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Raphael Crawford Marks: “Recognize each other”

Getting the right people on board early on is key. You want people who can help you achieve your goals and improve your culture. It’s also easy to hire people too quickly, and that’s something we learned the hard way early on. By being more consistent and directed in our hiring process, we’ve been able […]

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Getting the right people on board early on is key. You want people who can help you achieve your goals and improve your culture. It’s also easy to hire people too quickly, and that’s something we learned the hard way early on. By being more consistent and directed in our hiring process, we’ve been able to create a strong foundation of a team. And that team will hire and grow a stronger team.


As a part of our series about “How business leaders can create a fantastic work environment”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Raphael Crawford-Marks. He is the founder and CEO of Bonusly, an enterprise platform that helps companies create high-performance, high-engagement workplaces. He’s passionate about building products that help people connect with their work and each other in meaningful ways.


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’ve always liked the process of building things and the satisfaction that comes with starting something from scratch and bringing it to fruition, but I never thought of myself as a business owner. I started Bonusly as a side project back in 2012 because I was interested in how technology was changing the way we work. More specifically, how the knowledge economy forced companies to adopt more employee-centric management practices. I saw an opportunity for software to enable and enhance this shift toward employee-centricity. In just two years, Bonusly had grown too big to be a side project. The need was definitely there, so I turned my side project into a business and started down the path of entrepreneurship!

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

About a year ago, I happened to be wearing a Bonusly T-shirt when I took my youngest son to daycare. One of the other dads at drop-off saw my shirt, stopped me, and started talking about how much he loved using Bonusly. He didn’t know I was the founder, he just really liked the platform! That was the first time that someone outside of the startup realm had recognized our company name and struck up a conversation with me about it. It was a fun and totally unexpected exchange, especially since I don’t often hear people raving about software they have to use at work.

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

At Bonusly, we are always looking for ways to deliver features and products to help our customers engage their employees and build a positive workplace culture. We’re constantly iterating on our existing platform and developing new products and services to add to it. I can’t share any specifics right now, but I can say that we’ll be launching some exciting new features in the coming months to further support employee engagement and productivity.

On a personal level, I’ve gotten really into gardening and raising chickens. I even built a chicken coop in our backyard. I’ve learned time and again that it’s crucial to have projects outside of work for my general wellness. Raising chickens has been a surprisingly effective stress management tool and I’ve had a lot of fun taking care of the chickens with my two kids this summer.

OK, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the U.S. workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Is it really that surprising? Culturally, we work longer hours than almost anyone else on the planet, we don’t value wellness enough to unplug outside of work, and here’s the biggest issue: We’re bad at connecting with each other and our work. Now, happiness at work is one thing, but going deeper and focusing on engagement really gets at the core issue. Are people excited about what they’re doing? Do they feel like they’re really making an impact?

Perks and benefits are nice, but they’re what’s called “hygiene factors.” If hygiene factors aren’t in place, people will be disengaged — but they don’t really do much when it comes to actually engaging teams. To engage teams, you need to have motivating factors. You need to focus on and invest in intrinsic motivation by developing your people, acting on feedback, and recognizing behaviors that reinforce company values.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact (a) company productivity, (b) company profitability, © and employee health and well-being?

Like I mentioned earlier, let’s talk about what’s needed for a happy workforce: engagement. Something amazing happens when people are truly engaged, when they’re committed to their work, their team’s goals, and their company’s mission. Studies have shown it again and again. I’ve seen it firsthand. Engaged teams are successful. They’re not only productive, they’re innovative. They’re not just profitable, people love being a part of them.

So organizations that foster environments where employees are unhappy, dissatisfied, and disengaged shouldn’t be surprised when folks only work hard enough to avoid getting hassled.

Can you share five things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Being both transparent and accessible with your employees on a regular basis are two key aspects. Consistent communications are key for improving any work culture. When Bonusly was relatively small but we were growing quickly, I started getting requests for regular all-hands meetings. I was resistant to the idea at first because I felt like I knew everyone individually and we all communicated regularly on Slack, so why did we need another meeting? However, there was a dramatic change in the way employees approached me and the atmosphere in the office when I started hosting all-hands meetings (and more recently “ask me anything” meetings). Employees started to feel in the know. Being able to have touchpoints with employees to share information, ask questions, and address concerns has been really critical to the evolution of our company culture.
  2. Also important is creating a culture of ownership. Ownership comes from granting both autonomy and responsibility. This means making sure that employees at every level and in every department feel they have some degree of autonomy to make decisions and understand their responsibility for the outcomes. That’s an important mix to get right in terms of getting the best out of employees.
  3. Getting the right people on board early on is key. You want people who can help you achieve your goals and improve your culture. It’s also easy to hire people too quickly, and that’s something we learned the hard way early on. By being more consistent and directed in our hiring process, we’ve been able to create a strong foundation of a team. And that team will hire and grow a stronger team.
  4. Be adaptable. Things don’t always go the way you think they will. Just look at the past six months! As a leader at Bonusly, I’ve worn a lot of different hats. In the early stages, I was very much in the weeds of our code and dealing directly with customer requests. Now, my role is more focused on growing the team, leading our long-term strategy, and developing our leadership. Encouraging adaptability has helped our culture evolve.
  5. Recognize each other. If you want to lead a team that’s engaged, encourage employees to stay with you, and really make an impact, you absolutely need to create a recognition-rich environment. And that’s something that you should set an example for. That’s why we’ve been so successful at Bonusly. 😉

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 U.S. workforce’s work culture?

There are plenty of higher-level things about our work culture that need to change. From parental leave to vacation time to healthcare, there are some institutional changes that need to be enacted for us to foster a healthier work culture.

At the core of all of that, it’s really about focusing on people. We need to shift away from outdated practices that ignore people’s talents, hopes, and dreams, and shift to a new way of thinking about employees and employers. Our vision is for every organization to reach success by creating high-performance, high-engagement teams. That means creating an environment where people who are empowered to reach their full professional potential feel valued as individuals and love the work they do.

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

I’m a fan of Kevin Kruse’s definition: “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, toward the achievement of a goal.”

I like that definition because it doesn’t limit leadership to something that only someone with a certain job title can do — anyone can find ways to influence others toward the achievement of a shared goal.

In my role as a leader at Bonusly, I try to practice this by creating an environment that fosters a sense of purpose, progress, and belonging. We build a sense of purpose through a shared vision and set of goals. There is an awareness that every team member’s work is important in helping reach those goals. Progress comes through building knowledge and skills. We create an environment at Bonusly where employees can develop professionally and personally and are given the opportunity, time, and funds to do so. Finally, a sense of belonging comes from being treated as a valued member of the team. For us, this translates to psychological safety where every person at Bonusly, from entry-level to leadership, feels empowered to brainstorm, share ideas, discuss challenges, and fail fast.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had the good fortune of growing up in San Francisco in the ’90’s when the first wave of technology startups was emerging. I was your classic computer nerd. I dropped out of high school. Looking back, I’m very thankful to the hiring managers and startup founders who were willing to look past my youth and lack of credentials to hire me. It’s an immense privilege to be able to get a job in your desired field when you skip the traditional high school and college path. I got to work with and learn from people who were decades older than me because they took a chance on me, and that helped me start a lifelong career in tech.

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

What gets me out of bed every morning and what gets me excited about Bonusly is the real-world, positive impact that our software has on people and their work. We know from survey data that when companies deploy Bonusly, they have a statistically significant improvement in employee experience and engagement. I am excited about scaling this positive impact. Even if we are making the workday just a tiny bit better, multiplying this across millions of people across the world could result in dramatic changes.

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

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” The quote is often misattributed to Winston Churchill.

I love this quote because anytime you try to accomplish something big or ambitious, there are going to be really trying challenges. It’s a reminder not to be discouraged or stop when that happens, but to press onward.

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. 🙂

Especially in this country, there is an individualistic, “I win/you lose” culture that is causing serious long-term harm to many fellow humans, and to our society as a whole. It manifests in many different ways: the unaddressed legacy of slavery and racial oppression, the widening wealth and income gap, pollution and climate change, deeply unequal access to education and healthcare, and so on.

I guess I’d love to see a “we’re all in this together” movement, that focuses on making funding and connections targeted at closing some of these massive gaps and divides in our society.

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

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