Podcast 27 min

Employee-centered growth using a remote-first model, with Kandi Gongora

August 24, 2023
Preston Wickersham


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Remote teams often do a better job of hiring for gender diversity, but the Goodway Group is unique, boasting a 73% female workforce. The secret formula? Flexibility. 

In this episode of Off Mute, Kandi Gongora, Chief Transformation and People Officer at the Goodway Group, talks candidly about the remote-first strategy driving the Goodway Group’s success. Something must be working well: on three occasions, the company has been recognised by AdAge as the best place to work among companies with more than 200 employees. 

Barbara Matthews, Chief People Officer at Remote, hosts as she and Kandi discuss why she insisted for transformation to be in her job title; the Goodway Group’s approach to remote teams; and why communication and transparency are key. They go on to talk about the “fist of five” rule, which helps categorize employee stages within the company; how they keep in touch on distributed teams using VR headsets; and how employee-centered growth is critical for a strong company culture. Kandi also shares her personal story, including her time as a workaholic and how that impacted her battle with breast cancer. She hopes her strong leadership mindset inspires others to find other balance in their lives.

Off Mute episode 5 transcript

Barbara: Hi, I am Barbara Matthews, the Chief People Officer at Remote, and this is Off Mute: the podcast that explores managing distributed teams all across the globe.

In this episode, I'm having a chat with Kandi Gongora, and she's the Chief Transformation and People Officer at The Goodway Group.

The Goodway Group started in 1929 as a print company, but today, is an advert agency who also specialize in providing consultancy services. They describe themselves as a remote-first company and repeatedly win awards as the best place to work.

I learned a lot from my chat with Kandi, and I really enjoyed getting to know her more. And I think you are going to enjoy our conversation too.

Why be a chief transformation officer?

Kandi, thanks again so much for joining us today. I'm really excited to learn about you, your experience, your role at The Goodway Group. And I want to first jump in with a question that I've been mulling over since I started to research you in preparation for the podcast. I bet you know what it is, I'm sure you're asked about it a lot.

But when researching you, one of the things that really jumped out at me was your title. So, you're in the present role of the Chief Transformation and People Officer, and you've made a real point of adding transformation into the title. Tell me about that and how that came about.

Kandi: Yes. So, I think even through COVID, or the Pandemic HR has changed a lot. But before that time, I actually looked at it differently and our CEO does the same.

And so, it is about the people and bringing the right culture to support the business in so many different ways, but there's so much change going on, and it really starts with our people.

And so, when we transform, when you look at the failures, there's something like 76% failure typically when there's transformations or change in our organization, and a lot of it's because of the people. We aren't looking at it in the right way. We're not looking at the systems in the right way. We're not putting all the pieces together.

And so, we realize that the HR part of the people is just a small part, and we typically don't lean into compliance and those kinds of things, we lean into being partners in the business.

And so, it just made sense as we're looking at what's going to make us successful in transforming this company and really creating the next level of marketing services and how do we stay ahead of the industry. Transformation's a huge part of that, and it seems very connected with the people part.

So, a big part of my job is looking at the different things that will help us not only transform for our clients, but transform for our people internally. Not only creating a better culture, but also, ensuring that they have careers that will take them where they want to go.

Barbara: And transformation, depending on your employee base, can be seen as a scary word or a wonderful word.

Kandi: Yes.

Barbara: And I think you putting it in your title is really embracing it in a really positive way. Was there any reaction or much reaction among your employee base when your title changed?

Kandi: No, I don't think so because I think it was really being transparent about it. Everybody who has been here for more than a year knows that we're always changing, we're always looking to what's next and how we can evolve.

So, I think it's more of putting it front and center and being transparent, which they already know. So, I think they weren't shocked or surprised.

And they also know as far as from their own perspective, in being a person here with their own perceptions and stories and experience and skills, they know that they're a huge part of the change and transformation we need to make.

So, I don't think there were really any questions or why is it that way? It's just more of, “Oh, so we're bringing it forward, and we're owning it.”

Barbara: A lot of probably up and coming or starch up type companies would be involved in a lot of transformation. And you did mention at start, I think you said 76% of transformation doesn't land.

Tell me what you think is kind of the biggest issue or the biggest mistake that companies make that has resulted in it not landing.

Kandi: I think there's a few things that go together; communication. I think about when leaders decide where they're going, they've been with it for a while. They've lived it, they've thought through it. And they just had time to come to that comfort level, even if it is still unknown.

And I think so many times the leaders get to that point and then they go, and they don't really communicate over and over again or they're not really transparent or like, “This is what it's really going to take.”

So many times, I feel like we're going to just evolve a little bit or we're not really clear on what does this mean, and what is this going to require from each of us, and what's it going to be like when we get there, and what are we offering you along the way to help us all get there together. I think that's missing.

And I believe that we are working to be very clear and provide clarity of where we're going, and not just the great part of the clarity, but it's going to take us all being business ready at all times to continue to make the change.

And so, I think the transparency is really important in making sure that everybody knows how they contribute and if they don't, then another part is having the conversation of maybe this isn't the best place for you any longer if this is not aligned with where you want to go. And we do have those conversations.

Barbara: Actually, I'll come back to values in a bit because we have transparency as one of our values, and I do want to talk about that.

How brand messaging became a people function

But another thing just specifically around your role, I noticed that one of the tasks that you have is around the organization's brand messaging. And I thought that was really interesting because in my mind, I would put that in the marketing team’s box.

So, tell me how you leaned into that work or how you pivoted to bring that work into the people space.

Kandi: Sure, I think it's still a partnership with marketing, but it's really working together to understand how we are serving our clients and our people, and how that comes together where it makes sense and fits together.

And so, we do have something internally that we look to that we call the Infinity Loop. And so, if you think of an infinity loop, we have the client side, so our client experience and then we have our people experience. And so, we try to keep that balance.

And obviously, there's times where we have to lean a little bit more into clients or there's times we have to lean on people. And so, the messaging altogether needs to also be balanced and resonate with both sides. It needs to motivate and really excite our employees for the work they're doing, and in our industry sometimes that can be very difficult.

But then also, it needs to resonate with the clients of the problems they need to solve, and how we can meet that need.

So, it's still a partnership and marketing definitely leads the more external, but we work together to make sure it makes sense and balances both, versus having two different messages from the people brand and the client brand.

Barbara: Yes. I love that actually. So, in the last few years, you mentioned there's been a lot of changes. Obviously, the macroeconomic environment has forced a lot of businesses to make a lot of changes.

Is there anything that you changed around your own long-term plans or the people's roadmap itself?

Kandi: Yes. I believe we've always been progressive with our people's practices because we feel like our people are adults, we're transparent, we're in this together. So, I think where a lot of companies have changed that, where they're a little bit more progressive, we were already there.

However, I think we leaned even more into our behaviors. You mentioned values. And so, we've had behaviors for probably six years. We moved from values to behaviors, so we're a little bit more specific.

Values, we see kind of sitting up here and there's behaviors underneath the values. So, we kind of just strip the values away and just have specific behaviors. And we have at any given time, between 25 to 29, depending on the situation we're in.

So, we had those defined, but when we knew that we were headed into something new, we did change our roadmap a bit. Things are changing quickly in our industry, they always have been, but now, the world seems to be changing even faster.

So, we really looked at those in a way of what's going to really make a difference and how do we need to show up and how do we need to think? So, an example would be, healthy debate.

We learned through the pandemic that we don't have time sometimes to have an unhealthy debate. You would hear things like, we're kind of spiraling or we're not moving as quickly as we need to with decisions.

Or we're trying to maybe speak to all the orgs when really we need to speak to the top 80% or 90% that are engaged. So, we really looked at our behaviors in a way of like, what's really going to make a difference?

So, healthy debates, one I can think of where we don't want to have drama, where it's disrespectful, but we do need to get to a place really quickly. And so, that means suspending maybe our own judgments and our own opinions and agenda, and really poking holes in each other's thoughts, but in a respectful way that's focused on the business outcomes. So, that's a huge change.

What is the ‘fist of five?’

Barbara: And Kandi, is there a certain point that it's like, okay, you disagree and commit now?

Kandi: Yes. And so, part of that behavior is what the tools go with it. And so, we have a tool that we use, and we really use it a lot for leadership, which is the fist of five.

And so, we'll debate and we'll time box it, and then we'll say, “Where is everybody?” Are you like, “If we move forward, I'm going to leave the company” or am I, “I'm getting there, but I still have questions.”

Four is like, “I'm not all the way there but I'm willing to walk.” And five is like, “What are we waiting for? Let's go.” And you have anything in between.

And so, we use that knowing that not everybody is going to be 100% ready to go all the time, but we use that as a way to judge, can we move forward? And hey, by the way, if you're three and you still have questions, are there questions of clarity or you just want us to hear the barriers you think we're going to run up against and we can note those.

So, it's just creating a different way to speak around it versus really suspending how you feel personally, and not feeling like what people are saying is personal. It's not, it's about the business and what's best for our employees and clients.

Barbara: I love that. I just wrote down fist of five. I'm going to be implementing that in Remote, it's excellent.

How do you know your organization has the right values?

Talk to me about the values and how you pivoted to behavior. So, here at Remote, we're four-years-old, and we have really started to pressure test values that had been created when the company started.

How often did you look at your values and what was the rationale between moving past the values to deep dive into the behaviors? And did you get much resistance from your employee base on that?

Kandi: We still get some resistance when they're like, “Why are there so many?” Normally, you think of values and you see them on the walls or on documentation. Like there's different signals that are sent throughout the org, whether it's remote or in person. And it's hard to imagine if there's up to 29, like how do you even remember them? Or all the things that come with it.

So, I think that was the pushback we got just of understanding what does this mean and why are we looking at it this way? But we did switch over, we read a lot and we learned a lot.

And there was this whole mindset of being very clear again, how sometimes values are a little bit more open or sometimes, they're even like table stakes, so why do we even mention them?

So, you've seen a lot of integrity. Well, if you don't have integrity, you probably shouldn't be here. Those are kind of table stakes, so why do we use our precious time talking about integrity? That's just like a no-brainer.

And then diving into clarity. So, when you think about debate, it's healthy debate. And then we have a few examples of what that means, and we have examples of what it means when it's not done successfully.

So, we wanted to get a little bit more clear, and we do that with like, the right side of helpful is one of our behaviors, you want to be helpful, but when are you over extending that to where you're doing the work for them and taking away learning. And so, you could have something like, be a great teammate, but what does that mean?

And so, under that for us, could stay on the right side of helpful, embracing feedback. There's many things that go to that versus at high-level they may miss some of the nuances that really apply here specifically.

And you ask, how often do we look at them? We actually have it to where they can change if needed, if we have to make another shift or something's not resonating.

So, this is our second time we've revamped them. When we went from values to behaviors, we changed obviously. And then about five years later, we went through another shift when we're like, “Okay, we're really making a big transformation so we really need to improve our overall behavior.”

And we looked at what was working for us and what wasn't. And some of them we took away because they weren't really landing, or we were over-indexing in them in an unhealthy way.

So, an example would be one of our values was being scrappy. And so, we kind of took that over to our behaviors as well in a different way the first round. And that's about really being financially healthy.

But when we were trying to really save and trying to be innovative without always going to a big tool or platform that worked well for us. But at the level we're at now, and the amount of people we have now, it was hurting us because people were trying to piece together Excel spreadsheets or do things versus what really is the ROI here, and what do we really need to scale versus let's just be scrappy.

Barbara: So, things just weren't as efficient?

Kandi: Exactly. So, what we did is we changed that to drive financial health, and we have specific examples and measures that we look at.

Barbara: I like that.

Kandi: So, it's very clear.

How do you measure performance in a values-driven environment?

Barbara: Tell me, when you're thinking about evaluating performance, what is the waiting there and how do you think about the impact and the what and what people do, and then the how, like how they're showing up from a values or behavior standpoint?

Kandi: When you look at our, what we call GPS, our (Grow Perform Succeed system), which is like our performance management system, when you look at that, we have success factors, and we have three of those. One is behaviors and that's the first one listed. And then we have impact, and then we have how fast they can grow.

So, we want you to grow, we want you to have potential, but it's also about are they growing at the same speed that we need them to grow? But behavior is first and that's on purpose.

Because if you are growing well and you are creating impact, which is performance, that's amazing. But if your behaviors are not where they need to be, then it doesn't work. And so, it's a short-term win from your impact and growth.

So, those are weighed heavier than the other two. And honestly, if they can't get there, then it's not worth keeping the relationship together.

Barbara: That’s your table stakes, again?

Kandi: It is table stakes. We have lots of resources. If you're not growing at the right speed, we have tools, resources, and people internally that can help you get there. Or again, if that's not where you want to go, then let's have a really good honest conversation and figure out what that looks like.

If you want to upskill, but the role that you're in right now is not allowing that and we need you faster in that role, we do have a group that we can pull you into this talent pool where it kind of pulls you out of the current work.

You might work on special projects, but the goal is to get you up to speed for that next role or that next thing within 90 days.

Barbara: Oh, I love that. So, you take them out of their current role into this pool where they do kind of strategic projects and exposure to other teams and roles.

Kandi: And they work very closely with our talent success team, like our L&D team. So, they will do an assessment of where are your current skills, where are you at, what do you want to achieve, and what does the company need? And if they're aligned, then let's go. Let's put a plan together and we're here to support you.

If they're not, which is totally okay too, then let's figure out how to get you where you want to go. And that may not be in the organization and that's okay, but let's have those honest conversations and assessments and figure out what's next.

Barbara: I love that because it's a real pivot towards an employee-centered growth as opposed to what the business needs, like it's the balance between the two.

Kandi: It is.

Barbara: That's wonderful.

What’s the secret to making a remote-first company work?

And if a company is listening and they're thinking about going remote, what would you say is the biggest area that they should think about that would need to legitimately change to make it a success?

Kandi: How they see performance with their employees. So, how do they rate performance? And this is really more like checking your biases, but also from a personal perspective, really ask yourself, “How am I looking at my employee's performance? Is it because I can see them working? Is it because I see the delivery? Is it because I get to see how they interact with their people or how they show up?”

And you definitely have to look at performance by deliverables and outcomes, not how they're doing the work along the way.

Barbara: Completely. Tell me a bit about how you bring together distributed teams and the reason I'm asking Kandi, we're also thinking about that in our world. Like how often? Where should you be? Are they big events, kind of small micro events? How do you think through those?

Kandi: For everybody, they come together twice a year. So, currently, we do January and July. That gives us enough time. Can January say, “Okay, here's our plan, here's our one-year plan, here's what it means to you.”

We have those face-to-face conversations, let's them do some work stream planning. It lets us do some learning if we need to be together, some co-working. And then we're off to the races for six months doing the work.

And then we come back in July, and we celebrate everything that we've achieved so far. And we talk about what's next, how we are going to close out the year. The July summit is really focused on connections, networking, and learning.

So, that's heavily leaning into what learning do you need? You know, bringing in experts from the industry and different vendors. Do we need to bring in clients to speak with us?

Do we bring in a keynote speaker for something to really bring in some new tools and practices? And then we have fun. The last one we did in Salt Lake about a month ago.

There's lots of activities to choose from so that we can mix it up and you're not with your team, you're getting together based on the activity. And we do a lot of things at the summits.

We have an engagement hall where people can come in and connect, and it's just an engaging place where you can come in and do different things and meet different people.

So, those happen every six months. And even when we can't get together in person, if that happens, we have hybrid versions we can get together in VR. And so, we can do that in between as well.

So, we do paintball in VR or some escape rooms in VR, we can do presentations in VR. All of our employees get headsets when they start. So, that's another medium that we use for fun and for work.

The other thing is your teams or your functions. So, there is a budget for your team to get together. So, in between those six-month periods, if you really have a gnarly project, there's something that really requires, let's come together and put our heads together and move a little bit faster, and then go back and do the work, they can get together that way.

There is a budget and there's a process. We actually have a role internally and she and her teammate, they focus on our summits, but they also help us create the best experience in an effective way when we do bring our small teams together. So, once every six months is not a missed event. It's pretty amazing.

Barbara: I've actually seen in more remote companies that the gender balance is a lot healthier. That's the case I'm guessing.

Kandi: It is. Last checked, we were around 73% women, and I think it's helpful because we have people whose husbands are in the military and they move all the time.

But it doesn't matter, so it works well. Or they need to have a little bit more flexibility with their children and different things that are going on. So, that's very helpful. I wish I'd had that when my boys were younger.

Barbara: I have a seven, five and two-year-old.

Kandi: Awesome.

How do women in leadership positions influence and guide remote teams?

Barbara: So, I am very appreciative of the flexibility for sure.

So, now talk about women leaders because I know that alongside your work, you're part of a community that is helping more women get into leadership roles. So, tell me about that experience and I guess what you've learned about other companies who have female remote and distributed teams.

Kandi: Women leaders, what we see is they do like the flexibility here, but then I think what we see is they’re afraid to lean into that flexibility a little bit.

And so, I think that's what's great is when we're with a different managers group or leaders’ group and we're talking through like “Yeah, this is an example of how I take care of myself during the day.”

And just sharing those practices and I think women are very open to sharing. But I think we tend to be harder on ourself about, “Oh, I really can't step away.” Or “What would that look like?”

So, for myself personally, I try to be a role model internally, my calendar to my direct and my team is open.

Barbara: Oh, nice.

Kandi: So, they can see what I'm doing. Obviously, if there's something private, then I mark it private, but it's just very transparent because I want to show them that it's okay to come in and work, and then step away and go get on the Peloton, and then come back.

Or if you need to do something for your personal, that's great, then come back and finish up your day. And so, I think sharing those stories and being a role model is helpful because I do see that kind of a barrier of flexibility is not real.

Barbara: Yes. And actually no one else is judging them. We're just judging ourselves.

Kandi: I'm not sitting here looking at, “Okay, who is yellow on teams right now and why are they yellow?” So, I think that is different and when I see the other groups, I think everybody is really just lifting women up to be like, “You are good enough, go for it.” Where before, there's been so many times where you're looking at a job description going-

Barbara: Can't do that. Can't do that.

Kandi: Like let me just go try and see what happens. And I think that's what I'm really seeing out of a lot of the groups of women who are coming together to support each other. It's, “Go for it, you've got this, you can do it. What's the worst that could happen?”

Barbara: Exactly. That's such a strong statement, I love that. And I'm going to end on strength. Okay. So, you are amazing by the way.

Kandi: Oh, thank you.

Barbara: Peloton, kickboxing, and surviving breast cancer. So, I've just started strength training two years ago in anticipation of the menopause.

Kandi: Yes.

Barbara: Talk to me a little bit about your strength training and how you think about exercise as your outlet.

Kandi: Exercise saved me, literally. I was a workaholic in my previous life, so-so bad. That's when I talk about my kids, I wish I had done things differently, I'm making up for it now. But I was a workaholic and I firmly believed that contributed to my cancer.

Luckily for me, before I found that I had cancer, I was going through a life journey where my kids were older, so I started making time for myself, which I never did. I didn't understand that concept of putting myself first.

Barbara: I know.

Kandi: But I started doing that and my boys would join me sometimes too because I was doing kickboxing and strength training. So, they were in soccer, so sometimes they would come, so that made it better for me because I feel like, “Okay, they're here with me.”

I got really into fitness. I needed to lose a lot of weight. And so, I just did it. I went into something that I thought was way out of my comfort zone. I did Krav Maga jiu jitsu and kickboxing.

And I instantly fell in love with the group I was with, and I loved what I was doing. I felt strong, I felt empowered. And through that I met a personal trainer. And so, we started working together with a small group and I was doing that, and he turned me on to weights.

So, long story short, I dropped 130 pounds. I was in the best shape of my life, and I was at the peak of my health journey when I was diagnosed. And I firmly believe if that was not the case, it would've been much harder on me. I worked through chemo; I didn't take any time off.

Barbara: And you were so physically strong going into it.

Kandi: I was strong, and it did knock me down, don't get me wrong. Like I had my moments, but all that I had done to lose that weight and build that strength up, I had to learn how to be mindful and put my mind in another place and not feel the pain, that was crucial to my cancer treatment.

And even before my cancer treatment, I started kickboxing, I taught my own class. I was doing personal training and different things, I got certified and did all the things I wanted to do on the side.

And after coming out of cancer, it was a challenge. I had put on some weight from the steroids. There were different things going on. I couldn't hit as hard as I like to hit on the bags and different things, but I've adjusted.

And then I found Peloton and I continued to do the strength training and the different things. And it seems like every time I get knocked down and I have another health something, which is kind of the norm after you have chemo, like your body's just not the same — it's so much easier to come back out because I am focused on getting that strength back.

And so, it's just integrated in my life. It's been really good.

Barbara: You're an inspiration, Kandi. It was so great to talk to you.

Kandi: Oh, thank you. It was great to talk to you, Barbara.

Barbara: Thank you so much for chatting with me. And I've learned lots of things that I've written down on my yellow stickies over there.

Kandi: Oh, I love that. Thank you.

Barbara: So, we will be implementing them. So, appreciate your time.

Kandi: Of course. Thank you for your time. Thanks for having me, it's been a pleasure.

Barbara: Thank you so much to Kandi for talking in depth about remote working and the challenges of distributed teams.

Well, that just about wraps it up for the latest episode of Off Mute. I'm Barbara Matthews, the Chief People Officer at Remote, and we'll be back in two weeks with the next episode.

But in the meantime, please subscribe to the podcast and if you like what you've heard, give us five stars as it helps others like you find our podcast.

Thank you for listening to Off Mute from Remote, catch you next time.

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