Be direct and honest. We encourage our employees to lean into awkward conversations. I try to lead by example by talking about uncomfortable topics as soon as I get a sense that something is wrong. When misalignment sits around it can fester before too long. Bringing up tough subjects or feedback with subordinates creates an opportunity to fix things before they get too broken. Among my peer set, that same directness keeps everyone aligned and working toward the same goals.
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark McKee, the President and COO of OnPay, a top-rated payroll software company. He came to OnPay about three years ago with the goal of taking a world-class product and building out the team that could successfully bring it to the world. Prior to McKee’s arrival, OnPay was born within a traditional payroll business owned by the family of its founder, Jesse Burgess. Each pay period, its clients faxed in time cards which were then processed manually. Burgess thought there had to be a better way, so he launched OnPay (short for “online payroll”) in 2009 to bring this tedious process into the cloud. The goal was never to be a high-flying startup — Burgess was just looking for a more efficient way to run the business — but a glowing PC Mag review changed everything. Clients started to pour in, and McKee joined the team to manage its growth from several hundred to over 10,000 small business clients today. Since then, he’s overseen a calculated effort to stay true to the company’s relatively humble roots.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Before OnPay, I spent about 15 years in institutional investing, equity research and analysis, private equity and investment banking. It turned out that OnPay was the last client I’d ever have as an investment banker.
It’s hard to explain how impressed I was by our founder, Jesse Burgess. Yes, he’d built this amazing software and put together a business that was well-positioned to compete with behemoths like ADP and Paychex, but he also had zero ego about anything. He was simply passionate about his job and doing everything that he could to make life easier for small business owners.
While the business happened to check all the boxes my inner investment banker was looking for — high growth, big market, great product — somewhere inside, I knew my real motivation was the challenge of helping build a business that stayed true to Jesse’s ethos of working tirelessly to give small business owners the tools they need to be successful.
So far so good!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Before my story, a little context.
We’ve always believed that there is no single niche or specific use case for our payroll product. When Jesse was first building OnPay, every customer really made an impact on the bottom line, so he had to find a way to accommodate them all. That meant adding new features and functionality any time someone asked for something. Over time, that attention to detail turned into a mission it to build payroll software that could truly serve every business.
When we recently launched a payroll product for accountants, we attended a big CPA convention to spread the word. I was talking to an accountant who was a little suspicious of us because we were a new technology for him. He quizzed me with increasingly esoteric questions about what our software could do, and what kind of people it could serve: “All 50 states? OK, how about tipped workers? Tiered PTO accrual? Um, parsonage allowances?!” He was really trying to trip me up, but my answer to every question was yes, so he wound up getting really frustrated.
We didn’t make the sale with him, but it was great confirmation that the product stands up to the expectations of our toughest critics. Other members of the team had similar (but more fruitful) conversations, and we came out of the product launch with a lot of energy because we were getting such a good response.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have a big product launch coming up in a few months, so we can’t get too far into specifics, but we’ve been thinking a lot about what small businesses need on the human resources front. Obviously, there are a bunch of compliance-related boxes they need to check, and that’s something we’ll help with. But building HR software also creates an opportunity to help build culture (or at least the tools that will help it flourish).
To that end, we’ve also tried to make communication and employee recognition big points of emphasis in what we’re building. We feel like we’re making the transition from automating work that our clients don’t want to do themselves to empowering them to have relationships with employees that they couldn’t otherwise have.
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?
Everyone should take (at least some) satisfaction from their work, so it’s totally unacceptable that 70 percent of workers are actively disengaged.
I think the disengagement we’re seeing as a society is the product of a lot of people taking jobs that they’re not meant to be in. In the business world, we talk about product-market fit, and I think this is a similar concept: person-job fit.
To be fair, the job of ensuring there’s good fit is something that falls squarely on employers’ shoulders. SHRM research has shown there are some basic thresholds we need to cross to create a work environment where employees feel safe and trusted. For us, that means creating an atmosphere where people really understand their roles and why what we’re doing is so important to the business owners we serve.
Then, to ensure there’s good fit on both sides, we’re super picky about who we bring in. If forced to choose, we prefer a candidate who is capable and compatible with the existing team over a candidate with high levels of demonstrated skill. Our hypothesis is that (at a high level) the right people in the right environment will naturally be engaged by the small businesses they’re helping and the teammates they’re working alongside.
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?
More engaged workers are more proactive and collaborative, period. They’re always looking for ways to do things better, which yields not just more productivity, but improved processes and greater overall capacity for your team. Whether it’s the result of better health or more motivation, engaged employees are also half as likely to miss or skip work.
All those things have a direct impact on the bottom line.
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?
I’ve talked a lot about fit, but it’s actually what fit produces that really matters. Employees who are synced (either interpersonally or around a mission) simply trust each other more and feel emotionally safe when they’re doing their jobs. Here’s how we try to foster that trust at OnPay:
- Tell them you trust them! The most motivating thing I feel like I can do is look someone in the eye and say, “I trust you to do your best.” It both creates a powerful sense of responsibility, and it tells your people that they are empowered by you to go do what they need to do. It gives them license to give it their all, to take risks, to share their ideas.
- Focus your praise on efforts, not outcomes. We’re still small enough that anyone can raise their hand and offer to pitch in on something (and I hope it will always feel that way). Recently, some of our customer service reps have taken the initiative to help out with marketing and design projects. When they carry the load that’s assigned to them AND volunteer to do things that move other parts of the business forward? I couldn’t be prouder, and I’m sure to let them know.
- Find the people with the most potential and invest in them. We pride ourselves on the payroll expertise of our staff, but it might be really hard to hire if we limited ourselves to payroll pros. Instead, we look for people who are smart, caring, and personable. Payroll expertise is something we can help them acquire. It’s much harder to teach empathy.
- Be direct and honest. We encourage our employees to lean into awkward conversations. I try to lead by example by talking about uncomfortable topics as soon as I get a sense that something is wrong. When misalignment sits around it can fester before too long. Bringing up tough subjects or feedback with subordinates creates an opportunity to fix things before they get too broken. Among my peer set, that same directness keeps everyone aligned and working toward the same goals.
- Be creative about culture. You don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on team-building events to bring people together. While we definitely try to add some perks and fun to our employees’ lives, we also look for little ways to build community. For example, every day, we post one or two brain teasers or riddles on a whiteboard in the kitchen. Stopping to consider them gives people a mental break from whatever challenges they’re dealing with, and it encourages social interaction between whoever happens to be in the kitchen at the time — whether or not they work closely together. It costs nothing, it gives everyone a chance to be a star, and it’s something unique that we all share.
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?
I think there are two slightly contradictory goals we ought to be pursuing.
First, we need to do a better job of teaching people to be adaptable. The world is changing fast, and jobs that are in high demand now might not be in 20 or 30 years. Improving critical thinking skills and creating a broader sense of horizons will help people cope with the changes they’re likely to see over the course of their lifetimes. It will help them find a career where they feel like they fit, and where they’re more likely to be engaged.
At the same time, we need to help people identify what they’re best at (or what they love) early on and create paths for them to specialize. When each member of the workforce has both a superpower and a mindset that enables them to add another superpower (if needed), I think we’ll be prepared for whatever the future holds.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I truly believe that we’re all in this together. If I had to describe a single style, it’s trying to lead by example — which often means showing that I’m willing to do anything that’s required of me. For example, our customer success team can forward customer calls to me if they’re having a hard time resolving an issue. Taking the stickiest situations off their hands is often a great learning experience for me, and it helps keep their morale up.
More generally, I don’t think it’s fair to ask someone to do something that you’re unwilling to do. So, I’ll fix the sink, pick up the cupcakes, or help unpack groceries in the kitchen. All of us need to be willing to go the extra yard for our customers. Going the extra yard for each other helps demonstrate how high the bar should be — and it shows that nobody’s too big for a given role.
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?
My dad, Don, was always a great motivator. When I address the team, everyone assumes they’re getting a Mark McKee pep talk. What they’re really getting is a classic dose of Don McKee. My dad always credited his time in the army reserves with instilling in him an ability to communicate well with people. His former commanding officer taught him that the army is a people business first, and Don always reminded me that the same is true in my, or any, role.
That means rolling up my sleeves to join the team, whatever they’re up to. It means making the extra effort to open channels of communication through rough patches. And it means being as direct and as honest as I can be. When I see my team as people first, and they in turn see our clients as people, I know we’re going to have a good chance to be successful.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Everything we do at OnPay is about making it easier for small business owners to spend more time focused on meaningful activities. Payroll and HR are obstacles, and we hope we can (at a minimum) turn them into an afterthought. Aspirationally, we also hope to help our clients build workplaces that are engaging and rewarding. The more we grow, the more we know we’re spreading a better way of doing things.
I also take some pride in giving our internal team the opportunity to build something special, and to help them do it in an environment where they feel trusted, supported, and appreciated.
Thank you so much for all of these great insights!