Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Max Farrell, the co-founder and CEO of WorkHound, an employee retention platform designed to help people love the work they do.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The main reason I jumped into the entrepreneurial world was that I wanted to learn at the pace and detail that the C-suite professionals were learning at a startup company I was working at a few years ago. I was frustrated that members of the leadership team, who were just a few years older than me, had incredible learning opportunities simply because they joined the organization a few years earlier than I did. I’m always seeking learning opportunities, so I figured the best (and fastest) way I could learn about building and scaling a business was to start one myself.
As for the company I co-founded and am CEO at now, WorkHound, there were a couple of things that led to its creation. First off, I was very fortunate to work with a company backed by venture capital groups on both coasts. While there, I was also running Startup Weekend events around the country as an organizer and facilitator. Between my job and the startup events, I got the itch to build something myself.
My initial idea was to take that Startup Weekend model and get larger, established corporations to adopt it. So, I launched a corporate innovation consulting firm. But I recognized that we were selling an elective vitamin, not a prescription painkiller, to organizations that needed to alleviate more intensive and immediate problems. We learned that we wanted to build something people were hungry to get their hands on versus something that “would be nice to have.” That spirit inspired us to look for major pain points for businesses, and through that process, we uncovered a massive burden related to distributed workforces: a substantial communication void between businesses and their field workers.
The trucking industry, which in the U.S. has a shortage of roughly 50,000 drivers, was a great place to start. And it’s around that industry that we initially built WorkHound, a communications platform that lets workers anonymously voice their wants and needs so management can address those matters in an effort to maintain a productive and happy workforce.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Neither myself nor my co-founder, Andrew Kirpalani, have ever been truckers, so we had to get a crash course about the industry from a behind-the-wheel perspective somehow. Long story short, we decided to ride along with drivers for some pretty long hauls. I ate meals on the road, slept in the cabs, and showered at truck stops. That was probably one of the most impactful things we did when starting WorkHound. It drove a deep understanding of the industry into the DNA of our company, and it’s been incredibly helpful to validate the work we’re doing.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The biggest thing for WorkHound now is expanding our reach into industries in addition to trucking. But, of course, we’re still pedal to the metal in trucking, our beachhead industry. Some verticals where we see WorkHound being valuable are supply chain, healthcare, and hospitality.
Companies spend so much time and money on recruiting and bringing people in the door. But, often, once an employee finishes their first day on the job, they’re left to just go through the motions. We know there’s an incredible opportunity in the onboarding process and to continue promoting a steady state of employment by focusing on consistent, actionable communication.
Ok, let’s 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?
Workers don’t feel respected, like they’re a valuable part of a team, or that they have a voice. Companies need to spend more time seeking out solutions to those challenges. I believe that when business leaders start peeling back the many layers of reasons their employees are unhappy at work, a root cause of those problems is a lack of ongoing, strategic communication.
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?
When it comes to company productivity, my thought is that if an employee is unhappy at work, their goal is probably going to be to do the bare minimum required to get through the day. Then they will get out of work to do something else. Happy workers promote an engaged workforce. And one hallmark of an engaged worker is that they’re asking “how can I do more; how can I create more value?”
As for company profitability, unhappy people look for opportunities where they’ll be happy, which leads them to pair up with new employers. That turnover is immensely expensive. Turnover in key roles can set companies back months, which can impact company profitability. In trucking, it costs $8,000 to replace a new driver. In healthcare, it costs roughly $35,000 to replace a nurse. Even in industries like hospitality, it can cost $4,000 to replace a hotel worker. Those lost dollars are then compounded by a loss of institutional knowledge, which can hamstring a business for long periods of time.
Lastly, for employee health and wellbeing, if an employee or workforce is unhappy, their mental energy is being spent on frustration instead of productivity. I spend a lot of time thinking about where the mindshare of our team is going. Is it going to doing our work? Is it going to make the work better? Is it going to our personal lives? All three are important, but if our shared energy is going toward complaining about things or finding new opportunities, it diminishes our effectiveness in the workplace.
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?
- Create a “win or learn” culture: This is one of our company values. There are never business days where 100 percent of our efforts yield desired outcomes. Every day, we want to score as many wins as humanly possible. But if we don’t win at something, we’re committed to learning from the experience. If we’re not making some mistakes, we’re not moving fast enough. And when someone inevitably messes up, we encourage them to be transparent about owning it. That goes for leadership as well. Then, people don’t feel awful when hiccups happen.
- Compensate workers at a level that pay is never a reason they’d leave: One metric people use to evaluate whether they’re valued by their employer is pay. I believe that you should never hire someone you don’t need, but when you do hire people you should pay them an amount so that compensation is not a concern or reason they’d leave the organization. You always want people to take on new projects and grow, but if they feel they’re being short-changed, they’ll rarely want to mature in, or stay with, a company.
- Create an environment where people want to work every day: Most people need to enjoy each other and feel comfortable in their workspace. If they don’t, they won’t enjoy coming to work. And if they don’t enjoy coming to work, all they’ll think about is what they’ve got to do to make that clock hurry up and strike 5 o’clock.
- Make sure people are learning and developing: This is especially true with high performers. If an employee is doing the same thing over and over, they’re going to become disengaged at some point and will try to find a new position. People, whether consciously or subconsciously, want to become a better version of themselves both personally and professionally. As a manager, it’s imperative to encourage and facilitate that growth.
- Create processes or mechanisms to listen to and respond to your workforce: There are solutions like WorkHound that can help with this, or a team can create rituals that encourage responsive listening. At WorkHound, we have a daily standup meeting where members across the entire company quickly share what they’re working on. In addition to that daily exercise, every team member has weekly one-on-one with their direct reports, as well as a monthly meeting with each founder. Those recurring moments give us opportunities to catch and address issues so we can always be working to strengthen the company.
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?
We really need to teach people how to interact face to face as real humans again. No, I’m not anti-technology. We rely on technology to bring about personal interactions these days. But what’s happened is that we’ve lost touch with important interpersonal skills. People no longer know how to have hard conversations. We don’t know how to embrace serendipity amongst real people. We need to refocus on the human element.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I try to embrace the role of a servant leader, and I only want to ask people to do things I’d be willing to do myself. Part of that means that in our work environment, sometimes I need to lead and sometimes I need to follow — and both are good things if pursued judiciously.
Part of serving people is helping them address issues themselves. For example, a team member may have an issue with another team member, and they’d come to me expecting me to arbitrate as the middleman. Instead, I’ll encourage them to map out a strategy to address the matter in question on their own. This frees me up from being a roadblock and helps our team have open and honest conversations.
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?
Goodness, there are so many people that have helped us get WorkHound off the ground. The first person that comes to mind, though, is a mentor of mine in my home state of Arkansas, Marvin Maurras. He encouraged me to focus on an industry that’s plagued with pain points. There are plenty of those in trucking: 95 percent turnover rate, a 50,000 driver shortage, a rapidly aging workforce. Marvin then went so far as to introduce me to the Arkansas Trucking Association and they helped me get my first speaking engagement so I could start sharing my ideas. Everything rippled from there.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We don’t consider ourselves as “successful” just yet, but we’re proud of our progress. One of the things that we’re proudest of is that we’ve given tens of thousands of workers a voice where they haven’t had one previously. We’ve created jobs and allowed people to grow and develop in ways they probably didn’t expect. We’re able to teach others to learn from our mistakes like my mentors have taught me to learn from theirs.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My grandfather always said, “you can do more with friends than you can with money.” It is so true. My network of friends and family has gotten me out of more tough situations and helped me grow more than any amount of money ever could. Whether they’ve provided an ear to listen, a couch to sleep on, or someone share a beer with, those relationships are worth more than any dollar amount.
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. 🙂
I would love to help positively evolve the working relationship between workers and business leaders. We know that unions have the potential to serve a beneficial purpose, but unfortunately, unions have often created an us-versus-them mentality, which often leads companies to avoid collaboration at all costs. The working relationship between companies and their workforces has to evolve toward collective goals instead of collective bargaining.