John Stix: Culture & the Business Ecosystem

John Stix Interview

ec·o·sys·tem ˈēkōˌsistəm/ noun : a community of living organisms in conjunction with the components of their environment, interacting as a system. a complex network or interconnected system.

John Stix was named the President of Fibernetics in early 2014, and the first task he assigned himself was to give his organization, from the bottom to the top, a thorough review.

After dedicating several weeks to the process, spending time with the individual departments, auditing meetings, having sit-downs in the cafeteria, or grabbing beers in off-hours, his conclusions were two-fold: Firstly, the business, though successful, could be doing better. And secondly, it was the company’s culture that was holding them back.

The later came as a surprise because, as one of the co-founders of the company, he had always felt that culture was one of Fibernetics’ greatest strengths. That’s why he took it upon himself in the second half of the year to introduce and deploy a new, more inclusive, empowering culture. Six months in he’s found that effects of investing into company teammates, all 250 of them, has paid incredible dividends to the business, and also to the wellness on the company ecosystem.

The impact on overall employee satisfaction and engagement has been tangibly represented by a marked increase in sales across all brands. Further, it has garnered strong press attention in the media, both locally and nationally in the Toronto Star that John has been asked to speak to other C-Level executives on what it means to be “In” at Fibernetics. He sat down for an interview in his office to discuss culture, business and decompressing under a boardroom table.

Q: You took it upon yourself to change your company’s culture. What was the principal reason you decided there had to be a change?

John Stix InterviewWaterloo, Ontario. A lot of people know of Waterloo as the home of Blackberry. But it’s also incredibly thriving technology and entrepreneurial environment that we like to call the “Silicon Valley of the North.” When you are an entrepreneur and you are starting out, whether you’re in the garage or in your basement or at a friend’s house, it’s pretty easy to establish and maintain a culture when there’s very few in the organization.

Also, you’re taught as entrepreneurs that if your idea flourishes, make sure you are planning on operational growth, make sure you’re planning on technology growth and to keep up with sales. There’s not much talk or education out there in regards to keeping your environment cohesive and what it takes to keep your ecosystem attached to the vision and having staff feeling they are part of the dream. There can be a big disconnect as you grow rapidly.

So, with Fibernetics, I discovered that as we had grown so rapidly, especially in the last four or five years and scaled up to 250 employees, I think people were feeling disconnected. I think people were feeling a lack of vision. I think people were feeling isolated, having to protect their jobs so to speak, or validate their roles within the ecosystem. There was a lack of trust, a lack of teamwork, silos emerged and I found that customers, where they used to be quite excited and happy to deal with us, were now becoming less enthusiastic and in some cases, upset. I also noticed that the morale of all the teammates was down and not at a level that I expected. I think we lost a couple good people. Acquiring talent became harder and pushing projects out became more taxing.

So, I remember being up on the second-level of our building and thinking, “I just heard too much within the last 24-hours” and I realized that something had to change. And I also knew that it wasn’t going to be a minor change. That it was going to have to be something that would be incredibly substantial and it would have to be led by the founders and leaders of the company. It was much bigger than just me.

Q: So, your background is not in corporate culture. How did you educate yourself to become a culture warrior so to speak?

A: I guess my entrepreneurial roots helped me out a lot there. I looked at what I perceived to be an issue or a problem and then just started researching it. You’re right, I had no idea of what the word “culture” really meant (in respect to our organization), but I started researching and started reading. I started noticing that, as I got into it, I was reading articles differently than I had even when I had come across them before.

So, taking recognizable companies and brands around the world and their leaders, and instead of focusing on what worked from a product perspective for innovation perspective or sales strategy perspective, I started noticing quotes like “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. I started noticing the same leaders were also writing pieces about the fact that, “it’s not about the innovation, it’s about the environment that creates the innovation.” And I started thinking, I’m now resonating with these thoughts because I’m feeling the effects of a negative culture within my own ecosystem, within our own business, within the dream that I had helped bring to fruition.

I immersed myself into it as much as I could. I read and I read and I read. I literally closed my office door and people didn’t see me for quite some time because I was trying to figure out how do you identify culture problems? Why people were upset? Why are they feeling disconnected? It took a long time to research and understand it. Around the same time when all this was going on with the business, I lost my passion within the business that I helped create. It was an odd feeling. I’d never felt that way before.

I also went through, I guess what people would say, a bit of an enlightenment… maybe a spiritual awakening. I dove into a lot of ancient wisdom, wisdom that has been brought forth over thousands of years by very smart people. I figure we have a thing or two we can learn from them. I continue to dive into that because I believe that we can learn from various wisdom’s around the world and impart those philosophies into the ecosystem. Allow people to adopt what they feel is relevant in their own lives for the betterment of themselves their family and their work environment.

Q: Once you had the concept for this new culture for the company, how did you go about deploying it?

A: Yah, that took a long time too. Just developing the strategy. First was the immersion in the learning and the developing the strategy, then figuring out how we bring this to fruition. I knew at the time that I had a buy-in from the leadership group first and foremost, so I thought we should do an off-site, but I had never conducted an off-site like that before.

I researched, looking for consultants that had worked with fast-growing companies, possibly in technology, whose thoughts resonated with me. I had a short list that I quickly narrowed down to one consultant, Jackie Lauer from Heart of Culture. She facilitated that off-site. We spent the entire day together. Going in, right away I expected that we would have some heated debate and we would have some constructive dialogue and we would have a tremendous amount of different opinions and I certainly wasn’t wrong. I mean, it verified my thought that the leadership team was on completely different pages and thinking, “we perceive all aspects of the business differently, how can the rest of ecosystem be aligned?” It was an eye-opener, an eye popper.

We had more disagreements than understandings, but we also had a great motivation to get through the day because we all very much care for business and that’s the thing that resonated with all of us. We could all feel how much all of us cared about the success. I started seeing a bit of a transformation in that meeting of the leadership team, while they figured out what we were really all about.

Simultaneously, I could see all of us come together. By the end of the day we had come up with our company purpose, a company mantra, a whole set of value systems with sheets of white paper spread out across the room and attached to the walls> We walked away feeling united as a leadership team like we’ve never been before.

Finally, I felt the emergence of the start, in a way, of a brand-new personality of our business.

Q: Would you call that establishing your cultural identity?

A: Ya, establishing our identity, that’s a great way of putting it. From there, I really wanted to keep it somewhat quiet because I really wanted to celebrate this and launch it in an effective way to really inspire enthusiasm. We had picked a value system that I was very proud of; innovation, trust, teamwork, just do it & find a solution, accountability, happiness. These are core values that really resonated with the leadership team.

After a day like that I wanted to make sure that we could really launch it in a way that would be something the company’s never seen before. I gathered a few individuals in the company and I called them “I’m in Ambassadors”. “I’m in!” is our mantra, it’s what ties us all emotionally together.

Those “I’m in! Ambassadors” helped me put together our culture celebration last June, a culmination of an immense amount of effort with a full morning and afternoon of learning about what it means to be happy, how do we change our world so that we can feel more well, feel more connected and understanding what our value system meant to all of us. The culture celebration was an incredible success.

Q: There was buy-in from the whole staff or did you feel any pushback? Were the existing silos resistant?

A: We were playing with some ideas at the beginning of putting some shirts in the room that said “I’m in!” on them and at any given time throughout the morning or afternoon, when a staff member felt like they were “In” they could go and grab a shirt. But in the end, I didn’t want to put the pressure on our teammates because I realized that everyone’s different. Everyone’s going to absorb this information on his or her own timeline and we have to respect that. That’s part of our value system, that we were now just putting out there; that we have to trust, right?

Q: It wasn’t a “Drink the Kool-Aid” experience?

A: Ya, it wasn’t a “Drink the Kool-Aid” experience. It was “This is who we are, this is how we are going forward, this is what we represent.” And it’s going to take some time to absorb it. I mean, I had spent months figuring out and absorbing it, so I couldn’t expect someone to just absorb it all in one morning. I didn’t feel pushback. I just felt more incredible emotion of happiness and elation. Heck, right after the afternoon was done I was hugged and I saw smiles across the room. Even with the ones that I could tell were taking a little bit longer to absorb it, afterwards they communicated that they really respected the effort that we put forth.

Q: As the new culture initiative was being rolled out, as time went by, was there any single moment that jumped out to you that this is actually working, this is happening?

A: I don’t know if there’s one exact moment. What I do know is that there’s been so many. I remember before we launched this brand-new culture, the person that runs HR at the time was inundated with complaints and concerns and she herself was feeling incredibly fatigued from it all. I know that sales had been dipping. I know that the atmosphere within the office itself, like I communicated earlier, was not as positive as it should be.

After the celebration there was just a constant amount of change. People coming together. I would witness people coming together and doing tasks after hours for the benefit of everyone else and being excited about it. There were more smiles in the office. There were the early indicators and of course we started to decorate the office and make some physical changes that represented who we are too, and many people got really excited about that. As you’re starting to think about results within your business, I guess it really started to solidify my brain that we are up to something good when those complaints to HR dramatically reduced. Conflict resolutions were being handled in a lot of cases between the teammates themselves. By month two we had entered a second month of record sales month-on-month that ended up extending record sales for four months in a row.

I would say that the greatest moment for me personally, was when I was in a boardroom and we were conducting business, and we had an agenda to get through. It was about an hour and I left the boardroom, a successful meeting, and I came into my office, and I was incredibly choked up. I could barely speak because a lot of the employees, one-by-one had written down on sticky notes what it meant that we moved in this direction and what the culture meant to them. To say the least, to see sticky notes littered across your desk, your computer, across your entire wall and they did it to make me feel good… Still, to this day, it chokes me up.

In fact I always wondered what kind of art I would want on my wall in my office, and as you can see, I’ve taped them to the wall and I’ll never take them down.

Q: A tangible demonstration for you then?

A: When you engage people it comes from your authentic true self and you speak from the heart and you really, really mean it, people resonate with that.

Q: So, do consider yourself, as president of the company the cultural warrior, the leader of the cultural band?

A: I don’t like to think of myself as a leader. I’ll start with saying that. What I am, I think I know what you’re asking… I have a computer on my desk as you can see but from I prefer by never have it open throughout the day. I’d rather be talking to everyone. I’d rather be asking how everyone is. I’d rather be seeing how they are within their environment. But facts are, ya, I am president and I need a computer (laughs) and I have to sit behind it sometimes to do some things. But I am never going to stop. I’ve seen the incredible benefits, not just for the business, not just for the success of Fibernetics, but also for the success of everyone in here.

For them to feel that they can take happiness home as opposed always thinking, when someone goes to work that they have to go to work but, you know they take negativity home or they bring happiness from home to get through the day. I don’t want that. This is why were doing things like, making people take their vacations. I don’t want people working past a certain time. I want Yoga available throughout the day. I want things like Craft Clubs throughout the day and if you want to walk away from your computer to join a Craft Club, it doesn’t have to be on your lunch hour. I want people to have autonomy so they feel that they’re a part (of the whole) to make decisions, and they can make a contribution, that they can feel like they can put their hand up and feel safe to do it. That is how we are going to flourish. Those are the next levels that we’re going to take.

If I’m the leader of that, then it’s a blessing. When it comes to our culture I feel like that I’m a facilitator and I’m trying to allow it to flourish.

Q: And now you want to take that show on the road. What inspired you to become a public speaker?

A: I think I have a story to tell and it’s not just a story to tell to young entrepreneurs to think about what they maybe have to plan for or what they didn’t know they needed to a plan for, or even HR leaders. It’s also for the founders and presidents and CEOs of businesses out there that have bought into the philosophies that we’ve been told to buy into; that it’s all about shareholder value, it’s all about revenue. It’s not! You can have it all. You can have that, but you can also have everything else. You can have an environment of happiness and wellness. You can have an environment where people feel they can flourish.

In fact, it’s a testament to the latter that your profitability, EBITDA, topline revenue and growth, whatever you want to call it, can be impacted in an incredibly positive way. I have yet to see an ROI in my business like this before, so yeah, I want to get out there and tell other leaders they you can do this.

The reason why I feel the need to speak is because I feel like too many people bought into the old principles where people were considered last. When did it ever become acceptable to say things like, “Don’t take it personally, it’s just business.” Of course it’s personal! Let’s empower people. Let’s take stress out of the environment. We can do that together as leaders.

Q: What do you hope your audience will take away from one of your talks?

A: It’s a great question. One, that I’m just a guy that really is truly authentic and that’s speaking from my heart. That’s one. Two, that if you wish to change your culture, if you wish to establish your culture, it’s not a ping-pong table in your kitchen. It’s not decorating your office with a bunch of happy faces. It’s about you thinking long and hard about what it means when you started the business, or if you are a CEO and you didn’t start it, what it means to lead that business.

What is the personality of that business and once you figure that out, how are you going to authentically communicate that to the ecosystem, to business, to all of the teammates within your business, and I think I can communicate effective ways to approach that.

Q: One final question; just before you go on stage, what do you do to pump yourself up?

A: (Laughs) Okay, okay, so, for those who know me, they know I don’t really have to do anything to pump myself up. Usually I’m trying to pump myself down (laughs). Ya, I get pretty excited. I remember after one lengthy 3 1/2 hour public appearance, I found myself trying to decompress underneath a board table in an office. That’s post-presentation. Ya, I don’t have to do it to get geared up.

I’m trying to settle myself down to stay focused – because I couldn’t be more enthusiastic and passionate about this topic.