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“How to create a fantastic work culture”, with Joel Dehlin

Everyone has a sense of wanting to improve — mastery. Companies need to give employees those opportunities. Often, a lack of learning or growth opportunities is what people complain about the most, but then don’t take the time to fix themselves. I’ve never worked at a company where employees naturally took advantage of the training budget the […]


Everyone has a sense of wanting to improve — mastery. Companies need to give employees those opportunities. Often, a lack of learning or growth opportunities is what people complain about the most, but then don’t take the time to fix themselves. I’ve never worked at a company where employees naturally took advantage of the training budget the company has allocated for them. Companies would love their employees to improve their mastery, but they don’t typically create environments which facilitate that. A company should create structure that encourages and rewards improvement. For example, engineering companies should spend time practicing skills, just as athletes do.


As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joel Dehlin. Joel is the founder and CEO of Kuali, a company that builds administrative software for higher education. Joel is passionate about building a successful company which serves higher education with beautiful, effective software in an industry where unwieldy software is the norm. When Joel isn’t working, he’s playing or coaching ultimate frisbee, hitting the slopes, or playing music with one of his seven kids.


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

I started programming in elementary school on a Texas Instruments calculator. It had a form of BASIC on it. I progressed through various pre-PC computers, which my dad fed me like an addiction. One day, I was hanging out in my dad’s office and saw him dinking around with his mainframe computer. I was in awe and asked him what he was doing. His programmer had left for some reason and he was trying to figure out how to make some simple changes to the code. I stuck my nose in a book and started learning COBOL.

Later, when I was working temp jobs as a teenager, I worked in an office as a filing clerk. I went to the system administrator for the Vax system and asked if I could borrow a manual (public Internet didn’t exist yet) and get a sandbox to play around in. He gave it to me and I started writing little utilities.

Programming became a deeper part of my life from then on. It’s what I would do to relax and have fun.

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

I really enjoy seeing a prospective client’s face light up when they first see how our products work. It’s one of those things that will never get old to me.

Kuali has become expert at working with the higher ed community to identify needs or problems and rapidly creating solutions. Since starting the company four years ago, we have created standalone Curriculum Management, Catalog Management, Conflict of Interest, Conflict of Commitment, Form Builder, and Workflow Builder modules from scratch. We’ve also completely re-written older Kuali community open source modules like Research protocols and Business Continuity Planning (Ready). In some ways our approach flies in the face of startup wisdom of focusing on one thing and doing it really well. Instead, we have become a design and development shop that can quickly identify valuable higher ed modules and rapidly create them and get them to customers to help them fill in the gaps of their current enterprise systems.

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

We have five major product lines at Kuali, about all of which I’m excited. Choosing the one I’m most excited about is like choosing which of my seven children is my favorite. (The answer is my grandaughter).

I will say that we just released a new product called Kuali Build. It allows university staff to build simple solutions for their departments which often get overlooked or deprioritized in big IT Governance conversations. A user with a tiny bit of technical expertise (about what you need to do simple spreadsheets in Excel) can very easily create applications with forms, workflows, groups, and notifications. We’ve already seen it help universities by allowing them to rapidly, securely, and inexpensively fill gaps that weren’t envisioned in large enterprise products often built decades ago.

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?

David Sturt and I used to work together at O.C. Tanner. That company definitely knows a lot about keeping employees happy.

I can believe the statistic Leigh Branham quotes that “89 percent of bosses believe employees quit because they want more money.” And I agree with the article’s premise that suggests that view is hogwash. A statement later in the article that says “people don’t leave companies. They leave bosses” resonates with me. But I think it’s deeper than that.

There is plenty of research on motivation. I love the book “Drive,” by Daniel Pink, based at least in part on research from Daniel Kahneman. People are motivated at work when they feel like they have opportunities for mastering their skills, and feel a sense of purpose and autonomy in their work. I don’t think most companies get that — or they do, but don’t do anything about it. Creating an environment where people can do their best work takes real effort. It’s an executive and a management team’s key job, but we often spend more time either micro-managing or measuring things that don’t really matter. We designed the Kuali culture from day one with these three things in mind and try to spend most of our time reinforcing them.

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?

I don’t love the term “unhappy workforce,” like we are responsible for an employee’s happiness. I prefer “motivated” because companies and employees both want a motivational environment and both parties can do things to help that. A sub-motivated workforce is a failure of the CEO. Creating a motivated workforce should be in the job description. It’s part of mine.

Unmotivated employees impact productivity because they are likely to do only the bare minimum. Their expectations are lower and they settle for less. They aren’t likely to be as creative in their solutions. And, most importantly, they affect those around them.

I hate to use the “e word,” but the more efficient a company is, the more profitable it is, by definition. If workers are unmotivated, they won’t get as much good work done and a company will have to hire more of them. That can take away from both the top line and the bottom line. I’ve seen a motivated employee produce more good work than ten of their colleagues when the employee is both competent and motivated. Hire great employees and pay them what they’re worth (that’s a different interview), but provide an environment where they can be motivated. It will improve your profitability.

Physical health is linked to mental wellness. A motivated, productive individual is less likely to get physically sick. An unmotivated individual is more prone to depression, which can lead to coronary heart disease. Helping employees be motivated at work isn’t just good for your company, it’s good for humanity.

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?

When I started the company, I had recently read the book I referenced above, “Drive,” by Daniel Pink. We built the principles of Purpose, Mastery, and Autonomy into the DNA of the company. Additionally, we focus on Connection and Flexibility.

A sense of purpose can be anything that gets you up in the morning. A sense of purpose could be some kind of philanthropic end, like Improving Education and Research, which is Kuali’s mission. It could be beating a certain competitor. It could even be some kind of scoreboard marker like increasing annual revenue or decreasing cost. It just needs to be something people can rally around. A good sense of purpose will increase the flow of both oxytocin, a hormone that is linked to loyalty and trust, and adrenaline, which helps people feel really alive. At Kuali this is easy because we’re working on something that everyone can see improves the world: education and research. It’s motivational to know that what you’re working on both saves money for higher ed institutions, and also makes them more effective. We try to continually remind employees that they’re helping higher ed redirect funds into better education and better research.

Everyone has a sense of wanting to improve — mastery. Companies need to give employees those opportunities. Often, a lack of learning or growth opportunities is what people complain about the most, but then don’t take the time to fix themselves. I’ve never worked at a company where employees naturally took advantage of the training budget the company has allocated for them. Companies would love their employees to improve their mastery, but they don’t typically create environments which facilitate that. A company should create structure that encourages and rewards improvement. For example, engineering companies should spend time practicing skills, just as athletes do. At Kuali, we’ve used “coding katas” to help engineers improve their skills. In a coding kata, engineers get together for an afternoon and are assigned a task. All of the engineers will fulfill the task, either individually or in teams. Then engineers will be asked to present their findings to each other and critique one another. This doesn’t always feel natural, but we learn so much by exercising our coding muscles. The same idea can be used in any industry.

Maybe the most important influencer of satisfaction at work is autonomy. I believe that every employee wants to feel like they can make important decisions without micro-management. Often companies won’t let staff take ownership on key decisions for fear of them failing, but failing is one of the ways people improve (see Mastery above). It’s demotivational to have someone second-guessing any decision you make. This is not to say that employees should be able to make any decision they want on any topic. A company needs certain standards in order to drive efficiency or compliance. The company must go out of its way to make it really clear where those areas are. If people know up front what their sandbox is, and if they’re given free reign within that sandbox to make their own decisions they will move faster and more confidently and more innovatively, both making mistakes and doing wonderful things along the way. Once per quarter, Kuali has a “hack week.” In it, all employees are encouraged to work on anything they want as long as it benefits the company in some way. We did this same thing at Instructure and at O.C. Tanner before that. Some of the most beautiful, novel, and useful ideas have surfaced from these hack weeks. People look forward to them every quarter.

“Make mistakes” is a mantra around the office. The words are printed prominently on one of our walls and adorn some of our famous Kuali t-shirts and stickers. Part of autonomy is being afforded the opportunity to try new things, and if someone feels like they’ll be punished for trying to innovate if it doesn’t work out, then they’re less likely to try.

Without a sense of purpose, an ability to improve their mastery over skills that matter to them, or empowered autonomy, then emotional connections at work with colleagues or with a manager can keep them around a bit longer. We try to facilitate human connection amongst our employees.

There is a surprising lack of flexibility in the 2019 workplace. Many large companies have retrenched from work-from-home policies and flexible schedules. Kuali has embraced flexibility in both the work schedule and work location. Sixty percent of our workforce works from their homes over 90% of the time and nearly all work from home at least one day per week. Allowing employees to work remotely can improve performance, but also job satisfaction. I believe that if a remote work policy doesn’t work, it is usually the infrastructure causing the problem, not the employees. People want to do good work. We take special care in building processes, tools, and norms to support remote workers. One small example that improves the experience immensely is our “everyone on a screen” rule. If at least one person in any meeting is remote, then everyone in the room must be on a device with its own camera. This way, the remote worker feels more a part of the conversation, and people tend to treat them more like they’re right there in the room.

Our hours are also quite flexible. Everyone must report when they are planning to be out of the office on a group calendar. If a person isn’t at their desk, they’re asked to let their team know. But if people need to take time to go to a soccer game or take a long weekend, or just go for a walk, we encourage them to do it and communicate it with their team.

We recognize that while work is important, it’s only one aspect of our employees’ lives. We want to be sure that our employees not only find fulfillment in their job but also find that in their personal life, too. Providing flexibility for our employees allows them to commit to the work without sacrificing their personal passions and obligations. For some, it may be commitments with home and family and for others, it may be participation in community initiatives or events.

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?

That’s a big question. I know what we’re trying to do here at Kuali. I’m not sure how to drive change across the industry. I suppose my biggest suggestion is that executives need to lead out. If you want the people you work with to spend more time improving their skills then you do it. If you want your people to vacation more, then you do it yourself. If you want to have a remote work culture then commit to it yourself and dial into your exec meetings once in a while. Practice what you preach, as they say.

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

When I started Kuali, I was intent on building a positive workplace that was based on core values. We had our very first company meeting with the first dozen or so employees and brainstormed words we wanted to reflect our culture. They are the same words we use to this day:

Iterate to Evolve
 Cultivate Openness
 Act with Accountability
 Deliver Amazing Experiences
 Assume the Best
 Practice Humility

I planned to use those values in my own management and set up structure in the company to reinforce these values when we see them. We’re still maniacally dedicated to these six values. We use them to hire, to make strategic decisions, and to communicate with the company and with our customers.

They’re plastered on our walls, our t-shirts, and even our office art. We review them with every single potential employee in the interview process. I personally train every new employee in New Employee Orientation and review these values. We recognize people every month in our company meeting for exhibiting these values. And we even give employees money each month to give to their peers for exhibiting these values. It’s kind of an obsession.

But no one has any question what they are. No one doubts that we’re committed to them.

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 think of my life as a company. I often literally conceptualize a board of directors with mentors sitting around the table, guiding me throughout my life and career.

I served a two-year service mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Sacramento, Calif., and my mission president, Gerald Wray, was a big mentor for me. He has passed on, but he was uncommonly kind, incredibly smart and had undue faith in me. I wanted desperately to live up to whatever he saw in me.

Later in my career, when I worked for the Mormon Church directly, the then-CIO, Eric Denna, was dealing with serious personal issues with the health of a family member. He asked me to step in and manage a huge department while he went away to cope with the death of his son. It was more responsibility than I’d ever had in an environment that needed rapid but measured technological change. I spent seven years in that role. While working at the Church headquarters, I was honored to be able to work with most of its highest-ranking leaders: H. David Burton, David A. Bednar, Jeffrey R. Holland, Robert D. Hales, Craig C. Christensen, and D. Todd Christofferson took an interest in me personally. They were kind, caring and supportive.

Brad Wheeler, the current CIO for University of Indiana is an honest, intelligent, and driven executive. Brad was one of the founders of the Kuali Foundation and is currently a non-compensated member of the Kuali Inc. board of directors. He is a fiercely mission-driven individual who has never spared me in giving very direct feedback.

Rounding out my board of directors are my parents, Nan McCulloch, David Dehlin and Donald McCulloch. From my natural father, I learned loyalty, how to serve, and how to be curious. From my stepfather, who passed away this year, I learned devotion and humility. From my mother I inherited creativity, passion and integrity.
 
 My current mentors are my Kuali executive team. I hand-picked each one and I learn from them continually.

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

I like to encourage Kuali employees to individually make a difference outside of Kuali. I try to set that example. I’ve been a coach of one sport or another for 20 years. I just joined the Utah Ultimate Disc Association (UUDA) board of directors and I’m trying to help really grow the sport of ultimate frisbee in Utah. It’s a beautiful, highly competitive, athletically demanding, self-officiated sport that teaches kids a wonderful work ethic and a spirit of inclusiveness, fairness, and competition. Last year I coached the Utah state under 17 (U17) boys team and we took 6th in the country. I also help coach both the girls and boys teams at the nationally ranked Lone Peak High School. If you or your kids haven’t tried ultimate frisbee I highly recommend it.

And secondly, I wish there were more women in technology in Utah, where Kuali is headquartered. Two of our executives are women and I can’t imagine our exec team without them. Kuali signed the Parity Pledge last year and will be supporting organizations like Women in Tech and SheTech in 2019.

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

I loved Mr. Rogers as a child, and I love him now even more after watching the documentary about him, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” One of his quotes really resonates with me:

How sad it is that we give up on people who are just like us.

The news and social media can be so divisive. Humans innately have a desire to establish a “tribe” of people who are like us, whether politically, socially, or religiously, and we automatically build walls to otherize those not in our tribe. We don’t even know we’re doing it. The irony is that when we unequip ourselves and others of our biases we often find that people are really the same at our core. We’re all smart and dumb. We’re all good and bad. How wonderful it would be if we all had the same level of optimism, patience, and support for all of humanity, and not just those who feel similar to us at the surface.

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 definitely start a movement for more kids (and adults for that matter) to get involved in ultimate frisbee, but I don’t think that answer is what you’re looking for.

If I could convince everyone in the world to really listen more than they talk I believe the world would be unrecognizable.

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

Thank you for making me think. It’s been a pleasure!

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