Mark Babbitt is the President of WorqIQ, a consultancy focused on improving leadership and developing Workplace Intelligence (WQ), and is also the Founder and CEO of YouTern, a community focused on helping young careerists get their first or next internship or job. A recovering Silicon Valley engineer, he has worked with many high-tech clients and start-ups and consulted with many healthcare and non-profit organizations. Babbitt has been named a “Top 100 Leadership Speaker” by Inc. Magazine and has contributed to Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, Forbes, and more.
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We’re happy that you could join us today! Please introduce yourself to our readers. What’s your story?
Mark Babbitt: My name is Mark S. Babbitt—I’m a long-recovering engineer from Silicon Valley who happened to be in the right spot at the right time in the start-up world. I’ve helped launch three start-ups and a consultancy that helps other leaders understand how their leadership style directly impacts company culture. Along the way, we talk about how company culture is the root cause of all the symptoms we’ve been treating as the problem: systemically low employee engagement, less-than-ideal customer service ratings, poor retention rates, and lower than expected productivity and profits.
CEOs and leaders usually have different motives and aspirations when getting started. Let’s go straight to the beginning. What was your primary goal for starting your business? Was it wealth, respect, or to offer a service that would help improve lives?
Mark Babbitt: My primary goal for starting businesses: Freedom.
When I moved from a lifestyle marketing business in 1999 to the start-up world, I had just become a single father with full custody of four young children. To own the responsibility of raising my kids, I needed to stop talking about work-life balance and act. So I joined an HR Tech start-up that would allow me to work from home and still be a Dad, coach, and mentor. Four years later, and after a successful exit, I joined another career-focused Silicon Valley start-up where working from our home in Lake Tahoe was a requirement. While that exit was not as successful, I learned a ton from the original founders—the equivalent of a Ph.D. in how not to treat the very people responsible for helping complete the company’s mission.
Soon, the first start-up with me listed as founder and CEO was born. Our goal for every contributor: Do good work while working from home and living a good life. That experience led to two successful books and a company with the sole focus of making the workplace a better place.
Tell us about 2 things that you like and two things that you dislike about your industry. Share what you’d like to see change and why.
Mark Babbitt: Two things I like most about consulting in the company culture space:
The need: The fact is that most company cultures are accidental. Leaders put little energy into how we want to work—and specifically how we will show each other respect as we help drive results. Because leaders focus almost exclusively on results, sometimes in a win-at-all-cost fashion, most work cultures suck.
The moment the light bulb goes off above a CEO’s head—usually right when they realize they are the one person responsible for company culture. When they understand they must serve as Chief Role Model for workplace respect, that moment is an often life-changing (and company changing) epiphany.
Two things I dislike about the consulting industry:
The lip-service most leaders are willing to throw in the general direction of change initiatives. Unfortunately, too many don’t want to change how they lead—instead, they want people to think they are willing to change while insisting others change.
The failure to pull the right levers of change. We’ll spend decades and billions of dollars trying to “fix” employee engagement, for example. But we won’t take a moment to realize that we can’t ask employees to be better engaged if the company culture sucks.
Companies around the world are rapidly changing their work environment and organizational culture to facilitate diversity. How do you see your organizational culture changing in the next 3 years and how do you see yourself creating that change?
Mark Babbitt: The best companies—and leaders—change the level of diversity first by looking around them. The fact is that an overwhelming majority of today’s leaders are older, white males. Many of them are afflicted with what S. Chris Edmonds and I, in our book Good Comes First, refer to as Boomer Male Syndrome (or BMS). In part, people suffering from the long-term effects of BMS tend to hire people who look, act, and talk like them. So more pale males are placed in influential leadership positions, and BMS—along with a never-ending cycle of inequity—spreads like a slow-moving, hard-to-kill virus.
According to the Michigan State University “An organization’s culture is responsible for creating the kind of environment in which the business is managed, and has a major impact on its ultimate success or failure.” What kind of culture has your organization adopted and how has it impacted your business?
Mark Babbitt: Our research—now backed up by a study by MIT Sloan that shows respect is a higher indicator of productive company culture than compensation, benefits, perks, and training combined—shows that leaders must equally value workplace respect and results. Yes, predecessors, professors, and mentors have trained leaders to focus almost exclusively on results. But in today’s workplace and the future of work, driving results is precisely half of a leader’s job.
How do leaders demonstrate respect? Along with showing courtesy and dignity, they validate and honor the work of all contributors. Leaders give people a voice when it comes to decisions that impact their work. And, most importantly, they reward positive workplace behaviors while showing zero tolerance for disrespectful, dehumanizing, and unproductive behaviors.
Richard Branson once famously stated “There’s no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated.” and Stephen R. Covey admonishes to “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers. What’s your take on creating a great organizational culture?
Mark Babbitt: Respect.
Yes, that is all an all-encompassing word. Yes, the word itself is hard to define.; some might even say it is a word open to interpretation. And yet, that is the not-easy-but-doable goal of every leader: To provide a working environment where good people can expect respect as they help drive the desired results.
The overwhelming majority of more than 9,000 workers included in a recent Accenture survey on the future of work said they felt a hybrid work model would be optimal going forward, a major reason for that being the improved work-life balance that it offers. How do you promote work-life balance at your company?
Mark Babbitt: Is it treating people with respect when we say, “Forget about all that autonomy and freedom we’ve given you the past 18 months. Never mind that your life has probably significantly improved since we started working from home. Get back in the office… the old normal… now.”
No. People know better. They’ve now had a voice in where, when, and how their work got done. They showed entrepreneurial spirit, resilience, and guts. Now, they know they can do the work from home and perhaps from anywhere. So invite your employees to a conversation. The goal: Work with them to co-create a new normal where work works for everyone.
How would you describe your company’s overall culture? Give us examples.
Mark Babbitt: My three companies are all smaller in structure; none has more than ten team members. Having said that, we are 100 percent virtual. We all work from home, where we can raise our kids and throw a ball to the dog in the middle of the afternoon. We can be there when extended family and our partners—work and life—need us.
It is believed that a company’s culture is rooted in a company’s values. What are your values and how do they affect daily life at the workplace?
Mark Babbitt: Our co-created values are:
- Equally value respect and results
- Live our servant purpose
- Speak with me first
- Within our community, industry, and globally: Use our voice for good
- Lean in on trust, validation, and personal and professional growth
As individuals and teams, embrace the data that shows our degree of alignment to these values. Just as important, we define three to five behaviors that would indicate if a person or team is modeling, coaching, and celebrating our values. For example, for the ‘Speak with me first’ value, we’ll consistently conduct a survey that asks a question similar to:
“When a misunderstanding, difference of opinion, or debate arises, does Mark consistently go directly to the person with whom they disagree?” We ask team members and fellow leaders to score my alignment on a 1 (never) to 6 (always) scale. If the team scores me at a 4 or less, we start a conversation about how to model that specific behavior better.
Our bottom line: It isn’t enough to declare your company values. As a team, we must ensure we assign observable, measurable behaviors to each value. And once we have the data that shows how others perceive our current ability to honor and model our values, we must demonstrate enough Workplace Intelligence (WQ) to be accountable for living those values.
An organization’s management has a deep impact on its culture. What is your management style and how well has it worked so far?
Mark Babbitt: This is a question you should ask my team members! Here’s what I’d like my leadership legacy to be:
- I valued good work over hard work.
- I was fun to work with, but I took my work seriously.
- I worked long hours, but only because it rarely felt like work.
- At every opportunity, I took advantage of the opportunity to improve my team.
- I never cared about where you went to school (or if you went to school) or who your parents were; everyone had an equal chance to excel.
- I didn’t care who came up with the best idea, as long as we knew the original idea would get even better once we made it “our” vision.
- I was democratic about how the work got done—but anal about the quality of the work we produced.
- Through my writing, social media, keynotes, and activism, I used my voice for good—even when I knew I wouldn’t open many closed minds.
- Most important: I chose to be a coach and mentor rather than a manager.
Every organization suffers from internal conflicts, whether functional or dysfunctional. Our readers would love to know, how do you solve an internal conflict?
Mark Babbitt: Hence the core value: “Speak with me first.”
Internal conflicts happen, but we minimize the blast radius of those conflicts when we get the right people in the right room at the right time. Going directly to the source and remaining solution-focused enables us to resolve small-ish issues before they become a big deal.
According to Culture AMP, Only 40% of women feel satisfied with the decision-making process at their organization (versus 70% of men), which leads to job dissatisfaction and poor employee retention. What is your organization doing to facilitate an inclusive and supportive environment for women?
Mark Babbitt: Our companies—and our client’s companies—are only successful when all voices are heard. With a female life partner who lives and works within the incredibly male-dominated industry, Aerospace (yes, I married a rocket scientist!), I live this every day. A male will enter a room with another male. They’ll talk about work, a ballgame, the hottest movie or television show, or current events. But when a female colleague walks in the room, the first impulse is to comment on her outfit? Or her hair? Yes, my fellow boomer males, “You look nice today” is offensive! Not sure? Ask yourself: “Would I say that to a male colleague?”
This previously acceptable standard is now 100 percent unacceptable. And it starts with me: I MUST not only model this behavior; I must not tolerate this behavior from others.
What role do your company’s culture and values play in the recruitment process and how do you ensure that it is free from bias?
Mark Babbitt: Our values and defined behaviors are front and center during the recruitment, hiring, and partnering processes. Should prospective team members or partners not be closely aligned, we don’t judge. Instead, we invite them to be successful elsewhere.
We’re grateful for all that you have shared so far! We would also love to know if there was one thing that you could improve about your company’s culture, what would it be?
Mark Babbitt: Before COVID, despite the desire to be 100 percent virtual—or maybe because we worked virtually—we would get everyone together for a day’s work and dinner. We haven’t done that for a long time now. And I’d like nothing better than to bring the band back together, face-to-face.
This has been truly insightful and we thank you for your time. Our final question, however, might be a bit of a curveball. If you had a choice to either fly or be invisible, which would you choose and why?
Mark Babbitt: That’s easy: Fly! But maybe not for the reason you might expect—and not because flying would make it easier to see our kids and grandkids that don’t live near us in Colorado. Instead, I would want to fly because my two hunting dogs seem to believe that everything capable of flight is a toy to be played with; whatever is flying must be brought down—even aircraft passing by at 30,000 feet. I would have so much fun hovering just above them. To Cinder and Cash, it would be the ultimate game of fetch!
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Mark Babbitt for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Mark Babbitt or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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