#BeBetter Podcast with Michael Kurland

How Leaders Can Create A Great Place to Work

When your team feels cared for, they will be your brand champions.

Michael C. Bush is the global CEO of Great Place to Work®. A global chief executive with over 25 years of experience, Michael has led small and mid-sized organizations through transformational growth due to his love of business and an unwavering commitment to fair and equitable treatment.

Portrait of Michael C. Bush

“People’s perceptions are shaped primarily by whether they feel like they’re being cared for as a person.”

—Michael C. Bush

Great Place to Work®

13. How Leaders Can Create A Great Place to Work

Key Takeaways

  • The best way to find out what people are experiencing is to ask them.
  • Find out whether people feel emotionally and psychologically safe at work.
  • Seventy percent of the work experience is determined by the leader.

Michael’s Social Media


Michael C. Bush is a global chief executive with over 25 years of experience leading small and mid-sized organizations through transformational growth. Driven by a love of business and an unwavering commitment to fair and equitable treatment, in 2015 Michael acquired ownership and currently serves as global CEO of Great Place to Work® headquartered in Oakland, California with operations in more than 60 countries worldwide. In addition to the book Michael Bush authored “A Great Place to Work For All™” (2018, publisher Berrett-Koehler), he is a sought after keynoter and regular contributor to Fortune and has been featured along with Great Place to Work® in numerous publications including Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Inc., ThriveGlobal, Chief Executive Magazine, Huffington Post, CNBC, and TED. Michael Bush received his MS in Management from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in 1994. Michael is a student and teacher of business having taught Entrepreneurship at Stanford University and Mills College from 2003 to 2015.

“The thing that makes a culture really come together is when people feel like they’re working together towards something that matters.”

—Michael C. Bush

Great Place to Work®

Podcast Transcription

Hello, I’m Michael Kurland, CEO and Co-Founder of Branded Group. Welcome to the #BeBetter Podcast. To me, our company’s mantra to “Be Better” is more than a tagline; it’s a culture that permeates our organization, propelling our team to Be Better to each other, our customers and our communities as well as to ourselves. Each week on the #BeBetter podcast, I interview leaders who authentically exemplify how they are being better in their professional and personal lives.

Today’s podcast is dedicated to our vendors who deliver upon our #BeBetter promise. Our vendors assist our clients with everyday facility maintenance while also responding to emergencies and managing preventative maintenance programs. We couldn’t do what we do without them. Learn more about our valued vendor partnerships as well as preferred vendor program at https://www.michaelkurland.co/vendors/.

Michael Kurland (00:01):

Welcome to another episode of the #BeBetter podcast. I’m your host, Michael Kurland and I am very excited today. We have a very special guest, Michael C. Bush, the CEO of Great Place to Work. Michael, welcome to the show. Thank you for coming on.

Michael C. Bush (00:18):

Great to be here today.

Michael Kurland (00:21):

Why don’t you tell the audience a little bit about yourself and your background?

Michael C. Bush (00:25):

Today actually I got a sunny clear sky day here in Oakland, California. This is where I live. This is where I was born. This is where I was raised. So I’ve been here in Oakland for a long time. I joined Great Place to Work in September of 2015. Actually I bought the company with a partner.  I was hired to sell the company, but ended up buying it myself. It’s a long, crazy story, but one that had a really, really good outcome. Certainly for me, I just considered to be an act of great fortune and so it’s been a great place to work and I have been enjoying the work that I love ever since then.

Michael Kurland (01:08):

Again, thank you for coming on and we love everything that you’ve been doing at Great Place to Work. Branded Group has been on the list for three years running and hoping to make it four in the coming year. So thank you for all that you’ve done with that. We’re going to get started and jump right into these questions. We’ve got a lot of good culture questions and I’m so excited to have you on, especially in this crazy COVID year that we’re having. So the first question I have for you is how do you make sure that your culture is more than just words on a wall?

Michael C. Bush (01:41):

I think that what we try and measure is the employee experience. What are employees actually experiencing? Because as you know the words on the wall can say one thing, but what are people actually experiencing on a consistent basis? We believe the best way to find out what people are experiencing is to ask them. So we basically ask employees and the companies that we work with 60 questions and we ask the same 60 questions to 10,000 companies in 150 countries around the world. While things are different in different corners of the earth, in terms of what people want from the people that they work with and the people that they work for, they are the same. We ask questions about whether you feel respected, whether you feel like your leaders are honest with you, whether you feel that your leaders are fair and are equitable.

Michael C. Bush (02:35):

Do you have a fair opportunity to get recognized for good work and get rewarded for good work, to get developed and to get feedback, all the things that people want, that really show them that they are respected? We ask questions about, do you enjoy the people that you work with? Do you feel like the people you work with care for you? Do you care for the people you work with? Do you feel like you’re really part of a team? Is there a sense of belonging at the organization, that it wouldn’t be as good without you and that you are needed there. We asked those questions in indirect ways because we used the social science template in terms of having done surveys of over a hundred million people. We understand how to ask these questions, how to analyze the data. But the data is very accurate in letting us know what people are experiencing and then it doesn’t matter what’s on the walls. The facts speak for themselves in terms of what leaders are experiencing and what they’re experiencing is different from what’s on the walls. Then it’s real clear what leaders need to do.

Michael Kurland (03:36):

I can attest to that. We’ve participated for the last three years and we’ve gotten the feedback afterwards and there’s definitely eye opening feedback. You think you’re doing well at certain things.  There are some employees feel like maybe they’re not as respected or they’re not getting as much applause for their hard work. You’ve got to start putting that into motion so that it’s not just words on a wall. I was so amazed, I was looking over your bio and like a hundred million surveys. That is so much data. So you guys really, truly are the experts. That’s just amazing to me like how many people have participated in and how you’ve quantified that. Kudos to you guys for making that happen.

Michael C. Bush (04:29):

Thank you. It’s a great database and it enables us to let people know what’s really going on and also to give them some benchmark comparisons. Most importantly, these days is to predict what will happen if you make certain changes and to predict what will happen if you don’t make certain changes.

Michael Kurland (04:48):

How close are those predictions? How much do you get into the numbers?

Michael C. Bush (04:55):

They’re very, very spot on. For example, let’s say exit surveys, something that a lot of companies do. We don’t offer an exit survey because we’ve never seen an exit survey that we didn’t see the problems multiple years before the person exited. We can look at a company right now and tell you if people start exiting, which they are about to, let us tell you why. It’s something going on in your benefit. It’s something going on under this leader. There’s something going on in accounting and finance that isn’t going on in sales and marketing. The data is very, very reliable in terms of letting a leader know that somehow they’re losing a connection with the person and in the open comments, for example, people start talking about a job. Whenever you see job, there’s a problem. The last thing you want is a person who says “I have a job.”

Michael C. Bush (05:59):

So you start to see it. You see it in the word clouds.  You start seeing people saying they can’t wait till Friday  in various comments and “why isn’t every day hump day?” You see that in the open comments. These are signs that something’s going on and if the organization pays attention to those, you’re actually able to see, and we have algorithms that show, that these people, we actually identify them as “presenteeism,” meaning they’re just present at work. They’re either just there to get the money or they’re looking for another job, or it’s not a good time in their personal life, but we identify them as the flight risk because they’re just present and give management things that they could do to try and change that and if you don’t, then they will be doing an exit survey.

Michael Kurland (06:55):

This is, this is very fascinating to me. So with all this data that you’ve collected, what is the most crazy thing that you’ve found through all the data in terms of what is an indicator that someone’s unhappy or someone is happy that wouldn’t be something you would typically think?

Michael C. Bush (07:15):

Well let’s say that a person says, “I don’t think that the organization or my manager cares for me as a person.” If a person says that all the alarm bells should go off, because I can tell you right now, a person who says that also says promotions do not go to those who deserve them. They say pay is not fair. You can say, well, “How do people get paid?” and they will say, “I don’t know, but it’s not fair.” People’s perceptions are shaped primarily by whether they feel like they’re being cared for as a person. This is something that people think, is a soft skill. It is. It is. It’s really, really important. The flip side of that, people will say that “I haven’t been promoted. I don’t understand how pay works, but I feel my manager cares for me as a person.”

Michael C. Bush (08:18):

Then you say, “Do you think promotions are fair?” “I don’t really understand how they work, but I bet they’re fair.” That caring, that connection, that somebody actually has a conversation with them, speaks to them a certain way, gives them feedback, which is how you show you care, thanks them and develops them. Those signs are what people are looking for to know if you care for them. They’re not looking for a new friend. They’re looking for somebody that’s trying to help them build a career. They’re looking a sign that somebody is going to do all they can to give them the resources and feedback and information. They need to advance in their job so they can do more for themselves or for their family. So care isn’t a word that’s used a lot, but it’s a very important metric of ours. It’s one of our top six metrics. It’s the one that enables you to predict with, at the second highest level of reliability, at the most reliable level of reliability, it’s trying to find out whether people feel emotionally and psychologically safe at work. That’s the most reliable predictor and it’s related to care. People don’t feel safe, they don’t feel cared for. So there is a high correlation between those two things, even though there is a subtle difference between the two.

Michael Kurland (09:41):

This is, again, fascinating. We talk all the time as business owners when you’re not getting into the culture conversation about ROI. I’ve always not been able to explain how, what we’ve done with our culture is not really something you can gage by an ROI, but it’s about the emotional intelligence and making the people want to stay. Then, you go into these long winded explanations of why it does help your ROI, like what you said, the soft skills. Anyway, this is just fascinating to me. So I’m kind of fanboying over here a little bit.

Michael Kurland (10:23):

But the next question I do have for you if you have a generational workforce, how do you get everyone to buy into the culture? How do you get them all to embrace it?

Michael C. Bush (10:34):

The thing that makes a culture really come together is when people feel like they’re working together towards something that matters and a cash flow doesn’t really do it except for bankers. EBITA doesn’t really do it. It’s something else. That’s an important thing. But people want to be doing something else. They want to feel like they’re actually making things better for their customers and their community. So that’s a sense of purpose. Talking about culture, it makes sense to people only if they have some context, which is, “Why do we exist? Why are we here?  How do we actually impact the world?”  Instead of just the one, the dollar or the shareholder or the owner, it’s going beyond that to multiple stakeholders.

Michael C. Bush (11:33):

So talking about purpose, then you can talk about the kind of culture that’s needed to deliver on that purpose. What you find is a purpose-driven organization always the reason the culture that’s needed is one where people are of service to each other. That’s it. It’s where people want to help the people that they work with. They want to work with the people that they work with to help the customer and to help the community. So you find this culture of service and selflessness, of humility and curiosity, the thing that’s needed and an accountability as being the things that’s needed to actually achieve that higher purpose. You don’t have to have those things if it’s just money. You actually don’t. If you want it to be just money, I’ve got the data on that too.

Michael C. Bush (12:28):

You can actually have people that are motivated on money but they don’t score very well and they aren’t on our list. We do business with them, but they’re not on our list. They wonder why they’re not on our list. They’re not on our list because they don’t have a high trust culture. Because when you are just about the money inside your company, you have people that are winners and losers and people telling them that. “You’re a loser. You need to be like us. We’re big game hunters. What have you done for us this quarter?” You actually see it in the data. These people that are having a great time and these other people that are having really a miserable time. But you find those in places that are really just driven towards financial rewards.

Michael Kurland (13:15):

At my last place, I was the vice president of sales and marketing for seven years and we had a vice president of business development and we were pitted against each other in a competition on us for pretty much seven years. Thankfully we both had thick skin. Initially we were not friends. Then after the first year we realized there’s no reason for us to argue with each other. But when I came out here and I started Branded Group that was the one big thing – I do not pit my sales team against each other. I still run the sales team to this day. I do not pit them against each other because the competition just breeds anger. It’s not teamwork like you’re saying, it’s not culture.

Michael Kurland (14:01):

So when I did get out here and started Branded Group, I really wanted to put a focus on culture. That’s where the purpose came in, the One-for-One program, that giving back. To your point, I think that’s part of why we’ve been on your list for the last three years and hopefully, will be continuing going forward. But all of the people in our company, they feel like they have, I don’t know if all of them do, but a good portion of them feel like they do have a purpose. They’re giving back. We’re serving our community, we’re serving our customers and they’re there to help each other. So I digress, but you just touched on a lot of points and I feel like it makes sense why we’ve been on your list.

Michael C. Bush (14:42):

It does. It’s not a digression at all. That’s the reason why.

Michael Kurland (14:46):

So next question is how do you continuously improve company culture? You guys are the company culture gurus. We set this culture in motion five years ago and we’re constantly, always trying to tweak it to make it current. Especially now with COVID, it’s been even more difficult. So what recommendations do you have to continuously improve on company culture?

Michael C. Bush (15:13):

It’s being connected to your people and having leaders who are working on ways of doing that better. The number one thing that an organization needs to do is improve the way that their leaders behave. You need to have data to know about the experiences that your leaders are creating. Every leader, including myself, I have things to work on. Every leader ought to feel that way and ought to know what they’re working on. What behaviors are they really working on? Because you don’t have to be an introvert or an extrovert or charismatic. You don’t have to be any of those things to know how to listen, to know how to speak, to know how to thank people, to know how to give people feedback, to know how to welcome someone and how to make sure that you’re doing all those things in a fair way to regardless of the gender of a person or their length of time in the company or what they do in the company or their rank in the company.

Michael C. Bush (16:21):

You’re just doing those things all the time. So that’s the work of the leader and that work – when a leader is doing that well, creates a great experience for the employees and when leaders aren’t doing that well, it creates a lesser experience because 70% of the work experience is determined by the leader, the person that you work for. So that’s what’s most important. You do want to have some benefits and policies and programs in place that support people like that. People know that I don’t have kids, but I have a pet and my colleagues have insurance for their kids, but I don’t have one for my pet. It would it be fair if I had pet insurance?

Michael C. Bush (17:12):

A lot of companies like Great Place to Work, we have pet insurance. So we offer it through Nationwide. It’s not that hard to get and it’s really cheap and our people love it. It’s like 12 bucks a month. So it’s just a little thing, but that’s what fairness is. That’s what fairness is. So if you’re listening to your employees and you’re connected to them, they’ll let you know. I love everybody who has kids. I don’t have any, and by the way, I’m never going to have any, but I got a couple of pets. Oh, well, golly, maybe we ought to do something for you. So it’s looking at the leaders, making sure that they’re developing, looking at your programs and policies and practices and making sure they are for all. That’s the whole point, making sure they’re for all. Whatever this benefit is, think about why you’re doing it and who’s not benefiting from it. What is it that they might need?

Michael Kurland (18:04):

That’s great information. I’m going to tell a true, honest story. I had an employee approach us a couple of years ago asking this exact question, if we would offer pet insurance. I was like, come on, really we’re going to offer pet insurance? But you know what, after this conversation right now, I am going to call my director of HR and we are going to offer pet insurance. I guess we can’t do it until 2021, but we’ll get it on the docket for 2021

Michael C. Bush (18:33):

Yeah. Check out Nationwide. They’re on our list!

Michael Kurland (18:41):

Making things happen here. So we touched on COVID-19 a little bit I really want to know how has that impacted your culture and your leadership style during this pandemic? What changes have had to be made on your end?

Michael C. Bush (18:56):

Increased connection. Increased connection. It’s making sure that during meetings, during one-on-ones, you have a way of having a conversation with the people who work for you, work with you, about how they’re doing and how their family’s doing. The only way you can know how they’re doing, how their family’s doing, is you have to know something about their family. So we concentrate on that. We recommend to our customers, especially now, since we’re going to be doing this for a while, that if you haven’t done it already. I just talked to Chuck Robbins this morning, CEO of Cisco, 77,000 people. Just had a meeting with him with 37,000 of their employees. Even if you’re Chuck, you don’t have more than 20 people who report to you.

Michael C. Bush (19:51):

Most people don’t have more than 20 and you can actually be connected to 20 people. Actually, you could be connected to 150 people. So 20 people’s actually pretty straightforward. So what you do is just get a book or some tool, some note thing on your laptop or phone, and you say, ”Hey just want to take a little time to get to know you a little bit better because if I get to know you a little bit better, I can improve your experience here. I’m wanting to know if you’re willing to go back and forth a little bit. So let me tell you what family means to me. You know, I have a partner, I have this, and we have a person who lives with us and so on and so forth. Are you willing to let me know something about yours?”

Michael C. Bush (20:40):

Write it down because you going to forget. They have two kids, they have two cats and a mother-in-law who lives there, who gets dialysis three days a week. You write these things down so that you notice. It will change every conversation you have with that person from that day forward. It will be altered. You will see them in a more human way and they will see you in a more human way. Then it’s, ”Hey, what have the eight last eight months been like for you and your family? As you’re looking towards the holiday season, as we close out this year, what are you worried about? Or what are you hopeful for?” Then, “Hey, is there anything we can do?” I’m not saying we can do it, but I’d just like to know. Is there anything that we can do? That’s the connection that’s needed now. That’s the connection that’s needed now.

Michael Kurland (21:36):

I think it goes full circle back to what you started with is just being a great listener and showing them that you care. In my sales career, I’ve learned the best salespeople are the ones that can listen. As the CEO of this company, showing that you care, like you said, it pays dividends. So I love this idea. I’m sorry, I’m going to tell you now I’m going to steal it and start having fun writing things down, because this is great information. The next question I have for you. Have you had to change any of your culture to adapt to the new paradigm of remote work? Obviously, besides Zoom meetings, right? Everyone’s now Zoom or Google meets or whatever, but what other things?

Michael C. Bush (22:27):

We just increased the connections. That’s all, nothing else. Because luckily we have a high trust culture. We take our survey every three months. I get the feedback every three months and I’m just like everybody else. It’s a horrifying day because I only focus on the stuff that’s on our heat map, its red. We do it. We share our results with everybody in the company. We’re the only crazy company who does that. Everybody has the same access that I do. They can see every open comment and then we get the results. This coming Monday will be our management team going through that data in detail while people in the company are going through it. Then we will report to the company what we think we see. There’s a group that will then, we call it the people posse, let us know what the people see.

Michael C. Bush (23:25):

Then we develop our plan of action in 90 days, what we’re going to do. So we get right on it. That’s what we do at Great Place To Work because we have to. Because we’re a Great Place To Work. So the last three months, what have we done? Okay, we’re all over that. We’re doing a good job there. We’ve built up our racial stamina due to the racial injustice and divides in the United States. We tuned up our physical and mental health support and really COVID has done that along with racial injustice. Then our people were feeling like during this COVID experience, they weren’t getting trained or developed and so we were like yes, because we’re not doing it. We’ve got two ways to go.

Michael C. Bush (24:19):

We’re not going to be doing it. Then we decided the people are asking for it. So we put a group of people together and put together a Great Place To Work, 101, 102, 103. So we’re taking this time to double down on making sure you understand our methodology and our software platform. We’re just doubling down on making sure you’re expert at all of the things that you wouldn’t normally do, because maybe you were too busy or something like that. We just had our last survey, the people responded really, really positive to that. They were like, “that was awesome and really appreciated it. We’re about to have something else to work on. So we definitely eat our food and pay attention to the survey results, which is really what listening is all about. But thinking about what’s guided us through the past eight months and what’s going to guide us through the next eight months. It’s the connections part.

Michael Kurland (25:21):

I like it and you guys certainly do eat your food, right. I can relate to one thing you were saying, and we do an annual survey internally as well, and we take all that information and same thing – package it. We just got our survey results back last Tuesday. Just like you said, all Monday, I was just like, “Oh my God, what are we going to hear? What the bad stuff?” It was all good, but not all good, but it was mostly good, but I focused and fixated on like three things and wanted to quickly fix these. So we’re the same. We’re working on that plan of action to fix. This has been great, Michael. I really appreciated our time. I’ve got one last question for you that we ask everyone that comes on the show.

Michael Kurland (26:11):

I’d like to ask you, what do you consider yourself to be an expert at and how would you give our audience advice on how to become an expert at said thing?

Michael C. Bush (26:24):

I think I’m an expert at listening. Because that’s what people say. So they said it so much Ted actually asked me to do a Ted on listening, which I did about three years ago. I think it’s got six or 7 million views at this point. It’s only four minutes. You can find it somehow. I don’t know how, but I’m probably Google, Ted and TEDx and Michael C. Bush and listening. I think it’s called “This is What Makes Employees Happy at Work.” It’s something about happiness. But I did this little thing on listening. It became all about that little thing I did about listening for all the obvious reasons. But it’s something that I work at, I work at it.

Michael C. Bush (27:19):

I work at not interrupting. I work at silence and being comfortable with silence in conversations and emptying my mind when people are talking and not being prepared for what I’m going to say when they stop. I work at it and continue to work at it. I think that’s my thing. If you’re interested, I’d check out the Ted Talk on how to be a happy employee or something like that. You’ll see this little piece in the middle on listening, if it’s something that you’d like to work on I got some tips in there for you. What I have found is that the great thing about being a great listener is that it takes work, but boy, do you get rewarded because you’re on point with your people.

Michael C. Bush (28:11):

Absolutely. You’re just on point with your people and most people’s experience is that other people don’t listen.

Michael Kurland (28:25)

They wait their turn to talk.

Michael C. Bush (28:27)

That’s it, that’s it. People say “You’re a great listener” and that’s just because it’s so unusual for them. When people are experiencing something unusual, they say a lot more than they plan, they become more vulnerable. Then the magic happens in terms of innovation. The magic happens in terms of innovation. When that happens both people are feeling really safe and on top of that safety, great things happen.

Michael Kurland (28:57):

That is great advice. I’m going to run out and listen to this Ted Talk, as soon as we get off this podcast here.  Michael, it’s been my pleasure to have you on. I’m so happy that you took the time to come on the show. If the audience wants to get ahold of you, how can they find you?

Michael C. Bush (29:15):

LinkedIn is the best place because I’m certainly checking that out every day. We put out a lot of our research there today. We just launched our World’s Best list. So we got a lot of activity going on today. I look forward to seeing you on LinkedIn and if you want to just check out our research, that’s all free. You can go to greatplacetowork.com and look at our resources and download some things. We’ve got some reports on how companies do great in a recession. I would definitely recommend reading that one right now. I’m looking into 2021.

Michael Kurland (29:52):

Thank you so much, Michael.

I’d like to take a minute to thank you, our valued listeners. My intention is for this podcast to inspire you, in some way, to be better.  Change starts from within and radiates outward. Therefore, start with being better to yourself and only then will you recognize how to be better others and your community. Thank you for joining us today! If you want to learn more about Branded Group, then visit us at www.branded-group.com. From our website you can follow us on social media. Also, always feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn. Until next time, Be Better.

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