Transparency. Employees ought to — and in many ways, have a right to — have some insight into the financial health of the business in order to ultimately care about and contribute to the bottom line. We share our financials with our employees, and we talk about what the numbers mean. As many companies are, we are an EBIDTA driven organization. While it’s one thing to rattle off “earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization,” it’s another to have a real understanding of how this number is used to evaluate company performance — and most importantly, how every single employee can contribute in a positive way.
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shawn Mills, CEO of Green House Data, a provider of transformational managed IT services including multi-cloud management, professional services, and enterprise IT applications. An experienced technology entrepreneur and business leader, Shawn has led Green House Data through multiple acquisitions and rapid growth from a startup in Cheyenne, Wyoming to an international organization with an extensive client list. Shawn has spoken at industry events including Data Center World, the National Center for Super Computing Applications, Cloud Computing Expo, and Datacenter Dynamics, and been recognized by publications including Wired, Fortune, and Hemispheres. When he is not at Green House Data, Shawn is either in the Rockies with his family or with his surfboard searching for waves.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me. Circa 2007, cloud computing was really just starting to make waves. I was having coffee with a friend of mine — Thomas Burns, our current CTO and a co-founder, brainstorming business ideas. I think Thomas said he had just seen An Inconvenient Truth which came out a year prior. Climate change was really hitting the public consciousness. Both of us were experienced in the tech industry, and the cloud was just taking off. We realized that the industry in the US had very few, if any, data centers and cloud locations that really prioritized sustainability, and we saw a market opportunity there.
That was the beginning of what became Green House Data, and over time, we’ve seen the industry at large adopt many of the practices we committed to a decade ago, like using 100% renewable energy.
We talk about our clients being on an IT journey, and we’re on one too. Though we have kept efficiency and sustainability deeply embedded in our practice as an organization, we’ve evolved into so much more than a green data center. Today we move throughout the stack from IaaS up through PaaS. It’s an exciting space.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I maintain that the most fun thing about being a startup entrepreneur is getting your hands dirty. In this case specifically, taking out some walls with a sledgehammer for our first data center retrofit.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’ve always believed in investing in your employees and trusting them to make smart decisions. Right now we’re really expanding our cloud skills and knowledge of business applications so we can go way beyond the base level infrastructure. That helps customers because we can work with them at any level of their IT stack all the way up to helpdesk and app support. But it also helps our staff as we provide valuable career training and expand their skills. And we never would have made these decisions without staff members coming to management and telling us, “Hey, our customers are looking for this. Can we help?”
Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
I think that many business leaders don’t trust their employees enough to make good decisions on their own. At Green House Data we have unlimited PTO, if your manager is OK with you heading out, you can head out. I trust my teams to do great work and that trust is reciprocated.
That trust also extends to transparent management practices. Employees want to understand your goals as a CEO and they want to know how they affect the bottom line. Share your financials. Check in regularly and explain your roadmap for the company over the next month, quarter, and year.
Fostering a positive environment starts at the top. An open door policy is vital. Any employee at any level can come knock on my door and talk. Obviously an efficient and profitable business is the goal. But it’s easier to get there with happily productive team members.
Just as the Forbes article suggests, sometimes managers and the executive team are not focusing on the right areas — while fair and equitable compensation is certainly important, workers also want to see their work recognized, they want flexibility, and they need to be able to trust their managers. It’s our responsibility as leaders to cultivate the kind of culture that rewards our people for a job well done, ensures they have room for their personal lives, and allows for feedback.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
Every business goes through their share of shakeups and periods of lower morale. An employee who can’t take time off to visit the doctor or who feels they have to work overtime to catch up is going to be stressed and very distracted. Rumors and discontent are contagious. Lost productivity always hits the bottom line.
Still, as we evaluate our own workforce, we try to focus on the benefits of engagement rather than the consequences of disengagement, as even the way we talk about these topics filters down into the fabric of the organization.
The positive impact of happy employees is this engagement level, which means employees who are more thoughtful, more team oriented, and more creative.
The work we do at Green House Data is often necessarily collaborative — the types of problems we help solve for our clients means putting our heads together on both specialized and broad teams. And when it comes to this kind of work, it’s frankly pretty hard to fake your happiness or dissatisfaction at work.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
1.CEOs leaving their ego at the door. While CEOs are often famous for egos that are dwarfed only by their paychecks, it’s critical to understand that we can’t run our businesses without our teams.
Personally this is something I work very hard at, and the importance is evidenced to me every day. My executive team is privy to all aspects of the business, and the perspective I get from this group is invaluable. Importantly, though, this group is also getting feedback from their own teams, which helps us make good decisions for the business with a broad array of perspectives.
2. Transparency. Employees ought to — and in many ways, have a right to — have some insight into the financial health of the business in order to ultimately care about and contribute to the bottom line.
We share our financials with our employees, and we talk about what the numbers mean. As many companies are, we are an EBIDTA driven organization. While it’s one thing to rattle off “earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization,” it’s another to have a real understanding of how this number is used to evaluate company performance — and most importantly, how every single employee can contribute in a positive way.
3. Equitable pay. We see CEO pay gaps in ratios of 200, 300, 400 to 1 compared to employees. As a B-Corp, we keep our ratio closer to 5 to 1.
And within the tech industry specifically, women still receive job offers that pay less than their male counterparts 63% of the time, according to Hired, compounding the pay gap with gender. There’s simply no reason not to establish salary guidelines for every position in the organization, and ensure the guidelines are followed and applied.
It’s also worth pulling a report of your workers’ wages and charting it out quickly — don’t assume there is parity. Look at the data, and if you see something wrong, fix it.
4. Flexible PTO. If we aren’t metering our employees’ time while they are working, why are we metering it when they are not?
What we realized over time was that “use or lose it” vacation meant employees taking time just so that it would not halt ongoing accruals or expire, and this was not the best use of the hours that employees had earned, nor did it benefit the organization .
A flexible model means workers can take the time they need, when they need it, which dramatically improves well-being and ensures that vacation hours aren’t being used for things like going to the DMV or going to the dentist. It’s absolutely fine to use PTO for these tasks, but I would not call it “vacation.”
5. Hire more women. Things start to change when women are hired into leadership positions, immediately challenging the status quo.
In the last three years, our ratio has shifted and currently, 70% of the women at Green House Data are in leadership positions, managing teams up through the executive team, including technical roles.
It has been in this same time frame that we’ve seen some of our most significant growth as a company, all while shifting our go-to-market message, expanding on critical product lines, and improving our customer satisfaction metrics.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture.” What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
Green House Data is a B Corp, and I think that model is very interesting. It’s taking corporate practices beyond pure profit and into the social realms, focusing on providing good to more than just stakeholders in the company. We need to be doing right by our shareholders of course, but we also need to do right by our employees, by our customers, by our communities, and by the environment.
The first step should be not treating your employees as disposable. Respect their time and their skills with appropriate pay scales, PTO, and benefits. I know this seems obvious, but there can be a disconnect between the “obvious” and the actual practice.
As workers, I think that we have to have discipline. The job market is great right now. If you have a boss that is demanding you take calls and answer emails at all hours of the day and night, or who won’t allow you your earned PTO, maybe it’s time to leave. Sometimes that’s the only way that leadership gets the message.
We saw how the influx of Millennials into the workplace challenged so much of the status quo. While there was, and still is, tension between Boomers and Millennials, I think there is a strong argument to be made that this generation pushed on old policies and everyone benefits from more telework options, more flexible policies, and from accountability from leadership.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
Generally laid-back culturally, and as I described I espouse an open-door, transparent managerial style in which every employee should feel empowered to discuss the big picture with me or any manager in the organization. While I prefer to have face time with employees in the office, flexibility is fine as long as goals are being reached company-wide. We allow some telecommuting and do not have a hard start/stop time to the day. I’d expect to see you, but it doesn’t have to be at 8AM sharp.
I want to know everyone’s name and face and strive to meet each new hire as soon as possible. No faceless executives working via intimidation, but rather a team pursuing a common goal.
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 about that?
In the year that we were founding Green House Data, I also found out that my wife Amy was pregnant with our first child — -and I probably don’t have to remind your readers what the economy was like in 2007. It was not a good time for me to not have an income, and sometimes it felt like the deck was stacked against us as we all worked to get the business off the ground. Amy supported me and supported the vision we had for Green House Data.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I like to think Green House Data has made a real difference in how we operate. We supply qualifying nonprofit organizations with free or discounted IT services. We buy quite a lot of Renewable Energy Credits, over 25,000,000 kWh worth last year. This does move the needle, and we are in the Top 25 on the EPA’s list of Tech & Telecom green power purchasers.
In addition, actively working from a place of transparent and ethical corporate governance creates a framework for business to be more than just a P & L statement. I hope that every person who comes into contact with Green House Data is able to benefit from this.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“We’re all equal before a wave,” said big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton. I first heard this quote from a surf tour guide in Portugal, but it has come back to me many times over the years. Most recently, during a major integration effort after a company acquisition, we had all teams on deck. Everyone in the company was involved in some capacity. I thought, “Here comes the wave,” when we got ready to announce the effort and timeline for integration. We all pulled together as equals to make it happen.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
In today’s divided world I wish we all just treated each other with more respect and dignity. You don’t have to love everyone or love their ideas, but you can still be friendly and listen to what they have to say. And not just listen, but really think about and consider where they are coming from instead of making or acting on assumptions
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!