“To create a fantastic work culture, hire great people, then get out of their way.” with Codrin Arsene and Phil Laboon

I said it before: hire great people, then get out of their way. Now, I will be the first to acknowledge that this doesn’t always work. My management style is 100% what I wish I always had when working in corporate America. For people like me who have a get-it-done attitude, this works very well […]

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I said it before: hire great people, then get out of their way. Now, I will be the first to acknowledge that this doesn’t always work. My management style is 100% what I wish I always had when working in corporate America. For people like me who have a get-it-done attitude, this works very well because it allows for 100% autonomy and decision-making. My employees know they actually own any project they work on and that they are 100% accountable for the results. I personally think this is how the world should be run. Empower people, then only step in when they need you or when it’s absolutely necessary.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Codrin Arsene, the CEO of Digital Authority Partners, a digital consulting agency in Chicago, and HealthcareWeekly, an online magazine covering digital innovation in healthcare that reaches over 150,000 monthly readers. Codrin is a first generation immigrant from Romania and a University of Chicago graduate. To date, he’s worked with over 20 Fortune 500 companies on large-scale digital transformation projects.

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 started my career at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak, as a product analyst. Right out of graduate school, I was drawn to digital innovation, consumer experiences and omnichannel strategies designed to improve people’s lives and provide convenient technology-enabled solutions to everyday problems. After working at a major retailer and a Japanese multinational corporation, I started my own company. We’ve been helping Fortune 500 companies navigate the complex world of digitalization, automation and next generation experiences (artificial intelligence, blockchain, virtual reality) ever since.

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

I don’t know if I would call this the most interesting story, but it is certainly the story that has had the greatest personal impact on me. When I started the company back in the summer of 2015, it was nothing more than a moonlighting activity. I had a regular 9–5 job, and was doing some consulting work on the side. A few other people I knew wanted to supplement their income, too. So they joined me.

Fast forward several months. My position was eliminated and I was out of a job. Then a wonderful thing happened: the people who were working with me as freelancers all came together to work extra hard to make the company I founded successful. Many of them either reduced their hours or didn’t bill me at all. They all went the extra mile. This in turn helped tremendously to grow the company into a 7-figure business.

I never expected so much kindness and loyalty from people I only knew professionally, especially since there was no guarantee that the company would take off. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Of course, most of the people who so graciously volunteered their time to make us successful are now full-time employees, and we continue to help amazing companies, together.

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

We always work on amazing projects. Unfortunately, as you may know, Fortune 500 companies are not too eager to make their relationships with agencies public, so even though I would love to tell you about the most exciting project we’re currently working on, I cannot do so. Though I wish I could since it recently received various awards at the Consumer Electronics Show this year.

However, I can talk about where I think the future of technology lies — and a digital project we’re working on internally at this time. I strongly believe that the future of consumer-brand interaction is at the intersection of voice and artificial intelligence.

Many marketers, including famous ones like Neil Patel, have been talking about this. However, a voice-enabled future has yet to be fully acknowledged by directors or VPs of digital transformation.

We want to lead the way by creating digital products that prove how voice and artificial intelligence can help shape a better future. Digital Authority Partners is currently working on an Alexa-enabled interconnected solution that will help hospitals and assisted-living communities better control the quality of life, patient outcomes and emergency situations.

We’re working closely with our friends at Locbit (a leading IoT company out of California) to create an ecosystem of apps, sensors and voice-enabled technologies designed to help patients and individuals live longer, healthier and more productive lives.

Let’s take a specific example: an assisted-living community in Chicago, Illinois. The solution we are building will sit on top of the Amazon Echo platform. Each patient’s room will have an Alexa device installed, which will do the following:

– Alert the patient when it is time to take medications, in what dosage and, if applicable, in what order.

– Enable the assisted living community manager to send voice alerts to all patients simultaneously.

– Conduct automatic check-ins with every patient. If the solution does not engage with the patient, a nurse will be alerted to check on the person.

– Generate automated health reports that can be shared with staff and family members.

We think businesses have only scratched the surface of what voice can do for healthcare or any other industry. We want to play a role in starting a national conversation about how voice and artificial intelligence can help us as a society.

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 was one of those unhappy employees. I started a company because of how unhappy I was. Here are my personal reasons. I don’t claim they’re universal; however, I strongly believe many readers working for enterprises can relate to some of these:

  1. Lack of strategy. Contrary to what many employers think, employees want to do the right thing. They want to feel that they are accomplishing something both tangible (results) and intangible (that ‘thing’ that makes us happy, but which we can’t always pinpoint). Yet, the majority of companies are not overly concerned with having a good strategy. So, as an employee, it becomes all too easy to become jaded and demoralized. Which brings me to the next point.
  2. Internal politics. When internal politics prevail, innovation takes a back-seat. It is replaced with a toxic culture which will eventually spiral any company into oblivion and mediocrity. This leads to the next point, which is related to this concept.
  3. Not doing the right thing. Doing the right thing means that every team comes together and defines a solution that will move a Key Performance Indicator for the company. Unfortunately, when you have internal politics and lack of strategy, no team can effectively find a way to do the right thing. When you can’t take joy in your work — and cannot see a positive outcome from your efforts — what is the personal return on investment?

Employees spend more time with their co-workers than anyone else. When the fruit of joint efforts diminishes, what sense of personal satisfaction can you have?

Last year, for example, we were working with a big client and did some amazing work (the CEO himself called out the work we did on an earnings call, that’s how big it was). After we came in, the employees on the team were upbeat and optimistic. Six months later, news comes down that the CTO of the company had cut off all our budget because the speed at which we delivered was making his part of the organization look bad (we were launching new mobile app features three times FASTER than internal resources).

So we got booted out. Within a year, 95% of the people we were working with left the company. And now the same people are bringing us in to their new companies to help them out with their new digital initiatives.

Moral of the story: you do the wrong thing for the wrong reason and people will leave you.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will affect a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Workforce unhappiness is cancer to an organization. It builds slowly and grows over time, then it kills a company from within. Look at the aftermath of what happened at Nokia. The company had a poor executive management team in place. Middle management knew what needed to be done to turn the ship around, but they were too afraid to tell the truth because they feared they’d get fired. So they said nothing. And the company failed.

A company is nothing without a happy workforce. Employees build companies and help them achieve greatness. An unhappy employee will quickly become disinterested. When you lose interest, you lose the greatest asset any company can own: the individual creativity, drive and passion of each individual contributor. Without that element you cannot grow and innovate. Without that force, stagnation becomes the norm.

Of course, this affects each individual’s well-being. I can tell you that from personal experience. I once worked at a company with overwhelming politics and people who competed against one another more than they did against the real threats. It was not a good time in my life as an employee.

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) Be flexible. At Digital Authority, we have no defined work from home policy (you can work wherever you want as long as you deliver) and no vacation policy (take as much time as you need, provided the job gets done). Too many of my personal friends keep saying they would love to work for me because their current employers are so stringent. My philosophy is simple: hire people you trust and get out of their way.

2) Be reasonable. Many employers get so worked up about failure because they often think only of themselves when something goes south. Mistakes will always be made. Things get delayed. So be reasonable and work with your employees. Even if they screw up badly, take it as a learning opportunity. Help them succeed and avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

3) Be generous. You can’t always do this for reasons that may be outside of your control. But try to reward your top employees. It’s totally worth it. Fight with HR over individual raises. I had a boss who once did that and got me raises over raises because I was his top performer. It wasn’t his money, but he recognized the value I brought to the company. I was super young and unafraid and worked 24×7. My manager understood the value I brought. At Digital Authority Partners, we do the same. All raises are 100% tied to individual performance, versus most other companies, where increases unnecessarily top out between five and 10%.

4) Fight for what your employees want and back them up. I also learned this from one of my previous bosses — Todd Koehler. Todd really fought hard to remove roadblocks, get me what I needed to succeed and to support me. When I needed a corporate licence the company didn’t necessarily offer for my job level, he found a way to solve the issue. When I needed to take more time off for personal reasons, he told me to do it. When I wanted to attend a conference, even though there was no budget for it, he made it happen.

These small acts of kindness add up and increase your personal loyalty to your employer. At our company we do what I learned from Todd: let people explain why they need what they’re asking for. Then make it happen if the business case or personal case is strong enough.

5) Don’t take anyone for granted. An employee owes you nothing. You don’t build trust or loyalty by believing they will always support you or your company. Because they won’t. My philosophy is to make sure that the people who matter the most to my business always have the chance to talk to me. On my end, I will do whatever I can to remove roadblocks and help them out so they are happy.

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 US work culture?

The workforce is changing, although companies don’t always choose to acknowledge it. This is not just a question of an individual company’s policy change, it’s a global change. My mother cannot believe the types of benefits and perks we offer to our employees because her generation NEVER dreamed of them. But these changes happen for a reason. When you understand how critical the wellbeing of your employees is to the success of your company and how you, as a company, are NOTHING without great employees, the rules of the game change 100%. As a society, we need to move towards defining a crystal clear definition of success for our employees. If they meet those objectives, let them work from whatever corner of the world they choose or under whatever conditions make sense for them.

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

I said it before: hire great people, then get out of their way.

Now, I will be the first to acknowledge that this doesn’t always work. My management style is 100% what I wish I always had when working in corporate America.

For people like me who have a get-it-done attitude, this works very well because it allows for 100% autonomy and decision-making. My employees know they actually own any project they work on and that they are 100% accountable for the results. I personally think this is how the world should be run. Empower people, then only step in when they need you or when it’s absolutely necessary.

That said, not everyone works the same way. Some people need a lot more parameters. This is where having the right management structure in place is critical. At the top of my organization there are five other people. Each of them with different management styles, but all are ready to help employees and contractors who need more structure and more hands-on assistance.

Bottom line: Give employees only as much oversight as they need to succeed. Life is too short for micromanaging.

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

I’m privileged to have met and been helped by a variety of people who have profoundly affected my career and the decisions I’ve made along the way. Todd Koehler, who I mentioned previously, was the first person to tell me I needed to start my own company and that I would do great. That was generous of him for sure.

My current business partners, Michael Reddy and Pranjal Bora, have stood with me through good times and bad. They bring their expertise, enthusiasm and hard work to the table each and every day. Neither of our companies would be the same (or even exist at all) if they hadn’t worked so hard to help me along the way.

To any business owner out there, I have only one piece of advice: don’t do this alone. Nothing in life is more precious than surrounding yourself with people you trust and who can help you make good decisions and deal with the unexpected. What I appreciate the most about Michael and Pranjal is that their smarts and skills help deliver outcomes I could never have imagined. So that’s my other life lesson: always surround yourself with people who are smarter — and often more optimistic — than you. I can’t stress enough how both of these traits are super critical to the success of any company.

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

Throughout my career, I’ve met many people who took time to talk to me and give me advice, without concern for whether I liked what they had to say. So I do the same now. If any entrepreneur, company or college student contacts me, I will give that person both my time and expertise to comment on any idea they have. Just as with my own experience, I’m not sure people will like what I have to say, but I will absolutely find the time to talk to anyone who really needs some help.

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

I have no idea who came up with this, but I really took it to heart.

“CFO asks CEO: What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us?

CEO: What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”

It’s easy to think of this quote only in the context of employment. But it’s much more than that. Think about this in the context of helping a friend or a stranger. Think of it in terms of karma. You do well by anyone you meet, and you live a richer more fulfilling life.

So many people guard their wisdom and keep it to themselves. I really believe we should all help the people we meet develop themselves personally and professionally. I’ve spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours trying to help people with an idea, a tip or a life lesson. I don’t regret any of that. There’s a reason why our company motto is: “Be kind. Be memorable. Be YOU.” I think that’s how everyone should be.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My idea would be to formalize the answer to the previous question. Many people need help with their personal or professional journey. What if all of us who have become successful made it a personal goal to spend a minimum of one hour a week helping someone out without any ulterior motives in mind? Where would we, as a society, be if every one of us pledged to give those 4 hours a month to help someone else figure out how to best make a decision in their lives?

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

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