by Workforce magazine and was selected by the Portland Business Journal as a member of the “Forty Under 40” class. Nathan has also served as an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and as a visiting lecturer at The Wharton School of Business. Based in Portland, Ore., Nathan holds degrees from Stanford University and The University of Chicago Law School.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I describe myself as an “accidental CEO.” I started my career in management consulting with The Boston Consulting Group and then taught fourth-grade through Teach for America. From there, I went on to law school and practiced at a law firm for several years.

Mammoth HR was initially started by my father-in-law in 2001. It was intended to be a small, family-owned business with a few employees, and I was involved from time to time to consult on various operational issues. In 2013, my mother-in-law was very ill, my father-in-law was caring for her full-time, and the business started to stagnate.

That’s when my father-in-law asked me to come onboard fulltime to help lead the company and figure out what to do with it. Before joining Mammoth, I didn’t understand HR and the powerful role it can play for companies and their people. So I left my law practice and joined the company for what I thought would be a one-year effort to help our family business.

Needless to say, that’s not how it turned out. Within my first month, I realized this little company was doing something special. One night, I downloaded a report of all the comments our small business clients had left about their interactions with our team. I spent four hours that night reading every comment. They were different from anything I had seen before in the customer surveys and focus groups I had led as a management consultant. I could see that HR was a source of anxiety, fear, and confusion for small and mid-size businesses, and that having a team of HR experts standing behind them was an empowering experience. Even more, it was clear to me that HR was going to get harder, not easier, for these businesses, and that the company had an opportunity to grow and to do a lot of good along the way.

So we rebooted the company and over the next five years, we grew it from a dozen employees to over 50 employees. Then last year, we brought together the two leading companies in the category — Mammoth and ThinkHR — to accelerate our growth and innovation. Today, we have around 200 employees and continue to grow.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had was when we decided to give unlimited vacation a shot. We’re a small business, and we liked the idea of a time-off policy that conveyed trust in our employees, supported their lives and families, and reduced red tape. We agreed to try it for one year and then reevaluate.

Over the course of the year, the policy became one of our employees’ most valued benefits. In a survey we conducted just before we hit the one-year mark, our employees ranked unlimited vacation third-highest among the benefits we offer, just behind health insurance and a 401(k). It beat out vision insurance, dental insurance, and even professional development, all of which ranked highly in their own rights.

It wasn’t a shock that people like unlimited time off, but what was surprising was that over the course of the year, employees took roughly the same number of vacation days under our unlimited policy as they did the year before, when we accrued paid time off (PTO) in a more traditional system. For most of our team, both accrued PTO and unlimited PTO each averaged about three weeks per year, plus 10 paid holidays, making for a total of five paid weeks off.

If unlimited vacation didn’t significantly move the needle, we wondered: Why did our team value it so highly? We found that unlimited vacation was at least as valuable for what it said as for what it did.

Offering unlimited vacation communicated that we viewed our staff holistically–acknowledging that employees had demands and interests beyond work that can’t always be scheduled in advance.

Our unlimited vacation policies also conveyed trust, making employees–not their managers or HR directors–responsible for making sure their tasks and projects still got done regardless of the time they take away from the office.

Third, unlimited vacation treats our employees as individuals. Work styles and personal lives differ, both from person to person and year to year. Those differences have implications for the amount of time off people need in order to lead healthy, productive lives, and an unlimited policy gives them the freedom to adapt their time off to their circumstances.

After we finished our experiment, I wrote an article for Fast Company that was also published internationally. Through the responses I received from business leaders, it’s clear that for the most part, employers and employees are actually moving closer together, rather than on a collision course. Unlimited vacation policies aren’t for every company. But if you decide to implement it for your team, don’t focus your efforts on simply curbing abuse or combatting non-use. Instead, focus on connecting your policy to your culture and values, and training both your managers and employees on how to set and measure clear expectations. That way, you’ll stand the best chance that your team will use it exactly as it’s intended–to help them excel both at work and at home.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Remember that your time and attention are the most valuable assets you have. Give generously of each to the people and things that deserve them and protect them from distractions that aren’t important. I have a really simple technique I use to do this. Each morning I write down on a post-it note the three most important things I need to do that day and stick it to my monitor. Some days those three things take 15 minutes; some days they take all day. Often they are a mix of personal and work. Writing them down and keeping them literally front-and-center helps me stay tuned to where I want and need to focus my attention during the day.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

My advice to other leaders is to establish a vision for the culture, communicate its importance, and then turn it over to the team. At our company, we’re building a commitment culture, which means our values, actions, and ideas all stem from an emotional and intellectual commitment to each other, our mission, and our customers.

Our executive team and I have an important responsibility to continuously communicate, model, and reinforce this culture. But ultimately a culture that’s owned by only the CEO or senior leadership is not going to thrive. From the moment they join our company, every employee in our company is a culture creator for us, and they have the responsibility and opportunity to help shape and strengthen our culture according to our shared vision and values.

One of the mistakes I see companies make is they hire for “culture fit.” Hiring for culture fit can lead to stagnation, limit diversity, and create an echo chamber. Instead of “culture fit,” we hire for culture contribution. That means making culture part of the selection process, and hiring people who we believe will help us evolve our culture going forward. This begins long before the interview — it starts with creating job descriptions that communicate our vision for our culture and each employee’s role in bringing it to life.

This is especially important as work from home continues for many companies. It is important to consider actions you can take as a leader to uphold company culture and not to see this as a barrier but as an opportunity to connect with people. Here are my top tips:

  • More frequent communication is required, what this looks like in practice may be increased usage of messaging services, more video calls, weekly email to keep employees informed of the company direction and priorities. At Mammoth and ThinkHR, we have a Slack channel called the “The Good Place” to provide everyone a place to share the positive and good things happening inside and outside of work.
  • Repetition of values, mission and priorities. Along with increasing communication, repetition of the values of the company is essential and explaining how that translates on an individual level.
  • Individual outreach to employees. Take time to make personal connections with each person.
  • Open up space for more intimate connection when there are company comms to get to a deeper level of communication. Create opportunities for employees to share beyond just communicating values.
  • The more vulnerable we can get people to be sooner, the stronger the culture. As leaders, it is important to break down barriers, get comfortable sharing and model the behavior you wish to see.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader. A great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.”

In my first few years as CEO, I was a directive leader. My team brought me their questions and issues, and I saw my role as figuring out the answer or making the decision. I assumed that the way our team, company, and I would succeed is if I got enough of the answers right and our team trusted me enough to carry them out.

I’m a different leader today. About four years ago, I realized my directive approach wasn’t growing our team and company to reach their full potential. Around the same time, I ran across this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt. When I did it crystallized the lesson my own experience had been trying to teach me. I hired an executive coach and have reversed my mode of leading. Rather than focus on answers, I try to focus on questions. Rather than focus on telling, I try to focus on asking. And rather than focus on building the team’s confidence in me, I try to focus on building the team’s confidence in each other.

I’m still on this journey with a lot left to learn. Eleanor’s quote on great leadership is my North Star.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives you have taken to help improve or optimize your employees mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

As an HR company, we understand the important role a company plays in supporting its employees’ mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic has broken down the walls between personal health and organizational health, and we’ve seen firsthand and through our clients that supporting employees’ mental health is key to sustained individual, team, and company success.

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve taken a number of steps to promote mental wellness within our own company:

  • Provide space to process grief: In the wake of COVID-19, many employees are struggling with loss in different forms right now, including loss of routines, loss of relationships, and loss of travel. Earlier this year, we hosted a grief workshop to make sure that our managers understand, identify, and acknowledge grief they may be feeling and are also prepared to support their team members.
  • Create outlets for wellness: With so many employees stuck at home due to COVID-19 and, for those on the west coast, dealing with smoke from the wildfires, we realized we could help fill the void. So we partnered with a third-party vendor to offer a range of wellness sessions for our employees. Each session is a 25-minute segment a few times per week, focused on stretching, meditation, positive parenting, yoga and mental health care. We also gave all employees a year-long subscription to “Headspace” and mailed coloring books to employees (and their families).
  • Leverage our team: Bringing in outside experts can provide an important resource for employees. But often we overlook one of the most important resources we have — each other. Our colleagues can be a source of strength, empathy, and comfort for us, particularly since we share a common experience of working together. After we transitioned to a fully remote environment, we had to create new ways for our employees to connect with each other, including online small group sessions and virtual happy hours.
  • Stay on top of PTO usage: With travel more restricted than it used to be, we’re unable to take the type of time off we may be used to. As a result, PTO often falls to the wayside. At Mammoth and ThinkHR we are closely monitoring the usage of employee PTO to make sure our employees are giving themselves time to refresh and rejuvenate, even when it feels like there is no place to go. We’re seeing PTO usage rates at two-thirds of historical norms for this time of year, and we’ve been training and encouraging managers to work individually with employees who have taken little time off this year.
  • Shorten meetings: Now that we’re working in a remote environment, in which nearly all communication and collaboration is scheduled and planned, we’ve seen our employees’ calendars fill up with back-to-back meetings. As a result, employees aren’t getting time during the day to eat, hydrate, use the restroom, or help a child with school work, and they’re drained at the end of the day. To address this, we now require that anyone scheduling a meeting include 5 minutes of break time for every 25 minutes of meeting time. Meetings that were scheduled for 30 minutes are shortened to 25 minutes. Meetings scheduled for an hour are shortened to 50 minutes. This change makes sure that employees have an opportunity to transition and reset themselves through the day.

What you are doing is wonderful, but sadly it is not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

It’s no secret, unfortunately, that many of us live overly stressful lives, more so now that we’re in the midst of a pandemic. According to the American Psychological Association, 7 in 10 employed adults say work is a significant source of stress in their lives, and overall stress levels have dramatically increased for Americans as a result of COVID-19. Some days we may feel overwhelmed by stressful situations and overloaded with stress hormones, and it’s not a coincidence that on these days we seem less able to think clearly and work collaboratively. We’re literally hindered chemically from doing so.

The workplace can be a demanding, high-risk environment. Employees face a risk of failure and its consequences, such as a missed deadline that may jeopardize a deal or an important initiative. Additionally, feelings of loneliness and isolation can add to a person’s stress at work, as can mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Employees without a strong support network or those experiencing mental illness may have an even more difficult time managing common workplace stressors. Worse, their additional struggles are often invisible to managers and peers.

While not every stressor in the workplace can be eliminated, some can. And those that can’t be eliminated can likely be managed. The foundation for reducing stress in the workplace is building a culture of trust, so employees see their responsibilities and collaboration as opportunities not threats.

Once that foundation is in place, here are four practices that can help make the workplace less stressful and more supportive of employees’ mental health:

  • Don’t assume the worst. Because the workplace is a complicated environment to manage, employers too often grow cynical about the employment relationship. They view their employees as risks or obstacles to their organization’s success, rather than partners and agents of it. But assuming the worst about employees, for instance that they don’t care or are motivated only by self-interest, or seeing them primarily as threats or liabilities, will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will create more drama, add more stress, and ruin otherwise functional relationships. As Cy Wakeman says in her book No Ego, “stop believing everything you think.” Instead, advises Wakeman, ask yourself what you know for sure and base your thinking and your decisions on what is, in fact, real. Tell your employees to do the same.
  • Act in good faith. There are times when the right thing to do is going to cause someone stress. For employers, it might be discipline for a policy violation, a poor performance review because of unmet expectations, or a layoff due to a shortage of work. For employees, it might be providing candid feedback to a peer, asking a coworker to cover a shift, or setting an ambitious deadline for a project. The important part is not to try to avoid these decisions and conversations, but to approach them in good faith and to be transparent about where they are coming from. Acting in good faith shows that you care about their success and wellbeing, even when making a difficult decision. It helps reduce the stress of the situation and enables others to understand and accept it.
  • Address sexism, racism, and other forms of inequality. Inequitable, unequal, offensive, or hurtful conduct are stressors that every employer needs to acknowledge and work to eliminate. Unlike other stressors, they are not inevitable. Microaggressions, in particular, deserve to be called out. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Ella F. Washington, Alison Hall Birch, and Laura Morgan Roberts explain that microaggressions are “verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group. For Black people, they are ubiquitous across daily work and life.” These indignities are not “small,” as the term micro might seem to imply, but rather frequent and casual. To support the health of their employees, not to mention build an ethical workplace and comply with the law, employers must work to prevent and eliminate hostility, harassment, or discrimination, period.
  • Promote support networks. We’re not meant to struggle with stress alone. We need others, and they need us. You can facilitate relationships and support systems among employees by facilitating mentoring programs, peer groups, and social events, as well as, in a pandemic period, giving employees access to virtual chat programs and video conferencing apps. Reassure employees that relationship-building is part of the job, and that it’s fine for them to take time during the workday to reach out to others about non-work matters and participate in activities. Managers can set the tone by participating in these chats and activities and encouraging employees to join in.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?

Empathy is key. From a leadership perspective, it is important to ask team members how they are doing, to open the door to the conversation about emotional challenges and struggles, and to ensure that employees know their leaders care and are thinking about them on a personal level. Employees often default to not wanting to “bother” their leaders with their personal struggles. So creating the space for people to share what’s going on personally or emotionally is critical. It’s important to make sure managers are proactively checking-in with their employees, employees feel seen and heard, and the company understands and is proactively working to address employee needs.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

As we work our way through the pandemic, I think less about good habits that can replace poor habits, and more about how to adapt the good habits we’ve had for our current reality. For instance, one of the ways I tried to maintain good mental health was to be active during the workday, moving regularly, occasionally biking to the office, and simply walking to the office to connect with employees. In the remote environment, I have shifted most meetings to video. But I reserve some for phone-only and, when possible, take them while walking our dog to replicate some of the activity I used to get in a normal workday.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

I’m still learning about best practices for mental wellness. Earlier this year, I bought a Hydrow rowing machine. After years of irregular exercise, I’ve started rowing every morning. When I’m done, I feel a sense of clarity, energy, and balance that lasts throughout the day.

That said, if during the day I need to recenter myself, I put an intentional pause in the day. My wife, Lyndsay, and I have three kids, ages 11, 9, and 6. Like many people, on my desk I have pictures of our kids and drawings they’ve made for me. Pictures of jumping into lakes, costumed dance parties, colorful rainbows, handwritten notes with lots of exclamation points and few vowels. For all they still have to learn, kids can be incredible teachers. In a moment of stress or fatigue, I’ll pull one of these pictures or drawings down from the wall, set it in front of my monitor, and spend a few quiet minutes thinking back to the moment that it captured, and the playfulness, love, and optimism reflected in it.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

When I was a fourth grade teacher, I read a book called “Teaching with the Brain in Mind.” The book used neuroscience to describe how our minds receive, process, and ultimately learn information. It was directly applicable to the work I was doing with my students at the time, but it continues to inform my approach to leadership and communication today.

One of the most relevant lessons from the book to our conversation today is the harmful impact that stress has on our ability to learn and perform. Our brain’s ability to process information, whether that be receiving new information or applying information we already store, is far more limited when we are under stress. Today, many companies are asking their employees to process more information than ever before under greater levels of stress than ever before. That’s a recipe for failure, and we are working hard at Mammoth and ThinkHR to manage workplace stress so our team is able to do its best work.

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. 🙂

As a leader and as a company dedicated to building great workplaces, we’ve been committed to supporting three causes: diversity and inclusion, youth development, and environmental sustainability. We believe that each of those causes is critical to building the great workplaces of tomorrow.

At Mammoth and ThinkHR, we also believe we are part of a movement, in even our day-to-day work. We’re helping businesses across the country create better cultures and workplaces where their employees can thrive. Think about the amount of time and energy we Americans invest in our jobs over our lifetimes, the low levels of engagement and job satisfaction we report, and the important role healthy and successful businesses play in supporting our families, communities, and country. We use HR as a vehicle for helping these organizations and the people within them succeed, and it’s a movement I get out of bed every day to move forward.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

You can follow me on Twitter @nathancpdx or follow my company @realthinkhr. We’re also constantly sharing insights on our blog at ThinkHR.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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