“One of the most human-first leaders you’ll find anywhere in the startup community.”
That was how Sean Byrnes was introduced to Patrick Ewers by a mutual connection, and this interview reveals why.
In this visionary human first leadership interview, Sean shares three keys to creating a thriving corporate culture and unlock the best from teams while building successful, responsive, resilient organizations that demonstrate agile leadership.
Patrick also shares how collaborative leadership can help create something more fulfilling. As the founder and CEO of Mindmaven, Patrick shares how strategic leadership can free up 10-12 hours a week. Patrick said, “More importantly, we utilize that time to get people to invest in relationships.
“We think that you won’t be able to find a single person who has been able to reach their fullest potential without help from others. It’s a state that doesn’t exist.”
Patrick was pleased to introduce his distinguished guest, Sean Byrnes, founder of Flurry and Outlier, for this high-performance human first leadership discussion on creating a thriving corporate culture. Patrick said that what was most interesting was Sean’s “fantastic story about why you started those companies.” Let’s find out more.
How and Why I Got Started in the Startup World
“I didn’t have this dream of putting better charts or graphs in front of people or processing data at larger volumes. I was just frustrated that all the jobs I looked at and all the jobs I had – they didn’t really treat the employees as people.
I didn’t feel like anyone saw me as a person. They saw me as a widget or a robot. They would give me a salary and I would hand them back productivity.
I wanted to work somewhere that saw me as a person, where I could grow, be creative, challenge myself, evolve, and be open and communicate. Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to work in a place like that, I had to start it myself. There aren’t a lot of places like that in the world. That’s how I got started in the startup world.”
Sean said that the motivating factor for all the companies he’s started was the idea that “I just wanted to create jobs that I would want.”
Patrick: When you started out, what were a few of the things that you did differently, and what did you learn?
Sean replied, “The benefit of being a multi-time founder is that you get to try these things multiple times … For example, I’ve always believed strongly that diversity is important for companies. I grew up in New York – a very diverse place. So when I started Flurry, I was always very uncomfortable in rooms that were very homogeneous. So, I hired a diverse team. I couldn’t have told you why. I just felt like it was the right thing to do.”
Over time, through Flurry, I realized that because we had a more diverse team, we had more creative ideas, and we were more resilient. There was a lot of ability to overcome grit. Flurry became the kind of company that when the financial crisis hit, we survived and thrived in a world where many other companies were failing around us.
Those lessons became the foundation of [my second company] Outlier. There, diversity was a core strategic initiative – we realized that a more diverse team can be more successful. There, I had reasons I could explain to you why it was important.”
Sean spoke about the difference between being a first-time and second-time founder and the benefits and challenges of each, especially around human-first culture and optimism. He explained:
“Your team looks to you as a leader. If you’re optimistic, they’ll be optimistic. If you’re cynical, they’ll be cynical.”
Sean said, “In the end, the reality of companies – they’re all made of people, and people don’t change. So I think if you can get better at the startup journey over time, what it means is that you’re getting better with the people in the business.”
Patrick dived deeper into this example of authentic leadership with his next question. “So the first time, you had diversity sort of by accident, and in your second startup, you intentionally built diversity into the business.
Did you end up having the same experience, or was there a difference?”
Sean said, “In terms of the benefits, it was the same overall. What I found eventually was that if you can create a really healthy team that can include diversity, it can include transparency, communication, but also an aspect of respect.
Do people respect you? Do you respect them?
If you can create that nugget of a team, it becomes a little bit like a self-perpetuating cycle where it pulls in more people who want to be respected and seen as a person who values these sorts of things.
A lot of people think about organizations and people as this system where I have to create a recruiting process and squeeze a bunch of people on top of my funnel. Hopefully, enough people will come out of the bottom of the funnel, and I grow my team. I think about it differently.
If you can create that central core that represents what you want to be, it becomes gravity; it starts to pull people in.”
Being Your Authentic Self
Sean asked Patrick, “You’ve worked with lots of companies. Have you found that to be true?”
Patrick explained, “There is a big craving right now” to work differently. When you invest so much of your time and commit your life to something, “you want to enjoy doing it. You want to do it in a way that doesn’t feel effortful but is actually fulfilling.
Many work environments are actually environments where you almost cannot be yourself. When you can’t be yourself, you have to put up something else, which costs a lot of mental and physical energy. It takes away from the pure enjoyment you can have when you work with a team where you can truly be yourself.”
Patrick asked Sean, “Have you noticed, when leading more diverse teams, that people feel more capable of being themselves – is that a benefit you saw?”
Sean answered, “I did; I don’t think it was directly because of diversity, though. I think that the same attitudes and approaches that lead to a more diverse team are probably more the cause of an environment where people can be themselves. For example, being transparent.
People can’t trust you unless you trust them first.
- Are you going to be transparent as a leader?
- Are you going to share things that are uncomfortable with them?
- Do you trust that they can understand in terms of communication?
- Do you accept feedback from the team, or are they not allowed to critique or criticize you?
- Do you take that feedback and do something with it, or do you just throw it away?
These aspects of how you lead create that environment.”
“The Best Job I’ve Ever Had!”
“There were many people at Outlier that described it as the best job they’ve ever had,” Sean said. “It wasn’t because the business was the best, fastest-growing business ever. It wasn’t that it made them all rich or because we paid the best. In some ways, it was the first time they started to see an organization that worked differently and was willing to go the extra mile.
I think that is, unfortunately, far too rare. We celebrate the grind and the ability to persevere, but a lot of people have never seen the alternative. They’ve never seen a company that’s well-functioning and treats their employees with respect and trust.” Sean continued.
“My experience is once you open their eyes, all of a sudden they realize that they can be more demanding, not just in the job you’re giving them, but the future jobs they might have because now they know that it’s not asking too much.
“Whereas before, they were like, This is a job, and I’m supposed to be miserable in my job. So it’s ok to be miserable. It’s ok that the company lies to me. All of a sudden, you show them a different world, and it opens up doors.”
Patrick: “Before I respond, I want to dig in deeper – what you just said has to be a dream for many of the people listening – how does that look pragmatically? What, besides diversity, transparency, and trust, have you done that you think is fundamentally different from the archetype?”
Authentic Leadership: What Is Fundamentally Different?
Sean revealed, “One of the challenges of leadership is that even if you get coaching, even if you do 360s, you don’t see many aspects of your personal leadership style because they’re part of who you are.
It’s difficult to compare yourself with other leaders – I’ve been a CEO for many years, so it’s been a long time since I’ve worked for another CEO.”
“One thing I believe that I do differently involves radical transparency.”
“Everything in the company – the good news, the bad news, the performance, everybody else’s performance – is available. Everybody can see it at all times. This takes a lot of intestinal fortitude because you have to trust that your team will take bad news and not freak out and quit and find a new job.”
3 Keys To Creating a Thriving Corporate Culture Through Human First Leadership
Sean shared these key strategies for creating a thriving corporate culture through relationship-driven leadership.
#1. Transparency in Corporate Culture
Patrick: “Do you have an example of radical transparency you could share?”
Sean: “In the early days of all my companies, all compensation for everybody who worked there was available for everybody to see. You could see what everybody else was being paid and how much equity they had. Once the company scales up to a certain point, that is not logistically possible, but in the early days, we were radically transparent about compensation.
A lot of leaders are afraid of that because they’re worried that someone won’t like how much they’re being paid or that someone else is making more.”
“Transparency forces you to a higher standard. You can’t cut corners. You have to live up to whatever ideals you’re putting forth because everybody can see if you’re lying.”
#2. Empowerment in Corporate Culture
“A related approach is empowerment – having the confidence to let your team solve problems in a way that is different from how you would solve the problem. It’s much more common for leaders to instruct their team, “Here’s how I want you to solve it.” Sean explained.
“I want my team to find the best solution, even if it’s something that wouldn’t occur to me or even if I think it’s a bad idea on the surface. You need to let your team have a lot of slack. Maybe they make mistakes, maybe they should have done it the way you wanted, but most of the time, I find they surprise you by finding innovative solutions that wouldn’t be obvious.
When you do that, all of a sudden, the team is like, wow – I’ve never really been given the chance to show what I can do before. I’ve never been treated like a person who has their own ideas . . . I’ve been waiting years to show how I think they can work!” Sean shared his experience.
“Human-focused leadership really unlocks a whole new side of people in a way that I’ve always found really magical.”
Empowering Leadership in Action
Sean shared a real-life example. “One of my employees at Flurry wrote a great blog post describing my leadership style as “making him race death matches against himself.“
Flurry built analytics and advertising tools for people who made iPhone and Android apps and games. This space was challenging because new phones come out all the time, and app platforms are constantly changing, so we needed to design our approach to keep up with those changes and stay on the cutting edge.
I had some ideas of how we could design our developer experience to get there but wanted to empower the team. So, I told them: I think I know how I would do this, but I don’t care about that. I want you to tell me how you’re going to do this. How are we going to keep up with how fast phones are coming out and how fast platforms are changing?
To me, that sounded like I was empowering the team to solve the issue. But to them, it seemed like a test. Sean knows the answer. We don’t know the answer. We’ve got to go figure this out. In some ways, they reported this to be intimidating, but in some ways, they found it liberating.
The solution the team came up with ended up being very different from the way I would have done it, but it was vastly successful. At its peak, Flurry was working with two million apps, which was about 98% of the top thousand apps in a given category. Flurry was a dominant platform, and a lot of that was because of those ideas that were not mine and never would have occurred to me.”
Patrick asked, “How and why would the people who followed you feel like that approach made the experience more human?”
“At some point, the question is if you want to be seen as a human,” Sean replied.
“If you’re working with a robot, you tell it exactly what to do and how to do it – every step of the way. I’m not criticizing them, but there are many jobs like that, where the human is essentially an instruction system where you give a set of instructions, and this is what it does.
On the other side, you have the pure human aspect of creativity and creation from nothing – art, for example – which is the core human activity.
In the middle is kind of a spectrum; I don’t think there’s a universal answer. Some people would be uncomfortable if you didn’t give them enough structure; other people really want to apply their own choices.
So part of it is realizing that nobody is the same – everybody has a different place they want to be on that spectrum.
- The first part of the solution is to create an environment with flexibility.
- The second part is challenging people in unexpected ways.
So many companies want to hire you because you’ve done something, and they want you to do it again. Only in very rare cases do employers come to you saying: Listen, you’re a person. You can grow. You can learn. Given a new problem, you can probably figure it out. So show us – demonstrate how you can do it! This shouldn’t be a radical concept, but it is.”
“Too often, employers think of employees not as people but as widgets.”
“Their job is to achieve a certain goal, so they assemble a set of widgets in a certain way to achieve a certain outcome.
This approach doesn’t leave room for growth or personal expression or challenges or taking risks – these things that are part of the human experience.”
Patrick: “We’ve talked about transparency, and we’ve talked about empowerment. Is there another aspect of your human-first approach that has a high impact?”
Sean shared the last of his three keys to relationship-driven leadership.
#3 Communication in Corporate Culture
“Think about most organizations – how does communication happen? With one to 10 people, everybody can sit in a room (or on one chat) and communicate. But what happens when it’s 100 people? How does someone in sales talk to someone in engineering?
Typically, a request goes up the ORG chart, across the ORG chart, and down a different ORG chart. That means there is no human connection between the salespeople and the engineering team or the customer success team and the product managers because communication is designed around the ORG chart instead of being designed around the people.
There are functional reasons why you want to do that in terms of making sure leadership is in the loop. But if you can find some ways to let people connect directly, and you trust them and are clear with them that you want them to connect, but don’t want to create multi-layer “shadow” processes, then “all of a sudden they become owners of the organization . . . instead of worrying about managing the bureaucracy of how communication is supposed to flow, they can be empowered to figure out better ways to make communication flow.”
Patrick: “Can you tell us some specific steps you’ve taken to encourage this kind of communication?”
Sean replied, “In every company I’ve ever worked at, this is what ends up happening because of this ORG chart process. There’s this one person, and she’s the expert in one process. And so if you have a problem, you know, you talk to Sally because Sally is the one who figures this out because the actual process is too onerous – everybody just knows Sally is the person.
All of a sudden, Sally is overwhelmed. There was a great case of this with an airline – there was a woman whose job was to translate all of the maintenance records into the specific codes for what maintenance needed to be done on the planes – she was just the person who did it.
When she retired, there was nobody to fill it in, and they had no record of how she had done it. She had always been that person. Nobody remembered a time before she was that person. All of a sudden, they couldn’t really do maintenance in the same way anymore. And it became a big challenge.
Whereas if you give your team ownership and say, listen, we don’t want the weight of the world on Sally’s shoulders because she has to answer every question, then all of a sudden, they start thinking about this.
- If we were Sally, how would we want it to work?
- How would we want the team to work together?
- How can we make sure that people understand why you shouldn’t just look for Sally anymore?
- Maybe I shouldn’t always say, “Oh, go talk to Sally.”
- Maybe I should ask Sally so I can start to inherit some of her knowledge and answer it for you next time.
By trusting people, we were able to remove these kinds of “oracle” problems because everybody in that team has ownership of it.
Instead of just handing it off or looking for shortcuts in the bureaucracy, you think, hey, how can we work together and build something better?”
“That ownership only happens if people really feel empowered.”
The Human-First Solution to a Thriving Corporate Culture
Patrick asked Sean to wrap up with a pragmatic tip on being a human-first leader. “What’s the one thing you would recommend that everybody do to help people feel like they’re not a widget but a human?”
Sean: “The best thing you can possibly do is be very intentional about life.”
A lot of people are used to the grind: I have a job, and the job is giving me tasks. I achieve those tasks, and I hope I’ll get promoted.
They focus on the grind instead of sitting down and saying:
- Ok, what is the best that I can do?
- Where do I need to grow and improve?
- Can I have a discussion with my company about not just what they want from me but what I want from them and where I want to go?
Everybody asks the generic question: where do you see yourself in five years? A better way to think is:
This is what I’m good at today, and this is what I want to be good at tomorrow. Is there a way for us to make that part of my job, so I can feel like I’m growing at the same time I’m doing my job?”
Sean continued, “I think this is the great failure of most companies – they use performance reviews to devolve people into numbers. We should elevate people above that and say, listen, just like the organization is asking things of you, you can ask things of the organization.
You can say these are the ways I want to grow, and the organization, in return, can ask you about ways that you need you to grow.”
“You know who has conversations? People have conversations.”
“If we create a conversation, you’re not a number anymore. You’re not just an algorithm; all of a sudden, you’re a person in a conversation with the organization, and they’re going to see you in a way that was difficult when you were a number.”
Patrick agreed. “Yes! And I think the powerful thing about that is that within the organization, people will feel understood. They will feel that people understand them and that people listen. When you listen, you give one of the ultimate gifts that a human can give to another human: feeling like they’re being heard. Sean, thank you so much for being here – this was an awesome conversation!”
Sean: “These conversations are important . . . the more of us that can talk about these things, the more we can open people’s eyes and hopefully show the world that there is a different way of operating that is better in a lot of ways.” If you would like to hear more from Sean, his podcast is called: The Startup Help Desk Podcast.
Continue The Conversation …
This interview is part of a series of Human First Leadership articles designed to share top tips and strategic insights for high-performance leadership, personal growth, and development. These include interviews with human-first leaders Nick Mehta, Gainsight CEO, and Noah Glass, Olo CEO.
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