There’s a lot of buzz around establishing a compelling mission, vision, and values for your company. But what are the real world impacts of having these in place, and how do you use them to create value for your employees and customers? Shawn Busse, CEO of Kinesis Inc., joins Brandon Laws in a discussion of how their work as marketing leaders overlaps and coexists with the work of human resources when it comes to integrating the mission, vision and values inside of people practices, recruiting, and marketing processes.
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Brandon: Hello and welcome to the HR for Small Business Podcast, I’m Brandon Laws and I’m your host. Thank you for the download today. If you haven’t gone back and listened to some of our old stuff, definitely go back and let us know what you think about it. And for all you loyal listeners out there, we still appreciate you. Thanks for the downloads.
Today’s conversation is with Shawn Busse. He’s the CEO and co-founder of a Portland-based marketing firm called Kinesis and what they do is grow service-centric companies from the inside out. What that means, and you’ll hear about it in the conversation, is Shawn and his firm have really tried to help companies hone in on their mission, vision, values, and purpose and not only integrate it within their companies, so their people are using the same language and are really aligned with the purpose, but do it on an external basis as well.
We talk a little bit about some of the HR practices that you can do with mission, vision, values, and also what you can do from kind of an external standpoint, so the employer brand and some of those other things. You’re going to really like this conversation. We got a lot of other great stuff coming up. So again, thanks, for the weekly downloads and without further ado, here’s the conversation with Shawn.
Brandon: Shawn, one of the things I’ve always loved about you and Kinesis is that you’ve really figured out how to marry marketing and HR, to focus on honing in on the purpose of companies and aligning those two things to make HR your best marketers and all the employees in the company the best marketers. But some companies aren’t doing this very well. In fact, many don’t have their brand defined to where they don’t even have really a mission, vision and value or any purpose. What do you see as the risk of not having those things in place?
Shawn: Maybe I can back up a little bit and talk a about what has informed my philosophy around this. When I was looking to craft how Kinesis could become a leader in the marketing and consulting space, I looked at a lot of the research around what made great companies. Time and time again, the great companies that outperformed all their peers had a couple of things in common. They had highly engaged employees and they had a pretty clear vision of where they were going. And I realized that if I was going to really kick butt at Kinesis – which was going to be a hard thing to do because my industry is really crowded, there are lots of folks who do marketing and related services – I realized that if I was going to win in this space, I needed to have some kind of a competitive advantage.
Pretty quickly it became clear that my industry actually does a very poor job at people. We have really high turnover rates, folks are burned out very quickly, and I thought to myself, well, if I could build a workplace where people are really engaged and really care about the customer and care about doing a good job and care about their co-workers, then I could actually probably outperform my competition.
So I set about testing that theory in action and I started doing things like rewriting our job descriptions to start from a vision standpoint and from a values and a purpose and a mission. What I’ve seen happen at least with our company compared to companies that don’t have a focus on that is that you attract a higher caliber of employee who really wants to be part of something great. When you can attract great employees, then a lot of the problems sort of take care of themselves and you start to see new opportunities and new possibilities that were never there before.
Brandon: When you came to that realization that this was the strategy not only for Kinesis but you want to help companies do this, which came first? Did you just say, we need to start thinking of how we’re going to write job descriptions a little differently so we can attract a certain type of talent, or did you have the mission, vision and values and just sort of your overall purpose already defined before you did all that?
Shawn: I think we were like a lot of our clients where we operated for many years, I mean maybe even a decade, without really articulating who we were and what we stood for. But we actually did stand for some things and we actually did have a set of values and a mission to what we were trying to do. Like most of our clients, we had never really taken the time to define that, so we were behaving on an intuitive level. That works okay especially when you’re small and you have the leader of the organization doing all the interviews and meeting with every candidate. By default they tend to attract those who share their values, if they’re focused on hiring.
But as you grow and start to scale and you realize that you can possibly interview every single person and the likelihood of you getting the right fit from a cultural and values perspective diminishes, that’s when I realized we needed to articulate this in a meaningful way.
We really were much like our clients for a long time. We hadn’t put energy into this and we got lucky most of the time when we were hiring. But then sometimes we would get unlucky. So my goal in terms of shifting Kinesis towards this focus and then later shifting our clients towards this focus was to eliminate luck from variability.
So we would actually be intentional about the type of person we were bringing into the organization and that we would increase our odds of getting the right people and also increase the odds of being a successful company.
Brandon: I’m so glad you brought that up. I mentioned to you earlier offline that I wanted to bring something up. I’m a huge Portland Trailblazer fan. I think you probably know that and I know you’re a fan too because you’re written some content about the Blazers and related it to business.
This is super relevant, I swear! You talked about the “Jail Blazer” era and I remember that period of time distinctly because I was growing up. They were known nationwide as the Jail Blazers. There was a bad era when we had an epic collapse in the Western Conference Finals in 2000 to the Los Angeles Lakers. Ever since that point, it seemed like there was a complete meltdown, a shift in the type of players that were brought in, they overpaid people for lack of performance and it was just chaos. I mean people were even getting arrested! They had such a bad name and it just left fans with a terrible taste in their mouth.
But something shifted around the 2006 time frame. I don’t know if it was players, regime change, something. But something changed where they were like, You know what? We need to hone in on what our purpose is – maybe you know more about this. What shifted? Because I think this relates very much to what you’re talking about.
Shawn: Yeah. I’m guessing you have some listeners here who aren’t basketball fans, and you probably have some listeners who don’t even know who the Trail Blazers are or what you mean when you talk about the “Jail Blazers.”
So for those two audiences, there was a period of time when the basketball franchise just really suffered in terms of culture, meaning that they had players who fought with each other. They had players who got in trouble.
I did this project maybe a couple of years back where I did an analysis of that. What’s really cool about basketball is there’s actually a lot of data available in terms of how well teams perform from a financial standpoint because you can see how many seats they fill with each season.
So what I did was – I wanted to understand was there a correlation between the sort of dismal performance of the organization on the court as a result of culture and then a similar relationship to their performance financially.
Sure enough, it’s a disaster, a financial disaster. You could go to games during that period where there would just be empty seats everywhere. More empty seats than full seats. And the terrible part about it is that even though the Blazers finally got rid of those malcontents, the effect of that lasted for many years. And I think they’ve only recently really recovered from that and I think part of their recovery has been a focus on hiring players not only just for their skill but actually more for their persona and more for the culture that they bring to the table and focus on teamwork and one another.
As a result, for a small market team, they dramatically outperform other small market teams, especially in the last two years. It’s pretty remarkable.
Brandon: Yeah. It’s funny how when you hone in on whether it’s bringing in good players or aligning around some common purpose which is teamwork in this case and high quality people, that you start attracting the same kind of person.
To relate this back to business – I mean the Blazers are a business – but the type of work that you’re doing, you’re helping companies define some of this so that way they can attract some of the best of the best, and not only from a marketing standpoint too. They can find companies that align with their purpose.
Shawn: That’s right. The really neat thing is that these days, this conversation you and I are having is not seen as some wacky, out-of-the-box idea. When I started in my career 17, 18 years ago, there wasn’t much talk about the idea of values and culture and purpose and mission.
In the intervening years, there has been a lot of research done about this demonstrating that companies that have a clearly-articulated vision and focus on culture and values usually outperform their peers that don’t focus on that. So it has sort of been a little bit of my life’s work to get this message out there and I think more and more of that message is being received. The thing that I see happening now is as the market matures is that folks don’t necessarily know how to go about doing it. So they want to do it, they want to build a culture that’s driven by values and they want to have a sense of shared purpose. But they are struggling to figure out how to do it. That’s a big part of where we come in and we help our clients get past, I would say, the clichés that are often surrounding this kind of discussion.
When I say clichés I mean think about the motivational posters we’ve all seen in the break rooms in corporate offices, right? The pins and the badges that say “teamwork” and those kinds of ideas. Those are the kinds of things that actually work across purposes with, say, an HR professional who’s really trying to shape the culture are the clichés and the inauthentic expressions of culture and values.
Brandon: I’m sure there’s a huge process and I think people need to probably talk with you if they want to learn about how to develop the mission, vision, values. I’m sure a lot goes into that. What I’m curious about, though, is let’s say somebody goes through that process. I’m honing in on my mission, vision, and values and all the purpose stuff. What do people do with it after that point? I imagine a lot of people have this fancy binder, they throw it on a shelf and they don’t do anything with it. But there’s probably a missed opportunity. I’m sure they can take the mission, vision and values, integrate it in not only their marketing to go after new clients, but to also attract a certain type of person they want working for them. What have you seen work on either side of the spectrum?
Shawn: That’s a great point. I have seen a lot of companies come through our door who say yeah, we did this values exercise or we did this vision-setting exercise a couple years ago and it tends to be kind of a one-and-done thing where they do all this work and they throw up their hands and celebrate and they’re all happy. But they’ve never really integrated it into their organization. So just as important as the process of identifying what you stand for and who you are is the integration into the organization.
Whether that’s externally in terms of your brand communication to the marketplace of here’s who we are, this is what we stand for or if it’s internally, this is what we stand for and these are the expectations we have of you as an employee and we build that into our performance evaluation and we build that into our job descriptions and we build that into our daily huddles, we build that into our performance feedback.
I think that’s the place where a lot of companies fall short. They don’t reinforce this idea of being a values-centric organization. They don’t build a set of behaviors that are connected to those values, so employees are kind of left adrift and they don’t know. Well, I’ve been told that one of our values is integrity. I don’t really know what that means. I don’t really know how to connect the dots between that value and what I do in my job on a day-to-day basis.
Brandon: I feel like where people really fall short, it’s a resource issue a lot of times when a lot of employees maybe could say what their mission is or what the vision is because to your point, if integrity is said over and over again, you start to realize, okay, integrity is one of our value statements.
But I think where HR people maybe struggle is when they’re going to write a job posting, how do you integrate some of that language? I mean they’re not copywriters, right? So how do you integrate that sort of in a fancy way? Do you leverage marketing? Is this a marketing thing? I think this is where your expertise kind of comes into play. How do you leverage some of those resources internally to hone in on that mission, vision, value on an external basis?
Shawn: Yeah, that’s a great question. I have a lot of empathy for HR folks because I think they’ve been told for a long time that their job is to provide support for the benefits and make sure that the employee handbook is being followed.
I think what’s happening is that really visionary leaders are starting to say to their HR teams, Hey, you know what? What I need your help doing is building a great culture. I don’t know that businesses always resource those HR teams enough to make that happen, I think there’s a little bit of disconnect there. But in terms of ways that individuals who are HR professionals who want to kind of take it to the next level or maybe they want to bring this idea to their leadership, I think talking to marketing people or outside resources is a really great start. Because if you think about it, what does marketing do really well when it’s done well is that it communicates and connects customers to the brand.
Well, if you think about what you want to do from a recruiting standpoint, you want to communicate and connect employees to the brand, right? That’s a marketing function, really. So if you need help getting your job descriptions or your career page on your website to feel like it’s a motivational tool that’s going to attract great employees, go get some help from marketers.
If you’re a big enough company and you’ve got a copywriting department within your marketing team, go talk to them. See what they can do for you. There’s a really great example of how we approach writing job descriptions on the Kinesis website. If you go to our careers page, there are all these different job descriptions for our company and you can really learn a lot from how we’ve put those together in terms of a letter from the CEO, starting with values, talking about the mission of the organization and really it’s the end of the job description that talks about what are the roles and responsibilities of the job. We lead with mission and purpose and values and we follow with duties of the job as opposed to the opposite, which is normally how it’s done.
Brandon: The job descriptions are definitely early on in the recruiting process, they’ve often seen it on the website or however they get it. I think you even have downloads of the job description, if I remember right. I was very impressed with how you do it.
What other pieces of the recruiting process are you sort of integrating that messaging throughout? The interviews? What else are you doing?
Shawn: If I were to take you through the Kinesis process for applicant tracking, so starting with the point somebody applies for a job and taking them all the way through to their on-boarding, we’ve built out a specific communications plan and touchpoints all along the way. We’ve systematized that program so that you can have actually pretty low level employees, administrative support, run that program, but sound as if it’s customized to the candidate.
So automated emails go out, they put the candidate’s first name in them, they talk about what the position is, all that stuff is pretty scripted. So we’ve written it all from a marketing lens to keep the employee engaged and excited about working for the company as opposed to – I mean a lot of times, what happens, folks will put a resume in and it’s like crickets. They won’t hear from somebody for weeks, with poor communication or no communication. Our job is to kind of nurture that employee relationship or that candidate relationship much like a marketer would nurture a customer relationship. It’s the same idea, whether you’re marketing or HR.
Brandon: How are you leveraging web assets – social media, your website, etc.? What other things are you doing to make sure that messaging just sticks out there not only from a brand perspective but just as passive candidates? Maybe looking at Kinesis or some of your clients as employers? How are you coaching your clients or even doing it yourself in terms of just making sure that that message stays clear throughout all distribution channels?
Shawn: We’re really big fans of either promoting from within or having us help you with building some kind of an employer champion, if you will. So someone within the organization whose job it is to convey the interior culture in a public way. For example, we’ve turned the Kinesis company page on Facebook into a culture and what’s going on at Kinesis. If you check out the Kinesis Facebook page, you will see that all over the place. You wouldn’t believe how many candidates mention that in the interview process. I would probably say nine out of ten.
Brandon: So you’re saying Facebook used strictly as sort of the employer brand. It’s not to go get new business, it’s to attract people that want to work for you. What about Instagram? Same kind of deal or are you actually looking for clients?
Shawn: Same thing. We generally aren’t going to land a Kinesis client through Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. Those are not really relevant channels for us from a business development perspective. But they’re super relevant channels for our employee recruiting. There are these great tools that are powerful and free that we can then use as a recruiting strategy. But the key is to have a strategy and then dedicate somebody to maintaining and cultivating those places.
Brandon: You’re pretty active in the awards community and Portland has a couple events companies in news outlets that do a lot of awards-based stuff. You seem to always be on the list. Does that align with what you’re trying to do? Are you able to hone in on your mission and sort of get that through the award channels as well?
Shawn: I think whether it’s awards or community service, volunteering, all of those types of activities, I think of those as really critical channels both in terms of getting out there but also which ones you choose. As an example, one of the non-profits that we support is Girls Inc. and that’s a girls’ empowerment organization that’s really amazing. We chose it both because they’ve got a really great mission but also because we have 80 to 90 percent female workforce at Kinesis and marketing in general, there are a lot of women in that industry. So this is just perfectly aligned with what we’re doing, which is empowering women and what that organization is doing. Those kinds of things, knowing which organizations we want to pick to support and where we want to participate and how those organizations align with our values.
Now we also have won the Portland Business Journal 100 Fastest Growing Companies five years in a row. We did that not necessarily because we align with the Business Journal’s values, per se. But we did that because it says to employees Kinesis is a company focused on growth and change. We want people who want to be part of that. We want employees who like the idea of a dynamic workplace where new opportunities are created and there are no career cul-de-sacs. So those are all sort of saying different messages depending on where we’re going and all of them align with our strategy as well as our mission, vision, and values.
Brandon: One of the things I noticed about Kinesis is that you guys became a B-corporation. I don’t know if that’s some special certification that you have to go through. But I imagine that you did that because it not only aligned with where you wanted to take the company and how people were going to perceive you, but I imagine it’s going to attract a certain type of person to work for you. It’s going to attract a certain kind of client that aligns with that line of thinking. What was your thought process behind that?
Shawn: Yeah, B-corp is a great one. I’m glad you brought that up. For the listeners who don’t know what B-corp is, it’s a corporate designation that lets the world know that in addition to financial performance, you care about the community, the environment and employee welfare.
There are some really well-known brands that participate in B-corp – Patagonia, Ben and Jerry’s, New Seasons grocery stores. It’s a very values and purpose-driven designation and we became part of that community because we were already doing that in our day-to-day lives. It wasn’t like we got this certification because it was a good marketing tool. We got the certification because it aligned with our values and the behaviors we were engaged in.
Now it has become a marketing tool especially on the recruiting side. I would say for as many people who mentioned Facebook, at least as many mention that we’re a B corporation and that’s part of why they applied to work here, because they want to become part of something that’s bigger than just doing traditional marketing. They want to become part of an organization that does things like donate to Girls Inc. or donate to Habitat for Humanity or has programs that are designed to give back to the community as well as support the employees.
It’s a perfect example of aligning values with an organization and really reaping the benefits of that without even having to really try that hard.
Brandon: Yeah, absolutely. I imagine the mission, vision, values, the purpose, those are probably evolving things as you bring in new people and just you have to go after new audiences and just the values of people change in general. I’m curious though, what does success look like for you? Because I was actually in one of our all-team meetings about a month ago and we always do new hire introductions and our team is getting pretty big compares to where we were several years ago. And when people say why they came to work for us, they always mention like certain words that are part of our mission statement or the culture. To me, that’s what success looks like. It’s like, wow, we did this employer branding thing really well. You know, honed in on our mission, vision, values, because they’re now repeating it, and they’re a brand new employee! Do you see it the same way or do you have another version of success?
Shawn: There are so many ways to measure success, certainly financially or impact in the community, or on and on. One of the ways I measure success is employee turnover, because I feel like if you have low turnover, it generally means you have a clear sense of the type of person you want to hire and that they’re delivering value to you when they’re on your team. When you have high turnover, it usually means you’re attracting the wrong people or you’re not being thoughtful about who you attract or you’re not giving them clear expectations of what’s expected of them. So then they fail. Either they try hard and they fail or you just get the wrong people in the organization.
So for me, what I’m looking for is a healthy retention level. It doesn’t mean that you don’t lose employees. We’ve lost some employees. We’ve had turnover. But I’m really looking for – I don’t know if this is safe to say on this podcast, if it’s G-rated or not, but I’m looking for like a kick-ass group who stays and they stay because they’re excited to be here and that resonates with your clients who then stay, because I want to eliminate customer turnover too, right?
So your customers stay with you for a long time because they’re working with people who really care. If you can get those two things working, man, it’s unstoppable. I will admit this to you here, Kinesis is not an amazing marketing company from its ability to generate new sales. We’re not out there spending a ton of money on marketing to get new customers, because we don’t lose customers. That’s the beauty of our model whereas in our industry there’s tremendous employee turnover, tremendous customer turnover. I think those two are highly related to one another and so our industry in general has to spend a lot of money on sales and marketing because they have these problems whereas we don’t.
Brandon: This is exactly why I brought you on the podcast, because I don’t think people have realized how tied in marketing and HR are. I mean, you just made a great point that you hire the right people that align with your overall purpose of the organization. They take care of your customers, customers align with your purpose, and it’s just kind of full circle and those two are so related. I think people need to pay attention to those.
Shawn: I think you guys are a great example of this too, just to acknowledge what a great job you do at Xenium. You have a marketing team of two people and you’re a company of – how many are you at? Like 80?
Brandon: Yeah, almost 90.
Shawn: Getting close to 100 people, a professional services firm. I see double to triple that number of marketers and salespeople in organizations that I run across. And I firmly believe they’re having to over-invest in marketing and sales because they’re doing something wrong on the employee and customer relationship side. So they have to spend more money there and I think you guys run awesome marketing programs. I’m really impressed by what you guys do over there. But man, you don’t have nearly the amount of resources I see these other companies use, and I believe it’s because you built a really great company that’s well-aligned on purpose and you keep your customers.
Brandon: People are your best marketers by far and that’s why marketing and sales shouldn’t have to come from one or two people or a department. I think it’s the entire company and if you’re so aligned across the organization, it just takes care of itself because your clients are happy and they keep referring and they stay with you. Yeah, the whole thing is so connected.
Shawn: It’s funny. I am amazed by actually how little money our clients spend with us and with marketing because the first thing we do is not to go out and build them new websites, generally. Usually the first thing we do is we actually write better job descriptions for them.
Brandon: How interesting!
Shawn: That’s like one of the very first things we do. After we’ve taken them through mission, vision and values, we’re talking about their hiring process and how they’re getting good candidates in the door, long before any external marketing.
Brandon: Yeah, that’s interesting. As we wrap up, where should people start? Maybe they have the mission, vision, values, the purpose, maybe they have that. They just don’t know where to start. What do you recommend?
Shawn: We’ve got some really good articles on our blog that I think will help people go from – if they have mission and vision, values, I think it will help them go from maybe let’s say a B to B- level, to a B+ to an A-. What I mean by that is getting truly authentic values, and not just values that sound good, and getting a truly focused mission and not just one that is visited when the employee gets hired or once a year at the strategic retreat.
A good test of this should be, Can I go to every employee in my organization and ask them what our mission is and what are our values? If every employee can recite that without you having to kind of beat them over the head with it, then you’re probably on the right track. If they have a hard time communicating what your mission and values are, one of two things has happened. One is you’ve not integrated mission and values into your organization sufficiently or you don’t have a set of values and mission that is truly authentic. There really is an appreciable difference between values that sound good and values that are authentic to your organization.
To highlight this for folks, what I will do is – it’s kind of sneaky of me. I will put these values up on the board and I will say, These sound really good, don’t they? And everybody will nod their head and they’re usually values that they have and some of them have in their organization.
Then I will show the next slide, which is all the Enron executives being hauled off to jail.
Brandon: Oh, wow, wow, wow. Yeah.
Shawn: Yeah, yeah. So get authentic! We have a great blog post that my business partner wrote called – it’s something like “what’s wrong with values.” I would highly recommend to everybody to read that post. Then if you feel like you’re out of place where you really have an authentic mission, vision and values, thinking about how do we integrate and how do we make this part of our culture, how do we make them part of our feedback loop with our employees. Those are big efforts, but it’s a great starting point and certainly I’m here to help people. If they want to talk on the phone, they can set up a call with me and I would be happy to walk them through what they can DIY as well as if we can help them with anything.
Brandon: Awesome. And what’s your website?
Brandon: Shawn Busse, the CEO and co-founder of Kinesis, thank you for joining the podcast. This is a lot of fun and thanks for dropping knowledge with us.
Shawn: Right on. Great time, thank you!