Hans Bjordahl of Culture Foundry: On Conscious Capitalism

When Hans Bjordahl, CEO of Culture Foundry attended a talk on conscious capitalism at SXSW, little did he know it would make him question everything he’d been taught about doing business. Hans shares how this paradigm has shaped his career and his company.

Host: Ivan Stegic
Guest: Hans Bjordahl, Culture Foundry

Podcast highlights: 

  • Hans’ formative years in Hawaii, where he attended the Hogwarts of Honolulu
  • His work at companies in the early days of the internet, a.k.a, you kids don’t know how good you have it
  • A talk at SXSW about conscious capitalism made Hans realize everything he’d been taught about doing business was wrong, and how he used conscious capitalism tenets to structure his company, Culture Foundry
  • Conscious capitalism must not be tacked on to a company; it must be baked into the leadership, planning and culture. But it’s risky!
  • The dichotomy of the original conscious capitalist (John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods) in business with Amazon, the destroyer of worlds (but believe it or not, Amazon is doing some good)
  • The best people to enact change in an organization are already on the inside, bringing tough conversations to the table
  • Even if you’re not a large company, just doing your part matters, even just talking about progressive ideas on podcasts and websites
  • Culture is the universal binder, over design, tech and media. So much so that Culture Foundry seeks to know a company’s culture before they will even design a website for them.
  • Culture Foundry’s attitude: “work” and “home” buckets are antiquated notions, and you shouldn’t have to ask permission from your employer to have a life
  • How “Aloha as a Guiding Principle” can be applied to work and life. And got a shout out from Obama!

Links:

TRANSCRIPT

IVAN STEGIC: Hey everyone you're listening to the TEN7 podcast, where we get together every fortnight and sometimes more often to talk about technology, business, and the humans in it. I'm your host Ivan Stegic. My guest today is Hans Bjordahl, who is the CEO and Founder of Culture Foundry, a full-service, one-stop provider for all things digital in Seattle, Washington. He is also the host of The Decision, a podcast about conscious capitalism. And, he also created one of the very first online comic strips that appeared on Usenet in 1991. I was lucky enough to meet Hans at Owner Camp in Bend last April. Hans, welcome to the podcast.

HANS BJORDAHL: Hi Ivan, glad to join.

IVAN: Thank you. Thanks for being on the show.

HANS: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me on.

IVAN: Yeah. So, as I said in the opening, you are CEO and Founder of Culture Foundry, and you’ve been doing that since about 2010, but I kind of want to go back to where life started for you and hear about how you got to Culture Foundry. So, where did you grow up?

HANS: So, I grew up in Hawaii. I grew up on Maui and was actually born in Honolulu and can produce a birth certificate on request.

IVAN: [laughing] That’s awesome. It’s not required for this podcast.

HANS: Okay, that’s good. Yeah. I grew up there through high school and then came to the mainland, as we call it in Hawaii, for college and have been here ever since.

IVAN: How often do you go back there?

HANS: Usually once or twice a year. I have friends there, I have family there. In the winter I’m in Seattle, so in the winter I’m more likely to find a reason to go, than in the summer. It’s a better trade. But always good to get back home.

IVAN: So, and home is in Maui, or in Honolulu where you were born?

HANS: In Maui.

IVAN: In Maui, okay. And so, that actually makes sense why you went to this prep school in Hawaii called Seabury Hall. It sounds like Hogwarts almost.

HANS: You know, it’s pretty close. My Mom taught English at Seabury Hall, so my brother and I got to go for free, as part of that arrangement when you teach there. And so, it was as close to an idyllic high school experience as you could get. The joke is that, if you need to find directions to it, you just look for the rainbow that ends at Makawao, Maui, and you just go there and there’s Seabury.

And, of course, when I was in high school, I appreciated none of that. I was the usual disgruntled 16-year-old, but in retrospect when I compare my high school experience to other people's, it’s definitely clear that I had a great one. When I showed my wife where I went to high school, she had two words. Her words were “Eff you.”

IVAN: [laughing] So, quite an idyllic place, that’s lovely to hear. So, your last name is Bjordahl, which is very Scandinavian, and we usually find Scandinavian here in the Midwest and upper Midwest in Minnesota. How does a Scandinavian land so far west in Hawaii?

HANS: Well, we are a sea-faring people. So, that’s part of it. There’s actually a grain of truth to that. My Dad was in the Navy and grew up around Madison, Wisconsin. My Mom grew up in Michigan, so upper Midwest lineage there. So, when my Dad was stationed on Oahu for the Navy, and after getting his medical degree and deciding where to start a practice, realized that he could live in Hawaii, that there’s no law that you can't!

IVAN: Why not?

HANS: Why wouldn’t I do that, having had such a great experience there in the Navy? So, he started his practice on Maui, and my Mom became an English teacher, put her English degree to use doing that at Seabury. And that’s how Hawaii came to be from roots in the upper Midwest.

IVAN: What a great story. And so, the English teacher, the English influence in your life must’ve been quite strong, because you went on to get a degree in journalism in Colorado, and you’ve been quite a prolific content creator since then. I mean, writing for the Denver Post and the Boulder Weekly, you produced some comics. Something that I’d love to talk about is as Wikipedia says, you’re one of the people who produced the first web comic called Where the Buffalo Roam, that went out on Usenet. How did that all start?

HANS: You know, I’m at the University of Colorado, pursuing a journalism degree, because I’m thinking, Journalism: there’s no way this career won’t pay huge financial dividends in the future. What could possibly go wrong?

IVAN: [laughing] Exactly.

HANS: This industry looks rock solid and will be a thriving business for decades to come.

IVAN: Right.

HANS: Moving onto plan B, I joined an early dotcom called XOR and had been running this comic strip called Where the Buffalo Roam in the local student paper called The Colorado Daily. And it was quite popular in that forum, but as part of my introduction to the folks at this early Colorado dotcom, they knew of me through my comic strip and the introduction was, “Hey, we’d love to put your comic on the internet.” I’m like, “The what now?” And was introduced to Usenet, and then by extension Alternet, and they would post it, it would get digitized. You had to wait four minutes or something for the binary file to download to even view it. Then I would come in once a week and answer mail from all over the world.

You know, you get mail from Australia, and this was in the early, early days, the early nineties when that was really novel and really cool. And I’m like, Hm, I think this internet thing has potential. Just a hunch. Then when these folks at XOR said, “Hey, we want to start a creative department at our web engineering firm,” I jumped at the chance, and that was my first foray into the internet.

IVAN: And successful it has been thus far, as well.

HANS: Multi-adventured! Just a lot of things where, Wow, I was there for that. Early dotcom experience at this company, we did the first Whole Foods ecommerce websites back when we were just making that stuff up, back before Shopify and PayPal and things like that, and figuring out credit card gateways at the very beginning. I worked with some really great clients there, including Franklin Covey and Hyatt, and we were just a small, five-person firm, but we were giant slayers. We would go up against established agencies and just walk away with Whole Foods in our bag.

Then it grew to 500 people, and then it was sold. And then the culture was not just eroded, but inverted, blown up, and in that explosion, people were flung far and wide across the country. The company is no more, but many lessons were learned. Not just about the internet, but about what I might do one day if I were to start a company. So, that DNA from that first formative five-year experience really played a heavy role in Culture Foundry as it stands today.

IVAN: Someone at Owner Camp said to me that they’d like to “discover things in the ashes of a failed project.”

HANS: Yep.

IVAN: I think you said that to me. What do you think you discovered from that blow up at that 500-person company?

HANS: That it’s all about the culture. And that when—this sounds really obvious, it’s obvious in how I phrase it—but when you cede control you cede control. And it was the first experience I had had of watching something of value get built and then—I won't mince words—destroyed. Watching it be destroyed, you’re like, Why are you doing this? Why it was being destroyed is, the investors had a different value system than the people who ultimately sold it. And in many of these things, the conversation early on is all good and everyone’s aglow with the new opportunities that an acquisition will enable, or an investment that’s effectively an acquisition.

XOR, the company I worked at, was enrolled up into four-ish other like firms. The idea was to bring it all together, go for an IPO, and everyone will get fabulously rich. Well, then the tech crash hit. But, even before the tech crash hit, we switched from a culture that I would describe—this is Boulder Colorado, so barefoot Boulder programmers—very friendly, very flexible, very learning-oriented, very values-driven—and when the investors came in, it turned into much more of a financial imperative, and everything else was secondary.

And then, I was also really exposed to what I would call conventional wisdom about how business should be done. The narrative was, “You’re cute, little company, but we are the grown-ups and we’re going to come in and tell you how to do business right, because you’re doing it wrong. And the way to do business right is manage to the exit, manage to the corridor. Treat people as commodities. Don’t get too sentimental about your team, don’t get too sentimental about your culture. This is back in the nineties, when I think that idea that that’s how business should be done was largely unchallenged. That’s what got you on the cover of magazines. I think that’s shifting, and we’ll talk about that for sure. But then, that was a stark example of how that didn’t work, and how I think even the investors, when all the ashes were among us, were like, What happened there? I don’t think they knew either. And so, for me, it was a very formative time. Not just to learn about the internet, but to learn about how to grow a business.

IVAN: And the things you touched on, like culture and ceding control, they make me think of what I wanted to talk to you a little bit more about: this idea of conscious capitalism and the four tenets that exist. But, before we get into that, we’ve talked about it before, you've mentioned it, we’ve had nice discussions about it, but for the listeners out there, can you give us a definition of what conscious capitalism actually is?

HANS: Conscious capitalism is a model that seeks to unlock the potential for social good and humanistic good in business. Not just do that as a feel-good, let’s have a corporate giving program when we’re done counting our money, but baking that concept right into the core of your company, and doing it in a structured way that actually yields better financial results at the end of the day. When I was first exposed to this system, I was at SXSWJohn Mackey, who is one of the founders of this organization and an early champion and ongoing champion, was giving a talk about a book he wrote called Conscious Capitalismand I’m like, This is interesting. It’s a fairly aggressive assertion that the way we’ve been doing business in this country is wrong, and that we need to evolve it to fit this different, and frankly, more difficult model of how business should work.

But it’s not just profit and loss. It’s things about core purpose and things about stakeholder orientation, conscious culture, conscious leadership. That these things can be defined. That they can be, to some degree, quantified, and that they can, through research, be shown to have not just an incrementally better return on investment, but an exponentially better return on investment. The research around it is still emerging, still evolving. The ideas have really caught fire because the hunger for this in business is acute. And everywhere I come across it, people who feel they have to be one person at home, and bring a different person to work, that they can’t integrate who they are with what they do, that’s a fundamentally unhealthy place to be. And creating business environments where you can bring your entire genuine self to work and do that, hopefully, where there’s some social good that comes out of that, that’s a very compelling thing. That idea's been around a long time, but it hasn’t been super structured. Now it’s getting more structured, and it’s getting more structured through conscious capitalism, through B-Corporations, through some of the work that Nick Hanauer is doing. He’s a Seattle billionaire who is making a very aggressive run at redefining what successful economics look like.

So, a lot of people are approaching this idea from slightly different directions. Conscious Capitalism was my introduction into that approach to business. Some of those tenets from the book I picked up directly and plugged them right into Culture Foundry. It’s been very useful to us in terms of how we want Culture Foundry to be, but I also think there’s an imperative worldwide—I won’t even stop at the borders of the U.S.—but worldwide, to really think about business in this way, and very aggressively counter the traditional model that you only have an obligation to your shareholders and everyone else can take a hike, that everything else is a commodity. This model is a broader stakeholder model where you need to accommodate clients, employees, partners, environment, community, and shareholders, but we’re going to slice this pie up many different ways, not just give everything to the shareholders and leave everyone else holding the bag.

IVAN: So, it’s really being a good citizen of the planet and the universe, not just as a person, but as an organization. Everything you touch you should be thinking about its purpose and the effect on the environment.

HANS: Yep. And that, in the broadest possible definition of the word "environment."

IVAN: Right.

HANS: And baking that into the leadership suite, and baking that into your core purpose as a company, and baking that into your strategic planning, and then holding yourself accountable. Because I think failure is a necessary part of the narrative of conscious capitalism. It sounds great, but it’s hard, it’s really tricky. Are you really going to go back to your shareholders and say, “I’m taking money out of your pocket so that I can build this factory in the right way, not the wrong way.” Everyone’s like, “Yes, you should do that." But there are many tales where people have taken these principles into broader business communities and have encountered significant resistance, put themselves at risk, made themselves a firing target. This is not without risk.

It’s a fascinating model and having come out of a couple experiences, this experience of this first dotcom, where how I felt...and it felt, just felt right that business be done one way, and running into this sense that I was naïve and stupid, and we were all naïve and stupid for thinking that way, and that one day we would grow up and do business the right way. Finding some evidence that that model is due for an evolution, if not an outright revolution, was really energizing. It was like Wow; how could we make that happen? How could I make that in my own little corner of the world for those little things that I have some degree of control over? And so that’s been something. We come back to it frequently at Culture Foundry, because there’s always places where that idea runs into the friction of how things are usually done, and reconciling that and being prepared to fail along the way is part of that whole journey.

IVAN: So, you mentioned John Mackey earlier, and for those listeners who aren’t quite familiar with that name, he is the CEO of Whole Foods.

HANS: I think he may be retired, emeritus, co-CEO. Whole Foods is certainly built on his image, so to speak.

IVAN: So, I’m trying to reconcile the idea of everything he’s written for Conscious Capitalism and Whole Foods, which makes perfect sense, but when you then marry that with the fact that Amazon bought Whole Foods and that Whole Foods is now part of Amazon, and you think about the culture at Amazon. I’m not going to mince words, but I’d say cutthroat, right? Win, win, win.

HANS: Yeah.

IVAN: How do those two go together?

HANS: I don’t know. That is a great question, and that has not been lost on people in the conscious capitalism movement. Amazon is not a poster child for conscious capitalism by any stretch, and Whole Foods in its heyday ran into its own levels of static over labor. John Mackey advanced these ideas around conscious capitalism. I would personally describe John Mackey as a libertarian personality at his core, and perhaps he and Bezos found some common resonance around that. And so, in the conscious capitalism communities I’ve been part of, these discussions, —even before the Amazon purchase—Whole Foods had had some issue with unions, and they’ve been a much better company than average, but they’re not perfect.

And, for us in the conscious capitalism movement—and I was involved in the Seattle Chapter which had a great run, but is no longer active largely because our team of volunteers ran out of gas, which happens, and because the chapter model is evolving in a way that, Hey, we want to probably try different stuff, rather than follow that model. But these have been really interesting discussions with that team, and kind of where we landed, is that any movement that is overly attached to an individual or a company is destined for trouble one day. Because people have their own paths, and have their own—from each other’s point of view—strengths and weaknesses, champion moments and fallible moments. Who am I to judge about whatever decisions John Mackey may have made along the way?

Beware the guru, beware the charismatic, I think is one of the broader lessons I’ve taken away. Anytime you attach a movement to a person you’re going to be disappointed eventually. It’s just inevitable.

IVAN: That's just the way it is.

HANS: The ideas around conscious capitalism, though, are enduring. And, taking those ideas forward, whether it’s under that banner, a B-Corporation banner, some of these other organization's banner, or just your place in a decision maker's role, even in a larger company, even, let’s say, at Amazon, to say, "Hey, maybe we should think about it this way. This decision is going to completely decimate this tier of suppliers. Are we going to have consideration around that?"

Amazon, I actually feel, is one of the more important swing votes in this whole movement going forward. That their history and reputation has been "Win! Win! Win!" It has been on many occasions, not even acknowledging this conversation, not even going so far as to play a counterweight to it. Just kind of, la, la, la, I’m not hearing you. As a large company there are some great things they’ve done.

They’ve done some initiatives in Seattle that are positive and some initiatives in Seattle that are negative. They were in the news for combating an employment head tax, and got a lot of blowback from that. They’ve also done some good direct contribution work at homeless communities. Like anything, there’s many facets to that company. As it gets bigger, there are going to be more facets. But at its core, the question of whether Amazon is a force for good, is a question that I think should be asked. It's a question that I don’t think is yet answered. And the people best equipped to ask that question are people inside the company every day. And that may make you unpopular, but I think we’re at a place in tech where we're willing to have that uncomfortable conversation about, We’re building all these amazing tools, how are they being used?
Are they being used for good?
Do we have ethical and moral boundaries around how these tools or systems—at Amazon they’re ever improving—but ever improving to what end?
Is efficiency the highest goal for humanity to reach for?
Or is there something beyond that?

Being in those rooms, being the one that brings that up, even if you’re the one, maybe you just killed the conversation by bringing it up. I think more and more people are getting bolder with that. We’re seeing at large tech companies, people willing to bring these issues up with management en masse. There’ve been many examples lately of employees at Google, Amazon, Microsoft. I think Amazon just had an investor and employee initiative—and I could be wrong about the details here—to get acknowledgement and concern around, I think it was, global warming, as part of the company's charter. It didn’t pass. The conversation got put on the table, let’s see what the next chapter brings there. Because I think there’s this real ground up, groundswell within these companies to start to challenge their own leadership to think in these ways. And, I also think, even outside of tech, you’re seeing a lot of examples where companies that do articulate a values-driven story, can back it up with action, can back it up with humility and fallibility, are really gaining traction.

People are running to these brands, and I think that that is a glimpse of business of the future, as the problems that we have to confront become ever more stark, and become ever harder to avoid. If you don’t have a position on whether you’re a force for good, I think eventually you’re going to be in trouble.

What’s an example in tech of how not to do that? Facebook. We’ve seen them in the crosshairs of utter indifference for whether in practice—not what’s said, but in practice—whether that platform's a force for good or not. Really bad executive reactions, when challenged, that hurt, bluntly, utterly lacking in humility and it stands as a case of what not to do.

Then there’s the spectrum. I think we’ve had organizations that have been more credible. I think Apple’s done a pretty good job of showing it’s taking these kinds of things seriously. As a large company, I’m sure there are many things it’s not doing well. Microsoft today is quite different from the Microsoft of 15 years ago...

IVAN: Oh, so different. Yeah.

HANS: ...from the Microsoft I worked at. And I think they’re seeing the light here and trying to move things in the right direction, but these are tremendously large ships and they’re hard to turn.

IVAN: They really are.

HANS: The battle is on. I think what we do at work every day is crucially important to what direction things go. If we’re talking about these massive companies and our own modest digital agency, what difference can we make? We can make a difference in our little piece of land, shall we say. That’s all we can really effectively do, but hopefully we can socialize these ideas and get other people to jump on board with them as well.

IVAN: Yeah, and it’s important to talk about them in podcasts like this, and in meetings that you have and any public space, it’s important to blog about it. I think ultimately these large companies are all made of people, and when those people are identifying what the issues are, and are speaking up, then that’s when that kind of change can happen.

HANS: Absolutely.

IVAN: You literally have the word "culture" in the name of the agency. Culture Foundry.

HANS: Exactly. [laughing] No mistake.

IVAN: No. Tell me about that. Why is it named Culture Foundry, and how does it drive your everyday existence?

HANS: So, it came to be named that way for a couple different reasons. One, is that culture is the headwaters of everything. Getting to the core: are we technology? Are we design foundry? Are we tech foundry? Are we media foundry? What’s the thing from which all that stuff flows? And our belief in founding the company—Trevor Dodd and myself co-founded the company in 2010—is that culture is the headwaters from which everything else flows, so we really wanted "culture" in the name. Also, I had had a company running some media projects called Shadow Culture. Trevor had had a thriving freelance business called Food Culture, so we’re like, Wow, we both bring companies with "culture" in the name to the table, so it’s going to have "culture" in it. But it also speaks to our alignment as co-founders.

So that’s from where it all springs. Tech changes over time. Media changes over time. Design changes over time. But culture, right? What are the common threads that bind people together to do one thing as opposed to another? To act in a certain way as opposed to another? That’s culture and making that the core of our business was important to us. When we go talk to clients, we try as fast as we can to get to the core of that for their business. It’s like, "Oh, you’re building me a WordPress site, why are we talking about my core purpose as a company?" Because we strongly believe we need to understand your core purpose as a company to build you the best possible WordPress site.

So, that’s the orientation we bring to the table when we talk to clients, and when it resonates, it really resonates. We get a lot of feedback like, “Oh, wow, we’ve talked to other firms, and we don’t have these conversations at all.” We had one client, we went in and had this discussion, and they’re very aligned and very successful and entrepreneurial and energetic, and they said—and I wasn’t in the room for this, this was other members of our team, but the feedback we got was "Culture Foundry, what you did today with guiding how we’re going to do this roadmap, you have really captured the soul of who we are.” We’re like, “That’s what we came here to do.”

And, we’re not a consultancy that focuses on it exclusively, by any stretch, but because the foundry represents delivery, not just whiteboard work, not just, “Here’s what you should do" consulting-type deliverables, but if you actually need a working product or working website out of that, that’s the foundry piece, to make it concrete. We’re getting our hands dirty, once we figure out where we’re going. So, that’s the yin and the yang of the name. And so, coming out of that session with that particular client, that’s what we aim to do, and when it works, it works really well.

IVAN: What do you love above what you do?

HANS: I love having agency, I would say personally. Not "ad agency" in terms of a digital agency—but that’s an important word—and that means freedom to choose direction, priorities, who you will work with, who you won’t work with, what clients you’ll take, which you’ll champion. I came here to this place, starting Culture Foundry in 2010, after some great working experiences and some really challenging working experiences, which frankly, were rooted in my having a different idea of how a business should run, and I had a different definition of success in the organization I was in, and those are not necessarily super reconcilable, when the difference is that broad. And coming to Culture Foundry, and having the opportunity working with Trevor on this company to say, “Here’s how we think it should be done. Here’s how we always thought it should be done. Let’s see if this works.” And being able to make those decisions along the way, and not have to run into static from “upstairs” has been completely energizing, to the point of—maybe intoxicating’s a strong word—but I’m fairly ruined for going back to anything with a whiff of corporate life attached to it, in terms of my day-to-day existence.

Then, part of that agency is finding people who are looking for something similar. We’re not hiring new co-founders necessarily, but our respect for the freedom of talented individuals to structure their lives as they see fit, as long as they can deliver when all is said and done, that level of extreme freedom is something that we really cherish, and that people who join us really cherish. It’s becoming more broadly accepted, I think, in the world of work, that Oh, wow, working from home.

Here’s a good example. You go to Amazon, for example, I think I heard a tale, “Oh, yeah, we fully support—and they’re different division by division, I don’t want to beat up on them—but I heard this story, I’m in Seattle, I hear a good amount of Amazon stories, Microsoft stories, what have you. “Oh, you’ve worked from home, yeah, we’re all about work from home. We’re full supporters of that. In fact, you could work from home every other Friday.” And we're sort of like, “Well..." 

So, a couple things. We are like, “We are a work-from-home-first-oriented company where we have an employee working from Oslo this week who was working from Tokyo two months ago. And the office is there as a convenience for you. If you could focus better there, or if there’s a client meeting to have there, but you don’t need a reason to work from home, you need a reason to go to the office.” Or you don’t.

That dimension of how we approach the world of work is something that’s important to us because it has this fundamental respect for the individual to have a level of self-determination over their own life. This old thing of a "work" bucket and a "home" bucket, and you rush in a commute from one to the other and you've got to get all your doctors appointments and deal with family stuff in this tight time window, then you go to a work window, and nothing shall cross that boundary. This is an antiquated notion at this point.

IVAN: I agree.

HANS: Absolutely. And TEN7 follows much of that similar philosophy as I understand it.

IVAN: Absolutely. I think when you were describing the work bucket and the home bucket, and I think that’s why people refer to it as a work/home balance, and when you think about them as an integrated thing, where you could work and be self-deterministic and choose what to do, where you want to do it, when you want to do it, then I think it makes more sense to talk about it as a work/home focus. What are you focusing on at the time? It doesn’t matter where you are? It doesn’t matter where you’re putting your computer down. It just matters that you’re being effective in the thing that you’re doing. I feel like that distinction between focus and balance is important, and I think you brought it up in a very, kind of round way that you talked about focusing on work and home buckets. But, yeah, you’re right. TEN7 is also fully distributed and it’s been a wonderful experience since we started doing this is 2017. It really has.

HANS: And, I think a lot of companies are like, Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, we’re on board with that, until they're tested. And it’s harder at large companies because there’s more entropy there, that the failure is one of entropy. It’s not even out of any desire to say one thing and do another, but it takes a while to turn larger ships around to that idea. And, I think, there’s even smaller companies for whom that idea is like, Wait. Wouldn’t people that work from home just laze around all day? That’s not the new model, right? I think the trust in your employees, your team members is crucial to making that work.

IVAN: Crucial.

HANS: I think back to some of my experiences and I think we all in a way try to create the company we would also love to work at and hey, I have to go do this family thing. Maybe it’s a wedding, or maybe it’s a funeral. Maybe, "Hey, I need to take two days off to get recalibrated and do some personal stuff." I have to ask permission to go to a family funeral? Permission is always granted, but there’s still this notion of asking for it. And really? My vacation days are counted out like gold stars in a kindergarten class? I thought we hired smart people here. That’s baffling to me that that’s how that’s done. Right? The metric for keeping that in balance from our perspective is: don’t leave your team out in the cold, overcommunicate about when you’ll be out, but for these things like, “Hey I’m going to go work from Oslo for a week,” you barely have to ask permission, you just have to communicate what your core hours are going to be.

IVAN: Exactly. And other small things as well, like, “I need to take my truck to the dealership. Well the dealership has Wi-Fi. I’m just going to take it and work at the dealership." Like what’s the big idea?

HANS: And I think the business secret here is, flexibility is effectively free to offer. It’s a matter of granting trust to your team, and it’s a powerful advantage in competitive hiring situations. So, we are very adept at hiring against larger companies that pay significantly better salaries than we do, because it’s obvious to candidates that when we talk about what their life is going to be like here, we mean it, that it’s the actual reality of life at Culture Foundry.

IVAN: I want a job at Culture Foundry now. [laughing]

HANS: We’d welcome you in a second.

IVAN: Thank you. I was looking at your bio on the Culture Foundry website and something that struck me was a very short phrase: “Aloha as a Guiding Principle.” And when you think of that word, you usually think about it just meaning hello and goodbye, but it’s actually much more than that. I wanted to ask you about that as we wrap up the podcast episode here. So, tell me about what it means to you. What does that “Aloha as a Guiding Principle” actually mean?

HANS: It goes really deep, and it can be missed on a trip to Hawaii where it means hello and goodbye, and as you mentioned Ivan, it goes deeper than that. If I were to translate "aloha," it is a sense of universal welcoming and oneness, and "aloha" is actually Hawaii state law. A couple decades ago there was an envoy from China who flew to Honolulu to meet with the governor, and discovered along the way that the governor had met with the Dalai Lama a couple months before and the envoy from China was like, “We are diplomatically offended by that, so I am not going to get off this plane and meet with the governor after all.” It’s standoff time. An aide to the governor conveyed to the Chinese envoy and the aide that "aloha," a sense of universal oneness and welcoming, is state law, and therefore the Governor is bound to meet the Chinese envoy in that spirit. When this was explained to the Chinese diplomatic team, the meeting happened, and gifts were exchanged, and it was a good example of "aloha" in action.

"Aloha" is much more than a hello and goodbye. It’s really a spirit of togetherness. And bringing that to work is recognizing that in each other, amongst our team, amongst our clients, bringing that sense into every business interaction we have, particularly in the challenging times. And, growing up in Hawaii and seeing that in action there, bringing that into business was something I really wanted to apply. It’s not something I put in the strategic plan on day one, but over time, as I would go back, I’m like, Huh, there is really something here to "aloha." And the way it’s often phrased in Hawaii is to "give aloha." That the Governor is bound to give aloha and that gives you a sense of the broader definition.

Going back to an Obama reference, there was a speech he gave—no one really noticed it, he gave many great speeches—but at one point near the end of his second term, he expressed this sense that that spirit of aloha is something the world needs, and is something that could ultimately be a gift Hawaii gives to the broader world. When you go there and open yourself up to that idea, you start to notice it everywhere. And I’ve seen people come to Hawaii and really get it. Incorporate that spirit, recognize it, start to give it back. That’s where Hawaii can be a particularly transformative experience for people. The Obama speech, he said this—I recall, with a sense of urgency—the world really needs this right now. I wish I could bridge the gap between giving aloha, aloha in action, in Hawaii. I wish I could find a way to bring that to the world. I think he tried. I think that is kind of a fundamental principle of how he ran things. It was a little-noted speech. I think it fell on a lot of deaf ears. Growing up there I’m like, I know exactly what he’s talking about. A lot of people were like What? It’s hard to convey unless you’ve lived it to a degree.

IVAN: Well, I’m thankful for you to be on the podcast. Let’s take this really positive note of aloha and end with such a great idea. Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. It’s really been nice talking to you.

HANS: Absolutely. Thanks Ivan. Thanks for having me on the podcast. I listened back a few episodes. It’s a great podcast. There are some really great ideas in past episodes. I’ve started digging backwards and I’m going to keep digging. I might get all the way to episode one.

IVAN: Well, I’d love it. Thank you so much for saying those nice words.

HANS: Absolutely.

IVAN: Hans Bjordahl is the CEO and founder of Culture Foundry, a full-service one-stop provider for all things digital in Seattle, Washington. You can find Hans on Twitter. His handle is @hansbjordahl. And don’t forget to listen to his podcast on conscious capitalism at the decisionpodcast.com. You’ve been listening to the TEN7 podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message, we love hearing from you. Our email address is podcast@ten7.com. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.

Ivan Stegic

Founder and President
 
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Ivan Stegic

Words that describe Ivan: Relentlessly optimistic. Kind. Equally concerned with client and employee happiness. Bowtie lover. Physicist. Ethical. Lighthearted and cheerful. Finds joy in the technical stuff. Inspiring. Loyal. Hires smart, curious and kind employees who want to create more good in the world. His favorite things right now: the TEN7 podcast and becoming the next Björn Borg.