In this interview, Rich Sheridan — founder of Menlo Innovations and author of the new book Chief Joy Officer — shares the trials and tribulations in cultivating and leading a positive work culture in an ever-changing business world.
I first met Rich Sheridan when we toured Menlo Innovations as part of a career transformation program I was leading in 2010, called “Shifting Gears.” I was taken with Rich’s passion for his team and their culture at Menlo as well as his authenticity, evident as he talked about their mistakes and the way they approached change by performing experiments with daily team-generated ideas.
A culture conversation would not be complete without including Rich, and I’m excited to share some of his thoughts with you.
Q: Tell us a little about the beginning. When did you start your business? Why did you decide to start it? What vision or goals did you have for your business in the beginning?
Menlo Innovations was launched on June 12, 2001, at the depth of the dot-com bubble burst. The decision to found an IT-services firm during the darkest day was born out of two basic ideas:
- We had recently experienced a dramatically positive transformation of a public company, Interface Systems, where I was VP of R&D, and where co-founder James Goebel had worked shoulder-to-shoulder with me on creating that transformation. While the economic tragedy of the internet-bubble burst had caused us all to lose our jobs, this dramatic downturn couldn’t take away what we had learned in that transformation. We knew we could do it again. As I like to say, when the Titanic sank, it took a perfectly good engine room with it, and it wasn’t the engine room’s fault.
- A downturn is actually an excellent time to start a business because everything — real estate, equipment, office furniture, you name it — is less expensive! There is also an abundance of available talent seeking work.
We wanted to bring to Menlo Innovations what we had experienced at Interface Systems: teamwork, energy, results and positive culture.
Q: When did the culture of your business become a focus for you? What were some of the first things you remember doing to start focusing on culture?
Culture was a focus right from the start. We were all in the later stages of our careers and wanted to do something meaningful and compelling. We were past the life stage of simply needing a job. We knew we could all find a job. We wanted something we could build that would last and would have impact. Our belief is that an intentionally positive culture was the only way to do that, and intentionally positive cultures were rare. We wanted rare because it energized us and we knew it would energize our team and those whom we serve.
We started this focus by teaching our culture to others. We began offering all-day classes. It was one of our first offerings to teach our “Why” (namely, to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology and return joy to software) and our “How” (i.e., the processes and practices of the Menlo Software Factory).
Q: What are three successes and one failure in your journey of establishing a great culture in your business?
- We instituted a brand-new way of hiring that we dubbed “Extreme Interviewing” which energized a very tired process in most organizations. We interview without reviewing resumes and without asking questions. Rather, we conduct an unusual audition.
- We focused on the physical space of Menlo, and we got lucky and found a compelling wide-open space in which to build our team and practice that was consistent with the values we espoused of openness, transparency, teamwork and collaboration.
- We opened our doors to tours so that people could come and see exactly what it was we’re describing in words. Those tours quickly increased to more than 1,000 visitors per year and now number between 3,000 and 4,000 per year.
What got in the way:
- Our intention was to build a team that would operate in this compelling space that we had. Our early clients wanted our staff members to work at their locations. We agreed and started putting staff in several locations around Ann Arbor. This thwarted our ability to grow the culture we intended to build, because we just weren’t spending enough time with each other. Whenever a client engagement ended, half of the team that worked there would end up taking another job with another company.
Q: How would I see your culture in action if I walked through Menlo Innovations today?
The good news is that you could join the thousands who come every year from all over the world to see it firsthand. I often get to walk through our front door with visitors, hoping to catch their initial reaction. Typically, the first word out of their mouths is “Wow,” because they can feel the human energy of our team. You walk in and hear the noise of work, see people working shoulder-to-shoulder with each other at a shared computer and keyboard. You hear laughter. You’re likely greeted by a Menlo dog or two. You might hear the sound of a baby brought in by a parent that day. The space is bright, colorful and visual. Our most important artifacts are push-pinned to the wall, and draw the attention of our visitors. These artifacts include handcrafted posters with our most important cultural values, including a great Frank Zappa quote: ‘The computer can’t tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what’s missing is the eyebrows.’ They also see our famous work authorization boards which outline the daily and weekly project work of our team. The projects are described on handwritten index cards and their status is reported with colorful sticky dots, using strings of yarn to mark the current day in each plan so we instantly know whether we are ahead or behind without having to ask.
Q: As a leader of a growing and dynamic business, how do you personally monitor the health of the culture?
I sit out in the room with everyone else. There is no corner office for me. While, as CEO, I will always get a skewed view of the culture, this presence knocks down a lot of the barriers. Many executives will declare that they have an open-door policy. I can’t do that. I don’t have a door.
Q: What final wisdom or advice would you share with a leader that wants to create healthier culture in their own business?
Know that change begins with you. You have to become the example to lead a dramatic change. I was taught to be a different kind of leader early in my career. I had to unlearn some things and re-learn others. Ultimately, I found that if I could learn how to bring my authentic self to work and share my joy in the present and my hope for the future, I could set the stage for a very positive and intentional culture. This kind of leadership requires the ability to envision a bright future and to pay attention to the minute details of running the business today.
My other broad advice is to stay in learner mode, and one of the best ways to do that is to read. Culture is not a program or an initiative that is separate from our daily work. Culture is the way we work.
Thank you, Rich, for sharing your wisdom and experience around your journey building a powerful culture at Menlo.
There are several ways to learn more about Menlo:
- Follow Rich using the tag ‘menloprez’; his most active social media presences are on Twitter and LinkedIn
- Experience their culture firsthand! There are many ways to do this, such as a free culture tour or workshops around core practices like Project Management: The Menlo Way® and High-Tech Anthropology®. Explore tours and workshops on Menlo’s website
- Rich has also authored two books that give you a much deeper dive into the culture at Menlo and how to effectively lead a transformation at your own company: