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How to create a fantastic work culture, with Ryan Jeffery, Rich Johnson and Chaya Weiner

Research shows that an engaged and happy workforce leads to greater productivity and profitability. Additionally, what employees want most is to be developed — when that happens, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down, and everyone benefits. In fact, 94% of employees would stay longer at their company if they provided more opportunities to learn. As a part […]


Research shows that an engaged and happy workforce leads to greater productivity and profitability. Additionally, what employees want most is to be developed — when that happens, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down, and everyone benefits. In fact, 94% of employees would stay longer at their company if they provided more opportunities to learn.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Jeffery, Founder & Co-CEO of Ignite, and Rich Johnson, Founder & Co-CEO. Ignite is a company that provides leadership development for the purpose-driven workplace.

Prior to Ignite, Ryan was a Co-Founder & Partner at Roniin and an early founder at Belly where he saw firsthand the need for stronger employee engagement and development initiatives. Ryan is an amateur weatherman and cheese aficionado who received his degree from the University of Wisconsin — Madison.

Ten years ago Rich cofounded Spark Ventures, an innovative nonprofit that has raised and deployed over $7M in sustainable development partnerships in Africa and Latin America. As CEO, he designed and championed a world-class impact travel program that has become the core product for Ignite, where he is a Founder and Co-CEO. His prior background in marketing and strategy included account management for clients including Motorola, Mayer Brown and A.T. Kearney. He worked for 7 years as a university administrator, providing programs for millennial students focused on international service learning.


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

Rich: My path begins in a place that we’ve come to realize is pretty familiar for a lot of people. We didn’t know each other at the time, but we were both working hundred-hour weeks, living out of suitcases and attending too many pointless happy hours. Our jobs weren’t providing the kind of meaningful connection and sense of purpose that we were looking for.

I ended up taking a journey to Africa, and through some conversations with local leaders, was inspired to co-found a nonprofit focused on international community development. At that organization, called Spark Ventures, I led engagement trips for the mutual benefit of supporters and partner communities abroad. Since 2008, hundreds of people have participated in these immersions to Africa and Latin America, as it fulfills a desire people have for deeper connection and inspiration.

Ryan: Meanwhile, I was an early founder at a fast-growing technology start-up, where I experienced firsthand the endless challenge surrounding employee engagement and retention. Employees are expecting and demanding more — traditional training simply isn’t enough. People wanted to grow, learn and contribute to the world in meaningful ways. I felt this desire myself, so I joined a leadership experience that Rich was facilitating and immediately realized how these types of powerful experiences could benefit companies and their employees. We came back and started to have strategy conversations while our dogs played in Rich’s backyard. After hours of research, hundreds of meetings, numerous wrong turns, some generous advisors, we founded Ignite to create a community that develops the best in people through experiences that benefit humanity and the planet.

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

Rich: When we first started Ignite a couple of years ago, we were only facilitating international leadership experiences. We quickly realized the interest in bringing these experiences to our home city of Chicago, so we started leading one-day immersions here. This has led to one of our most inspiring partnerships with an organization called Upwardly Global, a nonprofit that works with skilled immigrants and refugees. I remember the first time we invited a group of Upwardly Global job seekers to interact with our corporate partners during a development experience designed to cultivate inclusive leadership. The energy in the room was palpable as the two groups of people from very different backgrounds engaged and learned from one another. The job seekers shared stories about their long and challenging journey to gain employment in this country, providing key insights to the leaders about bias and belonging. And the job seekers benefited from helpful interview advice offered by the leaders. We knew there was the potential for a powerful connection, but we didn’t realize how significant it would be.

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

Ryan: As we’ve grown and led more leadership experiences exclusively for companies, we’ve realized the significant interest and demand in people looking for a sense of community and belonging, and the lack of “soft-skill” training our experiences provide for rising leaders within organizations. So we’re in the process of building out the Ignite community to give rising leaders, in particular, the opportunity to grow and connect through our meaningful development experiences.

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?

Rich: Forty years ago employees were looking for a 9 to 5 job and a good paycheck. Today, people are looking for a different kind of fulfillment at work. We see that this shift has been brought on by at least two factors. First, technology has significantly integrated our lives, and whether we like it or not, there’s a sense of always “being on.” Second, we now live in a purpose-driven economy, where consumers choose products and services based on their values. Similarly, employees want to work for a company that provides meaningful work and is benefiting society in some way. Employees become unhappy, in part, when their work is not meaningful. We define meaningful work as having the opportunity for authentic relationships and impact inside and outside of the office.

Ryan: Related to this, one of the main reasons employees leave their jobs is due to bad managers. Typically, a bad manager is one that does not have the soft skills and emotional intelligence to lead and develop their team in an effective and inspiring way. This causes more stress, dysfunction and general unhappiness at work.

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?

Ryan: The research shows that an engaged and happy workforce leads to greater productivity and profitability. Additionally, what employees want most is to be developed — when that happens, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down, and everyone benefits. In fact, 94% of employees would stay longer at their company if they provided more opportunities to learn.

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?

Rich:

1. Motivate and inspire first-time managers through an experience that provides them a line of sight to the impact of your company

2. Create a workshop to cultivate a growth-mindset with your middle managers

3. Launch a coaching initiative to strengthen emotional intelligence in your senior leaders and executives

4. Enroll your high potential individual contributors in a self-directed professional development program

5. Infuse your on-boarding with storytelling to help all employees understand their responsibility to promote inclusion

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?

Ryan: We talk a lot about how companies today need to prioritize a people-first culture. That means many things, but it starts with leaders who are committed to investing in their people as their greatest resource. It’s a culture where people can bring their full selves to the job, where authentic connection and meaningful relationships result in a sense of belonging that is core to fulfillment at work.

Rich: We also need leaders to be examples of what healthy work practices look like in today’s hyper-connected world. We need to give employees the opportunity to get out of the office to collaborate with their colleagues and the broader community and world. We’ve found that in order for people to truly shift their perspectives, experiences are the only thing that can really do this.

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

Ryan: I’d say Rich is a strategic leader and a coaching-type manager. We both believe that great leaders collaborate on a compelling vision and then allow their teams to help figure out how to get there. We coach along the way and make sure to keep the organization aligned to that vision. One of the ways we prioritize this process is by having weekly out-of-office meetings to realign ourselves to the vision and discuss our coaching priorities for the team that week.

Rich: We bring different strengths to our leadership partnership. Ryan is the most positive and passionate leader I’ve ever worked with. He leads with this contagious enthusiasm that energizes everyone around him. He also continuously reminds us that if we aren’t having impact and aren’t having fun, then what are we doing? I believe it was his suggestion we do a quarterly team outing with some friendly competition, and this has been a great culture-building initiatives for our company.

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?

Rich: I can’t think of just one, but I will say that I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors along the way. I’ve written about them as the strategist, the cheerleader and the guru. The strategists ask great questions and help you figure out the critical path. The cheerleaders are your biggest fans, always encouraging and boosting your confidence. The gurus are those who help you step back and see what is happening in the larger context of your life and how you are contributing to the world. I’m super grateful to have had people play all three of these roles in my life.

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

Ryan: Success means a lot of different things to different people. What I’d say is that we are all responsible to use our influence and resources to have a positive impact in the world. I do that personally by mentoring other entrepreneurs and getting involved in causes that I care deeply about like environmental sustainability. We do this as a company by collaborating with social impact organizations here in Chicago and around the world. We raise awareness, connect resources and contribute in meaningful ways to their incredible work.

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

Ryan: “Your success didn’t create your optimism; your optimism led to your success.” The only thing we can really control is the attitude we choose to approach the world. Frustration, angst, disappointment, and failure are all a part of life — it’s how we approach these things and the way we deal with them that will define us.

Rich: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality, the last is to say thank you.” Max DePree, the founder of Herman Miller, wrote this in his book, Leadership is an Art, and it has had a profound impact on my journey. First, it reminds us that no one will follow unless they trust us, and we establish that trust by defining a shared reality. Secondly, there is always a team, always people who are supporting along the way, and it’s our job as a leader to consistently and genuinely communicate our gratitude and appreciation.

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. 🙂

Ryan: This is part of the reason we started Ignite — to create a movement to bring about good in the world through shared, meaningful experiences. We believe this happens as people become the best versions of themselves and are challenged and inspired to use their influence to benefit the world.

Rich: We hope that the Ignite community will eventually spread across the world helping to cultivate a generation of purpose-driven leaders who will transform business, government and the social sectors in ways we can’t even imagine. Wouldn’t that be cool!

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

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