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How to create a fantastic work culture: “When we’re aware of our behavior — how we interact with our colleagues, how we manage our team or organization, what’s driving our behavior — that’s the place to start.” with Mike Zani and Chaya Weiner

As a society, I think the key is self-awareness. When we’re aware of our behavior — how we interact with our colleagues, how we manage our team or organization, what’s driving our behavior — that’s the place to start. From there, we can expand to understanding the other people on our team and in our workplace and holding each […]


As a society, I think the key is self-awareness. When we’re aware of our behavior — how we interact with our colleagues, how we manage our team or organization, what’s driving our behavior — that’s the place to start. From there, we can expand to understanding the other people on our team and in our workplace and holding each other accountable.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Zani, CEO of The Predictive Index, the leader in talent optimization. Prior to The Predictive Index, Mike was CEO of ShapeUp, a social SaaS wellness platform that was sold to Virgin Pulse in 2014. Previously, Mike served as president of LEDCO, a manufacturer of rugged computer peripherals, where he led its acquisition and eventual sale to Havis, an industry leader in police radio consoles. It was at LEDCO where Mike, a customer of The Predictive Index, developed his passion for the company’s vital management tools. Mike is a co-founder and partner of Phoenix Strategy Investments, a private investment fund that acquired LEDCO in 2004, ShapeUp in 2009 and The Predictive Index in 2014. He also worked as a strategic consultant at the marketing firm Digitas. An avid sailor, Mike began his career in marketing and sales with Vanguard Sailboats and was a coach for the 1996 U.S. Olympic Sailing Team. He holds a B.S. from Brown University and an MBA from Harvard.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thanks for having me!

My business partner Daniel and I invest in companies and grow them. In 2004, we purchased LEDCO — a neat company, but it had a broken HR strategy when we found it. Despite having graduated with MBAs and having access to the most current management tools, we felt underprepared to handle the talent and leadership issues in the organization. We eventually came across The Predictive Index, became clients, and credit it with helping us turn around the talent strategy at LEDCO. Now we’re here, 10 years later, and were able to lead the investment to acquire PI from the founding family.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

This one may not be “funny” interesting, but just a situation I certainly didn’t expect when we stepped into leading at The Predictive Index. Three weeks after purchasing the company, I flew to visit one of our most important value-added resellers — also known as our certified partners. That partner said to me (maybe a little more crudely), “What am I getting for the million dollars I sent to Boston for royalties to use your product?” The conversation left me dumbfounded and apoplectic. I wanted to walk out the door and cry. It was an unbelievable moment.

This story captures the amazing amount of change management that we needed to bring to bear when we acquired a 60-year old, family-run business.

I’m proud to say that that PI Certified Partner and I are now excellent friends, have a great working relationship, and we both see tremendous value in each other. So we’ve come a long way.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

When we bought the company, most people viewed us as simply a talent assessment company. But we were offering so much more than that. What they were missing was all the hard work we and our PI Certified Partners were adding to the product through measuring, designing, hiring, and inspiring winning teams — something we call talent optimization. It’s the confluence of tying talent strategy to the business strategy for optimal business results. What we’re in the midst of working on — and have been doing so for two years — is pulling the art and science of talent optimization into the software, our workshops, and rounding it out with consulting practices with our Partner Network.

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?

The short answer is that people are horrible at hiring. Most have never been trained in management and treat people the way they want to be treated, rather than how each individual person wants or needs to be managed.

The more thoughtful answer is:

That number is high in large part because businesses are not thinking strategically about their biggest asset — their people. Generally speaking, not much thought and effort is put into the employee experience, engagement, leadership development, and company culture.

When we look at employee disengagement, or when employees stop putting in discretionary effort at work, it generally comes down to poor fit in one of four areas: job, manager, organization, or team.

Poor job fit occurs when a person is placed in a role that doesn’t match their natural strengths or doesn’t fit their personal and professional needs. Imagine you give someone really entrepreneurial an administrative job. Eventually they’re going to get bored and frustrated, because it’s not a good fit for them.

A 2018 study by Mercer reported that one in three employees plan to quit their job in the next 12 months. One of the biggest reasons is a poor fit or relationship with their direct manager. A people management survey we conducted last year showed that employees with bad bosses are 35 percent less likely to have passion and energy for their jobs. More often than not, this management mismatch comes down to the fit between different personalities and workplace behaviors individuals exhibit.

One study by Deloitte stated that 88 percent of employees believe that a distinct workplace culture is important to business success. To be productive and engaged, employees need to feel they belong. If the organization’s values don’t match up with their own, employees won’t feel that sense of belonging and will subsequently become disengaged.

Finally, employees can become disengaged when they’re not a good fit for their team. More and more, teamwork is the basis of most work environments. However, poor communication and discord between varying personalities take a toll on job satisfaction, productivity, and innovation.

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?

Unhappy companies, in my experience, don’t attract the best employees, don’t grow fast, and ultimately don’t win.

But beyond experience, there are stats to back that up. Research has shown that engaged employees are 21% more productive and generate 22% higher profits. A Health Shield report showed that 57% of people would feel more loyal and be more productive if their employer actively supported their mental well-being.

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?

Absolutely, and I’m glad you asked this question. Talent optimization has to begin with senior leadership. If managers and executives are not fully bought in and aligned with agreed upon business objectives — walking the walk, talking the talk — it will be difficult to make the changes necessary to optimize talent.

The first place for executives to start is by measuring and diagnosing what’s currently going on in their culture. In the same way that a doctor couldn’t support a patient without a clear picture of what the problem is, it’s hard for businesses to improve culture without knowing where the problems lie. This diagnosis can be performed using behavioral and cognitive assessments, employee engagement surveys, employee sentiment, and job performance reports. At The Predictive Index, we use a variety of tools to measure people data, including our own PI Behavioral Assessment, PI Cognitive Assessment, and check-in bots on Slack which measures employee feedback.

Once it’s clear what the problem is, leaders can turn to designing a people strategy that aligns with their business strategy. This process leverages people data to inform a strategy that will help attain desired business results. It includes taking your organizational structure into consideration, evaluating your leadership team’s fit, establishing your company culture, and understanding senior team dynamics and how those are contributing to — or detracting from — success. At The Predictive Index our executive team is super goal-oriented, impatient, and proactive. There’s no way assembling that group of people won’t create a fast-moving, dynamic environment, which is exactly what we have. We’ve optimized our people strategy for growing a fast-paced SaaS company, but we’d probably be horrible at running a hospital or a bank.

Part of designing a people strategy is creating and sharing core values. Your corporate values are the expectations you have for your employees. They’re the foundation for the decisions you make and how you expect employees to behave and perform. Without them, it can be difficult to establish and communicate culture. Your company’s values will be dictated by your business strategy. For example, if your strategy is to innovate and bring new products to market quickly, your core values might include risk-taking, action, and rapid decision-making. Here at PI, we interview against our core values (Teamwork, Honesty, Reliability, Energy, Action, Drive, and Scope). When candidates come in for a half-day interview (one of the final parts of the interviewing process), we have an interview dedicated entirely to alignment with our core values.

Once your core values are established, these play a key role in defining your company culture. Culture is a result of deliberate, intentional action — and it plays a large role in employee engagement. When employees are disconnected from your company culture, they disengage, leading to decreased levels of performance, job satisfaction, and productivity. Your company culture should mirror your core values. This means they must be clearly and regularly communicated to your employees, and they must also be the standard all decisions are measured against. Here at The Predictive Index, we believe so strongly in our core values that we pay our annual bonus off of them and have a dedicated Slack channel for recognizing employees who embody these values.

My final suggestion to improve workplace culture would be to adopt a mentality of “leaders at every level.” Effective leadership competencies are the number one driver for high employee engagement — and leaders can exist outside of management roles. Fostering a leadership mentality in each employee will help to boost productivity and engagement, as well as train up future leaders. Two of our core values tie into this concept: drive (own it) and action (errors of action are better than errors of inaction). We’ve created a safe environment where it’s OK to take risks and make mistakes, which enables people who have natural leadership tendencies to want to raise their hands to do something and take charge in ambiguous situations. This helps to uncover, develop, and promote leadership at all levels.

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?

As a society, I think the key is self-awareness. When we’re aware of our behavior — how we interact with our colleagues, how we manage our team or organization, what’s driving our behavior — that’s the place to start. From there, we can expand to understanding the other people on our team and in our workplace and holding each other accountable.

It’s also important to develop a work environment where people celebrate their strengths and feel comfortable identifying the areas in which they need improvement or help. This starts with leadership being willing to be vulnerable, creating that positive cycle of openness, discussion, and vulnerability. You don’t luck or happenstance into vulnerability. Someone has to take the first step, and that person has to be the leader. The onus is on the top.

Of course, our hope with PI is that more people adopt the tools, insights, and education to make a difference in their workplace.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Daniel and I function as co-CEOs. I carry the CEO title, because I’m more outward-facing and typically meet more people. We balance and complement each other, allowing each other to play to our strengths. There is a lot of mutual trust and respect. As a result, we’re able to be a little more focused on our strengths and rely on the other to have our back.

Stylistically, I try to be very authentic, transparent, and direct — probably falling mostly into the transformational leadership style. I believe that being transparent and giving feedback are some of the most important leadership characteristics.

I aim to give people a lot of positive feedback, which really sets up the ability to accept opportunities for constructive feedback.

I also try to lead from a place of transparency and vulnerability. I’ve shared my weaknesses with the company, and even given them a “safety word,” so they can so, “Mike, you’re doing ____ again.” I’m not going to get angry or frustrated that they’re calling me out, because I’ve asked for help. I think that sets an important tone and example for the rest of the organization.

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?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my business partner, Daniel.

But one of my early business mentors was a huge support to me. He gave me my first real business job, P&L responsibility, enabled me to participate in my first company acquisition, and was supportive of me leaving his company and going off to business school. That experience ultimately launched the business model we have currently of buying companies, taking them over, and running them. Ironically this guy’s now an investor in PI. It all comes full circle.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our entire mission is: Better work, better world. We feel if we’re able to empower happier employees, more productive workplaces, and higher performing teams, individuals leave the building more energized by what they do so they can go home and be better parents, spouses, members of their community, etc. Worn out employees don’t read as many books to their children, as sad as that sounds. When you love what you do, you’ve got more of your best self available, because you’re not worn out. That’s what we’re trying to bring to people.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Suck it up, buttercup.” — My mom.

But seriously, everyone has good luck and bad luck. It’s how we respond to both good and bad luck. Can you spot good luck and say, “Wow, I’m really quite fortunate here. I’m going to take advantage of that”? And can we deal with bad luck and say, “It’s probably not as bad as it feels right now”? Personally, I feel very resilient as an individual not only from my mother’s quote, but also from the way she raised us. That’s the quote “from grandma”, that I tell my children, because I want to try to pass down that resilience.

Everyone has that day after feeling after a piece of bad luck — whether that’s a sales loss or a deal or decision not going your way. Resilience gives you that ability to believe it’s going to be alright and to get up the next morning, put your clothes and shoes on, and get to work. The sooner you get back to work, the sooner you’re not thinking about the bad luck.

The month that Daniel and I bought our first company (LEDCO in 2004), my mother passed away. I moved my pregnant wife at the beginning of winter up to Detroit and proceeded to work 80 hours a week trying to pull together a company that was way worse than we realized. It was very dark — both figuratively and literally. I remember hugging my wife telling each other that “It’s going to be OK.” Then we had a beautiful baby boy, turned the company around, spring came, and we came out the other side. That’s life.

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. 🙂

There’s an old axiom about time and money being the two most important elements. There’s a lot of truth to that. Time trumps money in such a massive way, because you can borrow money, but you can’t borrow time. You’ve got to make sure that you’re constantly working on work-life balance — the thing that makes that all tie together is enjoying what you do. Without that, you can’t find balance. So, I think our mission “better work, better world” is really the movement that would impact the most people, and that’s what I’m hoping to inspire the world with.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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