Employee engagement

Bob Maller

Bob is the President and Chief Culture Officer of Collaborative Solutions, and an expert at growing teams, practices and partnerships in the fast-moving cloud computing space. To call Bob an IT services veteran might be putting it mildly. He started his consulting career in the ‘90s at global consultancies Accenture and Deloitte, before going on to manage consulting teams at PeopleSoft. That experience served him well when he joined Collaborative Solutions as its second employee. Over the years he’s grown Collaborative to more than 1100 employees and Workday’s longest tenured partner. Along the way, he’s also created a firm well respected for its work, culture and dedication to diversity, winning a ridiculous number of Best Places to Work awards. Collaborative was acquired by Cognizant in 2020, and Bob continues in the same role at Collaborative as Cognizant’s standalone Workday practice.

Why are you passionate about helping people-based businesses?

When we developed our core values at Collaborative, the clear first value was People. While it can be cliche to mention People as a core value, it’s the businesses that truly nurture and develop their people who are most successful — especially in services. Real magic happens with collaboration, which is why when you’re building a firm or a practice, teamwork is such a critical trait. The “smartest” or most-skilled person may not be a fit for your organization if they don’t thrive as a member of a team.

As the second employee at Collaborative Solutions, you grew the firm from a niche PeopleSoft federal contractor to a ‘crown jewel’ of the Workday ecosystem with more than 1000 employees. What was the most challenging part of that early journey and what was it when you reached scale?

In the early days, the challenge was to differentiate ourselves. As we became a Workday partner, the fear was that we would build a practice and the large SIs would swoop in to hire them away. This is why hiring the right people and building a sustainable, employee friendly culture was, and is still, critical.

Our first acquisition (a Workday consultancy in Australia) was also an interesting milestone. Integrating them into what was then a North American-centric business and making them feel a part of the Collaborative family took real work.

At 500+ employees, I no longer knew each employee, which was a very weird feeling. We needed ways to stay in touch with each other and keep engagement high. So we launched the Collabie Convos series (intimate video calls with 15-20 employees) to discuss a variety of topics. We also put a lot more emphasis on developing the people in the firm to become leaders and great ambassadors of our culture. It cannot just be the senior leadership team who sets the tone for the culture.

You’re a huge advocate of culture and inclusivity. What is the key to scaling culture as the company grows, expands and evolves?

It starts with formalizing and promoting your core values. In the early days, it’s about defining and discovering those values as a founding team. As we got larger, it became very important that every employee around the world knew what our core values were and why we had them. We reinforced them daily and worked them into our processes. They weren’t just words or phrases on a wall in an office.

Selecting and developing the right leaders within your practices is also critical, and should constantly be reviewed. These are the leaders that new hires will look to, even more than the executive team. Do you have the right leaders? Do they exemplify our core values? Did we promote people into areas they cannot handle and would be better suited as individual contributors? We, as leaders, cannot be afraid to ask these questions and make adjustments along the way.

When it comes to inclusivity, it simply needs to be a priority – a focus from the top down. I’d also highly encourage instituting a buddy and/or mentoring program to indoctrinate people into the company and to ensure that they have someone to help navigate their careers within the company.

Keeping employees engaged is never easy, but it can be even more challenging during rapid growth and downturns. What are some things leaders can do to keep engagement high throughout a company’s lifecycle?

The first thing is to survey your employees, but just as importantly, do something with the results. Show your employees that what they told you is valued and, if it needs work, that it’s being addressed. I am a big believer that surveys are anonymous and people understand that improvement is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. For trust to flourish, leaders need to be vulnerable and transparent. Talk to your people more often than you think, through a variety of mechanisms. Use video as much as possible when communicating important things (as opposed to a flat email that no one really reads).

Julie Barker

Julie has been entrenched in talent strategy, recruiting and people operations for technology and IT consulting businesses for 15 years. Her focus on helping leaders and managers build world-class teams and a culture that fosters and inspires those teams, has made her an invaluable part of many companies’ growth story. She has helped companies navigate growth at nearly every stage, from scaling sub 30 employee start-ups to supporting large global organizations of more than 100,000 employees. Prior to founding her own talent consulting business, she was the VP of Talent at Zylo and Senior Director of Recruiting and Talent at Appirio. Julie also chairs the Indianapolis chapter of DisruptHR, an information exchange designed to energize, inform and empower HR professionals.

Why are you so passionate about helping people-based businesses?

People are at the crux of any business. They are not only the majority of a company’s costs, but also its greatest source of sustainable competitive advantage. In services organizations, you get to work with so many smart, talented people who bring real value to their clients every day, and see first-hand the impact that their work has on a business. Being a part of that journey, and crafting the programs and processes that support these individuals as they build amazing careers, is incredibly rewarding.

You have worked with a number of founders and leaders throughout your career and through your work with DisruptHR. What do you think is one of the biggest talent-related challenges that founders face early in their growth journeys?

One of the biggest challenges company’s face early on is laying the foundation for an inspiring culture and making that foundation scale. Many early teams are built on leaders who have worked together before and have a shared vision, but how do you grow beyond that to something that everyone is a part of? CEOs and founders need to have a talent partner from the beginning who can help drive strategy from a people perspective and provide balance with other executives who are charged with driving revenue and customer growth.

What advice would you give to founders looking to establish a leadership development program?

Leaders directly impact how your team members view the company and that impacts the business more than you realize. Be intentional about developing your leaders, and craft a leadership program that matches your values. Don’t try to copy someone else’s successful program that has been fine tuned for their business strategy.

What advice would you give founders looking to scale their business and team quickly?

Give hiring the time and attention it needs. Hiring is a lot more than filling open reqs. It’s about creating a destination where people want to join and stay. Bring on leaders who are passionate about building teams and who are always recruiting, not just when there is an open role. If you’re intentional about your recruiting strategy – how to hire to your values, what’s unique about your company and how you will scale the process over time – you will be in the driver’s seat.