“Stop resisting the ‘gig economy’ and embrace it” with Steve Cooper of Excella and Chaya Weiner

Stop resisting the “gig economy” and embrace it! We’ve all grasped that the workforce has already morphed from a one-employer, cradle-to-grave paradigm to a shorter-tenure, portable job dynamic. But that’s just the beginning. The ultimate destination is a workforce of independent, freelancing service providers whose primary loyalty is to the project or mission, rather than […]

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Stop resisting the “gig economy” and embrace it! We’ve all grasped that the workforce has already morphed from a one-employer, cradle-to-grave paradigm to a shorter-tenure, portable job dynamic. But that’s just the beginning. The ultimate destination is a workforce of independent, freelancing service providers whose primary loyalty is to the project or mission, rather than to any organization.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Cooper. Steve co-founded Excella in 2002 and has been its Partner since inception. Cooper has over 30 years experience in technology consulting, specializing in application development and database technology. His technical expertise spans technologies from the mainframe to client/server to the Internet. He possesses industry expertise in telecommunications, hospitality, federal government, law enforcement and manufacturing. His corporate role within Excella is focused on human resources and personnel development. He has developed much of Excella’s cultural and professional development materials, including Excella University and the Excella Extension Center.

Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My plan was set: I was going to graduate early from Hope College, and my impending math major would be the perfect preparation for the University of Chicago MBA I was sure to receive.

Then the letter came. They didn’t want me, and I had no backup plan or prospects. That’s when my good friend, a Hope College faculty member, informed me of a technology consulting interview with Arthur Andersen & Company recruiters.

Even though technology wasn’t my cup of tea, my first Andersen boss saw enough tech aptitude in me to put me on the “tech team” for a hundred-person project. He even gave me the role of a database expert. My next project role was to engineer the database design for a massive new system at a scrappy telecom company called MCI. This is how a math and music student from a Midwest liberal arts school launched a technology career in Washington, DC. Impostor syndrome? I’m familiar with it.

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

Excella is a leader in Agile technology in the DC/MD/VA area, within and outside the federal government. What’s interesting is how Excella’s first remote development center came to be.

In 2009, we were about 50 people when one of our technology leaders sought a different lifestyle for himself and his family. They wanted to move to Blacksburg, VA, where he attended college at Virginia Tech. Rather than accept what seemed like his inevitable resignation, one of my partners decided to explore a different option: since our technology leader was such a strong mentor and developer, what if we could set up a development center on campus, using students as the resource? We could pipeline the code up to our DC-based clients, they’d pay less for services, and the students would learn to code from real-world teachers (our employees). This sparked the idea of Excella’s first remote development center. Now hundreds of students have come through the program, and we’re one of the largest tenants in VT’s corporate research center.

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

At Excella, we’re taking our employment model on the road. In addition to inviting local professionals in DC/MD/VA to join Excella in building our clients’ most critical technology solutions, we’re inviting technologists across the USA to join us. They can work from home, they can report to a remote development center, or they could work at our client sites across the country.

We’re excited about helping people join our team because — given today’s technology — we know that physical distance should no longer limit anyone’s technology career. We’ve already got teams working together on big tech challenges; some from home, some part-time, and some students at our campus-based development center at Virginia Tech.

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?

I think our definition of ‘unhappiness’ (and our expectation of happiness) has undergone a lot of change, especially as it pertains to the workplace. Much of the workforce has moved beyond working for mere money, and now enjoys the luxury of regularly assessing their career fulfillment. The expectation has shifted from “I’m happy enough in my job” to “I expect my career to fulfill me most of the time.” The bar is higher than it’s ever been, and the tight labor market in many fields means that employees don’t have to tolerate less-than-fulfilling conditions.

Also, an unspoken maxim in modern society is that success comes to people with raw talent and innate instinct. What we too frequently minimize is the hard work, practice, and suffering that successful people endure on their path to greatness (even after they achieve it). Developing skills is hard and lonely, and rarely does it provide the immediate reward of happiness. I think yesterday’s workforce understood this more readily, whereas today’s workforce may associate happiness to today’s every moment, not the eventuality of tomorrow. That’s a high bar for any job to meet.

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 well-being?

A workforce that considers itself unhappy tends to switch jobs a lot more. We’ve already seen some effects of this, and maybe we shouldn’t assume they’re all bad. At Excella, we build a “retention screen” into our interview process: we ask probing questions to test why the reason they’re leaving their current job won’t apply to their next job. This more transient, less tenured workforce have forced employers to make other changes. Employers must assemble more agile work teams with shorter deadlines. Delivering things in quicker, smaller chunks is a good thing: you get more stakeholder feedback and end up with a better product. This will result in better products, higher customer satisfaction, and higher profits. Companies that don’t evolve to a more agile culture will suffer as workforce mobility increases.

When workplace unhappiness results in increased workforce mobility and shorter job tenure, one very interesting effect will be about the essence and identity of a company itself: if most of a company’s employees are temporary, the essence of a company will become less about the folks who work there, and more about its products or its unique ways of doing things.

As for employee’s health and well-being, it can’t be good if employees consider themselves unhappy at work. Or can it? How does this “work unhappiness” metric compare with unhappiness in other areas of life? If happiness levels are higher in the areas of relationships, health, and spirituality, then maybe work could occupy a lower spot in the rankings.

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?

1. Truly Listen. Recently, one of my employees came to me with an idea — a small no-cost policy change — that would probably drive more revenue and accelerate our entry into new markets. As he was proposing his idea I imagined myself in his shoes and considered what he might be looking for, aside from the obvious “yes.” He wanted to be heard and understood. He wanted consideration and undivided attention. But here’s the interesting part: providing those things is even more important than agreeing with the idea, because the gift of being truly heard makes people more engaged and committed to your team, and you as a leader or colleague.

What I did was to make sure I was keenly focused on the conversation, wait until everything had been expressed fully, and ask questions. After considering all the implications of it, I said: “Fabulous idea. I have no questions. Let’s make this happen.”

Of course, it could have been tweaked, or more analysis could have been provided. But there will be time for all of those. What’s most important was the huge motivational boost he received by seeing that he had come with a fully analyzed idea, and his manager had listened and given an unqualified simple yes. It just took about five minutes of truly listening to give him that.

2. Share Yourself. I’ve written and taught our employees classes about consulting, clients, culture, and careers for decades. A couple years ago, I challenged myself to make every moment of each class compelling. I spiced up the slide decks and even gave the classes more controversial titles. This didn’t produce the results I was looking for: students were engaged as always but not energized like I had hoped. One evening, I (accidentally) told them a story about an early-career incident between me and an early boss of mine. They fired questions at me. Curiosity and even humor began to permeate the room, and time moved quickly toward the end of that evening’s session. I learned something that night: when a leader authentically shares something personal, it inspires. It creates a bond that’s far more meaningful than simply learning facts or citing theory academically.

3. Get out of the way and let ownership take over. An oft-neglected factor in project success is ownership, which separates those who care deeply from those who are following orders. When a team takes ownership of its product, magic happens.

Recently, I needed some outdoor piping re-plumbed, and I had a malfunctioning ceiling fan switch. I scheduled appointments to have them fixed on the same day. When the electricians arrived, I revealed the problem without proposing a solution and desperately craved for them to own the problem. I even asked: “If this was your house, what would you do?” They repeatedly insisted that the fan would only work with a handheld remote control, and they could do nothing more. Even if they were right about the remote control, a slightly creative electrician could bypass the remote receiver to get the fan spinning. That breakthrough never occurred. They departed our home leaving a service call invoice and a burning, frustrated ember inside me.

Enter the plumbing crew. I followed my familiar (but unproven) tactic and asked them the same question. They immediately began devising, engineering, collaborating, and sketching. After installation, it works perfectly. My soul soared! They had taken ownership of this project, and the pride they now took in it gushed with the throughput of a thousand faucets. What spurs a team to take ownership of its own solution? And how can leaders increase the chances of igniting this powerful spark? Here are some tips:

– Focus on why, not how: Ban micromanagement. Give employees a problem or goal and tell them what you expect of them.

– Hire people who inherently take pride in what they make and do. People who take pride in their work product aren’t afraid to own a solution.

– Don’t take returns. The plumbers tried a few times to return the solution back to me, but I refused to take it. Problems are never easy. Stick to the overall purpose and constraints, and don’t get lured into prescribing a solution that someone else will inherit.

– Speak the mantra: “If this was your problem, how would you solve it?” Then show them it really is their problem.

4. Confront weak performance. Most people want to get along in the workplace, exchange personal stories, and even have real ‘work-friends.’ This isn’t conducive to having blunt conversations when someone’s results aren’t meeting expectations. This (and other factors) challenge leaders to pull someone aside and inform them that things can’t continue as they are. But the cost of sweeping it under the rug and hoping it will improve on its own can be colossal. The other team members may already see the weakness. The seeds of resentment and injustice are growing. And attempts to universalize the message by having group meetings and tightening policies only serve to send unnecessary messages to the rest of the team.

5. Show Praise not just Gratitude. A leader who’s knowledgeable enough to give a specific work compliment is a leader who knows the impact and nature of each team’s work. Which of these sounds like a boss you’d like to work for? “Thanks for being on the team!” or “Your idea saved the company a lot of money!” Leaders should know the difference between praise and gratitude. In my experience, employees feel that gratitude is something anyone can earn, like a waiter earning a tip, or a cadet earning a weekend furlough. There’s distance between the giver and receiver. But praise is personalized and isn’t automatic. It makes the recipient feel that the difference she made was noticed and that the outcome would have been different without her.

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?

Stop resisting the “gig economy” and embrace it! We’ve all grasped that the workforce has already morphed from a one-employer, cradle-to-grave paradigm to a shorter-tenure, portable job dynamic. But that’s just the beginning. The ultimate destination is a workforce of independent, freelancing service providers whose primary loyalty is to the project or mission, rather than to any organization.

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

Vulnerable and truth-seeking. When we set out to become a leading technology service provider, we noticed that the world was changing as personal computers became portable. Our consulting teams had to mobilize quickly to deliver solutions for our clients, whose sites could be anywhere. Back in 2008, most of our employees already had a personal laptop, and they had every brand imaginable, from Apple to HP to IBM. Many competitors were providing their workforces with standard-issue corporate laptops — which weren’t cheap or easy to maintain but resulted in many consultants carrying their personal and work laptops everywhere. To tackle this challenge for Excella, I assembled a team of peers and leaders and initiated an effort to find the optimal solution for our workforce. We created the Laptop Advance and Subsidy Option (LASO) program — one of the first BYOD (bring-your-own-device) programs and also a great initiative for employees, clients, and Excella. The values I had to exhibit during this process were a vulnerability. I had to be willing to be questioned and challenged on any aspect or idea I might have authored. And I had to show the team that I was interested in getting to the best answer based on the truth, not tradition or opinions.

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 was a shy kid, and to make that even worse, I attended seven different schools in seven years, from fourth to tenth grade. I moved three times between the ages of 10 and 15. My dad was with Stanley Tools, and they moved their managers often. My mom saw the looming challenge it presented, and she pushed me toward overcoming my fear of talking to people by auditioning for plays and taking piano lessons. At age 10, I won the part of Winthrop in the community production of Music Man and then Oliver in Oliver Twist! And by the time I moved to Michigan, I was comfortable making public remarks, serving as musical director for shows, and overseeing the disk jockey population at my college as personnel director of the college radio station. The odds were against a shy kid who was the perpetual ‘new kid,’ but my mother made sure that I beat those odds. Becoming comfortable in a crowd, making an offhand toast, and writing a speech are instrumental skills in leading any team. These moments give you an opportunity to set the tone, create positive energy, and unite a team.

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

Professional success has brought me enough freedom, time, and latitude to make some interesting contributions across a host of causes. I spent six years teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). Those evenings I spent explaining the arcane nooks and crannies of English — like the difference between style and fashion — were some of the most rewarding and enriching of my life. I also took my family on a weeklong Appalachian Service Project (ASP) living in a rural school while we spent our summer days repairing homes in West Virginia. Another example is the Detroit Homecoming, which is now in its fifth year and still un-replicated anywhere else. Once a year, “Detroit expats” (folks who have left the area to find new careers) return to celebrate and invest their collective resources in how to keep this new Detroit revival moving. My involvement in Detroit Homecoming has sparked rehab of Woodward Avenue real estate, meeting with economic development officials, and Excella looking to harness Detroit’s engineering talent base to power a development center for our national workforce model. Each of these examples reminds me of an impact I’m obligated to keep making: reminding our Excella workforce just how fortunate we are to be educated and skilled in technology, which allows us to follow our dreams and live happy lives — things we should never take for granted.

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

The ingredients for this lesson came from my grandfather, who always told me that if you show up, you’ll be in the top 50%. I tell my kids and employees how to be in the top 10% of all performers. they are not hard, and you do not need more than a fifth-grade education to do this:

1. If you show up to everything, you’ll be in the top 50%

2. If you listen to every word that is said, you’ll be in the top 30%

3. If you do what you say you will do, you’ll be in the top 15%

4. If you make a daily to-do list and finish that list each day, you’ll be in the top 10%

It’s sad that meeting these seemingly basic expectations is so rare, but most of the world’s disappointments can be traced to these simple habits, rather than more sophisticated root causes. This applies to my daily life and to our company. Many employees come to Excella and quickly notice how bonuses, reviews, and financial results are never late and are always delivered when promised.

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. 🙂

For years now, I’ve always said that if I ever had a bully pulpit of mammoth proportion, I would advocate for organ donation. Twenty people die each day waiting for organ donations. It costs nothing, and it can literally make a life-changing difference to another, potentially several others. How would you calculate the positive world impact of any single action you could take? You’d probably express it by somehow calculating the overall benefit and then comparing it to how much effort and cost you had to expend doing it. Cleaning the ocean, feeding the hungry, or paying for vaccines could each make a massive impact, but each of them requires a monumental cost. Applying this same benefit/cost rubric to organ donation yields a stunning result: you could save multiple lives by checking a box that only costs you after you’re completely finished with your organs. Not checking the box is the dining equivalent of burning down a restaurant after you’re finished eating there. Organ donation should be a no-brainer, not required by law, but just the societally accepted as the right thing to do.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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