Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving, examining the best places to work among social good businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Denver: One of the most thoughtful places I’ve been to do a Better Than Most segment has been New Story, which is headquartered out in San Francisco. They pioneer solutions to address global homelessness and imagine a world where no human lives in survival mode. We’ll start with their CEO, Brett Hagler, and then you will hear from some of the other members of the New Story team.
Brett: The last two people have both said it feels like a part-time job. It’s an investment. It’s a time investment. I think by making it such a big time commitment, first of all, it shows who’s really committed and who really wants this. We from the very beginning, they’re sending in a video they have to make. We don’t even talk to anybody until they send in their video, which takes time to produce. They’ve got to do that. Then we have almost a 10-step process after that until we finally make an offer. Even if we think in the early stage that this is probably the person, we still have the discipline to put them through the rest of the process to where we know we’re getting it right.
Emma: We take an evening and divide up into teams and have similar to what Chopped Challenge is on the Food Network. We take all of the food outside of the fridge, and we have a really fun evening where we get 45 minutes to prepare different dishes for our teammates. We’re all in competition with each other. We have a chancellor who coordinates the entire evening and makes sure everyone’s running on time, that there’s no cheating involved in the evening. It’s a really fun time for all of us to collaborate on something outside of work. There’s pressure. We have a time limit that we’re working with different department team members to create dishes, and then we’re all scored on those dishes.
Sam: Another way that we embody this, and one of my favorite rituals is during our Friday meetings when we all go around the table and we share basically a value or something we appreciated about what someone else did at work, and everybody goes through and does one every week. And it really makes you look for things that people are doing to the point that it becomes unconscious. You’re just seeing things people are doing, and you’re doing them yourself.
Joanne: A lot of people will ask us, we do quarterly retreats every three months, which is quite a bit for our whole team to get together for almost a full week to spend 24/7 with each other, cook every single meal, go to bed together, share rooms.It feels like a big slumber party. Most of my friends would ask me, “Don’t you get sick of each other after such a long time? You spend all your time together.” I always share the story, every time we leave, we’re always like, “When are we going to see you again? We’ll see you soon. Okay, in two months, I’ll see you.”
Brett: We have sometimes at least two, sometimes three role-play projects. They’ll take a project and sometimes that’s a week or two to complete. The role-play projects, you got to come into the office usually at least three or four times for meetings. If it’s in San Francisco, one-on-ones with every team member, multiple meetings with co-founders. Then, the final step is a full day at the office where they’re coming in and they’re presenting to the whole team, more one-on-ones, and usually some type of dinner or drinks at night where at the end, I think – one of our values is improve through learning, and I think we’ve overdone a little bit.
Emma: I think one thing that we’re really proud of is we wrap metrics for success around every new project that we take on. Because we’re such a small team, because we need to stay extremely focused, data and how we define success as an organization is something that we do in every single project. I think that reverse engineering what success looks like from the projects that we take on to just the way the team operates as a whole in our meetings and our deliverables is something that’s really special and has helped us accomplish a lot in a short period of time.
Sam: But everyone’s always learning about nutrition, how to be healthy, how to perform better, how to be a happier person, and it goes beyond just work; it’s more of a lifestyle. And that’s why it’s hard to actually explain what the subculture is because it’s really a bunch of different interests that embody this desire to be a better, happier, healthier person. And when you see your co-workers pursuing that in their day-to-day life and their work life, it trickles in to what you do. And it’s this exponential effect in which your whole team is trying to be better in all these different ways in their personal life, and we talk about it and we share it.
Hanna: Being on the New Story team has helped me think of this transition of how do we constantly operate with a certain amount of hope with understanding that we recognize the problems but go forward with that can-do attitude. I think our thinking about using this phrase more often, crazy until it’s not. I like that because it implies we understand the challenges that exist but we’re going to have the hope to strive towards solving those, and I think that’s particularly important when you’re solving issues that are as meaty as global homelessness.
Joanne: Thinking about what we should stop doing and taking that time really to break down and reflect on our last quarter and our last year and think about what we should not do as a company, and I think that is the biggest, the most telling part of the company culture.
Brett: This is something even in 2018, we’ve tried to be more intentional about, and for all the leaders listening it 100% starts with how you model that because if, for example, if you’re only giving your team members feedback, and you’re unintentionally asking feedback about yourself, then that doesn’t work. And it says a lot about the leader personally, that they either think they can’t learn from that person, which is pretty bad on their behalf, or they just don’t have the guts to have somebody tell them be better. That’ll be my point to any leader is like, if you want a better feedback culture, you have to be the one asking for it as well.
Emma: One thing that we see just on a daily ritual basis is everyone striving for that feedback loop and striving to improve from that. It’s one thing to give feedback or to receive it. It’s another step to then take that and then incorporate that and change your behavior, change your actions to improve from there, and we’re very conscious about calling each other out and supporting each other when we see that in other teammates.
Hannah: Most of the questions and most of the conversations that I had were actually not at all about past experiences or skills. People want to know about my family. Everybody had asked me about my growing up, my childhood. I remember Matthew asked about what are the values from my mom that I embody, what are the values from my dad that I embody, and what are the values that I want to pass on to my children. That was in the first interview. This was kind of like therapy or is it an interview? I could tell that he was really listening, and he really cared, and that was the metrics through which he was going to be judging me as opposed to standard interviews.
Joanne: Just the whole team encouraging, for example, as we’re moving into this office, looking at plants to get for the office. What kind of furniture should we get? We make it a truly fun experience to do together rather than this chore that we have to do. I think all of that is a combination of all the other values that we have that we have built as a team culture to create that fun experience, and walking into the office feeling like, a few of us accidentally called this our home. When we’re out, we’re like, we’re going to go home, wait, I mean the office. We’ve created the environment where it feels that way.
Brett: Second thing is really establishing trust. Team members have to know that you care more about them personally than you care about team KPIs. When they know that, they know where your heart is. They know what you care about. Their livelihood, their personal growth, their family. That’s so much more important than hitting a KPI even though we do have very ambitious and challenging KPIs, it goes back to the AND. You can have both of those but I believe caring personally has to come first. When you have that, I think that creates trust and team members are more prone to give feedback to you, but more prone to not be scared to fail or make mistakes because there’s a net of safety and knowing that you care about them personally, and I think that creates more growth in the team member personally and that means that it’s going to translate into their work performance, and when you have a collective group doing that, you’re going to move forward together. It just circles down into the next set of team members you hire. They feel the same way because trust has been established, and then it becomes natural. It would just feel weird for somebody not to trust. If that ever happens with an organization, really big issue.
Sam: People are genuinely interested in everything about you. You can really be yourself and I think you go into a lot of jobs and you feel like you have to be your corporate self where you have to be a certain version of Sam. At New Story, you get your work done, and you just be you, and that’s part of what lets you do your work because you don’t have to go in every day and put on some mask that hides up the true you that really gets the work done the way that you want to do it.
Hannah: In the Bay Area, you hear a lot about this idea of unlimited vacation but that people offer it and then there’s this understanding that nobody would really take it. That’s what I thought this was. Two months ago, somebody asked me, “so, Hannah, what are your big trips this year?” I checked everybody’s calendars. I’m not even going list where everybody was going, but everybody’s going on some awesome journeys. So now I’m starting to look at flights, and it’s really cool to be in a place that encourages learning outside of work, and it’s just one of the many examples of the work-life balance. I think what’s really cool about that is we don’t check that at the door. I know that when Joanne comes back from a trip, Emma comes back from a trip, you’re going to bring that learning back into the workplace, and we actually really value that. We don’t think of it as two separate things.
Denver: I want to thank all those who participated in the segment: Emma Lalley, Hannah Potter, Joanne Ng, Sam Ballmer, and Brett Hagler. To hear this again or read the transcript, and see pictures of the participants and the offices of New Story, just come to denver-frederick.com.
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