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PODCAST EPISODE 33: AARON LEVY | FOUNDER & CEO, RAISE THE BAR



In this very special episode, the tables are turned as our Head of Marketing interviews ME to commemorate the 5th anniversary of Raise The Bar. We talk about the (somewhat selfish) reasons that I started RTB and my commitment to helping create a new world of work. We dive deep into the nuts and bolts of the growth cycle of a startup, when it’s important to address culture building and why our science backed methodology works. And she even gets me to reveal the secret sauce behind our training!


Here are Tina’s three big takeaways from the conversation:


  1. First you build the skills of an effective leader, then you focus on the practices of high performing teams.

  2. Once a startup reaches 50 employees, it’s time to start putting some operations systems in place.

  3. Practice makes perfect - or at least helps guide you towards your goal of being a better leader of your people.



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TRANSCRIPT


Aaron: And so from the very start I built Raise The Bar to say, how do I actually create a team that lives into this way of work, this new world of work. And the other part was I didn't see many companies doing that. I didn't see many companies leaning into a workplace where your manager is actually your coach


Hi, I'm Aaron Levy. And I have this vision of a workplace where your manager doesn't suck. Instead, your manager is your coach helping you to reach your full potential at work. I founded Raise The Bar, wrote Open, Honest, and Direct and started this podcast to help companies transform their workplace into a place where both the company and employee succeeds.


In this podcast, I get to interview leaders who've built high performing teams and learn from them on what it takes to unlock a teams’ potential. In today's episode, our head of marketing, Tina turns the tables and interviews me on my why and why I started Raise The Bar as we celebrate our fifth anniversary of being in business and helping change the world of work. It was fun and interesting being on the other side of the mic. I hope you enjoy this episode.


Tina: Hi Aaron, how are you? Thank you for joining us today.


Aaron: I'm excited to be here. I'm doing pretty well, Tina. Thanks for having me.


Tina: No worries. I know you started Raise The Bar five years ago, partially because you saw friends that were unhappy with their positions, even though they were moving up the ladder making good money and also that you felt that people knew how to be better, but didn't necessarily have the tools to change. So tell me a little bit about your inspiration and what made you think that you'd be able to do something better than what was currently out there.


Aaron: So I'm actually going to go back a little bit to the first part of your question, which was inspiration. And I was talking to my sister-in-law the other day about this. And it's a pretty selfish inspiration. I mean, there's definitely layers to it, but part of it was, I knew the way I wanted to work.


And I knew I wanted to work with a team that worked in that way. And I know that sounds kind of vague, but I knew I wanted to be a part of a team that held each other accountable, that wasn't afraid to have fun, but also wasn't afraid to be direct and real with one another; that you could have good relationships with while also getting after the work.


And I knew that's something I wanted. And so from the very start I built Raise The Bar to say, how do I actually create a team that lives into this way of work, this new world of work. And the other part was I didn't see many companies doing that. I didn't see many companies leaning into a workplace where your manager is actually your coach, where they're not only the person that's challenging you, but also the person that’s celebrating wins with you; or not just the person that celebrates wins, but also the person that challenges you to be at your best.


And so the second kind of inspiration behind Raise The Bar was what you had started with Tina, which is, you know, really looking at how we interact and engage with one another in the workplace and how I saw that with the clients that we had worked with in the past and the ways in which I'd seen other people work and been a part of, and just realizing that most people want to be better and want to engage better, but they're not necessarily given the tools or skills, especially when they go from being a top performer to a leader of people.


And that gap was something that I saw as a real opportunity and as a real chance to really change the way people worked and the way they thought about engaging one another. And so Raise The Bar was really started around those two foundations, a selfish desire to work in a fun, challenging environment with coworkers and the desire to create that environment in the people, the clients, the partners, the leaders that we touched.


Tina: So tell me a little bit about what you think we specifically do. What's our secret sauce that addresses those issues?


Aaron: Early in my career one of the things I spent a good portion of my energy on is studying why do people do what they do? There's actually a great book by Richard Ryan and Edward called Why we do what we do, which looks at the science and the methodology behind human behavior. And I didn't just look at that. I looked at behavioral economics and positive psychology, and I looked at all different fields and realms and got to study that and test that out and put it into real life and see what works.


And one of the things that stuck the strongest was this idea of deliberate practice where nothing, no meaningful change happens without taking action consistently over time. So you need to be able to practice it. And so what I saw and what many organizations do is they say, Hey, we're gonna send you to a weekend training, or we're going to do a half day training and expect that that's actually going to change the behavior, the nature of the people in the training. But behavior change doesn't work that way. We don't learn any skill, just like right off the bat, within the matter of a couple hours, it takes deliberate practice over time where you're getting feedback on what's working, what's not working where you have a chance to reflect.


We have a chance to practice in a safe environment. Our secret sauce is we build in deliberate practice into all phases of our training. We include homework assignments in between our training sessions. We have coaching sessions, so you can really personalize your development, but also get a chance to reflect on what's working.


What's not working for you in the way in which you're applying your learning. We're different because we don't believe learning is sufficient for change. We believe learning is one minuscule component. We believe practice and action is what drives long term, sustainable change. And so our trainings and our programs are all designed around that and all force people and force us to put our learning into practice very quickly and rapidly and frequently cause frequency is the thing that really matters when we're trying to build a sustainable habit.


Tina: I love the fact that you're not just focusing on learning new material, but the fact that it has to be practiced and that it has to be practiced consistently in order to stick. So, one question I would have for you is once our leaders have completed their training, how do they continue to reinforce the new habits and how do they stop themselves from sliding into their old habits as the months and the years go by, after they're done with our training?


Aaron: Yeah. So there's a couple of ways. One is by the time we're done with the first stage of the bootcamp, which is the first three months, there are a couple of habits that are, that are fairly ingrained and stuck in and the ways in which we have people take and stick them, make them even stickier.


Yeah. When you have to codify it, you have to like put into your brain, what's working. So oftentimes we fail to acknowledge what we're doing well, and we look at what we need to do better. And so we have people and we have leaders look at what are you doing that's actually working. And how do you make sure you continue to put that in your daily routine as a leader or your weekly life as a human to make sure that that's something you do consistently over time. For example, right now I have a post it up on my window that I face every morning when I work and it says posture, and it's just a small little reminder. It's a, it's a process to remind me to sit up straight.


And it's those little things, those little cues or reminders that can help you to sustain a habit and continue practicing it once, you know, you've like built the muscle around it. And so that's one distinct way. Another way is, and this is something that I do with my coaches, having a coach, having a support system.


So whether it's a coach or a mentor, somebody who is looking at you and challenging you to consistently grow and having that person to meet with, and I understand not everybody can afford to work with a coach full-time for the course of their life. And there's definitely different ways to make it more manageable and affordable, whether it's group coaching or Learning Labs, just something we do, which is very similar to group coaching, or even on demand coaching.


But having someone that you can go back and reflect on how you are doing, what adjustments are you making? So that you're constantly being intentional about how you show up as a leader. And if you never went to our Bootcamp, this is the deepest takeaway, which is the way you show up matters.


And everything that we talked about in the Bootcamp is how do you show up and how do you become a more intentional leader, more thoughtful about the actions and decisions you make; more thoughtful about the way you show up with other people. And so if nothing else, right, the easiest, lowest cost solution is carving out time every week, or at most, every two weeks to be intentional about how did I do this week? What worked, what didn't work? What am I learning?


Tina: I know that we've kind of added and changed some of our journey a little bit with our leaders as well. Can you tell me a little bit about the biggest lessons, the biggest changes that we've made to our Bootcamp since the beginning?


Aaron: It's a tough question.

I'll go in a couple of directions. I mean, I think that the biggest lesson that can be shared from this is it is a constant evolution. We started delivering this, the Bootcamp part one series on skills and skill building four and a half years ago.

And at that time they were In-person two hour sessions with no tie that bounded together. And over time, we started to take insights and learnings. So at the end of each individual session, so in a Bootcamp, there's six sessions at the end of each individual session, we're getting feedback from leaders and what worked, what didn't.


And then we're also talking to our coaches who are working with those leaders on what worked, what didn't. Then we're talking to our clients who lead those organizations. And we're saying, what are you noticing? What are you not noticing? what's changing? And so all of those things have helped us to adapt how to really make the trainings more meaningful.


The one specific change that we do, which is consistent is at the end of each day, whenever we're having a session, we're recapping those learnings and we're bundling it back.


Aaron: And our coaches and facilitators who are leading those sessions actually share their insights along with the leader insights. And we send that back to the whole facilitation team and coach team. And what that does is that helps us see from session to session what's happening, what's changing. So in October of last year, where we started to see people really dragging in sessions, because it was the end of a really long year and people were tired and burnt out and it actually had nothing to do with the training itself.


But we got to see a trend of what was going on across many different organizations that helped us to adjust and adapt. You know what, even though we want these sessions to be as meaningful and powerful, we need to cut out time. We need to cut out actual sections, whole sections. We need to cut out because people are just too drained right now.


They're not emotionally and intellectually there for the duration of the session. So we need to cut them down and be more efficient and do some things a little bit different, right?


And so that's what we've been able to do over the course of the last five years. It's just, it's always completely different. Cause we're all adjusting, changing, adapting activity. I mean, going from fully live training to fully virtual training required us to go through each individual session, each individual activity, every five minutes segment and say What are we doing? We need to actually relook at everything and not just say, okay, let's say let's do it virtual, but we need to actually relook at the way it's being delivered, the way it's going to be absorbed and the way we're going to get people to engage in practice.


And Tina, that was the most important thing is everything that we're doing is working to engage people in practice.


And so doing that virtually versus live is very different. And yet we found it to be incredibly powerful with breakout rooms and with pair chairs and with Role-plays and all sorts of different things that technology can actually make it even easier sometimes to do then than live.


Tina: Sure. So what I hear you saying is that each company, each organization gives you input as well.


And it sounds like you're crafting something that's almost individualistic towards each company in each person that we're working with. Would you say that that's true?


Aaron: Very much. So there's a core foundation that we really lean on and believe in, which is the core skills that great leaders have, which is listening, asking powerful questions, being able to create a safe space where you can have open, honest, and direct communication and holding critical conversations.


Those are the core four skills that we train in our skills Bootcamp, our Bootcamp level one. And when we do that, that's the base, but that's not the training itself. It really is defined by the values, the vision, the goals of an organization and the individual themselves. Each of them has their own unique perspective and desire and need.


And the one thing that I've learned about behavior change over the last 12 years has been, you can't force someone to change. If they don't want to change, they have to have an intrinsic desire to really change if you want to make it sustainable. And so having a coach for each person really makes it personalized and helps them feel connected to the growth that they're trying to achieve because each leader has to set their own growth goals throughout the course of the bootcamp.


Tina: I know that we've started also encompassing more of a journey into our leadership training, where there's management 200. We have our learning labs. Tell me a little bit about the inspiration for adding these continued learnings into our training.


Aaron: Honestly, it's a part of the development journey that leaders have. When we think about this, it's almost like a circle with a circle within a circle like that. The Russian nesting dolls, right? Like at the very center of this is skill building; it’s empowering managers, leaders, even executives, to elevate their skills and listening, asking powerful questions, holding critical conversations and giving and receiving feedback. Those are the skills which make a great coach. but that's not the whole picture of an organization of a team. As a leader grows and evolves they think about how do I actually create a high-performing team? I might have the skills myself, but what are, what are the systems? The tools, the practices? And our Bootcamp 200 is all about practices. It's all about the practices that make teams perform great. And so it's very easy to say, okay, we're going to go from one training to the next to the next. And however, that's just not how businesses operate and that's not how we work as human beings.


And in between that, what we have, what we call Learning Labs. So the bridge between the skills and the practices are actually putting the skills into practice. And so Learning Labs are a monthly way for the cohorts of leaders that work together in the Bootcamp skills, the level one, they get to continue to work together on those skills and challenges that they're facing.


Like they bring in their real life challenges on a monthly basis. And that monthly basis it's a cadence for them to keep practicing and keep it fresh and keep them intentional about how they're showing up. And after they've had that for nine months of that full year journey of learning labs and the Bootcamp level one, it's time now for them to think about, okay, how do I elevate my leadership and my team's performance on a whole new level?


And that's where Bootcamp level two comes in, where it's all about the practice. And the practices, which build high-performance teams, like how do you maximize your time? How do you create and foster healthy debate? How do you set track and hold people accountable to goals? How do you lead through change?


And so those are the types of things, which it's much more practice and process-based than the Bootcamp 100, is it really a part of that, the next step of the journey, just naturally as leaders evolve and their development. And so it really was more of a natural extension to what was happening and what our clients were looking for and what our leaders were needing.


You go from developing your leader to developing the teams, and then there's even the next stage, which is developing a culture as a whole.


Tina: So we tend to work with a lot of high growth companies. And I guess what I would ask you is if I'm a human resources person or people leader of my organization, how do I know when it's time to invest in training for my managers?


Aaron: It's a great question. The way we think about it, when we look at organizations, 1 to 25, they're just getting off the ground and getting scrappy and it's a whole mess and things are coming together and you have enough people where you can get by with some of the processes and structures and procedures of a larger organization, because everybody knows each other.


Once you go from 25 to 50, you have to start growing up a little bit and you have to start, you know, layering the organization and start to think about some of those processes and people, and, and it becomes a little bit more difficult; but that jump from 50 to 100 is, is a much bigger jump; that's where not everybody knows each other and the CEO or the founder hasn't hired everybody and there's more layers in between. And there's more confusion, ambiguity and excitement around a fast growing company. And it's usually between that 50 and 100 where we often see companies bringing in some level of people leader, maybe not like a chief people officer or a VP of people, but definitely somebody to do recruiting and to do some people operations.


And at that point, the main focus is really on the systems that you put in place like an applicant tracking system or a performance management system, or an onboarding for new employees or an onboarding for managers. And we start to see it's a great time to start getting a couple of people who could really use it, who've gone from top performer now to director of sales and they're running a bigger part of the organization than they ever expected, and they're taking on roles and getting them some sort of tools and support whether that's training, whether it's coaching, whether that's dedicated mentorship outside of the business, getting them some support, they can start to scale up their components of the business.


And so at that size, you have a decent manager group, but you know what?

There's so much else going on. And so many other processes, procedures that need to happen, that you're just sending a handful of managers and equipping them so that they can be successful. When you go from 100 to 150, 100 to 200 employees, that's where you're now putting on grownup pants.


And once the grownup pants are on your organizations too big not to really think about how you, how you lead on a global scale. And what I mean by that is what does it mean to lead at xxx? What does it mean to lead at Raise The Bar? What does it mean to manage at Raise The Bar?


What are the expectations of our managers here, and at that size that your leadership framework is really what needs to be put in place. And that's when you should really be thinking about putting into place at least a foundational element of your manager training and new manager and senior manager training. So that any managers you bring are going to be equipped with the tools and skills and any managers that are currently on the team, and I mean, first-time managers all the way up to C-suite have those tools and skills in place.


And you know, I really recommend companies look at that between 100 and 150. Once you get to 300, 400 employees, if you don't have that in place, it just becomes more painful and much more hard to create a learning culture to keep a learning culture over time. And what I mean by learning culture is one that listens to feedback, adapts to changes, is agile as you get bigger. It's harder to keep that way of working when you've instituted more processes, which is why it's really important to develop your managers so that they can be coaches, that they can take feedback.


They can give feedback, they can create a space where feedback flows freely and openly and people do.


Tina: So let's say that my organization has grown to maybe 250 employees, and I really haven't established much of a process or a team of these skills. Is it too late?


Aaron: So wherever you are in the, in the journey, there's never a bad time to start. So it just that it takes more work and more energy.


There's gotta be a meaningful reason to do things, doing the work. If you're an organization saying, well, we're doing, cause we cause our people want to develop and we got to give them something so they don't leave, like, okay, that's probably not a reason. You probably won't do work with Raise The Bar. It's gotta be a meaningful reason.


And oftentimes what we hear is, we need our managers to step up so that we can scale as a business. We need our leaders to take ownership over their components of the business, over their teams. To take that autonomy that we're giving them or to lean in and ask for more autonomy so that they can really scale and elevate themselves, their team and the organization.


Because if it bottlenecks at a couple of people, the company doesn't scale as well. And that tends to happen when you're, when you've done a really good job from 1 to 25 and 25 to 50. And then all of a sudden you're at 150 and the bottlenecks that you had at 25 are now much more pronounced at 150, and you need to let go of the reins and actually empower others to be better than you; to lead, to make mistakes, to learn, to grow.


And so each individual grapples with that, and that is that what we hear organizations say is, Hey, we, we really, we need our people. Not only do we want, but we need our people to elevate their leadership so that we can evolve as a business.


Tina: So as a people leader, once they've identified that they want to bring training into their organization, create a common language, et cetera, how would be the best way for a people leader to support these training efforts in the organization?


Aaron: They're ongoing. The best way that we say is to really pay attention to the behaviors that your people are taking. So we often say we don't care if your leaders like our training or dislike it because that's not the goal. The goal isn't to deliver training that people like the goal is to actually change the way in which we behave that will produce different outcomes or more effective outcomes in our business.

And so. If that's our goal of our work together or whatever our goal is, look at the behaviors and the actions your people are taking versus just saying, Hey, did you like the training? And so the best way, and the organization that we do the best for are the ones that pay attention to their people as they're going through the training.


And as afterwards who have a pulse on what's happening in their business, because then they can get insights on, okay, this is working; this is, and we can make changes and they can get insights on what is working and. By doing that, you start to acknowledge the people who are doing the things that you want to see them doing.


When you celebrate the successes of people taking the actions that you want them to take, they repeat those actions because it feels good to be celebrated and seen for the actions that you're doing or the work that you're putting into play. And so it's something that we reiterate, not just the people leaders, but also the bosses of the leaders who were in the training, we said, Hey, celebrate those wins with your leader so that she, or they can really remember, codigy it. Put it into their brain that it worked too.


Tina: I found that to be a very interesting point that you made that it's not necessarily about finding out how many people loved the training session.

Right? Because sometimes our training, I would imagine is making people very uncomfortable. So one question I guess I would ask is I know that as a team ourselves, we set smart goals that are measurable and quantifiable to measure our actions and that a culture change is somewhat a nebulous concept, right? How do you actually tactically translate that into a measurable number? How do you quantify change as a people leader?


Aaron: Well, the first step is to identify what they want to change, right? So if the want to change is less requests to HR because people are taking more ownership themselves, that's something that you can actually quantify; if the change is less regrettable turnover, right? People are more engaged in their job. Then you measure regrettable turnover, and then you look at your pulse survey scores and you measure engagement, or you measure engagement by leader or better than engagement, I think is employee net promoter score (NPS), right?


How likely are they to recommend their company to a friend or family member? And so, whatever the outcome is that you're looking for; getting really clear on what that outcome is, and then measuring that directly, right? If we say we want to have a learning culture well, what we'll tell you, you have a learning culture when that in meetings you have, you know, people challenge ideas. Will it be that you are constantly making mistakes and learning from them and making adjustments? The questions that we ask when we get started and engagements with our partners and clients, is that very thing.


Okay. This is what you say you want. What does that mean? What does that look like in your business? How has that been measurable in your business?


So we look at okay, what are you hoping is different about your business as a result of this? How do we tie it? How do we connect to actionable items?


Tina: We have a great assortment of coaches that have diverse experience and thoughts. How do you best match a coach with a leader who's going through our training? Tell me a little bit about that process.


Aaron: Yeah, it's, it's a bit of art and science and so we have a team of amazing coaches with incredible backgrounds; you know, MBAs and NASA inventors, artists; just all sorts of backgrounds. And we look at their backgrounds and we think about that.


We also look at who have they had success with in the past? What type of organization, what type of leader, what type of person? And then we read an intake form. So every leader that goes through our training completes an intake form, which is this form, which tells us a little bit about them. What fills them up?

What excites them, what goals they're going after. And we look at both and we say, okay, And this is where we kind of use the science of intuition.


And I say science, because there's more nerve endings in your gut than anywhere else in your body. And so a gut reaction and gut feel is a real thing. And we use the information that we have about our coaches. We use the information that we have about the leader, and we use our instincts and intuition to say, okay, I think that Tina, for you, Shiri is going to be the coach that you're going to rock with, but we don't presume to say that's the right intuition.


We say, I think, and then we say, Hey, Tina, you have a choice. You can work with Monica, Kimberly, Paul, George, Bill, pick whoever you want. Here's who I, I think she would be best for you. And so the leader actually gets to choose the coach themselves. We just give a recommendation.


Tina: What would be the biggest thing you'd like to say to a people leader or a founder of an organization who's listening right now about translating and bringing a learning culture into their company?


Aaron: It takes work and intentionality, and as you're growing and evolving your business and your people functions, it doesn't just happen the way it happened at other stages of your startup. It actually needs to be mapped out and planned out thoughtfully. And as you add people and add responsibilities and people are moving at speed, it's something that needs a moment of here's what we're doing.

Here's why we're doing it. Let's do it this way. And that's what I would say is making sure you're taking time to be strategic about how you operate and lead your business because up until, you know, 100, 150 people, most people in the organization, even on the people side are thinking, how do we just get the business running?


Or how do we get up to speed? How do we get enough people hired so that we can deliver? How do we sell enough business? How do we market ourselves? And that 100 to 150 or to 200 employees, you start to think, okay, how do we run this business? Not just succeed in the market because we're doing that really well, but how do we actually operate as a business and a team together?


And so I encourage you whatever stage you're at, even if you're at 10 or 15 or 20 employees or 5 employees to think about consistently, how do we operate and work together? Because that evolves and changes as you add people to your team. And that's kind of the biggest thing that I would say is being constant and intentional about how you operate with one.