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Great Place to Work Discussion with Marcus Erb, VP, Data Science & Innovation and Sarah Lewis-Kulin, VP, Best Workplaces List Research

Sarah Lewis-Kulin, VP, Best Workplaces List Research and Marcus Erb, VP, Data Science & Innovation at Great Place to Work are the brain power behind everything the organization does. CEO, Michael C. Bush is known for having said at all-hands meetings that these two are the “brain trust” of Great Place to Work. With 20 years and 18 years respectively at the company, these two leaders have helped ensure the company’s extension of its brand globally. In this interview they will share insights into how to get on Great Place to Work lists, how they find trends among all the data, and what the best companies are doing in regards to innovation, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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Show Transcript
Chris:

Welcome to Better, by Great Place to Work®.

We're coming to you today from the 2020 Great Place to Work For All Summit in San Francisco. Our guests today are Marcus Erb and Sarah Louis Kulin, who happene to be my colleagues. Welcome, guys. Marcus is the Vice President of Data Science and Innovation, and Sarah is the Vice President of Global Recognition. Welcome.

Sarah:

Thank you.

Marcus:

Thank you.

Chris:

So the first thing I want to talk about is how you guys are the brain power behind everything that we do here at Great Place to Work. Our boss, CEO Michael Bush, has said over and over again that you are the “brain trust” of what we do, and that we would not be able to have the resources and the extension of our brand globally without having the work that both of you do. So congratulations on all of that.

But I think the reason behind why you guys are so good at what you do is you've been here a really long time. So we were just talking about that before we began the recording today. Sarah, you're coming up on 20 years?

Sarah:

20 years this summer.

Chris:

Congratulations. And Marcus, it's 18?

Marcus:

18. That's right.

Chris:

Wow. Obviously Great Place to Work is a great place to work, otherwise, you would've left a long time ago. What's the reason behind why you've stayed for so long, and what have you learned from that experience?

Marcus:

Well, I started off with a great boss. That was one reason which was —

Sarah:

I was his boss, obviously.

Marcus:

But I was really attracted to the mission and that was what got me to switch from my job before this one and the company before this — helping make the world a better place was something I could wake up and come to do.

When I got here, I thought, “this is great. I'll be here for two years. This will be amazing.”

Obviously I got that two years prediction totally wrong. But I've found over the years that that mission was really true and the people that were coming to help do that mission were amazing. And so through the years we've just cycled through, more people have grown at it, and every year the people are still incredible and amazing. So those two things, the mission and the people, just keep giving me energy to be here.

Chris:

Sarah, what about you? 20 years. You must've had someone come along and say, "Hey, you should come work for me" at some point. Why did you choose not to go somewhere else?

Sarah:

The same reasons that Marcus is really talking about, our mission and the people that I work with.

I think that every year, I've been able to see the opportunity for the next year, and I never wanted to miss out on that. I think every year we have the opportunity with all the amazing companies we work with to have a bigger and bigger global impact and really change the world.

And so when those opportunities came, I always thought, “well, I put this much time in. I really want to see what the next few years look like.” And so far they've always been exciting and challenging and wonderful.

Chris:

I have to explain to our listeners about what exactly it is that you guys do because titles alone don't reveal the amount of work that we do, obviously.

Sarah, as the Vice President of Global Recognition, you oversee all of these lists that we publish, the rankings, the ranked Best Workplaces lists that we publish in partnership with Fortune. You have a team of folks that work with you on doing that. And it's not just here in the US now, but you're looking at the global purview of all the lists that are being done by all of our global affiliates now, as well as the World's Best list.

I want you to talk a little bit more about what that process is like. I know that you get this question all the time: “how can my company get on the list?” How do you respond to that question?

Sarah:

Sure. Well there's a lot of technical responses in terms of steps to get on the list. You need to complete an employee survey, and you need to take a culture audit and a culture brief.

But if the question's really about, “how do I make the list in terms of quality of my experience?” it's always, focus on your people. I think the media tends to cover perks and programs because that's an easy sound bite to talk about what makes a company a great place to work. But when you look at employee feedback, what you actually see is that they're not saying that this is a great place to work because we have a cafe, because we have an onsite child care center. They're talking about the respect with which they're treated.

So you can have the same programs in two different organizations, but the difference, and the reason why one company is making the list and the other isn't, is because of the quality of that employee experience there.

Chris:

Marcus, as the head of our Research and Data Science team, you work with two wonderful data scientists who also, like you, are very eloquent in the ways in which you sort of dissect all this great data, this rich treasure trove of data that we collect through our surveys.

You're the ones who are finding the trends around what's happening in the discussion around workplace culture and what companies are doing to improve the work experience for their employees.

How do you do what you do? How do you sit in and just look at numbers and then figure out, I'm seeing the signs of change, or just waves of change?

Marcus:

Well you hit on one of the reasons to start. I've got just an incredible team, and that's both my immediate team, but the extended team at Great Place to Work. We have a lot of smart people that are really curious. They stay in touch with the trends of the world, both within work and outside of work, they're connected to leading thought leaders, and really kind of follow those trends.

Anytime I find something interesting in the data or somebody on my team finds something interesting in the data, we can take it around the office and kind of say, "What does this mean to you?" By the time we've walked to the kitchen and back to our desk, we've gotten five amazing insights to say, "Well this might be the trend you're seeing, this is the trend you're seeing." That leads us down the path of figuring out, oh, this is really unique and different, and it gives us a story that we can share with our clients and others that are interested in making the workplace a great one for all their employees.

Chris:

As part of your work from the research side of things within our company, you're also the co -author of a number of our research reports. We did that series Innovation by All™ last year, four parts, which our listeners can find on our website.

You really created this new metric that no one's ever really thought of in how to measure how good a company is at innovation — the IVR, the Innovation Velocity Ratio. How did you come up with that? Because I think that it's been profoundly impactful to our clients because they're looking at it and they're able to actually measure from quarter to quarter, year to year — depending on how often they want to survey their employees — how well they're able to improve at getting all of their employees inspired enough to want to participate in innovation.

Marcus:

The IVR came about because we are looking at innovation. It was a trend that was important to our clients and customers, and we were seeing it coming up more and more in our own research and data and employee comments. We actually added it as one of our criteria for selecting the Best Workplaces.

What we found when we did that was actually the Best Workplaces that really thrived on that component of our methodology actually had better revenue performance than their peers by a factor of five-and-a-half times. So we said, “Well, that's amazing. What's happening there?”

What we found was that you could really go back and measure it. The people themselves would tell you, in their surveys, why they were experiencing innovation or not.

So we just really drove down into what was happening. And we found this really interesting pattern that when people felt they had few or no opportunities to innovate or make meaningful change at the workplace, they actually start to talk about this experience of work, of feeling left out, feeling isolated, harassed, maybe even threatened. They just lacked that sense of safety at work.

On the other hand, when people really felt that they had a lot of opportunities, we saw that that was driven by the sense of safety and purpose. And we realized if you compare those two numbers, you've got a really simple metric that told you how much innovation capacity you had, how much innovation your company could expect from its employees.

Chris:

Talking more about the IVR, the simple, quick, one sentence explanation of it is that you're looking at a ratio. So two numbers.

Marcus:

There's three stages.

Chris:

Three stages. Right. Which are?

Marcus:

So it's usually friction, functional, and accelerated.

Chris:

Off the top of your head, do you remember what the numbers are for each stage, or no?

Marcus:

If you're in a friction company, you're probably about two people that are experiencing innovation for every one that's not. For a functional, it's about six to two. And for accelerated, they actually have about 11 to two. So about double what the functional group has.

Chris:

Just to give the perspective to our listeners about what they might see if they were to do their own IVR calculation. Okay.

Marcus:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Exactly.

Sarah:

Well, actually, Chris, we did a normative study of the US workforce, and we found it's actually the inverse. In the average workplace experience, there were five people that were experiencing friction to every two that were accelerated. So it's the opposite of what Marcus is talking about in the typical workplace.

Chris:

So what you're saying that is that, in the average us workplace, is that innovation doesn't exist?

Sarah:

It exists, but there's an enormous amount of drag. It's that experience of being slowed down, of not having other people to help you and move forward when you're trying to innovate in the organization.

Chris:

Not the fun RuPaul kind of drag.

Sarah:

Right. Not that kind.

Marcus:

Building on what Sarah said, a lot of workplaces haven't realized they can maximize the full potential of their workforce. The Best Workplaces show us you can — and when you do that, you get everybody engaged in innovation, you can grow your business much faster.

Most workplaces still think of innovation as something you silo or something that just the CEO leads. But the Best Workplaces realize innovation is a volume game. Innovation is an everyone game: if we get everybody engaged in it, we're going to do a lot better. That's one of their advantages in the market and against their peers. So maybe we just gave their secret away, but it's a good secret everybody should lean into.

Chris:

Wonderful. Marcus, earlier you were saying that one of the reasons that you stayed with Great Place to Work for 18 years is that you bought into the mission early on. But over that time, the mission has somewhat changed and evolved as workplace culture has evolved everywhere.

How do you view where things stood with what our mission is 18 years ago to where it is today? What has caused our company to change and adapt and evolve along with just the way the business has adapted and evolved over those years?

Marcus:


Well, our mission has always been rooted in creating a great workplace, and believing that's a transformational power in society, that if everybody had a great workplace, then they're going to be better for their families, better in their communities and just have a better life. So that's what we've always focused on.

Early on in our time, it was just trying to convince companies that it was possible and worth doing. So that was what the work of the mission was at that point. Over the 18 years, I'm happy and proud to say that we played a little part in that a lot of companies now believe it's possible and they strive to make it happen.

And what we realized was that actually, we need to raise the bar, that you can't just be a great place to work. In our data, and with the companies that we're getting, they're a great place to work for many, but not all. That was the distinction that we were seeing that we needed to push into next. So it really was just a natural evolution of the success we had, and where we needed to get to, which was making sure that by 2030, everyone has a great place to work For All™.

Chris:

Sarah, do you have any you want to add to that?

Sarah:

I'd say also, part of it is a trend of globalization, right? So when you're just thinking about creating great places to work for all, and there's so many permutations of that.

Chris:

I want to talk a bit more about what is happening today. Today's the first day of the 2020 Summit. We have a long day ahead of us. We started this recording around 6:30 in the morning, and I know that Marcus has a focus session that you're doing — today, right?

Marcus:

Tomorrow. Tomorrow, yes.

Chris:

Let's talk about the focus session that you're going to be leading tomorrow.

I want our listeners to know that all of our content from our Summit is recorded. Main stage, we'll have video on our website, and the focus sessions, you can listen to our audio recordings of them. So after you've listened to this wonderful episode of Better by Great Place to Work, you can go back to our website and you can find the recordings from all of these focus sessions, the videos from the main stage.

Tell me a bit about what your focus session will be about, Marcus.

Marcus:

One of the topics that we've been studying for the last couple of years is around For All Leadership. So For All Leadership is what we have found to be that new type of leadership that companies need to thrive in today's world.

For All leaders are ones that are really able to care for every employee that's on their team, create connections across the business and really demonstrate the empathy and humility and complex problem solving you need when your company might be going through automation or recessions or whatever's going to break out in the market that day.

So my session is to try to share some of that research, but we're actually really happy because we're going to bring in actual For All leaders to come in and talk about their experiences. We found when you talk with them, you see the difference. You see in how they look at their teams, how they talk and the different things they do to create the sense of purpose, the sense of comfort, the sense of safety with their teams that really helps them be great. We're going to have them talk about those moments.

Chris:

Okay. I'm sorry that I have to miss it because I'll be here recording the podcast. But Sarah, you're going to be hosting five focus sessions?

Sarah:

Yes.

Chris:

Wow. And I know there's a few repeats; if an attendee to the Summit can't make it for one of the scheduled times, they can go to and one of the other ones. But can you talk a bit about the sessions you're leading?

Sarah:

Sure. Well the three different topics are, one, how companies can apply to be certified and be considered for our Best Workplaces lists. That's a fun topic for me to get to talk about because that's really what our great team focuses on in the US and now around the world. We have some exciting changes that are really making things both simpler for people to participate in that process and much more focused, and getting even more out of that. So I'm talking about that today.

And then I get to lead two amazing panels. The first one is going to be about how to create a great workplace in blue collar environments, which is a topic I'm really excited about because I think sometimes there's more coverage around, how do you create a great workplace in professional services environments. So we really wanted to explore what it looks like there, and we have some amazing speakers at Dow and NuStar who are going to be fleshing that out.

In addition, we're going to be talking about how to create a great workplace for parents, which is a topic that I feel really passionate about.

Chris, I remember we were working together when you were at Fortune, and we started up the Best Workplaces for Parents™ list. At the beginning there was a suggestion it should be a best workplace for mothers and both you and I said, "No, no, we're going to make this a Best Workplaces for Parents list," which I feel really proud of.

One of the things I'm excited about to talk about is to shift the narrative around work-life balance, because certainly that's incredibly important for parents, but it's also important for everyone. In fact, our data shows that men with no kids are more likely to have their decision to stay with their organization affected by their work-life balance than mothers are, and that's certainly not the common refrain there.

So we'll be talking about how to re-shift what it really takes to make a great workplace for parents and have it include work-life balance, but not be limited to that topic.

Chris:

What makes you get really annoyed when people sort of equate the benefits for women or for mothers with just being an overall great workplace for women?

Sarah:

Yeah. Well, obviously not all women are mothers. And when we are mothers... I'm happy to be a mother. That's a really important part of my identity. But it's not the only part of my identity.

I love where I work and I'm really passionate about that, and I want to be seen in my workplace, both for being a complete person with a life outside work and being a mother, but also for how I show up in the workplace. I think it's just foolhardy to equate women with motherhood only, because there are obviously wonderful employees that are not mothers.

And also what we've seen is that the narrative about what it means to become a mother starts to shift how you think about how you need to treat women in the workplace. We find that women actually have more commitment to their workplace, find more meaning in their work, when they become mothers … and that's not what you hear.

And so there's actually an opportunity for workplaces to rise to that challenge and step up, because women are going to have more concerns about promotions, equity, about the communication they receive in the workplace after becoming mothers. They're not less invested; they’re worried that you're less invested. And so that's an opportunity to step up.

Also, actually, I feel passionately about it because of this guy who's sitting next to me, who I've worked with for nearly 20 years and who I know is an amazingly dedicated father, and I want him to have the same investment in his work-life balance, and not just have the thoughts about parenthood be limited to women.

Chris:

That's a great point.

Marcus:

One of the things we've seen in our data, though, is a trend by generation that, that trend Sarah is describing is happening. Millennials, in their written feedback to us, speak a lot about paternity leave. They see that paternal roles aren't fixed. It's really about who wants to be there with the kid, and everybody wants to be there with the kid, but they also, Sarah so eloquently described, want to be successful at work. And so this is a really big trend that workplaces need to rise to.

Chris:

Marcus, your team, along with Ed Frauenheim, our colleague, have written these recent two new reports that have just come out.

I mentioned the Innovation By All series you can find on our website, but we also have two new ones: Hidden Pieces of the D&I Puzzle, and The Future of Work, the New Future of Work.

Can you talk a little bit about the findings from the research that you did for those two reports? I know that one of the big topics is how to prepare for a coming recession, should we have one.

Marcus:

Exactly. And that's featured in our Future of Work report, actually both reports to a degree.

With our data, we have a chance to go back in time and look at what companies were experiencing before the Great Recession.

And so we took that opportunity to say, is there something their employees were telling us back in 2007, 2008 before everything kind of went haywire, that would predict when a recession is going to happen — or, more importantly, was going to predict whether your company is going to succeed during a recession? Trying to see if there's a way to help leaders look around the corner.

One of the things we found was that yes, employees could tell you, and it was often really marginalized and under-represented employees that were the ones that could tell you whether a company was going to thrive during recession or flatline.

For us it was a really big finding because it showed that if you really listen to your employees, if you really create a great place to work for all, you're building a business that's built to not just survive recessions, but to thrive through them. It was just a really great business piece around why you need to do this.

And that was the intent with some of the research was to try to, for the Hidden Pieces of D&I, to create some new evidence and new arguments for D&I leaders to feel like, oh, there's new hope, new tools, new insights we can use to continue this work we're trying to do.

We know the D&I community, we love their work, and we also know it's really tough work. It's really easy to get burned out. So we're trying to find some inspirational new ideas that could help them keep doing the great work that they're doing.

Chris:

Now are you going to be attending the D&I forum today?

Marcus:

I am, yes.

I can just say it looks like it's shaping up to be amazing, and great conversations.

Chris:

So for both of you, I'm curious, what are you most looking forward to at the Summit this year, beyond seeing Melissa Etheridge at our social event tonight?

Sarah:

I always love, honestly, hearing Michael Bush speak. I mean, this is something that I left out, but why is a Great Place to Work a great place to work? It's Michael Bush's leadership, both in terms of the scope of our mission and just the day-to-day for our colleagues here. So I'm really looking forward to that.

But in general, I mean, I look at this Summit as an opportunity to be a touchstone, not only for us but for the broader community to support us all in the work that we do the rest of the year. Because if you think back to that normative study that we did of the US workforce, less than half of the US workforce is actually experiencing a trust-based workplace.

A lot of the companies here are fortunate to be able to work for Certified™ companies or best workplaces, but that's not the common experience. And so to come here and get to be in a community of people who also get it, and are working hard to solve the challenges that you're challenging, that you're facing, is a huge resource and inspiration for the rest of the year.

I love just being part of that energy and getting the tips and getting the inspiration of seeing how committed corporations are, actually, to creating great workplaces, which I don't think is a common narrative and not something that most of the public gets to see.

Chris:

And Marcus, what are you looking forward to?

Marcus:

Many of the same things that Sarah is. She summed it up so well.

I think the weeks heading up into this, my wife will tease me and say, "Oh, you're grumbling about the Summit again." Because we're getting ready for the event, you're getting your sessions ready, we're figuring out all the last minute logistics, and I'll be grumbling complaining about it. And she's like, "Just stop it. You're going to come home after that Summit and not stop talking about it for a month."

So I find so much inspiration here. And it's not just because of the great speakers we get, telling really honest, authentic stories. It's also just that community that comes every year. We get a lot of repeat folks coming, so it's a reunion with them, but then you have 60% new folks coming every year. And it's like they're just in the same kind of energy looking for this community they can be a part of to create a great place to work, and they found their home. And that energy is just great. Makes me go for the whole year.

Chris:

Yeah. This is our 17th annual Summit, and I think I've probably attended probably about 10 of them from the time when I was at Fortune, and then of course now the past two as an employee at Great Place to Work. And they grow and get bigger year to year.

But one of the things that I look forward to each year is the fact that there is a sense of community. It's a sense of family, people that you do see every year. And you get to catch up with them, you get to see them, and you can get some face time with people who you sometimes still do business work with directly, especially if they are from companies that appear on the list from year to year. We do a lot of returnees to the lists who we consider them to be the all-stars of making the 100 Best every single year, or for at least for the past 20 years.

Is there one particular company that you can think of that always has really strong presence from year to year?

Sarah:

The truth is, many of them are our sponsors. I mean, they're incredibly dedicated. I don't want to miss anyone, but EY is going to be here every year, Accenture's going to be here every year. They really are committed to creating great workplaces, not only in their organizations but providing leadership to others. And we are incredibly grateful for their sponsorship because it makes all this possible.

In addition to just showing up at the conference, one of the thing that's really lovely about some of the companies we work with is that they try and share the experience of working at their organizations with Summit attendees.

So, for example, and this is where hopefully you have some... I don't know all the examples this year, but maybe you can speak to the Accenture immersion experience, or last year, Hilton really gave you a sense, by letting us walk behind the scenes, of how they run their hotels, of what it feels like to be in their employees’ shoes.

And I view part of the work that we do in creating lists as giving people a picture of the mountaintop. What does it look like up there, and why do you want to do the hard work to climb, and where are you on that path? I think that when you have a chance to interact with our Best Companies, it's another chance to viscerally feel, what does it look like and feel like to be at a Best Workplace? Because not everyone really understands that or even believes that it's possible. And I think that's an important role that they play.

Chris:

So Marcus and Sarah, thank you so much for joining me today and being the kickoff of the first day of the 2020 Summit. It's been a pleasure chatting with you both.

Sarah:

Our pleasure.

Marcus:

Thank you, Chris.

Speakers

Marcus Erb

Sarah Lewis-Kulin