Matt Tucker of Koan: “Set aside time weekly to celebrate wins”

Set aside time weekly to celebrate wins; allow teammates to give each other shout-outs. We save the last five minutes of our weekly company all-hands for this. As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Tucker, the founder of Koan, an organizational […]

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Set aside time weekly to celebrate wins; allow teammates to give each other shout-outs. We save the last five minutes of our weekly company all-hands for this.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Tucker, the founder of Koan, an organizational alignment tool that helps organizations manage goals and track status through simple, positive habits. Previously, Matt was the co-founder of Jive Software (JIVE), an early pioneer in enterprise social collaboration that IPO’d in 2011. Matt holds a BS in Computer Science from the University of Iowa.

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

In 2001, I co-founded a company called Jive Software right out of college. Over time Jive became an early pioneer in taking some of the ideas from social software in our consumer lives, like MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook, and applying them to business use cases as a better way to collaborate internally. The company grew into a leading provider of collaboration software and eventually IPO’d in 2011. It was a wild ride, and along the way I was struck by the different challenges managers face as their teams scale and evolve.

Typically, people become managers by being good at something else. For example, “you’re really good at building software!” Then they hand you a team and that’s more or less that; little training, hazy expectations, no tools. Some people have a natural inclination and they make it. A lot of managers don’t.

The Jive experience opened my eyes to how universal the management challenge is, and to how little we support it. Every industry has managers who share the same problems. And even though there are decades of “best practices” being taught in business schools and lining up on airport bookshelves, there’s a huge gap between reading them and actually putting them into practice.

The thesis behind Koan is that the practices that help teams engage with hard problems are universal, repeatable, and perfectly set up for a software assist.

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

Before building anything at Koan, we spent six months researching and conducting interviews with exemplary leaders. We talked to people like Kevin Scott (then a SVP of engineering and operations at LinkedIn, now the CTO at Microsoft) and Colin Powell, Former United States Secretary of State, who have led massive organizations through extraordinary turbulence. Meeting all of these leaders, the priority was on creating frameworks where people could succeed and reinforcing positive habits within them. They all set goals. They all maintained accountability. They all spent huge amounts of time organizing information and feedback within their organizations.

After studying how teams best achieve their goals, we found that a major barrier to achieving our goals is our “set and forget” mindset. Corporate America generally spends the bulk of its energy setting goals, and once those goals are set, everyone is so exhausted by the process that they don’t want to talk about them again until the next planning cycle. That’s a whole bunch of work for very little value. In fact, setting the perfect goal is much less important than the behaviors and the habits that you start creating around actually using your goals to inform work. With the right behaviors, you can turn this into a a virtuous cycle where you just keep getting better at setting goals, reflecting on progress, then learning from the process and repeating.

For example, if you chat with an Olympic athlete and their pursuit to win a gold medal, ask how they’re going to win and what that is going to look like. It’s the practice every day. It’s putting in the time and the work. In addition to setting the goal and thinking about how to achieve it, collaborating around the goals, talking about them every week, measuring whether we’re making progress. It’s this act of reflection. That’s the backbone. That’s how you actually get better as a team.

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

We’ve been working on Koan for the past few years but right now is really a pivotal moment for software like ours. Alignment is a very very expensive problem for businesses with $450B wasted annually on mismanaged productivity alone. The explosion of distributed teams and remote work has made alignment even more challenging.

The opportunity to help organizations is huge — inclusive, autonomous teams working towards the same north star waste less time, achieve more, and feel more purposeful in their work. Everyone wins.

Many leaders attempt to correct misalignment within their organization with a top-down OKR approach that emphasizes cascading goals. But command-and-control management styles are out of touch with reality because they lack autonomy, agility, and resilience, and create low engagement and less innovation. Unlike other OKR software, Koan uniquely combines goals with the power of reflection. These two pillars, supported by the foundation of bottom-up goal setting, build a habit-forming workflow practiced by the most exceptional, high-output teams.

The elusive alignment problem has a solution — and it’s all about small positive behaviors leading to massive impact. Our customers agree: when teams adopt a virtuous and self-reinforcing set of behaviors for purposeful work and consistent learning, it helps them stay aligned, accomplish amazing things, and feel fulfilled in their work.

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?

That’s a complicated answer with various reasons. From my perspective, the Forbes article hints at one of the main reasons with the statistic citing the majority of managers do not receive any formal training on leading a team.

The way we work and how we’re psychologically built to feel motivated and empowered have not yet been synced up together at scale. The best practices of how exceptional teams operate can be codified in software but it’s still the early days of solutions to help offset the management training challenge.

Today, collaboration platforms and productivity tools like Asana and Slack are an integral part of the modern enterprise but the focus is expanding. Productivity and task tracking are no longer enough. A new generation of workers are demanding more in-depth support and reasoning from leadership on why they’re working on what they’re working. A happier workforce is one where employees are part of the discussion to level-up from tactics to strategy.

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?

While the Forbes article paints a pretty grim picture of today’s unhappy workforce, we also did a recent survey that revealed some encouraging insights. First, we should establish that a worker’s relationship with their boss has the single biggest impact on their professional happiness.

With that in mind, almost 80% of our respondents rated their boss favorably. These same people were 5x more likely to make progress on their goals and 7x more likely to produce work they were proud of.

The flipside is that a strained relationship with your boss affects everything you’ve mentioned in your question — productivity, profitability, and overall 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?

This is a great segue from the previous question because there are many low-effort ways for managers to improve team dynamics. To quote the Forbes article from your previous question, “Recognition is the number one thing employees say their manager could give them to inspire them to produce great work. Global studies prove that when it comes to inspiring people to be their best at work, nothing else comes close — not even higher pay, promotion, autonomy or training.”

Recognition can be achieved in various ways but we’ll keep the discussion to 5.

  1. Begin team check-in meetings with an off-topic icebreaker or ‘get to know you’ question.
  2. Run meetings where everyone is given a fair opportunity to speak (more details on that here.)
  3. Ask your direct reports, “Where do you see yourself in a year at this company? What do you want to do here?”
  4. Invite team members to give input on their respective levels’ goals, explain how they ladder up to broader company goals
  5. Set aside time weekly to celebrate wins; allow teammates to give each other shout-outs. We save the last five minutes of our weekly company all-hands for this.

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?

In one word, purpose. Nine of ten employees would trade some of their salary for more purposeful work. They aren’t bought into their organization’s missions, and they aren’t finding meaning in the work. That’s a huge price for businesses: when a disengaged employee leaves the company, all of her knowledge and social connections go with her. Gallup claims that employee turnover is costing U.S. employers $1T annually, and if anything, that number’s too low.

What they’re looking for is work that matters. They want to have an impact; not spend time lost in bureaucracy. They’re hungry to change the world; not play roulette with financial markets; They’re genuinely interested in being a part of something bigger than themselves.

As a culture, we need to give it to them. Our recent Koan Engagement Survey found that teams aligned around a common mission are 6x more likely to stick around than employees who don’t feel a strong sense of alignment. That sense of purpose is already an employee expectation, and employers are starting to figure out how to provide it. We’re already seeing a radical improvement in work culture at companies that have made alignment, autonomy, and purpose top priorities, and that trend will only be good for work culture as a whole.

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

At Koan, we live by our values and are focused on building a product that the entire team believes in. Here are a few of those values that describe my leadership style:

  • Bold transparency — Our default is to share information because our best work is done with full context. Real feedback between one another can be hard (especially when things aren’t going well), but we do it anyway. We remain curious and readily challenge assumptions. We have the hard conversations and are open and honest to always make the best decisions for Koan.
  • Employees, customers, the world. In that order. — We’re here to make a big impact at Koan. We start by creating a great environment for employees. We care about each other’s well being and growth, both professionally and personally. We focus on diversity and inclusion so that every employee can feel a sense of belonging. This gives us the fuel to do amazing work for our customers. We hold compassion for our customers and demonstrate our care with intense, but reasonable responsiveness. In turn, this earns us the opportunity to do better for the world, acting as stewards for causes bigger than ourselves.
  • Authenticity — we’re all passionate about what we’re building at Koan, and everyone brings their full selves to the workplace (even if it’s over a Zoom meeting). We’ve started a practice where we open each meeting with an icebreaker question to give everyone the opportunity to share, and it allows us the opportunity to get to know one another better.

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?

There’s a really long list of people I could name! One person in particular that was integral to Koan’s early days is Maynard Webb. I was lucky enough to be a “founder in residence” with Maynard and team. He has a well-deserved worldwide following as an amazing leader, operator and investor. He’s mentored countless people and companies and his feedback about what we were building at Koan was core to a lot of what’s in the product now. I’ve also been incredibly inspired by his ability to make a positive impact in the world and in the community of business leaders he’s nurtured to do the same.

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

My wife Gretchen and I were lucky to be able to take the success of Jive Software to fund considerable non-profit giving. I’ve also taken the Founder’s Pledge to dedicate 2% of my Koan equity towards charitable causes.

We also believe Koan can directly make an impact beyond the corporate world. We want to empower every organization that is doing important work with the tools to manage goals and track status, and ultimately help them do what they do even better. Koan is on a mission to make work better, and we want to make sure that those working on some of the world’s most important challenges are given the tools to be even more successful. You can learn more about the Koan Cares program here.

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

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Small, positive habits lead to big impact. My second-grade teacher told my mom she was worried about my physical education progress because I was the only member of the class that couldn’t jump-rope. I overheard the conversation and got pretty motivated. So I practiced jump-roping everyday after school, sometimes for up to an hour. The next year I set the record for fastest jump-roping ever at the local competition.

It’s the kind of lesson many of us hear as kids, but it’s true in everything. True success requires practice, and often a bit of luck, and the best way to set yourself up is by focusing on frequent, attainable improvements.

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. 🙂

This isn’t my idea alone but I would love to see a worldwide movement around the demand for more aligned, purposeful work. Ambition alone isn’t fulfilling and we’re starting to see the tide turning on this concept proven by monumental moments like Naomi Osaka declining press interviews for the sake of her mental health.

We spend more time at work than any other part of our lives. If we could create a world where the business norm is for everyone’s relationship with work to be healthier and more meaningful…that’s my dream.

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

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