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Future of Work: Workplace Innovation Secrets with Stephanie Mehta

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About the Episode

What makes the world’s most creative people and companies tick? Stephanie Mehta knows, thanks to her experience as editor-in-chief of Fast Company. While overseeing stories shared by business leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs, she gained great insider knowledge of what makes cutting-edge companies work. Listen now to hear her practical lessons on innovating—from product to process to culture.

Episode Highlights

Meet Our Guest

Stephanie Mehta has spent her career contributing to some of the most well-known magazines in the world. She’s held top positions at Fortune, Vanity Fair, and Fast Company. Now, she holds the position of CEO and Chief Content Officer at Mansueto Ventures, parent company of Inc. and Fast Company. Her ability to find a great story, but tell it in a fresh and captivating way, is what makes her one of the most sought-after writers and editors in the U.S.

Episode Transcript

Lindsay McGuire: Hey, it's Lindsay, host of the Future of Work subseries. So much of what our team at Formstack has been focusing on lately is the future of work,and how we can help facilitate a mindset shift from reactive to proactive. What I mean by that is the future of work isn't something we should be preparing for or reacting to; it's something we should be actively creating within our organizations.

We had a great keynote address on this exact topic from Stephanie Mehta at our practically genius event, we hosted in 2021. As we kick off the future of work series. I want it to highlight Stephanie's insights on the most innovative companies in the world. Stephanie was the editor in chief of fast company magazine, a publication you've probably read many times.

Her role puts her in the position to talk to an incredible range of executives, entrepreneurs, corporate CEOs, and chief sustainability officers. Stephanie has since gone on to become the CEO and chief content officer at fast company's parent organization. As you listen in, she shares how companies can encourage innovation ownership and even failure in order to create their future of work.

Stephanie Mehta: One of the new initiatives I launched at fast company back in 2019 was a ranking called best workplaces for. I was struck by how many of the best places to work lists, focus on perks like free food, bring your pets to Workday onsite, dry cleaning. All of those things feel especially dated now, especially since many people aren't going to the office.

All of us are working from home. Every day is bring your pet to work day. Isn't it. Now a lot of these lists focused on best workplaces for parents, for people of color. There are best small workplaces, best nonprofit workplaces, but no publication had focused on the very thing that actually motivates employees and helps companies retain their very best.

Employees at all levels want to feel like they're making a contribution and that's even more true today as we've endured this truly frightening and devastating health and economic crisis, McKinsey and company found that nearly two thirds of US-based employees said COVID-19 had caused them to reflect on their purpose in life.

And nearly half said they are reconsidering the kind of work that. Specifically because of the pandemic. So we launched the best workplaces for innovators and with our research partner, Accenture, we set out to measure and rank companies, not on the caliber of their cafeteria food, but on the basis of whether or not their cultures enabled employees at all levels to generate and execute on ideas, including the more far-fetched or ambitious.

In 2021, we recognized more than 125 companies and leadership teams. Now, as our research partner, Paul Doherty at Accenture said he wanted to reward workplaces that truly enabled people to be innovative and work together. So what are the secrets of these 120 plus companies? How are they creating cultures that unlock innovation and dare I say genius.

Organization-wide so the best workplaces for innovators have four simple secrets. The best workplaces for innovators empower employees. They forgive failure, they show their work and they include everyone. So let's run through those again, the best workplaces for innovators, empower employees, forgive failure, show their work and include everyone.

I want to share with you the story of Zach Witten. Zach was a young designer working on websites at the American Lebanese Syrian associated charities, or ALSAC. You probably know them as the fundraising arm for St. Jude children's research hospital. And if you're familiar with St. Jude, you know, they have helped drive the survival rate of childhood cancer.

From 20% to 80% and ALSAC covers all costs for treatment, travel housing for patients, families, and all of those who are treated at St. Jude. There's no way to work for ALSAC and not understand its mission, but as Accenture's Paul Doherty noted mission alone is not what inspires employees or makes an organization a great place for innovators.

Employees want to know that they are contributing and. Now at a place like ALSAC St. Jude, it might be very easy to assume that the innovation is the job of the cancer researchers or the teams coming up with groundbreaking treatments for these young patients. But Zach Witten didn't think of himself as just a website designer.

He felt empowered enough by his workplace to think outside of his role. He thought there might be a way to tap into the video gaming community to raise. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a more generous and caring community. Then gamers, unquote Whitten told fast company. So he got the green light from his employer to put together a team and he launched St.

Jude play live, which has raised more than $26 million through small donations during live stream. Gaining. So not only did Whitten get to see his idea through ALSAC actually tapped him to be an innovation mentor. So he was fostering ideas from his peers and he eventually became the organization's director of innovation before moving on to a new leadership.

And that's what stands out about a number of the best workplaces for innovators. Employees are not only encouraged to innovate, but they feel like they have explicit permission to St. Jude has these innovation mentors, Stanley black and Decker, which is another perennial company on the list does. So because it has systems and programs that signal to employees that new ideas are a part of the.

It has a program that I love. The name is called innovation everywhere. And it's great because it implies that innovation is really widespread. And a few years ago, under the auspices of this innovation program and executive assistant was inspired to find a million dollars in costs. Sometimes an innovation culture really proliferates this year.

PepsiCo made our best workplaces for innovators list in part because the company embedded management training software into the game, Minecraft at the suggestion of an employee's child, but no company quite embodies the ethos of employee empowerment, quite like. Netflix. What are the selling business books of last year was called no rules, rules, Netflix, and the culture of re-invention.

And it's written by Reed Hastings, the founder and CEO of Netflix and Aaron Meyer. Who's a professor at NCN. Some of you may remember that about a dozen years ago or so. A slide deck of Netflix's benefits and the description of its culture started making the rounds. And corporate America was pretty shocked to discover that this DVD by mail company and that's what Netflix was at the time had no set vacation policy.

And it also had no spending limits on expenses. Nope. At the time these sounded like incredibly outlandish perks, but here's the thing. Those policies are really perks. Those are about creating what Erin Myers calls a culture of candor, where people are empowered to make decisions and Institute changes quickly.

And yes to innovate. And that culture has given us. Many of Netflix is enduring contributions to video streaming, such as separate accounts for parents and children. Uh, the shows that auto-play, as you're scrolling through them, those all came from employees who felt they had explicit permission to create experiment and even propose wild ideas.

Now, I've got to be honest with you. Not every employer is comfortable with this over the years, I've encountered a lot of executives who blanch at the idea of giving employees too much power, partly because they worry that these employees will disrupt the status quo or they'll rock the boat of this well-oiled machine that is their department or company to which Reed Hastings would probably say good.

C Reed knows a thing or two about. The opposite of empowered employees, a passive workforce, and how that workforce can actually sink your company because it happened to him at pure software, the company he founded before Netflix, he worried about the amount of time his teams were spending on troubleshooting bugs and glitches and solving problems.

So he actually tried to proactively make his systems really full. But as he tells Reed Hoffman in Hoffman's new book, masters of scale, Reed Hastings says what we fail to understand is that by dummy proofing, all the systems. What we ended up with was a system where only dummies wanted to work, which was exactly what happened.

And so the average intellectual level fell and then the market changed and we were unable to adapt to it because we had a bunch of people who valued following the process, put another way. And this is what Hastings admire right in the book. If you give employees more free, Instead of just developing processes to prevent them from exercising their own judgment, they will make better decisions and it's easier to hold them accountable.

Now, Hastings did manage to sell pure software and by most measures it was a business failure, but as we're about to see forgiving failure is actually another way to unlock innovation. In your organization. So another one of our perennial best workplaces for innovators is Workday. The HR finance, and software company, Workday has quietly been transforming the way companies manage their human capital in their payroll.

It spends lavishly on R and D about 30% of revenue. But these aren't the only reasons why Workday makes our ranking. It is because it's culture, doesn't just accommodate trial and error. Workplaces culture actually celebrates it. So Workday holds an internal spelunking conference every year. The name is derived from the exploration of Cades and employees are encouraged to present lessons gleaned from project failures.

Now you'll hear a lot of companies, including Facebook and others. Talk about failing fast and moving on, but our best workplaces for innovators actually encourage employees, including senior leaders to share their short. Now, this has two benefits, mistakes and failures are great. Teachers. Just look at how Reed Hastings built an enduring culture at Netflix based on the lessons he learned from the now defunct pure software.

It also is helpful to hear leaders talk about their failures because it gives employees permission to take the kinds of risks that innovation and genius often. Workday is so unafraid of forgiving failure, that it actually had Peter Diamandis come and speak to their employees about it. Uh, Peter Diamandis is among other things, founder of the X prize, which is this competition that encourages innovators to take huge swings at big problems.

These are the kinds of challenges that almost require inventors to be. Fearless. And here's what Diamandis told the employees of Workday. He said, what kills companies is fear of experimentation and fear of failure. If you're not trying a hundred ideas or even a thousand ideas you'll get stuck or to quote Reid Hoffman who knows a thing or two about innovating, he says scaling is not just a science, but a mindset, a journey that requires equal measures of.

And a willingness to fail. So for companies that means that growth and energy, especially today requires a measure of forgiveness of failure. Employees can't innovate in a culture of fear. Employees also need transparency to innovate management and employees alike need to show their work. And I think we can think about this in both practical terms and cultural terms.

Let's start with the practical. Last year, fast company ran a story about get lab. I met the CEO and founder of this technology company back in 2019. And he brought with him his CMO. And as we're in the meeting, the CMO was talking about how he regularly publishes his marketing decks, even when they are still works in progress and an online platform that the entire company can look at.

And even some outsiders now I was pretty stunned. And frankly, I think he was a little bit stunned to see he had come from another tech company where that kind of public sharing of half completed work was definitely verboten. And I was so surprised by all of this. I immediately assigned a story to one of my writers thinking it was going to be about the method behind this obsessive degree of transparency, which I really didn't understand.

And then. We moved to all remote work and it became very clear to me. See, get lab has actually been 100% remote since its inception in 2011. And they've come to understand what we are all learning, which is that you can't work remotely and you definitely can't innovate asynchronously without an almost granular degree of visibility into everyone's.

So we wrote in our story at get lab meetings, memos notes, and more are available to everyone in the company. And for the most part, everyone outside of it to all, but the most closely guarded product development plans are posted online for employees and outsiders. Meetings are actually recorded and some are even live-streamed on get labs, YouTube channel, another best workplace for innovators.

Bolt has a similar system for making sure that information doesn't fall through the cracks. CEO. Ryan Breslow says that company's culture is one of writing over talking. He maintains that writing everything down, breaks down silos, and it makes it easier to escalate and resolve conflicts. So these are the practical reasons for transparency.

You're able to have a paper trail of what's happened. You're able to identify problems in practice. But what's interesting is that both bolts and get lab argue that this kind of transparency is very important for culture and innovation, transparency at this level, can foster a real sense of inclusion.

And we're going to talk a little bit more in just a moment about the intersection of inclusion and innovation, but this is really important, especially in a remote or hybrid. No February meeting is recorded or standardized nos are kept, and everyone has access to that information regardless of where they're based or their job title, they are able to participate in that meeting.

And it also prevents the meeting within the meeting or the meeting after the meeting. And we've probably all experienced this where everybody meets. And then they have sidebar conversations where the real activity takes place. Or there's a hybrid meeting where there's crosstalk among people in the room, which naturally excludes the people who are remote on zoom or teams or chime or WebEx.

And the bolt and get lab worlds, those sidebars, or those meetings after the meetings would actually also need to be recorded for everyone to see or read and cultures that are transparent. Coincidentally also are cultures where employees tend to feel pretty empowered going back to our first theme of the day.

Empowered employees are innovative employees. Now, Neil dash is the CEO of glitch, which is another technology company that like bolt and get lab has published its employee handbook for everyone to see. And he employ, he applauds the trend of tech tearing their employee handbooks, but he also says that as part of the process, it's going to feel.

Companies to raise their own bars internally. He says it enables accountability. And if you're doing everything right, that's right. And if you're not, then there's hard work to do along the way. So when transparency and empowerment come together, you get really interesting examples of process innovation, for example.

So it bolts to non HR employees recently asked leadership to expand the company's definition of diversity. They actually ended up taking on the project themselves and their efforts led to the addition of four new values to the boat company. Which naturally is available for everyone to view online. Now, the topic of inclusion is one, that's getting a lot of airtime and C-suites, and among people who spend their time thinking about human capital, it's definitely the right thing to do for your company culture.

And it's great for attracting and retaining talent, but it's also key to unlocking innovators and geniuses inside your. Multicultural teams can be especially innovative if managed correctly. Now the cohort in the blue is a positive outlier when it comes to effectiveness in creative tasks, because leadership acknowledges the differences and treats texture as an asset to performance.

As you can see in the red though, leaders who try to sweep differences under the rug, end up with an underperforming. So, how do we, as leaders get to that blue part of the graph, Jamil Zacky is a neuroscientist who has just published an ebook that we excerpted at fast company. And I urge you to download it for free.

The book is called leading with empathy in turbulent. A practical guide. Zacky offers three very practical tips for leaders who are trying to embrace the multicultural aspects of their team. And therefore by extension, it really unlock and unleash innovation and genius. And he says, leaders can offer colleagues from marginally historically less privileged backgrounds, opportunities to engage in what psychologists call perspective, giving change, sharing their points of view and being.

They need to feel safe doing so. And employee resource groups can often help employees make sure they don't feel alone or vulnerable. Zacky also says too, if you are a traditionally powerful or privileged person, engage in something called perspective, getting he says, be aggressively curious and intellectually humble.

Ask yourself what have I learned through this interaction that I didn't know before? How has it changed? My understanding. And if you don't have good answers, consider listening a little more closely finally. And number three, he says it listening. Isn't the only step. It's the first of many steps in creating an inclusive workplace.

And without action, it can feel like worse than nothing. So provide concrete responses and support to meet the needs of that meets the needs that your colleagues discussed. Success depends on collaboration and agile high performing teams are usually not propelled by one or two hyper skilled individuals.

They depend on the whole group's ability to share perspectives and to see one another's. So, while Jackie has provided all these actionable tips for leading multicultural teams, he also says it really helps. If you start with cognitive empathy. Now cognitive empathy is what psychologists say makes us better communicators because it helps us relay information in a way that best reaches the other person.

So we always hear about the importance of communication, especially in hyper hybrid workplaces. So this idea of empathy is really going to be important as we continue to work in a hybrid world. But I want to underscore these aren't soft. Data shows that teams that are high in cognitive empathy have higher levels of trust and higher levels of performance.

So when team members precisely understand each other's experiences and when they have this high level of trust, they can align much more quickly around shared goals and coordinate roles. So if I'm good at writing and you're good at project management, you know, we can very quickly and efficiently divide and conquer and even adjust to new reality.

And that's part of the reason why cognitively empathetic teams are outperforming. Now as leaders, you have an important role to play here. Research shows that teens engage in a sort of collective empathy, which means that when leaders show anger, team members put more effort into the task, but in uncomfortable, almost performative ways, they look like they're working hard, but they're really not working together by contrast when leaders show.

Team members coordinated more efficiently, resulting in better overall performance with less effort. So Zacky writes in his ebook. The punchline here is saying. But often overlooked supporting diversity equity and inclusion supports people from underrepresented and historically marginalized backgrounds, but diverse workplaces are optimal for everyone.

And not just because they're more agile, creative, and productive, they actually create a chances for employees from all identities to connect with one another and in doing so, broaden their empathy in ways that benefit everyone. Now, if you don't believe. And you don't believe Zacky, let's hear from the high priestess of empathy, a media innovator in her own, right.

Oprah Winfrey. She says leadership is about empathy. It's about having the ability to relate, to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their law. It's pretty clear that these secrets of the best workplaces for innovators are actually really interconnected, empowered employees, beget risk-taking transparency, begets inclusion, inclusion, the gets empowered.

Wash rinse. Repeat the upshot here is that every workplace has its geniuses. Every workplace has its innovators. The executive assistant who's process innovations lead to cost savings. The gamer who wants to make leadership training as interactive as an online game, the customer service rep, who wants to create better experiences for your clients by building a cool data collection tool, you just need to find ways to unlock their innovative.

I hope you succeed. And I hope to see your company on next year's list of the best workplaces for innovators in today's digital world.

Lindsay McGuire: Finding innovative, efficient ways to get work done has become more important than ever. And at Formstack we love celebrating problem solvers who are innovating to make work better.

If you want an inside look at how people are, re-imagining their world of work and making an impact head over to dash. We'll be back soon with more future work.

Hosted By
Lindsay McGuire
Senior Content Marketing Manager
Co-Hosted By
Ryan Greives
VP, Brand & Communications

Practically Genius is a show built for innovators championing digitization within their organization.

Hosts Lindsay McGuire and Ryan Greives host conversations with real-world innovators sharing stories of digital transformation while also providing helpful advice and insights to listeners.

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