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Lessons From a Tech Titan: “Creating a fantastic working environment will yield more work product from your staff just as if you had paid them more”

Sometimes left-brained guys — like me — tend to try and put everything they do in a metaphorical spreadsheet. If it can’t be quantified…


Sometimes left-brained guys — like me — tend to try and put everything they do in a metaphorical spreadsheet. If it can’t be quantified, then it can’t be real. So here is a way I suggest you measure the value of a good working environment and quantify the increase in employee effectiveness it creates. I suggest viewing the monetary compensation we provide as the “hard utility” and the psychic or cultural value we provide as “soft utility.” And while soft utility doesn’t appear directly in our income statement, the impact of soft utility directly correlates to our employees’ output. Creating a fantastic working environment will yield more work product from your staff just as if you had paid them more.


I had the pleasure to interview Gabriel Krajicek, Chief Executive Officer of Kasasa®, a financial technology and marketing provider that empowers community financial institutions with disruptive innovations, and champions them in their fight for market dominance against megabanks. Glassdoor listed Gabe to its 2018 Top CEOs list as part of their Employees’ Choice Awards, and since 2005, Gabe has helped more than 800 community banks and credit unions establish lasting consumer relationships in their local markets.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

To truly understand my story, you’ve got to back to when I was in high school, and my father, who was very sick with brain cancer, had just retired. He was CEO of a relatively large company in the oil refinery services industry — a really roughneck group of people. I remember my whole life, as I was growing up, my dad was obsessed with culture. At the dinner table we would talk about how important it is to love your employees, and how there might be ten percent wrong with them, but there is 90 percent right.

I went to his retirement party when I was in high school and saw these guys that got up there with tears in their eyes saying how my dad changed their life. When I was 22, I took over Dealerskins — an automotive web solutions provider — which was the first company that I ran, and I didn’t really know at all what I was doing. I had a zoology degree from LSU, and at 22 years old, I didn’t know anything about technology or the car business. I didn’t know how to run a business. The only thing I knew that I could do, because I had learned it from my dad and had seen the impact first-hand, was try to build a great culture.

By the time we sold Dealerskins, I think we were able to accomplish a great culture, and I was really proud of that. After selling that business, I moved to Kasasa. I’ve been here since 2005, and have made it my mission to create a powerful, lasting company culture.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

For me, the most harrowing moment was when the Federal Reserve determined our only product to be illegal (https://www.inc.com/magazine/20100901/how-i-beat-the-fed.html). Imagine this — you are leading a fledging startup in the banking industry, you have been CEO for eight months, you have $1MM of investor capital from some of your best friends and are burning over $300k/month.

I shaved all of my hair off (army recruit style) and moved my desk to the center of the cube farm…We were going to war with Washington.

My biggest fear during that period wasn’t actually that we’d be unable to create a legal product, but instead that we’d lose too many employees to support the ones we had.

It’s a testament to our culture and to the awesome people we employ that we didn’t just survive that difficult time, but we retained all of our employees and had a record quarter.

Sometimes I get asked to justify our investment in culture, and I can unequivocally say, “We’d be out of business without it.”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

If you microwave frozen cod from Costco (the kind in the plastic, vacuum-sealed pouch) in the company microwave for 2–3 minutes, you will prepare a delicious, healthy dish. You’ll also destroy the morale of everyone on the floor.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

The obvious answer is to align them around common objectives. And while that’s usually way easier when the team is smaller, the fundamental principles apply regardless of size.

#1 — You must explain why the goal matters. Focus on things besides, “We’ll be profitable.” Instead, help the team understand how their success equals a better world for them and the people they care about. If you can’t, consider leading a different business (or a career that doesn’t involve leading).

#2 — You also must help them visualize how their contribution has an impact with line of site to the goal. So 101! I’m embarrassed to even point it out. But it’s the thing I see most often overlooked.

What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?

An external issue recently threatened our company. The details don’t matter; suffice it to say, it was very complicated, and without the right response it would have seriously harmed the business.

It took several weeks to navigate this challenge. As we worked through it, I observed a higher level of performance in our team. Communication was crisper, and work was being done more efficiently with higher quality. Don’t get me wrong — we’re a great team even when we aren’t in crisis mode, but this was something special.

So I began to ponder, why did it take a crisis to bring us to this higher level of efficiency? What could be replicated and maintained as a new team norm?

Two items seemed the most applicable to normal, non-crisis-mode life: having a singular goal and building trust. Other than the natural stress of it all, working in a crisis is a ton of fun. Seriously — you know the goal, you feel trusted to play your part, and the trust you place in others is rewarded with great work. So why not just take the good parts of a crisis and make them a daily part of how you lead your company?

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Sometimes left-brained guys — like me — tend to try and put everything they do in a metaphorical spreadsheet. If it can’t be quantified, then it can’t be real. So here is a way I suggest you measure the value of a good working environment and quantify the increase in employee effectiveness it creates.

I suggest viewing the monetary compensation we provide as the “hard utility” and the psychic or cultural value we provide as “soft utility.” And while soft utility doesn’t appear directly in our income statement, the impact of soft utility directly correlates to our employees’ output. Creating a fantastic working environment will yield more work product from your staff just as if you had paid them more.

Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?

People dislike their managers mainly because they aren’t close to them. If an employee doesn’t know or trust the motivations of a manager, they tend to fill in the blanks with the most negative version of the possible truth. But when they are close, they assume the best. The idea that managers and employees shouldn’t be friends, shouldn’t be close, shouldn’t be fully transparent, etc…is idiotic.

Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

The values at Kasasa, and the values that I have as CEO, are really straightforward, and I actually believe that they apply to any high performant team.

1. Interdependence — Make sure everyone is mutually accountable to the team’s goal.

2. Five Star Leadership — Make certain everyone in the organization knows how their work connects to the company’s performance and give them the authority to challenge anything and anyone in the way of their results.

3. Love — Love isn’t a cheesy word. It’s a necessary part of human existence/performance. Build a culture where the employees love their company, their coworkers and their stake holders (consumers/clients/etc.)

4. Badassitude — Play to win. It’s more fun.

5. I only have four core values. Less is more. 😉

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 gave a speech at our last all-hands meeting, and basically explained why I love Star Trek so much. Two values more than any other I see on that show — love and curiosity.

Here’s a speech I gave on the topic.

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

When my first company, Dealerskins, was acquired by Trader Publishing, I was amazed at the growth that Trader had achieved. They were one billion plus in revenue and gad grown to that scale in only about 10 years. I asked my boss at the time, “How did you do it so quickly?” He answered, “It’s all about the people.” He went on, “The great employees will push you to be a better leader, everyone else — you’ll push.”

Since then I categorize all employees in two buckets: those that push me and the organization to higher levels of performance and the ones I have to push to do their jobs. I have worked really hard to surround myself with a team of people with solid intrinsic motivations for achieving great results. If they are just working hard because they need a paycheck, they will never fully buy into the company and help it achieve its real potential.

Originally published at medium.com

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