March 29, 2022

Greg Harris

Greg Harris:

Winning happens when we get good at the hardest things.  

Announcer:

Welcome to Agency for Change, a podcast from KidGlov that brings you the stories of changemakers who are actively working to improve our communities. In every episode, we’ll meet with people who are making a lasting impact in the places we call home.

Lyn Wineman:

“The economic value of employee feedback is probably equal to or greater than input from customers. Feedback drives employee engagement, which drives customer engagement. Engaged employees create better product, sell more product and service customers more effectively.” Hey, everyone. This is Lyn Wineman, president and chief strategist at KidGlov. Welcome to another episode of Agency for Change podcast. The quote that I read earlier is from today’s guest, Greg Harris, CEO of Quantum Workplace, an Omaha-based tech company that has pioneered some of the earliest employee engagement and performance software in the country. They’re also associated with Best Places to Work. Greg, welcome to the podcast.

Greg Harris:

Thank you, Lyn. Thrilled to be here.

Lyn Wineman:

I would love to have you explain the economic value of employee feedback. I read that great quote from you in the intro and would just like to hear a little bit more about that.

Greg Harris:

Yeah. I think of feedback, there’s a cliche. I didn’t invent the cliche, but people say feedback is a gift. And a lot of times in our communication, whether it’s a personal communication, family communication, at work communication, we think of feedback as a curse. It automatically can flare defense mechanisms. But feedback is a gift. Whether it’s from a customer or from an employee, when we get feedback, chances are that insight is either helping us affirm something that we’re doing really well, or it’s helping us identify something where an improvement can be made. That is information. Information can deliver insight. And insight is economic value.

Greg Harris:

The collective insight of multiple touchpoints of multiple employee ideas is currency. There is economic value to that. I think of going to a restaurant. You go to Panera. What’s the first thing that they do when you transact, and they give you a receipt? It takes you to a survey, and you can take that. Consumer brands figured out the economic value of feedback decades ago. They’re probably 10 to 15 years ahead of employers thinking about these types of feedback loops in our systems. But that is why our company exists. That’s what Quantum Workplace does.

Lyn Wineman:

Greg, I have used that quote before, “Feedback is a gift.” Sometimes I’ve used it when I’m trying to encourage people to have fierce conversations. Sometimes I’ve used it with gritted teeth, reminding myself feedback is a gift. So I appreciate that. So can you tell us a bit more about what Quantum is, who you serve and what your mission is as an organization?

Greg Harris:

Absolutely. We are in the business of making work better every day. We do that by operating a web application that we’ve built that employers use to collect, to analyze and to act on voice of the employee. So the things that our systems do that people know the best, like an engagement survey, a pulse survey, an exit survey, performance conversations. So 10 years ago you may have called that a performance review. Chances are your workplace has come into the current generation, a modern era, and you’re not doing annual reviews anymore. You’re spreading those hard conversations out, having them multiple times throughout the year. We have a digital one-on-one product that helps managers facilitate, document, plan for those types of conversations. So Quantum Workplace sells this web application to HR departments, to companies all over North America, mostly North America, there’s a little bit of international business in there. And these are organizations that have usually between probably 250 employees all the way up to tens of thousands of employees.

Lyn Wineman:

Wow. So every business leader I know, Greg, right now is struggling with employee recruitment and retention. My husband and I were having a conversation the other day. We were driving down the street, and every business we passed had a banner out that said, “Now hiring.” And I just was like, no kidding, everyone is hiring right now. What would you say is the key to a business’ success in the area of hiring and retention?

Greg Harris:

Yeah. This is a huge question; it is the question of the hour. There’s never been a time in my 25-year career and our 20-year history as a business where employee retention is mission number one of every organization. C-suites, boards of directors, this is mission critical conversations that people are happening. And there are a million reasons for that. There probably aren’t a million, there are probably four or five really good reasons for that. But the interesting thing is this reality has always existed. Twenty years ago, there were a small subset of companies that understood that culture, that a company’s cultural fabric was the most sustainable source of competitive advantage it had. But that was a small contingency of companies that were like that. In each five-year period that passes, that cadre of companies has grown. We’ve been saying things like, “Our people are our most important resource” for a long time, but more and more we’ve finally tipped, the threshold has tipped where the majority of companies not only give verbal assent to that idea, but they are actually acting in a way where that is true.

Greg Harris:

So to think about there are social reasons, there are cultural reasons, there are health reasons in the last two years that have created this phenomenon that we know as the great resignation. It is real. People are quitting their jobs in numbers that they never have before. And The Wall Street Journal ran a really good piece two weeks ago that made it really clear, these aren’t just hourly high school, college, young people either. We go to the fast-food joint or the fast casual place, and their drive through is open but their kitchen is not, their dining room is not because they can’t hire and keep talent. Yes, that is a challenge too. But we’re seeing this all the way up to the C-suite also. People are asking themselves hard questions about where they want to live, what they want to do, who they want to work with, who they want to spend time with. There is something about all of the social and global and work change, the life change that we’ve gone through in the last two years that’s driven that.

Greg Harris:

But I’ve always said, consistent through the 20 years that we’ve been in this category, helping invent this category of HR technology, we’ve said that retention and engagement are a component of three things: a person’s connection to their team, connection to their workplace and the mission of that workplace, the company itself, and the connection to their manager. Sometimes we try to simplify that three-step equation. We try to pick one or the other. But frankly, all humans are going to have some varying list amount of connection on those three things.

Greg Harris:

And if I’ve altered that answer at all in the last two years, it’s simply to add one word to those three things, and it’s “care.” It’s an employer will drive retention and they will drive engagement. If they want their employees to care about their work and their workplace, they have to first show that the employer cares. So how is the employer connecting care to the employees’ work, to the employees’ relationship with their manager, the employer’s mission. There aren’t that many words to describe that. Now the real work is wildly difficult to do and to do consistently, but that’s why we recognize the companies that do it the best.

Lyn Wineman:

It does sound so simple on the surface. And I would say most companies I know of speak to the fact that their people are the difference makers. But when the rubber meets the road, and you’re actually putting that into practice, it is hard work. And I could see where the tools that you provide really help organizations do that. I told you before we started the podcast today that I’m kind of a super fan of Quantum Workplace, not a crazy stalker, just a super fan, because I’m really like the Best Places to Work program. KidGlov has participated for several years.

Lyn Wineman:

And initially we did it because I wanted the accolade. I wanted the seal of approval. But once we did it, and we got the gift of the feedback that you provide back, we’ve actually started to say it doesn’t matter anymore. Well, it matters a little bit. I’ll feel hurt if we don’t win. But getting that feedback is really so valuable, and the way that you pull it together, I think, is valuable. So this is a good point for me to mention that I think you actually designed the first city-by-city best places to work. And I read on your website that in the last 18 years, that has included surveys of over 135,000 companies. Can you talk more about the program, the idea behind it and how companies can get involved if they haven’t been?

Greg Harris:

Yeah, no, Lyn, I appreciate that question. That’s a huge source of pride for us as an organization. Quantum Workplace started, I mean, the idea in 2004 was, “Hey,” and I give credit to the organization that planted this seed there. Fortune Magazine had been for a few years publishing a national list of best places to work, and they did a good job with that. And it was us that started scratching our head, saying, “You know what, though? Recruitment is a local sport.”

Greg Harris:

To the extent that the media attention around those lists is driving decisions about where to work and where not to work, that’s a recruitment and an engagement story, and that happens locally. People usually choose the market they want to live in, and then they choose the work that they want to do in that market. So we said, “Hey, what if we started collecting this data, analyzing this data and publishing these lists on a local basis? Can we find the media partners that will want to tell those stories?” And it’s really easy in normal business media and the front page of newspapers to find and catch companies messing up, lawsuits, failure-

Lyn Wineman:

Yeah. Those stories are out there.

Greg Harris:

They’re out there. So what if we helped create content to catch organizations that really have their priorities right? And it turned out that wasn’t a crazy idea, that we are 18 years now into the partnership that we have with 45 different media outlets, and we are doing our best to tell those stories. So for those 135,000 companies represented there, that is millions and millions of voices that we’ve captured and analyzed to create those scores.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s amazing. I mean really, when you think about how much time you spend at work each week, anything you can do to make it a better environment, I think, just has a ripple effect on impacting people’s lives. Those people go home and they interact with their kids. They go to grocery stores and interact with people in the stores, their neighbors. I think it all has a great ripple effect. So, big question here. Can you give us any inside pointers on how to become a Best Places to Work?

Greg Harris:

The three magic steps. That would make a great blog post headline.

Lyn Wineman:

The big secret.

Greg Harris:

That’s right. That’s right. What makes some workplaces better than others is a lot of times the distance between an employee’s expectation of the workplace and the reality. So we do a disservice sometimes if we focus on the idea of best practice. “If we do this, we will get this.” More often than not, the people that we bring into our organization, the better we are at communicating what values, what is truly sacred within our organization. If we have five values printed on the wall and we don’t live, it will only take a matter of days, not a matter of months or years for new employees coming in to know how real those are and how consistently they are. So communicating those values and being consistent to those values, not making promises that you know you can’t back up really, really matters.

Greg Harris:

I think culture is, it’s how we pay people, it’s how we hire people, it’s how we promote people. It is all of these decisions combined into one. And the ability for us to communicate strategy in a way that keeps people focused on the horizon is part of that culture. These are care, we talked about care earlier. Care is not just the familial element. There are really cutthroat organizations that make their way into our best places to work list. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies and soft talk. But it is gathering up people that share the same values, that are valuing, that are capturing the diverse ideas and the diverse backgrounds of people, but keeping them focused on a very small number of goals and values. Keep coming back to that idea of values.

Greg Harris:

I’ll touch on one thought. Best places to work are really good at telling stories and creating what I will call cultural artifacts. So this is where I want to be really careful because I was quoted, this goes back maybe nine or 10 years, and it was an interview I did with the Atlanta daily newspaper, when I said something about ping pong tables or beer fridges, and all of a sudden, “Oh, that’s tactical. I know how I can create a good workplace. I need a ping pong table.”

Greg Harris:

Being the best places to work has nothing to do with any device. It is having an artifact of that culture. If fun is the value, if reveling in work is your value, then there should be some cultural artifacts. A year ago, we had revel in work is something that we in one of our four core values. And what that means to us is we enjoy, we want to hire people that actually want to enjoy and revel in the work that they are doing. And they’re willing to have fun while they’re doing work. A year ago, we hired, I hired improv comic to join an all hands Zoom call.

Lyn Wineman:

That sounds like fun.

Greg Harris:

And I introduced him as the new head of internal training at Quantum Workplace. And he went off on this bit where he was pretending all this fake motivational, it was like motivational speaking gone bad. And it was hilarious. And I still spontaneously laugh about it today. Two weeks ago, I brought in for Valentine’s Day, we brought in a capuchin monkey. I mean, who doesn’t do that?

Greg Harris:

But I wanted to create an experience where a monkey handed out Valentine’s Day candy. So those, in my mind, are artifacts, are cultural artifacts. They support the idea that we want to create memories, that we want to create experiences that people talk about. They are the things that 10 years ago when Google was introducing gourmet lunches, that was a new idea. That was a novel idea. And it actually probably did drive retention and engagement. But when somebody, again, a consultant goes out and tells 1,000 organizations to create gourmet lunches for everybody, it loses that artifact nature.

Lyn Wineman:

Yeah. It’s not special to you anymore. Yeah.

Greg Harris:

That’s right. So it’s almost like finding those one or two things that you can do with some level on some cadence to really create stories that people will talk about to their friends and family.

Lyn Wineman:

I love that so much. KidGlov a few years ago, we hit our 10-year anniversary. And we did a survey of our people because it’s like, “Hey, we’re growing up as a company. Maybe we need to do, we need a ping pong table.” And our people were great. They told us they just really wanted a great place to do their work with people they liked working with. They wanted to have fun while they were there, and then they wanted to go home. They wanted to enjoy time with their family and their hobbies and to have some work-life balance. And it was great that we asked because I think we could have put in a lot of things that would have been a distraction. So Greg, I understand Quantum is actually celebrating your 20th anniversary. So congratulations. And how has it been building a nationally recognized tech company right here in Omaha?

Greg Harris:

I love Omaha. Omaha has been so good to Quantum Workplace. Omaha is, we have 120 people right now.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s great.

Greg Harris:

70% of those people are in Omaha. So it’s not 100%, but it is our largest outpost. And it’s real. It’s not cliche. The Midwest has something special. There is a work ethic here that you can’t find in other places. So building an employee base of people that really want to dig in and solve a problem and are bought into the idea of a mission that makes work better every day has been … it has not been easy, but it has been easier in Omaha, I think, than it might have in other markets.

Greg Harris:

Building a tech firm in the Midwest, we don’t have the access to venture capital that Boston or San Francisco or the Bay area might. The Bay area is really good at building big companies fast. The Midwest, and I would put Omaha at the center of that is really good at building companies that last, building enduring, durable. And durability is the word I keep coming back to. And that’s the 20-year story. We could have been on one of the coasts, and we could have been a flash in the pan. And it’s more of a binary outcome. You’re either going to make it and make it big, or you’re going to go to zero. So it probably, we’re a Crockpot, Omaha’s a Crockpot of tech businesses.

Lyn Wineman:

I love that.

Greg Harris:

It might take a few years longer, but my goodness, they are delicious and they are durable, and the risk-reward ratio is in our favor in Omaha, Nebraska.

Lyn Wineman:

That is fantastic. Last week we talked on this podcast with Tony Goins, the director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. We need to call him back and give him that Crockpot analogy. I think that’s what he needs to sell Nebraska to the rest of the company. Greg, I’d love to hear a bit more about your journey, the decision to start and grow in Omaha. And I’m even just curious, I’m wondering, did young Greg, were you on a playground telling people, “When I grow up, I want to be a leader in employee feedback software?”

Greg Harris:

In the ’80s and ’90s when I grew up, employee feedback software was not a category. It wasn’t a-

Lyn Wineman:

Nobody even dreamed that that was a thing.

Greg Harris:

Yeah. No. There were companies in the ’80s and ’90s that did the work. They were professional services firms. And they would go into companies, the way that a team of anthropologists would go into a new country and study culture. So that idea existed. It’s just didn’t exist in technology form. But that’s also one of the reasons that we started what we started in 2003 and the reason it caught on. I did my college years, I went to Nebraska Wesleyan.

Lyn Wineman:

Great school, great school here in Nebraska.

Greg Harris:

Love it, I love it. And I was aimed at law school. I wanted to study law. I wanted to practice law. I was a political science major. So I was in the social sciences. And in my mind as an 18, 19-year-old kid, I was really interested in the science of leadership. So law school to starting a business that collects employee feedback, in some ways I look at the employee survey as being to the organization what the ballot box is to a democracy. So there is a connection there, the idea that the collective intelligence of a large group of people is smarter than any single person or small team is there’s a connection there. But I never studied a single course in business. Never took a single business course.

Greg Harris:

So in 2002, when I was working in starting to activate on a new business plan, I was so far in over my head that I just wasn’t smart enough for somebody to say, “Gee, this is my odds of success here are really low.” I worked in the investment management business for four or five years. And actually, I don’t tell this story very often, and it would be another hour-long podcast interview to fully tell it, but I got fired. I got fired in 2001 in the investment management business. I had been working on three different business plans. And so there are times when the entrepreneurial story starts out of necessity. Sometimes they start because the idea is so brilliant. In my case, it was necessity, and I was thrown into the entrepreneur path a little earlier than the business plan probably supported.

Lyn Wineman:

Sometimes that’s good. You have to get out there and sink or swim, right? There’s no fallback.

Greg Harris:

No, that’s exactly right. So I wanted to create, connecting the dots between the social science in studying and analyzing leadership effectiveness, which in my mind, in my 19-year-old mind I thought came from societal, positional authority, governments, and to working in the real world in a business environment for four or five years realizing, oh, actually the workplace and the enterprise is where real leadership starts and is grown and where resources are created that fund really great ideas. The original idea was, “Hey, let’s understand how managers, what separates great workplaces from bad workplaces. Let’s capture data and let’s sell it to investment managers, so that they can make buy or sell decisions on investments.”

Lyn Wineman:

Ah, yeah. Interesting, right? Because early on, getting a company to buy into this I imagine would have to be difficult.

Greg Harris:

Yeah. Three or four years in, when I was still making a lot of sales calls, people would ask, “Why would I want to know what my employees think?” Even if you thought that today, you wouldn’t say that audibly.

Lyn Wineman:

You wouldn’t say that out loud.

Greg Harris:

I’ve heard that many, many times in our 20-year path, but that was the original thought. That was the original idea. We got really good at the data collection. We got really good at the analytics. We never really found an economic buyer for the data on Wall Street. So we pivoted, built out an analytics reporting engine and turned the data back over to the HR departments, with which we were collecting the data and said, “Hey, make magic with the voices and the data that you’ve already captured.” And that is, takes us to 2003. Rest is history.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s great. I love that story and I love how you believed in this cause. I think that’s fantastic. I want to ask you one more question about you, Greg, because I know you are a very busy business leader. You’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I mean, heck, you’ve got all these Best Places to Work going and product development and markets. But I know you also take time to be the chair of the board of directors for the Special Olympics of Nebraska, which I think is amazing and speaks to who you are as a leader in the community. But can you share why you are passionate about that particular cause and how people might be able to get involved in it as well?

Greg Harris:

No, I appreciate this question. Special Olympics is and has been for a very long time near and dear to my heart. So I’ve been involved formally with the board of directors of Special Olympics Nebraska for six years, but I have been informally involved for 30, maybe more years.

Lyn Wineman:

Oh, my. Wow.

Greg Harris:

My oldest brother has an intellectual disability. He’s 54 now. And I remember being in elementary school and I remember him competing in the summer games. And I remember volunteering for his practice teams throughout the year during those times. But over that 30, 35-year period, seeing the joy that my brother, Jeff, got from competing, seeing the confidence that he created, seeing the routine of him having and trying to get better at something is really what has been so motivating to me. There are 8,000 people in the state of Nebraska with intellectual disabilities that are engaging with Special Olympics in some format or another. In May every year when my brother’s running the 100 or the four by one or throwing the javelin … I have competition in my top five. I play to win and I want him to win. And so I’m giving him little pep talks between each competition. And he’s thinking, “Man, I just love the roar of the crowd.”

Lyn Wineman:

I just want to have fun, right?

Greg Harris:

Yeah. He’s like, “Hey, I’m just here because of those several hundred people that are cheering or cheering for me. And this is what I do it for.” And he is super excited about the ice cream that we go get afterwards.

Lyn Wineman:

I love that. That is so great.

Greg Harris:

But I’ve seen how it has transformed families. I’ve seen how it’s transformed schools. Probably more than anything in the last five years, Special Olympics Nebraska has been really dialed into creating unified teams, where people with intellectual disabilities are competing and practicing with people without. We have basketball teams, basketball games that are happening in high schools today that are mixed between intellectual disabilities and those without, and they’re playing with one another. And they are having huge school assemblies where all students are watching these games happen. The inclusion that has come about, I’ve seen my own kids, my own teenage kids interacting with people with disabilities in a way that didn’t happen when I was growing up. And that is just how it is. But the inclusion, the value, the dignity that’s come from that is it’s, you’re going to make me cry, Lyn.

Lyn Wineman:

I am not Barbara Walters. I do not like to make people cry, Greg. But I’m seeing a correlation here between your professional work and your community service and your passion for making people’s lives better. And I think that is really a great pursuit wherever you can find it. So all right, Greg, I started today our intro with a quote from a blog post that you wrote on the economic value of feedback. But people who listen to the podcast know my favorite question is to ask you for an original motivational quote. So I’m looking for Greg Harris’ words of wisdom.

Greg Harris:

If it’s an inspirational quote, I have to really evaluate every word that I choose for this. When you were asking, Lyn, about what makes a great workplace, what separates the best place to work from anything else, and I was talking about care, and I was talking about cultural artifacts, the theme that all of those tactical ideas roll up to is probably what I would want my answer to be. And it’s what I tell my 11-person management team here. It’s the idea that, and I probably have different words to communicate it whenever, as many times as I communicate it, but it’s the idea that winning happens when we get good at the hardest things.

Lyn Wineman:

“Winning happens when we get good at the hardest things.” That is really great. Can you expand on that? What does that mean to you?

Greg Harris:

If we’re making product, if we’re in a meeting to figure out how to improve our marketing strategy, if we are having a talent meeting, the question that we ask ourselves, and I think it’s a mistake a lot of times, but we try to say, “What’s the hard path and what’s the easiest path?” And there is a temptation that to sometimes gravitate towards the easy path. But easy doesn’t … This is why Americans and probably the globe has such an infatuation with athletics because athletics are this picture of discipline and hard work, and then equating to competition and then equating to winning. Getting good at the hardest things is the best competitive strategy ever. Sometime, when one of the kids in the Harris house says, “That’s hard” or “That’s too hard,” that’s a trigger for me every time. Because things that are hard … starting a business is really hard.

Lyn Wineman:

It’s hard.

Greg Harris:

But you know what?

Lyn Wineman:

But it’s worth it.

Greg Harris:

That is why it is so worth it and so valuable. And so, hard, we should just know that hard will repel a lot of people. And therefore to the extent that we can be drawn towards hard and get good at hard, we know we will get outsized outcomes.

Lyn Wineman:

That’s beautiful. I’m going to thank my father right now for making me do all the extra credit problems in my math book.

Greg Harris:

I love that.

Lyn Wineman:

So Greg, for our listeners who would like to learn more about your work or how they can participate in the best places to work, how can they find out more about Quantum Workplace?

Greg Harris:

You bet. QuantumWorkplace.com is going to be the best resource. That’s Q-U-A-N-T-U-MWorkplace.com. That’s going to talk about who we are in terms of a culture, in terms of the job openings that we have available. It’s going to talk about the products, the digital tools that we have to help managers drive better workplace outcomes. It’s going to have a resource. We have a resource page there that has blog posts and articles and white papers. And we have a whole research team that is writing cool things, that will talk much smarter than I will on this hour-long conversation and get into really hard topics. And that resource is available. There’s no paywall there. It might take an email address to access some of those resources, but that’s one of the biggest resources. And then there is a Best Places to Work page that we’ll talk about 45 different lists that we create and the timelines for all of those. So that’s a great resource as well. QuantumWorkplace.com.

Lyn Wineman:

Fantastic. We’ll make sure we have that in the show notes, Greg. And I do want to say, I did come across your resource page and your blog. There’s some really good stuff in there. I would highly recommend it. So Greg, as we wrap up our time together today, I really appreciate this conversation. What is the most important thing you would like our listeners to remember about the work that you’re doing?

Greg Harris:

The social change that we talked about at the start, in the first half of our conversation is real, it is going to be sustainable, that workplaces are becoming the leadership vehicles of our modern culture. Edelman does a really cool research piece every single year. I think they just published it. I think it’s January every year. And they have something called the trust barometer, and they have been measuring public trust of our social institutions for decades. And something happened that was interesting two years ago. The public trust of the education system, of politics, of the media has been on the decline for a decade. But there is one category of institution that has taken over the most trusted institution, and that is the workplace.

Lyn Wineman:

Wow.

Greg Harris:

That is an opportunity to be seized. It is for corporate leaders, we have to recognize this, not pat ourselves on the back, and we didn’t really ask for this leadership position in our society, but it is there. And we have to shepherd that influence, I think. So the one idea that I would want people to lead with is that the effort that we put into managing and creating a magnetic workplace isn’t just good for our business. It is good for our society.

Lyn Wineman:

Amen. That whole ripple effect. That is just, just fantastic. Greg, I fully believe the world needs more people like you, more organizations like Quantum and more competitions like the Best Places to Work. I mean seriously, for those of us that are competitors, what a better place to compete in. So thank you for taking time to share with us today.

Greg Harris:

That’s high praise. Thank you, Lyn. I appreciate the stories that you’re elevating through your podcast.

Announcer:

We hope you enjoyed today’s Agency for Change podcast. To hear all our interviews with those who are making a positive change in our communities, or to nominate a changemaker you’d love to hear from, visit KidGlov.com at K-I-D-G-L-O-V.com to get in touch. As always, if you like what you’ve heard today, be sure to rate, review, subscribe, and share. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

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