Lain Hensley and Odyssey Teams are redefining the typical corporate team building program. And it came out of a need to bring people closer together, with a common purpose, and to make a positive, lasting impact on the world.
In this episode, Lain Hensley and Brandon Laws discuss how to make employees’ time spent together more meaningful, why giving back to the community can build effective teams and a great culture, and what employees are saying in response to this new type of team building program.
Brandon Laws: Hey, Brandon here. Welcome back for another episode. Thanks for all the support lately – Apple podcast reviews, survey responses, all that. It is all great for us and it really helps shape our future content and helps people like you find the podcast, as well. So keep doing that. We would really appreciate any star ratings or written reviews that you can give us.
So for today’s episode, I have a discussion with Lain Hensley. He is the co-founder and COO of Odyssey Teams and they’re doing some really great work with businesses to build their teams, do philanthropic work, etc. and I think you’re just really going to love what Lain has to say.
So without spoiling too much of the episode, here is the discussion with Lain.
Brandon: Hey Lain, it’s so great to have you on the podcast. Welcome.
Lain Hensley: Hey, thanks a lot. It’s great to have a chance to talk with you.
Brandon: Yeah. So your business is Odyssey Teams. You’re doing really, really great work in the corporate social responsibility space. How did you get into this work?
Lain: You know, it’s one of those things where if you’re just present enough, kind of have the blinders off and follow the opportunities that present, you might find yourself in a place where you hadn’t planned on.
Originally, we started as an experiential training company, traveling around, doing different workshops and integrating activity. And after about 10 or 15 years – we started in 1993 – after 10 or 15 years, we thought – you know, we’ve spent a lot of time and energy working with teams. You know, having them do activities. Let’s have them build something that we can give away as our challenge.
And we sort of just stumbled into that out of our own passions to give back to our communities. Once we discovered philanthropy as part of our activities and part of our content, we knew we stumbled into something that was just a whole invigorating phase to learning and development and the teamwork and all that stuff.
Brandon: How long ago did you start the business?
Lain: So it was 1992, 1993, just getting out of college. My business partner had been doing the same thing for other companies and it was just like, hey, this is what we’re good at. My degree was in recreation and in human resource management. So I thought, “OK, I want to help people and companies,” and recreation, the word “recreation” means to recreate anew.
So we thought, “OK, how do we recreate anew some of the filters people have, some of the experiences they have in work?” You know, with watching my dad struggle through this business my whole life and some of the challenges that he would bring home, I thought, “Hey, this is where I want to be,” and it just worked out perfectly.
Brandon: What sort of organizations are you working with? Industry, size, anything like that you want to share?
Lain: Yeah. Boy, it’s just all over the map. Headed to India to work with Microsoft over there, I’ve done Microsoft stuff for all the new hires there for the last five or six years in their Microsoft Academy of College Hires, to local dentist offices here in Chico, California where I live, to regional banks, to a lot of like the Genentechs and Abbotts and a lot of the pharmaceutical companies, when they go through mergers, you know, looking at culture and looking at integration of sort of resetting that emotional memory.
Like hey, maybe you’re not a fan that this merger happened. But let’s stay focused on the patient. Let’s stay focused on what we call the “business of giving”. That manifests into the giving of these different things we build during our sessions.
But we think every company is in the business of giving when you really filter it down. And if we can always think about what are we giving to our customer or our patients or to our community, then that inspires us. And an inspired worker is a better worker.
Brandon: When I asked that question, I think I sort of knew the answer and I just wanted to hear from your mouth because I kind of feel like this is what people want from work right now and people are probably choosing employers based on their level of corporate social responsibility. Do you agree with that?
Lain: There’s definitely that. I listened to one of your podcasts about attracting the right people. Is it about the skills with them or how they fit into the culture? And culture is so important in attracting people to that culture. If you want some of the best, most compassionate, most motivated people, they’re definitely going to be looking at, “OK, yeah. I got a job. When am I going to get paid? Where do I live? Can I move?” Blah, blah, blah.
But at some point, they’re like, “How do I feel at the end of the day? Do I feel like I made the world better? Do I feel like I’m fulfilling this sort of dream I had when I was in college or high school of like someday I will have a job and I will make the world a better place?”
I think people get the sort of shiny like, “Oh, join the Peace Corps,” or “Oh, maybe I could do some non-profit work,” and I think more and more than ever people feel that.
There are degrees designed around that. I mean everything. But at some point, people need a job and they want both. They want to feel like, yeah, I have a good job. It’s a company that does something good for the world and hey, look what they do out of their profits. Look what they do and not only look what they do. Like oh good, my company wrote a big check to some place in Africa, which is great.
But the more I’m like, hey, my company wrote a check and we got to build a bunch of – like in our site, we got to build a bunch of prosthetic hands that are going to Africa and my picture is in with one of those. Oh, man, it’s personal. So the more personal it feels to be a part of a company, bigger or small, the better. And I think you’re right — people are shopping for that.
Brandon: You said something in your TEDx talk. It was about two minutes in and it was so subtle. But I caught it and it jumped out at me.
So you said – and I think you were referring to the audience and you speaking. But you said something to the effect of, “How do we make our time together really meaningful?” and you were referring to the audience. And you said, “We’re going to leave here and we’re going to make the world a better place. Maybe like sharing ideas or disrupting something to where we’re going to change the world.”
I wish everybody thought about organizations that way because we’re together in this moment. We’re doing something whether it’s business-oriented or as a non-profit. We’re changing the world in some way. But are we making it a better place and are we doing good?
Lain: That’s what gets me up all the time and when we were talking about this, I run our company – I know a lot of your audience are small businesses. I have 20 to 30 employees for the last 24, 25 years and when I think about the ups and downs of our culture and people have hired and people have had to fire and woes and all of that, even in my company, and I think about even having this interview today and being on your podcast.
Like OK, I go, “Oh, I got an appointment on my calendar. I got to do a podcast, talk about what I’m doing with my life.” You know, that doesn’t inspire me. When I think about somebody out there in their company and they’re hurting, they have complicated relationships. They can’t figure out how to reset. Like I said, recreate a new – there’s a loss in the value of the customer. There’s a millennial-old-timer conflict going on. All those things and then when I wake up today and go, “Hey, I get to talk to Brandon today about something that I’m so passionate about.”
Maybe there’s somebody out there who’s going to save somebody’s job and their company, or improve their culture, or what we call in my TED talks about disruption. It’s like how do we – and before our programs, we always say – instead of say knock them dead, we say knock them alive. Like how do you knock people alive out of some sort of pattern that’s going on, to pause and to think deeply about the impact we’re having on the world, impact we’re having on the people around us?
It can feel like it happens slowly over the years. But man, time is just flying and the seeds I planted years ago are now growing into these relationships and they’re impacting my community and the world. I didn’t dream this was possible in the moment. Like you said, how do we wake people up so that what we’re doing right now really does have great impact? We will be part of the fruits of our labor that we’re going to see in years to come.
Brandon: Yeah. I was going to ask you. How do you make this shift so people start thinking this way? It sounds like it’s just making the decision and one step at a time because you said you planted seeds and then you’re seeing all the fruits of your labor now. How do you get people to see that way?
Lain: Yeah. Well, it’s a complicated thing when it comes to getting people to see the moment. We say don’t sacrifice what you want most for what you want in the moment. It’s through content and thoughts like that and then in activity, and then time for reflection. That’s what we think is the sort of secret three formula.
We give people something to think about, something to do, and then something to feel. When we put those three things in combination, it causes them to pause for a moment and then apply the knowledge of that.
I think it’s through sincere reflection. Our company name is Odyssey, right? So an odyssey to us is a journey marked with notable occurrences.
All of us are on a life odyssey. We’re in a business odyssey. We’re in a career odyssey. We’re in a relationship odyssey with the customer, whatever. But there’s a few moments that stand out and those are those guiding moments that impact us when the pressure is on and tensions are high and the credit line is maxed or whatever is going on.
We think back to something a coach said to us years ago or a teacher said or a parent said and that resets us. Our job at Odyssey is to create those notable occurrences and the structured experience for them to then reset and be able to apply those lessons in a real time situation and we use philanthropy as that awakening tool, as much as any company uses like their best customer experience to like – remember when this happened for the customer? And maybe a few do, but not everybody. So that’s what we’re trying to do is create those notable occurrences.
Brandon: Lain, talk about the impacts on the culture. So maybe you have teams working together, community involvement, giving back to the community. What sort of things – and maybe you have some specific stories. What sort of things come as a result of that?
Lain: Culture – picture the culture in high school, right? Or in school. So you show up to school and you’re like in kindergarten. You’re all excited. I talk a little about this in my TED talk. And that’s the culture of like, “I’m going to participate. I’m going to contribute.” Like a new hire in a company. Like, oh, I’m so excited to have this job. And then the way our brain works, it filters information. It sees the world and when in doubt, it says, “Danger,” and if we take a risk, then something bad happens. Next, we take less risk and less and less.
So there’s this evolution even in good cultures where if we don’t maintain it, it goes to negative, right? When in doubt, danger. So when we have a culture that’s hurting and the mood is down or we’ve just somehow ended up some place that our value statements don’t send us toward, but we end up there. So we have times where, again, if we can reset that culture – and when people feel good, they perform better and it feels good to do good.
It feels good to have the company invest in you – a little bit or a lot. And then when that feeling of ‘the company is investing in me,’ it’s bridged with then seeing the impact on lives we’re changing. Maybe it’s the customers we work with, or maybe we’ve built a bicycle and given it to kids, or we served at the local soup kitchen, or we did something that we felt that connective sort of “why” of the work — and that’s Simon Sinek’s Start with Why.
We bring a statement like that to life in an experience to then take the culture back to where it normally wants to be, without all the fear or without what we call MSU, where people have just made stuff up and the lack of information and it leans toward negative.
So we kind of reset those things through some sort of experience. And if there’s emotion attached to it, then we know our memories link to emotions. So boom, that’s good. We want some kind of emotion. That’s those notable occurrences that are tied to emotion. So I would look around my company and go, “What’s the emotional memory right now? What’s the mood? What are the notable occurrences that have led us there, that have moved us away from the culture I want to have? What’s the investment we’ve got to make today to start shifting that culture away from what happens by chance and on to what we need to create on purpose?”
Brandon: What are some really creative experiences that you’ve helped create where maybe a culture wasn’t doing so great and then you created some sort of experience and it just transformed the people inside the organization?
Lain: Yeah, we worked with – we still have some relationships there with Gallo and Gallo Glass and years ago, when they first called us, they were like, hey, we’ve got these people who have come from – I was pushing a broom to now I’m a manager — and now we have people that we hire right out of MBAs and they are coming to the glass manufacturing business and they don’t know the business.
So when we got called to do those different retreats with them, it was about how do we unite this gap between the people who push the broom all the way to leadership and the kids who got the education and they end up in leadership.
When you bring people together through – like I said, something to think about, something to do and something to feel and you get down to the humanity of people. We all want to contribute. We all have reflexive patterns that can get in the way of us building relationships with people at work that we don’t connect with naturally and investing a little time into each other and it became transformational. Like literally we worked with them collectively over year after year after year, maybe once or twice a year and you would have these – where you would picture these manufacturing, you know, I’m working around ‘making glass’ kind of people. And they’re saying, “team building — I don’t want to go on this retreat.” They are literally like texting me – “Hey, when is the next time we get to see you?”
Lain: When do we get to do another one of those off-sites? That was so cool and the variety of things we did multi-day where we do a ropes course and things like that and then we would do our give-back activities where we build bikes and the kids would come in and represent the customer and we would build the hands.
Then we got really creative. The deeper we get in the menu, we did like a sailing thing and then we would meet with kids and talk about leadership and direction and how important the wind is. And it just – the menu just starts getting deeper and deeper the more rounds we take with clients, but always following that.
You know, give them something to think about, something to do, something to feel. And more importantly, connect that feeling to the business of giving, whether that’s through philanthropy or through giving our best to each other, giving somebody the benefit of the doubt or giving a better product to our customers.
For 24 years or so, I’ve been working with the UCLA MBA students. And in the very beginning of that work, you know – you’re getting your MBA, you’ve got your blinders on – I’m working all the time, I’ve got to blaze through this thing. And they were missing out on the depth of relationships that they can have with the people that are side by side in the program with them, suffering with a lot of the same challenges of juggling family and life and all that stuff. And giving them a time to stop, pause and really be deliberate about the relationships they’re creating and the reflexes they’re developing.
Brandon: I’m shocked at how robust that retreat sounds. I’m sure everything is a little different; you probably structured it a little different. But how do companies even start with something like this, building either a schedule like that or fun activities. But you’re also giving back to the community. How do you start some sort of corporate social responsibility program? What do you see companies do when they haven’t done anything like this?
Lain: Yeah. Picture it like – you get hungry. So you think, “I’m going to go have a meal,” right? So we know companies and groups are hungry to feel good about the team they’re on, the work they do and the impact they have on their community.
So we know they’re hungry. OK. So let’s say I decide I want to have a steak. Well, you can microwave a steak and consume it and you’re full. So we – hey, if you’re in a hurry and you want a steak, that works.
So we’ve created – and there are other options out there – but we created these little kits where you can just buy 10 of our prosthetic hands that need to be built.
If you have 30 people in your company, bam, I could just buy this kit. It’s going to take us an hour and a half to build the hands. We watch a video of the hands being used around the world and everybody is like, “Holy cow! That’s amazing. We just built 10 hands and we’re going to send these back to the foundation and they’re going to impact the world and they will get pictures.”
So in a couple of hours, you’ve microwaved the steak. And then as a company, you integrate that. Then, you know, appetizers – you want to put around that into the value you see from that experience. Then we do the two-day and the full day and that’s not the – that’s the slow-cooked, aged steak with appetizers and a drink beforehand and the ambience and the music.
So it just depends on – we know we’re hungry. We know we got to fill the gap. And however much time you have and how much you want on that return on investment. We know we can microwave it. We can have the steak in it. It’s awesome. But we know also that if you want more impact, then add a little more time to that and it just gets better.
Brandon: What’s your favorite story of an organization sort of getting involved in the community?
Lain: It’s such a – just absolutely tried and true one. But we’ve been lucky enough to work a lot with Microsoft. And there’s a huge company. We’ve also been lucky enough to work with just a small company here in Chico. This is a dental office. Both of them were really experiencing a lot of fast growth, recognizing, hey, we – our culture is moving maybe away from valuing our customer the way we need to and in the beginning, it was all really heady stuff.
Like, OK, we got to talk about the 75 values and the steps to serving our customers. And we got to architect this whole thing and make sure – ultimately now after four, five years together, it’s like we have to be present enough to listen to our customer, to feel the impact of our cultures and to see that we’re really in the business of giving. Honestly, sometimes I say we’re on the cutting-edge of common sense – but common sense in pressure environments goes out the window almost, and goes to reflex, like in sports.
If you don’t have good athletic really intense practices, then when the game happens and the pressure is on, you go back to reflex. And the impact and the evolution I’ve seen in Microsoft from their culture – and I’m sure lots of people have seen that – they’ve really become more of a heart and soul company than just a technology Xs and Os company.
We see that locally here. We did a bunch of stuff for the local bank here and in banking, there’s a lot of pressure. You’ve got to make sales in your frontline person and you’re at the front window and bam, bam, make sure you talk about our… But if the customer, and if the employee isn’t present enough to really get at the core – I’m trying to help this person. We’ve done that with a company here called Tri Counties Bank. It has been amazing, the transformation in their culture and really getting back to that customer connection.
Brandon: What are employees saying about things like these, that they get involved in?
Lain: Some of the favorite things – and I’ve traveled around the world and thousands of groups and stuff. So there’s a few notable occurrences for me and one of them is with Schwab and we were doing this thing called “knowledge quest”.
When you do a workshop with 50 or 100 people or 25 people – and I don’t know the history of these relationships and all that stuff. But when the sort of old timer of the group stands up and says, “I got to tell you. This is the most profound thing we’ve ever done. I’ve never been more excited to work here and I’m reinvigorated. I was counting the months to my retirement and now I love working. I’m reminded why I work here.”
Sometimes cheeseburger deluxe, they will look across the room and they go, “And Sally, I got to tell you, and Tom, I got to tell you, I’m sorry it has been so hard to work with me.” I’m sitting there looking at them, kind of going, “Did we just see an alien land?” I have a feeling this is something no one would believe is possible and I think when you remind people that it is about something bigger than us, maybe we’re not so far off of the path of our lives that we thought we were an hour earlier and we say – some of our programs only last a few hours. But we’re told they last a lifetime and I see that every day, every time I’m with a group.
That’s pretty powerful. It’s not always what I said because if I say something great, awesome. I hear that. I understand that intellectually. But when it’s connected to that emotional memory and that personal impact, they feel because of what they did, then they thank each other and not me.
Brandon: It’s like the framework of your TEDx talk is genius. It was all about disruption, right? We get set in our ways. We become emotional human beings. We get grouchy at work, whatever it may be. Just life happens and sometimes you need that jolt. You need – in this case and the work that you’re doing, it’s the reset. It’s bringing people back together. Why are we even doing this? Why are we doing this in the first place? It is a reset. It’s a jolt and people could probably get back on the path of figuring out why they’re there in the first place, right?
Lain: Absolutely. Feedback is one of the most powerful tools to us growing and learning, right? But feedback is so hard to take and we all have this sort of glacial shift toward – we look at our parents and go, “I don’t want to grow up and be that grumpy guy who goes to work and doesn’t have time to go to my soccer game.”
Someday, we wake up. We look and remember. Like oh my gosh, I’ve become exactly what I didn’t want to – and we think, “How did this happen?” I’ve become the leader of my company and I’m stressed out and I walk through the door and I see one thing that I’m focused on and I quickly – I’m short with one of my team members and I’m doing my off-site. Close the door.
And what happened, you know, to the day I started this business or I dreamt that I could have employees, that I would have like a mission statement and they would be happy to see me.
So how do we stop everybody at the same time and create that sort of rising tide that lifts all ships and realign to like the why of us being a team and – but of course it’s – and it needs maintenance. It’s a shot in the arm blended with the sort of reset that those relationships can have and then it becomes a part of the way that they talk to each other when we use some of the tools.
Brandon: If somebody is listening to this and they’re like, yes, I feel – our organization is feeling this, we’ve got people feeling this, what is a good first step for them to take?
Lain: Yeah. It’s going to be hard for me to answer that without going, “Here’s what we do.” I don’t want this to be like hey, you should buy our stuff.
Brandon: I think it’s valuable, go for it.
Lain: We’re in California with people all over the country, but not everywhere. So if you’re a small business in Omaha and you think, well, I want to incorporate philanthropy into our team – because the mood is down and we just haven’t done anything together.
Then it’s really easy to just look and go, “OK, what’s going on at my boys’ and girls’ club?” What business are we in? Hey, we’re in the business of making whatever widget you’re making or some kind of service and go, “Hey, how could we use this service and bring value to some community, some small group in our community that has a need? We will do it for free.”
And just reach out to your local community and go, “Cool. Let’s go to the soup kitchen. Let’s serve for a day,” and let’s look at how we serve each other and give it a word. Pick a word like that.
The same group that’s in Omaha, wherever they are, could go, “Hey, I heard this podcast and these guys build hands. What’s that like?” and you could go to our website and go, “Cool. We’re going to buy 10 of these hands and let’s do this at our yearly off-site. Let’s do this at our Christmas party. Let’s do this at our summer retreat,” and sort of like somebody who’s a terrible cook.
You can go online now and go, “Oh, cool. I will download this meal and all I have to do is assemble it and I will look like I’m a chef to my family.” You know, same thing. You just order this kit and you’re going to look like a philanthropic genius to your team.
Once I think you get it and you experience it, then other opportunities, whether to a company like ours that provide these sort of bag salad solutions, or we will come in and deliver it live for you or you will just look around and go, “Hey, we know that it really feels good to do good. How can we blend whatever training content we want to deliver with some kind of experience to test those skills, bring those skills to life and remind everybody that we ultimately are in the business of giving?” whether it was giving to a homeless person who doesn’t have a meal or giving to some kids or giving to – you go to an elderly community thing and do some reading or just sitting and being present with an elderly person.
If everybody does it together, then everybody is at the same emotional reset at the same time and bam, the mood starts shifting and if we can sustain that trajectory over time, we end up in a totally new place.
Brandon: Lain, I absolutely love the work that you’re doing and I’m so glad that you came on and that I could get the word out. What else do you want to say about this? Anything that you want to point people to about your work, about your company, anything like that before we go?
Lain: I think that what I would really want to just send out there is that everybody who’s listening, even if you feel a sense of, “I’m on the wrong path,” have confidence that whatever path you’ve been on to this moment has all – it’s going to all have some value to what you do next, if you apply those learnings. And me personally, I had cancer four years ago. Here I am a motivational speaker, public speaker and I wake up and one day, I have tonsil cancer. I might not even be able to talk.
Brandon: Oh no.
Lain: And I look around my life and I thought, “What has happened?” and it stopped me and four months later, I’m done with radiation. I’ve got a clear bill of health. I’ve had this radical neck dissection. I looked around my company and thought, “How did I get here?” and I had to make dramatic changes. I moved our business. I had to hire and fire some new people and let go of some old relationships and it was brutal.
But if you don’t stop yourself, the world is going to stop you. Your business is going to stop you and if you don’t take an honest look at the current state of you and not judge it as good or bad but think this is the current state of where we are. What’s the move that’s right in front of me? And just make that move with courage. And it – that is – that was liberating to me to not what we call “should” on myself. Like I should have done this, I should have done that and just think this is where I am. How can I leverage all of this experience to equal something great for me and my company? And we love philanthropy as a part of that awakening, disrupting people’s experience and when it’s a surprise to your participants, bam, it’s even better!
So that’s our formula and that’s why I’m super thankful to get to share this story today with you for sure.
Brandon: I love it. Where can people find you, Lain?
Lain: Obviously the website, www.OdysseyTeams.com. You can look up www.BuildAHand.com. That really directs you to us. Google me. You will find all kinds of stuff. I’ve been on lots of media and all that stuff. I’ve been on a book tour for 27 years with no book. So someday that will come out. But there’s lots of stuff out there –
Brandon: Love it. Yeah, you’ve got to write a book. You got a great story. You got to write a book.
Lain: We got at least 100 pages done and it’s just – it needs to get done. There are perfect books and there are finished books and I got to move more towards the finished book than the perfect book. So it’s time to tell it.
Brandon: Lain, it was a pleasure having you on the podcast. Keep up the awesome work and I hope to check in with you soon.
Lain: Hey, thank you so much and keep up the good work yourself. I’m definitely a fan.