Episode 6: A Look at Productivity & Purpose with Martin Low
Why do you do what you do? In calm times, we may not often think about what drives our work, but in the midst of crisis, like the covid-19 pandemic, suddenly the purpose behind what drives us gets more attention. During normal times and our “new normal” times, consultant Martin Low helps businesses improve their productivity by focusing on culture, and illuminating and aligning employees back to the business’s core purpose. An organization’s sense of purpose can improve the bottom line, employee engagement, connectedness, productivity, and resilience.
In this episode of Employee Connectedness, Unitonomy founder Charley Miller discusses the importance of cultivating a sound culture plays when it comes to employee engagement, productivity, and overall purpose with OnPlane consultant Martin Low.
In this discussion, they will address the impact clear purpose and alignment can have on an organization and its employees. A company will have a culture, regardless if that culture is thoughtfully created or left to chance. Wise leaders know the impact culture can have on their business and engage in establishing their purpose and shaping their culture early on. The result is a clear purpose that drives productivity, improves outcomes, and strengthens employee connectedness.
Episode 6: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRsUZq1A96E
Employee Connectedness is live-streamed every weekday at 10:15am EST on the Unitonomy YouTube channel. You can join there and ask questions in the chat. You can also find previous episodes posted there and on the Unitonomy blog.
Employee Connectedness: A Look at Productivity & Purpose with Martin Low
Charley Miller 0:26
Good morning sunshine. How are you? How are you, Martin? April 1 man. Happy April Fool’s Day. I don’t think many people are sharing jokes today with the pandemic going on, of course. But, glad to have Martin Low here. You can really get a lot of people right now right. So it’s me and you today and I’m excited to have a chance to just interview all things Martin Low of On Plane Consulting here. Thank you for the time once again. Martin, I met you a year ago May…we had our first coffee together here in Louisville, Kentucky, and someone had recommended us, someone I talked to because I had this crazy idea for Unitonomy, like, “Oh, you’ve got to talk to this guy. He’s the foremost expert in town related to culture building and what companies needed to do, related to collaboration and taking care of their employees and blah blah blah.”
So we got coffee and I just remember jamming with you for over an hour on all the things, and that turned into a series of coffees and meetings and full disclosure you now are an advisor to you to talk to me these days, which I appreciate you have a lot of expertise and experience and all things HR. And I want the audience to get a better sense of your background, how you got into this stuff, and your passion. So let me start with kind of a nice softball question to ease into this, as we get going. Give us in, you know, a few minutes time encapsulation of your career. How did you get into HR?
Martin Low 2:27
So I was in school, and I was a junior with an economics degree. And I don’t like to do math. And so if you’re a, if you’re in econ, and you’re not in love with math, there are a limited number of places for you to go after you graduate and decide that you need to earn all right. And I love the theory behind Econ, I just absolutely loved it. I can, I can do the math, I just don’t want, I didn’t want to go to work as an analyst for a long period of time, because a lot of that is just crunching through numbers and those sorts of things. And I felt like inside of the curriculum, the business curriculum I did, I was two credits short of like a minor in psychology, because I felt like, people were really important. And I didn’t feel like they were actually covered in the business curriculum and I felt like there was so much a part of every business. And as luck would have it, I had an advisor there that was like, “Oh, you should really go check out this this master’s program that they have in industrial labor relations” and I was like I don’t even know what that is. And three or four people had kind of pushed me in that direction at separate points and I was like okay. What I realized, so industrial labor relations was the old way of saying, HR back when it was all about how you deal with unions and how you work with the union, because you had to work with the union, where, you know, at that time you you if you got, if you weren’t unionized you had to actually listen to your employees, or if you weren’t you just kind of do whatever you want, and not necessarily the best way to run the business, but that was what it was at the time. And so went and spent some time with those folks, realize that I got to do business stuff in the theory that I loved, but that I also get the backing on the people side and I felt like if you just get the people side of whatever you do right, there’s no limit to what you can do. Because you may not be an expert in anything, whatever it is that you’re trying to do, but at the end of the day you need to have a team around you and that’s how you’re going to get it done. And so, that master’s degree program was kind of the way that I built out the people side and how you do that the people stuff. It happened just by luck that this was one of the better programs in the country for that. It was one of the longest running programs. And we had just really really great people from from a academic standpoint in there they’re really good company connections to out of that.
So I basically really just got super lucky, and was in the right place and found this thing that was right for me and then I went on to spend most of the next probably 10, give or take, years in employee relations, and in industrial settings which are probably like the hardest places to do employee relations because you get a group of people who cares a lot about specific things, but doesn’t necessarily get the education on the business they need to understand the business side, and you’ve really got to have a clear succinct way to explain those things to folks where they just tune you out and assume that you’re, you know, a corporate guy with a corporate message and you don’t care about them. And so that experience landed me with Amazon. And Amazon at that point when I was with them, they were, I want to say, they were like 14 billion in revenue, so they weren’t small but they were definitely not the Amazon that you see today. And they had always looked at their fulfillment centers as a necessary evil that a technology company had to have to actually run the business. And the worst part about that fulfillment center was that it was chock full of people who weren’t programmable.
So you have this scenario where now all of a sudden we need process, and we not only need process for the sake of clarity for folks, but process for the sake of being able to give people what they need so that they can run their day to day lives and so we spent a lot of time on staffing. How do you staff very quickly? How do you select people and make sure that your labor plans and stuff like that are right? But more so, how do you train and develop your leadership team? And how do you set expectations with folks, not so much from a performance management standpoint, but just so that they understand what they need to do?
And it was interesting. What I saw at Amazon, and what I saw when I was at Cummins and what I saw when I was at LABSCO is, if you looked at productivity and, Charley, we talked about this like in our first coffee, if you look at productivity, it’s not necessarily that you have to beat everyone with a stick to get them to actually work. What happened inside of all three of these companies in completely different industries, completely different groups, different geographies, is there was a normalized distribution of performance across similar job sets, where you’d have somebody that was, you know, 60-70% of whatever that performance standard should be, and somebody that was 120% of whatever that performance standard, and there would be in a whole bunch of people in the middle. And the consistent process and consistent expectations were what you actually needed to get everyone at that performance rate or above that performance rate, almost without exception in any one of those different businesses that I dealt with. And so for me so much of that is driven by culture, it’s driven by communication, it’s driven by engagement. It’s not necessary that you have to pay somebody more or beat them or yell at them properly, or any of this all this other stuff. It’s really about how so much of that is if I can get you what you need to be effective for most people.
Consistent process and consistent expectations were what you actually needed to get everyone at that performance rate or above that performance rate, almost without exception, in any one of those different businesses that I dealt with. And so for me so much of that is driven by culture, it’s driven by communication, it’s driven by engagement.Martin Low, On Plane Consulting
And, you know, one of the reasons why I love what you’re working on with you, pardon me, so much is there’s a, where performance management becomes much less about, you know, I held you accountable and I beat you into submission, but it’s much more about “am I clear? Do you have what you need? How do you feel things are going?” It’s that discretionary effort piece, so it’s alignment with what I need you to do, and then its purpose, and by that purpose, by what you’re doing. And as we go in a more and more of a knowledge-based economy, that stuff ends up being everything. And, you know, the real reason why I started a consulting group, why I love doing what I do, is when you can get underneath to the purpose, and the alignment inside of the organization and you can help the leadership create that culture right, you add an unbelievable amount of value into the business, and you can start having a conversation with the business owner, with a leadership team about things that they haven’t even thought about. And we’ve seen this in places where you have a 10 or 20% productivity improvement inside that business, just by getting the stuff right. And you know, if I could go in and improve your side, 10 or 20% or if I could reduce your cost by 10 or 20%, what does that mean for your business? And productivity stuff looks a lot the same in terms of what happens around profitability and then for the business owner what happens around business value. It’s crazy and to me, it makes no sense that more people aren’t talking about it because most of these folks are leaving 7, 8, 9 figures worth of value inside their business on the table by not focusing on that. And oh, by the way you make a better place for employees to be to. So if you can set up something where the business and the shareholders make more money, the customer is going to get better service, and the employees are happier and more engaged in like their work. It’s purpose. That just to me it’s like a slam dunk. And so that’s what we do every day.
So if you can set up something where the business and the shareholders make more money, the customer is going to get better service, and the employees are happier and more engaged in like their work. It’s purpose. That just to me it’s like a slam dunk.Martin Low, On Plane Consulting
Charley Miller 10:51
So of course I concur with everything you’re saying. The statistics prove that you’re right. Good segue into naming. You were talking about Unitonomy and our name comes from unity and autonomy: the idea that hey, if you can get everyone to work together, we’ll have that alignment, but then also make sure the knowledge workers have some autonomy in their role and things perform best. So that’s kind of our name. Let’s talk about your name. I love the story behind On Plane. Will you share how that name came to be?
You were talking about Unitonomy and our name comes from unity and autonomy: the idea that hey, if you can get everyone to work together, we’ll have that alignment, but then also make sure the knowledge workers have some autonomy in their role and things perform best.Charley Miller, Founder of Unitonomy
Martin Low 11:27
Yeah. So, it came to be in two ways. One, my wife was trying to help me pick names. And if you’ve ever named a business will find quickly as the all of the good names are taken and have been claimed by somebody for the last 25 years, so you got to get creative like you did with Unitonomy, which I think is great. The second thing that we kept getting stuck on is I love boats. And there’s a certain thing that happens when you’re in a small boat, and small boats are made with a hull that is meant to plane on top of the water. And once it reaches a certain speed what happens is is that hull works as a foil. It pulls the boat out on top of the water and up to what most boaters would call puts you on plane. Right? And so you go from pushing a lot of water, moving really slow, having a ride that’s kind of choppy and hard to control, to having something that uses less fuel, moves faster, is a nicer ride for everybody. And if you’re a boater, and you’ll know like who the boaters are because they’re all like, “oh yeah I know what you’re talking about” and everybody else would be like “not quite sure.” But if you’re a boater, there’s also like this special feeling because then you’re like you’re off and running. At that point, so it’s kind of a cool time to be on a boat if you’re if you’re a boat lover.
But the reason why I kept thinking about that is I was talking to so many business owners that were having their biggest issues on the employee side. And it always mystified me. I understand why they have those issues, because there’s not a lot of good material and good content and good framework to figure out how to fix those sort of things, but it always felt so wrong to me that the people that should be really driving the business forward, were in the owners’ eyes or in the leadership teams eyes, holding the business back. And so just like that hull on the boat should be working to make the boat faster, and to work within its environment to do more with less, your employees should be doing the exact same thing. And so that’s the idea behind On Plane, you know, I want to see businesses get on plane, where they all of a sudden reduce that drag, they pop out of the water, they can go faster they’re more efficient. The value created inside the business again for the shareholders, for the customers, for the employees is so massive when you can get to that point. And for me as we were talking about that, that was the thing that just kept sticking. And so that’s the origin, the story behind On Plane is really wanting to see employees act like a foil into work to help the business out.
Just like that hull on the boat should be working to make the boat faster, and to work within its environment to do more with less, your employees should be doing the exact same thing. And so that’s the idea behind On Plane, you know, I want to see businesses get on plane, where they all of a sudden reduce that drag, they pop out of the water, they can go faster they’re more efficient. The value created inside the business again for the shareholders, for the customers, for the employees is so massive when you can get to that point.Martin Low, On Plane Consulting
Charley Miller 14:15
I love that story. I’m not a boater and I get it though. It’s a great analogy. So, On Plane, you all go in and you do these long term engagements with your customers but my next question is really about, alright pre-pandemic: imagine you had one hour, as you go in with a customer, what are one or two takeaways you absolutely want to make sure that they get from the time with you?
Martin Low 14:37
Yeah. It’s interesting because, to me, is we’ve thought through our business and what we’re doing for our customers, obviously everybody right now is asking, well what’s changed in terms of what our customers need from, say, you know, February, late in the month to now, right like first of April. Everyone’s gone through all this massive change the interesting thing for us is the fundamentals in what we should be talking to our customers about I don’t think it really changed at all. In fact, I think that because of the remote work, and because of the speed at which people have needed to shift their business, and because of all the sort of trying times that are around us socially, all it’s done is highlighted the businesses that do those things well, and businesses that were struggling before, and really shown the gaps for these folks. It’s around the same kind of core stuff and first and foremost is alignment. Is everyone clear on what you need to do, like, are they abundantly clear on what they need to do, or is the owner walking around like “I can’t walk away from the business. I tell everybody what to do, and nobody does what I need them to do” and kind of on that tangent. You have to step back and say, if you as a leader are giving good clear direction, then why do you have to tell everybody what to do over and over again? Either you’re not clear, or you have the wrong team–it’s one of those two. And a lot of times, it starts with clarity and the leader and making sure that they are abundantly clear.
You have to step back and say, if you as a leader are giving good clear direction, then why do you have to tell everybody what to do over and over again? Either you’re not clear, or you have the wrong team–it’s one of those two.Martin Low, On Plane Consulting
And so the first thing to me and it’s pre-covid 19, highlighted even more so by covid 19: alignment in your organization is the number one thing that you got to have in most businesses and there’s tons of data to back this up. Most businesses aren’t as good at it as they couldn’t be. So that to me that alignment thing is is kind of the first thing. And then the second thing is all-around leadership. And then the culture that you’re trying to build through your leaders. We want to make sure that you know what I thought about my alignment in direction, but secondarily, how am I, how am I leadering in my teams, carrying out and acting underneath it. So, you know, it really comes back to you know the mission, and the vision, which gives you that alignment. And then the values which is a lot about how you work. Right, so the value is because we’re all so decentralized now, how you work and the ability to make that decision independently but in a way that aligns with the CEO or the founder or the leadership team has become so much more important now. It was important then, but it’s even more important now because we’re so much more disconnected, that they have to have that framework to work inside of. So that’s normally, those are the places where we normally start with our customers. And, you know, there’s tons of data that says that most people, while they feel good about it, may not have the alignment inside the organization the communication and mission, vision, values, permeating through the organization that they need to really drive that, but it’s even more so in times of crisis like this.
Charley Miller 17:55
Okay. So, last question here, as we wrap up these things always go by so quickly. Who are the other people in your sphere that you turn to for guidance or thought leadership or just you like? You know, two, three…anyone that comes to mind. Just kind of curious, who does Martin turn to?
Martin Low 18:16
God, who do I listen to, um, you know, it’s interesting. Um, I tend to, I tend to listen to either academics, or people that are doing research. So like a Dan Pink. Um, you know he’s got a nice body of work around just how, you know, purpose and in all of those things. TED talks are great. There’s, there’s a lot of good stuff there. And then for me I actually end up listening to a lot of entrepreneurial stories. You know one of the things that I really like is the How I Built This podcast on NPR. And the thing that’s fantastic about that, especially if you’re a small business owner, if you’re a founder, even if you’re running a medium-sized business, those jobs can feel so lonely, and you can feel so isolated in those roles. Because, you know, you have all these like crazy hard challenges and things that you’re dealing with your family, your friends, even the people that are a runner to down inside the organization, don’t see don’t understand, don’t have to deal with. It’s great to know that there are other people that are out there that have dealt with it, that some of what you’re doing is unbelievably normal, even though the people around you aren’t dealing with it. And that a lot of people come out of those things okay. And you know, especially at a time like this where if you’re a business owner or a business leader. This month has been really hard, and really scary. And you know worry for you is how do you keep the business afloat and into almost all of them are really worried about how they take care of their employees and what they can actually do, because they feel a sense of responsibility for that. It’s great to hear those entrepreneurial stories to know that like, you’re in no different place than what a lot of these other people are dealing with. And they figured it out, and you can too.
Charley Miller 20:08
That reminds me of a nice little story where I’ll back up one second, I had the conversation yesterday, Dr. Brad Shuck also interviewing him. And one of the things I brought up was this idea it’s never too soon for a company to start thinking about building this side of the business, how they work together, how they plant the seeds for their cultures. I know you believe in the same thing. So the story is, I remember as part of a local accelerator here in Louisville, Kentucky, where you and your partner from On Plane came in for a session. Very few accelerators do this anywhere in the world, but you really started teaching us about what it takes to cultivate culture and how, if you do it early, this becomes easy over time to maintain and to scale it, but if you put it off, if you let culture just sort of happen haphazard over in the corner, you’re gonna have real problems that are really hard to unravel in later stages. What advice would you give if any startups listening to this? You know maybe they’re two people, maybe they’re five people, maybe they’re 15 people, but like those early stages. What advice would you give them about all things, employees and culture?
Martin Low 21:20
Yeah. I think it’s to acknowledge two facts. The first fact is you will have a culture. And you can either be the one that controls it and sets it, or you can just let it start itself and hope for the best. If you’re a business owner, and especially if you’re an entrepreneur, you know that hoping for the best and not touching something generally is a poor strategy that brings surprises that are unwelcomed, right? So that, I think, to me, is the first thing.
The first fact is you will have a culture. And you can either be the one that controls it and sets it, or you can just let it start itself and hope for the best.Martin Low, On Plane Consulting
The second thing is, is that if you are successful in doing whatever you’re going to do you have to do it through others. It can’t be all done by you as the founder, or you and like one or two co-founders. If you are successful, and if you scale like most everybody we talked to is like “I’m gonna be successful, I’m gonna be big business” right so the plan for them is to have that. If you don’t be intentional and set that culture early, you have this dilution that happens once you get the say around 30 to 40 employees. All of a sudden, you know, the business is moving too fast for you to set the culture at that point. And if you feel like you’re busy now with like five people and, you know, 200 or 500 or a million dollars in revenue, what are you gonna be like when you got 30 people in 2 million in revenue? Right. You’re not definitely not going to have the time to set the culture at that point. And oh by the way, it’s going to kind of get away from you.
The second thing is that if you are successful in doing whatever you’re going to do you have to do it through others. It can’t be all done by you as the founder, or you and like one or two co-founders.Martin Low, On Plane Consulting
Because as you bring these people in the folks that should be setting the culture, you know, you and the other founders on the team are more and more and more removed from the actual people doing the work inside the business. And those are the people that are touching the customer in some way either, you know, secondarily through the product of their work or directly through the conversations that they’re having with your customers. So if you don’t set that thing early the people that you bring in later just kind of set it by default, because you’re going to have one. So, it may not feel like you have time for that now, but if you’re successful, you’re going to have to do it, and if you’re successful you’re going to be way busier then than you are now, and now’s the time to do it so that those people can come in, align up with what you want, and then carry that brand forward.
Charley Miller 23:37
Yeah, I love what you just said, I think one aspect that is overlooked a little bit when it comes to culture is the common denominator of trust. And trust is a two-way thing. It’s not just about the CEO having trust down, right, but it’s also those people having trust back up. And you have to have both of those to have the equilibrium of a good culture where you can have the autonomy aspect and people understand the alignment because there’s the right communication that happens around trust. So, I concur with everything so Martin. Thank you so much for your time. It’s always awesome to get inside your head and see how you view the world, especially through the idea of employees and connectedness, any parting thought.
I think one aspect that is overlooked a little bit when it comes to culture is the common denominator of trust. And trust is a two-way thing. It’s not just about the CEO having trust down, right, but it’s also those people having trust back up. And you have to have both of those to have the equilibrium of a good culture where you can have the autonomy aspect and people understand the alignment because there’s the right communication that happens around trust.Charley Miller, Founder of Unitonomy
Martin Low 24:26
And it’s been great to talk and Charley, maybe this week or next week interview you about Unitonomy and how you got started.
Charley Miller 24:35
I hadn’t thought of that but I guess we should at some point touch on that. Thank you so much for the time. We’re gonna be off the next two days but we’re back on Monday with our first special guest, it will be Michael Fackler of Caliber Safety to talk about safety in regards to everything that’s happening. So it should be a fun session so I’ll see you then. Thank you so much, man.