Set clear expectations and empower ownership. A practice that has proven to be impactful across our organization is our agile team process. The methodology is designed to support high-performing teams by setting well-defined expectations and encouraging self-managing processes.
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrian Ridner. As Co-founder and CEO of Study.com, a trusted education website used by over 30 million students and teachers a month, Adrian knows first-hand how technology is transforming education. He is committed to improving online education through personalized learning solutions. Study.com’s video lessons and online courses help K-12 and college students excel academically and help professionals close skill gaps. Adrian is on the board of Riecken Community Libraries. The Riecken Foundation has been promoting literacy and access to knowledge in Central America since 2000. Through their community libraries, the Foundation has brought books, newspapers, the Internet, and other resources to over 60 small communities in Honduras and Guatemala. He also serves as a board member for Cal Poly’s Engineering & Computer Science advisory council where he has helped transform the curriculum over the past four years to prepare graduates for their fast-changing technology careers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up in South America, I saw firsthand how quality education gave individuals a chance to overcome poverty and thrive in society. When I came to the United States, I was determined to attend college to unlock a career path and a better future. However, one of the major barriers was the overall cost of college tuition and textbooks. To alleviate some of this financial burden, I, like many other college students, had to work to make ends meet. From this experience, I knew I wanted to do something to address the rising cost of higher education. I was fortunate to partner with Ben Wilson, a friend and entrepreneur equally as passionate about leveraging technology to improve the learning experience and reduce the cost of higher education. Together we built Study.com with a mission to make education accessible.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
As we started to see success with many students and organizations using our platform, we wanted to find a way to give back to our local community. Furthering the Study.com mission, we set a lofty goal to provide a tuition-free college education to everyone who lives and works in the city of Mountain View. The program helps working adults earn a college degree online, with no out-of-pocket costs. What makes this the most interesting story for me is that we truly underestimated the extraordinary outcome the program would have on our employees. The entire Study.com team is extremely motivated and inspired as they watch their work and efforts change lives and help people work towards better futures.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
There are several initiatives in progress that really excite me but one I’m particularly excited about is Study.com’s Working Scholars program because it addresses a core area of our mission. The traditional higher education system has left over 31 million students stranded with some college credit, but no degree. Working Scholars provides an alternative degree pathway that removes financial barriers and offers the convenience and flexibility working adults need to earn a bachelor’s degree. The program supports both individual students and whole communities like East Palo Alto and Perris, CA. In today’s society, a bachelor’s degree unlocks career mobility and has a multigenerational impact, providing a better future for the student and their families, who earn over 50% more during their lifetime than people without a degree. We’re excited that several hundred students have already successfully graduated and earned their degree and are optimistic for the continued growth of the Working Scholars program.
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?
As technology and generational diversity rapidly change today’s workforce, many companies aren’t evolving and keeping up as they should, which leads to many dissatisfied employees and teams. Technology is a major factor that has quickly changed the way companies do business, expanding their influence in global marketplaces and improving the efficiency of daily operations. The technology evolution yields substantial impacts on the workforce and employee satisfaction. Many businesses often fall short when challenged with the on-going training and education required for their evolving teams. In fact, 22% of employees leave jobs because of a lack of career development opportunities. By investing in your employees’ future, you can further increase career satisfaction and improve employee retention.
Following the transformation of technology in the workplace, the makeup of traditional organizations is also shifting. As organizations become less hierarchical and more millennials are maturing into the workforce in management positions, the workforce landscape is becoming more generationally diverse. While millennials are taking over as the largest portion of the U.S workforce, there is often a substantial leadership gap and need for organizations to invest in developing managers that not every organization prioritizes. Despite the benefits of a generationally diverse workforce, such as increased innovation, productivity and ultimately employee satisfaction, many organizations struggle to adapt to the ever-changing needs of their workforce.
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?
It’s no secret that there’s a strong link between a company culture rooted in employee well-being and outcomes such as productivity, health, and employee retention. Cultivating this type of work culture is key to workforce happiness and has a direct impact in profitability and productivity. Although there’s an assumption that stress and pressure push employees to perform more, better and faster, what many organizations fail to recognize is the hidden costs incurred. This type of culture can not only negatively impact employee retention and satisfaction but can lead to healthcare issues too. A study from BioMedical Public Health found that health care expenditures at high-pressure companies are nearly 50% greater than other organizations. On the flip side, organizations, where diversity, wellness, and on-going training are embedded into the company culture, can have a positive impact on its employees’ productivity and company’s 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?
1. Clear purpose. Our mission is to make education accessible. To bring our mission to life, we created the Study.com Working Scholars program to provide a debt-free college pathway to working adults. This initiative is not only tied to the overall company vision, but it has fueled employee passion, innovation and motivation far greater than we could have predicted.
2. Think beyond work. Much of the success and growth Study.com has achieved is because of the exceptional employees we hire and the work they do each day. However, it’s incredibly important to facilitate a positive environment and culture for our teams to encourage productivity and retention. One way we accomplish this is by establishing office interest groups; from golf fans to hiking enthusiasts, we have groups that meet all interests and hobbies.
3. Set clear expectations and empower ownership. A practice that has proven to be impactful across the Study.com organization is our agile team process. The methodology is designed to support high-performing teams by setting well-defined expectations and encouraging self-managing processes.
4. Take smart risks. Establishing a culture that takes educated risks is engaging and effective for our growing business. Very early on we established our core value of embracing data, which has proven to minimize risk and maximize growth opportunities. It’s a core part of the Study.com DNA, a motivating factor for our teams and is critical to our success.
5. When in doubt, share. Transparency and open communication across the organization has been instrumental in establishing employee trust at all levels of leadership. From hosting quarterly business reviews to all-hands meetings, we believe it’s important to create the forums for consistent communication between leadership and individual employees.
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 grew up in South America and was exposed to different approaches in both life and work culture.
Based on my observations it’s not surprising that OCED’s Better Life Index found the U.S. has one of the lowest work-life balance ratings at 5.8 out of 10. 29 countries had higher ratings, with the Netherlands topping the list with a 9.3 rating. It’s hard to shift this paradigm through small, incremental changes. One of the best ways to move away from traditional organization culture is to break away from linear, fixed thinking and embrace larger change. The key to broader change will be merging the practices that have made United States companies some of the most innovative in the world with the tactics other countries employ for creating exceptional work cultures.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I believe in learning by doing and constant feedback loops. This may be rooted more in my earlier training as a software engineer than in traditional management philosophies, but it has been a key part of my individual leadership style. For example, when we decided to develop the first mobile app for Study.com there were many smart, passionate individuals with innovative ideas and approaches on the project. My focus was on helping the team set the goal of launching the app so we could service our users before the peak back to school season. Operating on a very tight timeline the team dove into the process, from prototyping to identifying the technology stack and planning the user experience. Because the teams were given clear, consistent feedback and learned by doing the result of this initiative was an amazing product for our users that was delivered in record-breaking time.
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?
Partnering with co-founder Ben Wilson has proven to be one of the most foundational keys to my personal entrepreneurial success and the success of Study.com. It’s rare for co-founders to share a journey of rapid growth and company vision for over 16 years and is something I’m incredibly grateful for. We complement and balance each other, which makes us both more effective and is ultimately reflected in the company’s culture, strategic direction and success.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
A college degree is a key to unlocking economic opportunity, but it’s a dream that’s out of reach for millions of students in the United States. The traditional higher education system has left over 31 million students stranded with some college credit, but no degree. Passionate about making an impactful, systemic change, we developed the Working Scholars program. Through online learning, the innovative degree pathway addresses the four biggest barriers working adults face when trying to earn a degree: flexibility, cost, confidence and lack of a support system. The program simplifies and accelerates learning through technology and provides a personalized support system of instructors and coaches who help them throughout the entire process. Hundreds of students have already successfully graduated and earned their bachelor’s degree. By making education accessible, Working Scholars upskills the workforce of the future and combats economic inequality. The positive social and financial impact of this program is already being felt by many and will only get bigger as we continue to grow.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I often quote Benjamin Franklin, who wrote, “do well by doing good”. This quote is something that I try to adhere to personally as I try to give back to those around me and at work where have we have a culture of social responsibility. With our mission of making education accessible, the better we execute our strategy and grow the closer we get to achieving our ultimate goal. This is the reason I’m so passionate about the future of Study.com and why I’m so excited to come to work each day.
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?
I’d like people to be open-minded and reimagine higher education. For years our education system has had success following a linear approach; attend a brick-and-mortar school from K-12, attend a university and continue to sit in class, earn a degree, and then land a job. However, as technology and society have evolved, that path has become outdated and increasingly challenging for people to succeed in.
First, I encourage us to recognize that education can’t be one size fits all. Students are going to be more successful with their studies if academic methods are personalized to meet their preferred learning styles and if they have the flexibility to progress at their own pace. By transforming the way people learn we are making education more accessible and also giving them the confidence and skills necessary to achieve better futures. Bring education to people, instead of people to education.
Additionally, I’d like people to approach learning as an ongoing process. In order to be successful in today’s workforce, we need to constantly develop new skills and advance our knowledge. Technology and its impacts are changing at an accelerated rate, which means our approach to education and learning needs to follow suit. The career you have today will look completely different just a few years from now. Embrace being a life-long learner so you can successfully adapt to the everchanging landscape.