Wishlist sat down to chat with telecommunications CEO Michael Sterl about company culture, employee rewards, and recognition.

Meet Michael Sterl

Michael Sterl is President of Mobile Solutions and an Operating Partner with Periscope Equity with expertise in managed services providers and communications. Michael is the Co-Founder and CEO of Carve Digital and Cloud Optik, two platforms that provide sales enablement and data analytics solutions to the telecom industry. Michael has spent over a decade in the telecom industry. Previously, he was the Co-Founder and Executive Vice President of Simple Signal, a unified communications service provider – acquired by Vonage in 2015. Post-acquisition, Michael went on to serve as Regional Vice President of channel sales at Vonage Business.

A few of our favorite takeaways:

Let’s jump into the interview.

Dan Kasper

Obviously this year has brought with it plenty of changes. Given the prevalence of remote work right now, what do you feel most organizational cultures are missing?

Michael Sterl

First, I think part of sustaining culture is creating the ultimate digital workspace. It’s knowing the combination of tools, apps, and data to minimize employees having to chase things down. It’s critical to leverage technology to ensure employees aren’t limited in doing their job. I think a lot of times, culture fails because we prevent the employee from getting work done.

For companies that weren’t ready to move to a work-from-anywhere environment, COVID was a stressor. It’s forcing people to think about what culture means both internally and externally. The other day I was challenging my cofounder around the idea that a celebration culture is a positive culture.

Of course, it’s great to celebrate each other, but I asked him, “do we truly have a positive culture or do we just have a cool book cover that no one has opened to get deeper into the real stories?” What we took away is that we haven’t created a feedback loop in the environment that tells us what is actually happening with our employees as everyone is going remote.

That is a big disconnect, it’s a missing component for many organizations. We can have a top-down push, but we need a bottom-up, anonymous response to understand what’s working and what’s not working. Ultimately, when we get that information, we can start to create the right environment or drive the right kind of change.

Culture is staying true to ourselves and staying true to our people. I appreciated Brigette Hyacinth’s post on what is truly important at the end of the day:

“I don’t care whether you come into the office at 8 am.
I don’t care if you choose to work from home or not.
I don’t care if you work from the garage while they fix your car.

I hired you for a job and I trust you to get it done. Just let me know what you need from me to be successful in your role. And I will show up for you.

Life happens!
You don’t need to justify to me why you need a day off.
You don’t need to explain how sick your child is to leave early.
You don’t need to apologize for having a personal life.

Yes, I care about results but I also care about you. We are all human and we are all adults. I lead people. I don’t run an adult day care center.

My advice for anyone hiring:
1. Select the right people.
2. Agree on deliverables (be crystal clear).
3. Provide proper tools and support.
4. Get out of their way.”

That, to me, is the exact way I think about culture.

Dan Kasper

What is your company doing to ensure employees feel connected and appreciated? What mistakes are leaders making?

Michael Sterl

To me, mistakes are opportunities. We have to focus on the lessons learned. We assumed that everyone could make this transition. We underestimated the real issues with remote working, namely, what is happening on the personal side of life. Kids aren’t in school. Your spouse or roommate is working from the same house. Delineation between work and personal is where we’ve failed. We failed in understanding what our employees were going through and how we can best support them.

Dan Kasper

Your past has been quite successful in terms of founding, growing, and successfully exiting businesses a couple of times. How important has building teams, employee engagement, and culture been to your success?

Michael Sterl

I’ve been fortunate to have a copilot in those cases. Full transparency: culture has not been my strength. I’ve developed the ability to build a “psychological sandbox”, a place of trust, over many years of practice. I’ve been able to create a people-first environment where people aren’t afraid to share off-the-record-type things. You have to trust employees, allow them to sink or swim (autonomy — if you need help, ask for it). I try to give people the opportunity to try, learn, and educate their way through their problems. I don’t know if it’s what works for everyone, but that is what has worked for me.

I’m not afraid to express to employees that at some point, I will fall down, or that we will fall down. You have to train people to expect failure. Does this open up some vulnerability when you do this? I know where I stand on this, but what about you?

Dan Kasper

I bring this up in almost every interview I’m a part of. I use the word fall instead of fail, personally, and if we’re not falling then we’re not doing anything new. If we’re not doing anything new, then we’ll become obsolete as a business. I expect people to fall, however it’s what we learn from falling down that propels us forward. It may not resonate with everyone, but if you get the right people it will encourage them. To me, it’s critical in the startup and entrepreneurial world to be comfortable with failure, chaos, and making sense of all of it.

Michael Sterl

Part of the historical company I’m helping out now, Mobile Solutions, was to hide failures and moments when we fall. They had a celebration channel, and not once did we see stories of people falling down and the learning moments that came of those moments. It was only kudos, props, and shoutouts from customers.

I understand the importance of those moments too, but if we are so great then why do customers leave? It’s okay to celebrate a fall knowing that we’ll get better over time. I believe celebration should also include moments where we’ve identified a real problem, and then did what it took to fix it.

Dan Kasper

As we launch Wishlist’s new peer-to-peer recognition software, I think that concept has to be baked into the product. It’s not always about the easy wins and high-fives. It’s about the moments where teams or individuals fall, get back up, start over, and ultimately win. Being able to have that resiliency is, to me, more powerful than simply doing a good job.

Michael Sterl

Riddle me on the idea of rewards. My first job out of college was in sales, where it was a total boiler room mentality. Everyday you had to put the number of deals you sold up on the whiteboard. I was already self-driven so I understood the point behind it, but the reverse of this scenario is when managers are all about celebrating numbers, but are afraid to compare their employees to each other and make that comparison public. How do you think about this issue, when you think about how Wishlist supports managers with performance rewards?

Dan Kasper

I’m into public-facing scoreboards, dashboards, and metrics. If I’m a leader or a manager coaching someone, I’ll do that in a one-on-one setting. At the end of the day though, numbers are numbers. Performance matters, and there is a tactful way to present that. Not everyone will be a top performer all the time, but encouraging ownership and having that be public-facing lets the entire team know how each department is doing in terms of their KPIs.

Michael Sterl

Awesome. When data is used in the right way, I think it’s good for everyone. How does this apply to using a rewards software?

Dan Kasper

It’s about two things: being intentional and being strategic with rewards. It’s 2020 and having some type of rewards and recognition program is table stakes for employers. It could be a simple Slack channel, daily standups to acknowledge team members, but we all know that people want to have an impact in their work and feel like they’re part of a community. That is the foundation of what we’re doing with Wishlist — balancing the psychological elements of humanity, but digitizing and optimizing that for teams that are in person, dispersed, and even fully remote all over the world.

We leverage the power of choice in the rewards piece. It’s a consultative process: we sit down with HR professionals and ask the key questions. Do you want to have your rewards tie back to your organizational core values, business goals, or both? Is there a way we can proactively suggest recognition and ensure it’s inclusive for your teams?

Can we connect in that next layer of recognition, where team members are looping each other in on a recognition someone has received to more accurately reflect everyone involved in a particular deliverable’s success?

It’s about taking human concepts, applying data, and ensuring intentionality so that your rewards strategy isn’t just a piecemeal approach. We work with clients to make sure their rewards and recognition strategy is as well thought out as any other important element of the business.

In terms of data, we do a lot with benchmarking. We have over 200 clients using the software, and we can see what industries are successful in their strategies and leverage that insight when working with new clients. Machine learning is interesting to us as well. We want to move in the direction of becoming more proactive and suggestive around rewards and recognition.

Michael Sterl

You made a valuable point: people want to have an impact. The table stakes are to recognize your people, but we have to get more creative in doing so. Cash rewards are silent. People don’t remember them. Ideally the rewards you offer should be motivating for everybody, so as leaders we have to figure out what matters to our employees and recognize and reward them in those unique ways.

Dan Kasper

Last question: how do you measure or determine the success of your company culture? Is there a way to objectively measure culture success, from your perspective?

Michael Sterl

This was my discussion just yesterday. I don’t know how to clearly measure culture. I do believe it will be subjective. The starting point, I think, for a small organization is to have 5-7 key questions you ask to gather anonymous feedback from your employees. You score the results of each question and whether, to your company, that falls in a red, yellow, or green category. It’s the simplest format to start.

The long answer is my challenge to people: we think culture is the pretty cover on the front of the book. But how do we make sure to open the book, flip all the way through it, and finish the book?

Sure, we might have pictures of our team celebrating together. We might even get free food from our employers, or cash bonuses. But that’s a materialistic view of culture, and if we allow ourselves to be distracted by it we lose out on what’s beneath that.

Culture can be a top-down initiative, but it must be driven by and sustained by bottom-up feedback. To me, that’s how we find out what’s missing, whether our culture objectives are being achieved, and whether people are actually excited to be part of our teams.

As a company, Wishlist is passionate about people and technology and what we can achieve by blending those two elements. If you enjoyed this interview and are ready to create an employee recognition program that works, download Wishlist’s free employee recognition strategy template now. 

This interview was hosted by Dan Kasper from Wishlist