As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Papay.
A proven HR technology pioneer with over 20 years of experience building and leading technology businesses focused on Human Capital Management, Michael Papay currently serves as CEO & Co-founder of Waggl, an Employee Voice platform that crowdsources real-time insight to drive faster action and alignment around critical business topics. Michael is a frequent author and contributor to advancing the thought leadership around organizational learning and employee engagement, and his work has been published in Fast Company, Forbes, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and other leading business publications. He has presented at SIOP, ATD, HRWest, and other prominent industry conferences. Michael is on a mission to make the workplace more human by empowering the voice of employees and cultivating a more connected and engaged workforce.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up as an only child of two entrepreneurs. My mother had an advertising business and an antique store, and my father was in the pharmaceutical industry and then had a manufacturing plant. At the dinner table, much of the conversation was centered around my parent’s businesses, so I got to learn a lot through the teachings of my parents. I went to Babson College, where I had the opportunity to study Entrepreneurship. After working for a large Fortune 1000 company, I was invited by a gentleman by the name of Cal Wick to start a company called Fort Hill, which focused on how to help leaders follow through on their good intentions by developing and changing behaviors within their organizations. I learned a lot from him about what makes someone a strong leader and what makes organizations thrive. That experience led me to build and create my current company, Waggl, 6 years ago.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I had a hard time arriving at a funny mistake because I view mistakes as learning opportunities. When you start a business, you only know what you know — if you knew everything, you probably wouldn’t get into it in the first place. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, but view each of them of a treasure and an opportunity to learn and grow from.
But in thinking about humorous things that have happened, one time I was on a pitch with a large new business prospect, and while my colleague was giving a demo of our product, I was leaning back in my chair. All of a sudden, the legs snapped on the chair and I found myself on the floor of the conference room. The best part of it was that my colleague didn’t miss a beat — he looked over at me, could tell I was fine and just continued presenting. I still tend to lean in my chair, but my key take-away from that experience was “Lean forward, not backward.”
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
One book that I find myself returning to lately is Out of the Crisis by W. Edwards Deming. In this book, written in 1986, Deming talks about the need for a transformation of management style and governmental relations with industry. One of his key points was about “Constancy of Purpose,” which Deming says is critical to order to stay competitive and continue to provide jobs. Deming said that constancy of purpose is not just a checkbox item, but rather a foundational element of the management structure that is required for an organization to succeed. This point feels very relevant to me right now.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When we first started Waggl, we understood the challenge that companies were experiencing, in terms of getting feedback from their employees, especially in the midst of so much transformation and change. We’ve all had work experiences where we haven’t been heard, and it feels empty and hollow, and can be very demotivating. There are two dimensions to this: 1) We can allow companies to tap into their most valuable asset — the wisdom of their people, and 2) We can help people to thrive at work. That’s our purpose, and it’s truly what has enabled us to get to this point. To sustain the effort and grit it takes, you need that common sense of underlying purpose.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My #1 principle is that of respect. In a business context, that’s 2-dimensional — the organization needs to respect the needs of its people, and the people need to respect the needs of the organization. Unfortunately, there are still instances in the workplace and our larger society in which respect is not valued. We’re seeing that right now with the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s my personal mission to make sure that everyone in the workplace is afforded more respect. And hopefully, in turn, we have an opportunity to make more of a societal impact right now, too, because it’s sorely needed.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My wife and I are just two entrepreneurs with a child who are trying to hold it through it together. She has a fashion company who’s retail business has been hit hard, so she’s had to furlough people. Simultaneously, my daughter has been home for school. I’ve tried to reserve lunch as a time to connect with my daughter. We make lunch and watch Shark Tank together, and now she’s able to calculate post-money valuations! In addition, my daughter and I cook dinner together and it’s a creative and cathartic experience to sit down as a family and enjoy the meal. It’s been a silver lining to have this precious family time.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As one of my advisors said, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.” So, we’ve tried to approach this pandemic as an opportunity to do some good. First and foremost, we set some purpose-driven intentions. Our actions around this have included: Modeling good practices internally by being real and authentic, and checking in with our own employees continually about their well-being and safety, and how they are doing with all the changes and transitions. Also, providing a daily rhythm for everybody and reminding them about our shared sense of purpose and meaning, Proactively reaching out to customers to see how we could help with their needs, and Making Waggl available for free for a limited time to companies who want to put their people first during the COVID-19 crisis. All of this has been a bit challenging for me as a leader because there’s no playbook for this, but I’ve found that it has built a great deal of trust and further commitment to our organization and purpose.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
In general, just listening and making it a priority to be available. I try to check in with friends and family members who might not have the ability to interact as frequently as I do from home. I’m lucky enough to have my wife and daughter here, but not everyone has their loved ones with them, so I try to be mindful of that. Ask questions. For example, my daughter has had to sacrifice a number of experiences that were important to her during this time, and I want her to be able to express her frustration about that. But also trying to find moments like our family dinners — I’ve bought fondue pots and an ice cream maker, so that we can find new ways to connect through food. Every night as a family, we watch Little House on the Prairie together. We build these little rhythms to replace some of the things we’re missing with new elements of our routine together, and that helps to quell some of the anxieties. And for myself, I have a redwood slab outside that I’ve been sanding and I find it very therapeutic to sand it. At this point, I’ve probably sanded it 20 times, and am now on the 12th coat of varnish. I think it’s important for everyone to find their own therapeutic escapes, if they want to truly be present for others.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The most obvious opportunity is with regard to remote work. This has already started to feel much more natural, thanks in part to tools like Google apps, Zoom, Slack and Waggl. These allow us to really stay in touch with our co-workers better. Waggl recently ran a pulse in partnership with Josh Bersin Academy and CultureX that was featured on the MIT Sloan School of Management Review. Of the 93% of participants who responded that they had transitioned to remote work as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, 69% believed that their organizations had been able to maintain the same level of productivity. In addition, 61% felt that the transition to remote work had actually increased employee engagement in their organizations. So, building on that, we will start to see opportunities for remote interaction in other fields beyond business, too, like telemedicine.
We are in the midst of a major reset that will make it very hard for people to return to the “normal” of the past. So, that will create many opportunities for businesses to reimagine themselves. For example, the restaurant experience may be completely different — order at the counter, stand and at high top tables, outdoor seating whenever possible, more take-out, etc. Truthfully, almost every organization will have that opportunity — it’s going to be required for a lot of organizations to survive.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
There needs to be a dimension of increased trust. For example, businesses can’t afford not to trust their people to work from home — Leaders are going to have to let go of the old ways of thinking and extend an enhanced level of trust to their employees straight away. And we will also have to embrace flexibility. There will be a new level of appreciation for space and hygiene that will be challenging in some of the larger workspaces with high-traffic areas. No longer will we be able to cram so many people into shared work areas.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
When the pandemic hit, we came up with a Maslow-inspired framework. Waggl worked with its customers in the marketplace to go through three phases of recovery. First, we realized that we first needed to acknowledge that people were fearful, and that we needed to help to ensure their well-being in order to build trust to start rebuilding together again. Second, in order to return to productivity, we needed to equip people to contribute in the midst of remote work. And finally, we need to collectively empower people to co-create the future.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
The 3-phase framework I just described is something that I’m very committed to first modeling within Waggl and then helping to promote externally with the companies we support. Especially as we move into the recovery phase, we need to hear from everyone, not just the voices of the people in the Board Room and the Executive Suite. Let’s invite all employees to celebrate something we’ve done well together during this COVID-19 time period. And let’s make sure that we capture ways to continue being more inclusive and committed going forward, as we build upon Employee Voice.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes came from my grandfather, who was a living example of grit, toughness and resilience. He was one of 5 brothers who immigrated from Slovakia, founded a slate quarry in Pennsylvania, and ended up being deployed in the Battle of the Bulge. He once said to my father, “When the Germans are coming, nothing else matters.” My dad quoted him at the rehearsal dinner of my wedding. To me, that quote is a reminder that in life or death experiences like COVID-19, you just have to focus and get your people through them. It really puts things in perspective.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I do some writing on the Waggl blog, as well as Authority Magazine, HR.com, Forbes, and other publications. And if you ever find yourself in Sausalito, please give me a shout and maybe we can enjoy a glass of wine together in my wine cellar!