Episode 12: Driving Strategy and Awesome Culture at the Same Time

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How often do you work on your strategy? Are you like most companies that do it once a year and then revisit at the next strategic planning offsite? How do you balance the need for fantastic results while trying to maintain an awesome culture? Is it possible to talk strategy monthly and not be in meetings all the time? What happens to culture when you try to get more aggressive in your market? If you are curious about any of these questions, please join us for Voltcast: Illuminating Leadership. Host Jeff Smith will be talking with Amy Ankrum, President of Qualtrax, which is a compliance software company. We will learn about Amy and her team’s unique approaches to strategy, culture and achieving fantastic results while still having a good life. Amy is based in Blacksburg, VA and will share her best practices and tips with our listeners.


Biography:

Amy Ankrum is President of Qualtrax, a compliance management software company. Amy and her team are most happy when challenging the status quo and helping better our world in the process. Qualtrax is a growing organization that embraces a results-oriented approach to culture to drive continuous improvement and increased market share.

Transcript:

Jeff: Welcome. So glad you could be with us this week on Voltcast: Illuminating Leadership. Just as the show started, the sunshine came out for the first time here today. We are on a streak of eleven straight weeks of sunshine on this day. Amy, you brought the sunshine. I will do a proper introduction here of Amy Ankrum in just a second. Let me just say to everyone that has been e-mailing the show, calling in, we are just so thankful. We are surrounded by success. We are planning to do this show for another year. We worked out that contract that we are going to do that over the course next year and so excited to be coming each and every week and really appreciate all the questions. If there is a host, a guest, an author, that you would like to see us bring in the show, please shoot an e-mail and let us know because we would love to reach out and entertain them and be able to provide some leadership lessons.

Let me tell you about you get in touch with us. Again, I am Jeff Smith. You can reach us during the show at 1-866-472-5788. You can e-mail me during the show at jeff@voltageleadership.com. Our website is www.voltageleadership.com. You can like me on Facebook at Voltage Leadership. You can connect with me on LinkedIn at Jeff Smith, Voltage Leadership Consulting and then of course you can follow me on Twitter, @VoltageLeaders. This week, if you follow me on Twitter, you will be seeing a lot about JMU Football. We are in the football playoffs in the quarter finals. I am a very excited about my JMU Dukes. Today, we are going to be talking about Driving Strategy and Awesome Culture at the Same Time.

I have got Amy Ankrum here as our guest today. Amy is the President of Qualtrax. It is a compliance management software company. Amy is a very proud Virginia Tech alum. I know she is celebrating their win over UVA this past week and looking forward to hopefully beating Clemson in ACC Tournament this week. For my international friends, this is a big deal. The Virginia tech fans are very excited. She has been leading Qualtrax since 2011. She has got over 18 years of experience in marketing and management. She has also become a part owner of Qualtrax which is a rapidly growing organization. She and her team are most happy when they are challenging the status quo and helping build out world class processes, going out in the world with world class processes. Amy has led this growing organization. We will talk more about that. To know, she is also married to Andy and they have two very active boys. Amy, so happy you could be with us today. Welcome to the show.

Amy: Well, thank you, Jeff. I am happy to be on and very glad I did not break your streak of sunshine. It was not looking good this morning.

Jeff: Yes, I think we are going to be in-between rain but a sunshine popped out just for you. Way to bring the sunshine, Amy. A job well done.

Amy: So good.

Jeff: Well, I have had the pleasure of working with Amy, gosh, for probably three plus years now and she is an outstanding leader. She really does a great job developing her team, growing the team, and really challenging a great young woman leader that is inspirational. She does a lot of mentoring, coaching, and developing. Amy, I am curious about what got you interested maybe in marketing at the beginning. That is sort of the beginning of your career. Why marketing? What was the interest there?

Amy: Well, thanks for the kind words. Yes, so back to the beginning. What got me interested in marketing was truly my childhood growing up and my father who is now retired. He is a successful business person and we talked a lot about he encouraged me to go into business for myself when I was older and encouraged me to consider a business degree and the versatility of that. That was instilled in me pretty young that that was something I wanted to consider. As I looked at my options, the marketing discipline, just really jumps out at me. For one, the creative aspects, the visual appeal of marketing and just the opportunity to be able to tell stories around what you can do for others. Then ultimately, Virginia Tech, come from a long line of Hokies and knowing they had a great school of business there. It all just sort of came together for me.

Jeff: That is awesome. Well, I guess I am interested, tell us a little bit about Qualtrax. Like what your role in Qualtrax, what the heck does Qualtrax do?

Amy: Sure. I am today a part owner in Qualtrax and president there. What does Qualtrax do, happy to talk about that. I think you people hear compliance management software and it might not sound sexy but actually I get very excited talking about the amazing organizations that we help with our software. We work with all kind of companies from organizations that help ensure justice with the crime labs we work with, to critical manufacturing organizations that are producing food and medical devices, to laboratories that make sure the water in here we consume is safe, to our latest space we are working is power generation and obviously they help keep the lights on. I think what is common across all of those is they face a really heavy burden of compliance because of the important things they do. We have been able to come in with our talented team and software and services that we have created to just really add hours and hours back to these individuals’ space.

Jeff: Well, I did not know you can make compliance software seem interesting, but that was really good. I did not realize all the things that you touched, I worked with you for a while, but it is really great. Those are great examples and thanks for sharing them.

Amy: Sure.

Jeff: Amy, I am curious. One of the reasons I really want to have you on the show, outside the fact that I really just enjoy talking to you and enjoy your friendship, is you guys have served a unique approach to strategy. You guys really lived out your strategy, you work with the strategy a lot. Can you give us maybe just an overview of the journey that you have been on around your strategic planning and what does it meant for Qualtrax?

Amy: Yes, I would be happy to. Strategies, it is a tough thing. I think it can seem very daunting and at Qualtrax, we were very interested about how we go about things and we are always looking to improve and get better at what we are doing and how we approach strategy is no different. When I came into the business which was 2011, as we worked with the team, it started to be clear. We needed a way to rally our team around and help make sure everybody knows what is the most important thing we are working on, where we are headed with the software we do business.

We really were excited to find a book called Rhythm by Patrick Thean. To me that was a huge step for us in how we approach to strategic planning today. It outlined the process, it pulls a lot from Jim Collins and Verne Harnish, other authors that I respect a lot. It just provides a very disciplined approach to how you look at strategy. We have been using that now for many years and I would say, actually Jeff, we can talk a little bit probably about how you hope this is kind of going to get kicked off. After we first read the book, we realized we needed someone to help us get started with this process and we actually reached out to Jeff and he facilitated two days of planning using rhythm.

Jeff: Well, yes, what is interesting for me is having watched you guys. Most organizations Amy, what I find is that, strategy is like that one dirty word. They come off and they are like what is strategy and it is this highfalutin thing and maybe they bring in consultants from these big places and they come in and they do a one or two day off site and then they go away. About a year to two years later, they pull the strategy back out and look at it again and say well let us test this thing off and let us see how it went. What I have really expected about you guys is that it is sort of a living breathing document and it is one that you come back to in a regular basis. Why did you decide to go down that path? You are not natural. Most everyone is a one, two day offsite and then we do not pull it back out. Why I keep it sort if that iterative process and then I will have a follow up to that.

Amy: Sure. Well, I think you nailed it. It is hard work to do strategic planning and to make the time for it and I think we have been down that path where you write something, you do not go back to it for a long time, at least I know I had in prior years and I definitely wanted to give this a shot. I think as we have done it, we have seen that when you are making the commitment, we do two days of planning every quarter, we do cascade planning with our team as part of that. The departments get involved and then we make an hour every week for our think rhythm, is what we call it, where our leadership team comes together and we continue to talk about how is it working, and how are the priorities working that we are focused on this quarter. I think why we continue to do it is we see great results from it.

Jeff: Interesting. I can just hear a few of our listeners though, Amy being like come on, two days per quarter, an hour per week. I mean like, Amy, we live in a real world out here. What are you doing? Like how can you find that time? I mean come on, you must be smoking crack over there, that is what they are doing, right?

Amy: I would challenge how can you not make the time? We were at a really great conference recently as a management team and the question was asked if we define what we call winning moved to the business and these are things that looking out three to five years, they need to be two x revenue generating ideas and the real challenge back to us is you have defined these wonderful winning moves, why don't you put the time and resources to them. I think that is just it. You cannot afford not to in my opinion.

Jeff: Do you find that you are getting pushed back on your management team? I am sure that when you started this, they were pretty busy, and you guys run pretty lean. It is not a lot of people just hanging around.

Amy: Right.

Jeff: You push back to investing this much time in strategy?

Amy: Sure. I think we all had our doubts in the beginning. Going back to the first issue we did with you. I was like oh this is very hard, will it be worth it? I think that I guess my response to that is one, they have all become part of owning the process. It is not something that I outline and this is just how you do it, you have to go do it. This is a very collaborative process where all the leaders in the business, and in fact all of our employees, are involved. They help set what it looks like to do our strategic planning and on the management team, they set the agenda that we are working on when we do those offsite sessions. I think that is a piece of it. I think also you will commit the time when you see it work and I think the fact that anyone in our business at any time can pull up our strategy on a page out of Qualtrax and look at it and see okay this is what we are focused on right now this year, this quarter, these are our future targets. It is really powerful.

Jeff: It is great stuff. We are coming up on a break here in just minutes. I will do a wrap up on this. On the other side of the break, Amy, what I would like to kind of go into is maybe a few lessons learned. Sounds like you are humming along pretty well here, I know it is not perfect, there is not everything is perfect, right? But I would be curious to hear about some the lessons learned. A few things that I heard though during this time is you have found a process that works for you, you live it out, in this case it was the book, Rhythm, and you have sort of adopted it and made it your own. You make time for it not just on a sort of once a year basis but you come back and you visit it quarterly and then at least one hour per week you touch base again with your strategy.

It sounds like you make it simple enough that people can understand it so you can have strategy on one page. We can have a strategy document this like 25 pages. It is got to be boiled down to a page so that everyone in the organization is able to buy into it. Then finally, you try to get it out to everybody in the organization and get the feedback so it becomes a really bought in process and that probably helps in the change management process. Lots of great best practices already. It is time for us to take a break. I am here today with Amy Ankrum and we will be back in two minutes and we will pick up with some lessons learned. Thanks.

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Jeff: Welcome back and so glad that you have been able to join us today. It is my honor to be here today with Amy Ankrum. Amy is the President of Qualtrax. We have been talking about strategy and how they have a sort of a unique approach to strategy. Throughout the show we will be hitting strategy and also how does that shape their culture. In this segment, what I want Amy to continue talking to us about is how has she seen the strategy roll out and what lessons has she learned? If you do not know Qualtrax, they are a compliance software company based in Blacksburg, Virginia. They have been able to grow rapidly over the last few years and really have a passionate users that just love their organization. Amy, as you sort of think about your strategy venture over the last couple years, what would you say some of the reasons for success have been for you and your team?

Amy: Sure, I will hit on a few things here. I think that for one, something that we have learned in the process, is you do need to set a smaller number of priorities than you think you do. It is easy to feel like you can take on the world, and I know for us we are growing, there is so much opportunity we want to go after. We have had to really be disciplined about setting no more than three to five kind of key priorities at a time that we are working on from an annual perspective, from a quarterly perspective, that has been about as big one for us. I would add to that defining really good key performance indicators around those priorities. That is something that even today we are still looking to get better at that. It is one thing to say, hey this is going well, but defining a really clear set of what makes that red, yellow, green. We status our priorities and then make that very visible to the entire business. We are today continue to work on how we do dashboards to keep our priorities alive in front of all of our employees.

Jeff: Yes, it is fantastic. A little late breaking news here for you, I want to check to make sure there have not been any emails yet, the Runner Times just sent a text out saying that Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente was named the ACC coach of the year so. Congratulations to your Hokies. That was in my email inbox.

Amy: Yes! Coach Fuente.

Jeff: Yes. Again, if you want to send an e-mail during the show, just send it to jeff@voltageleadership.com. Apparently, you can also get updates on Virginia Tech football.

Amy: The Hokies.

Jeff: I want to pick up on that key performance indicator because that is really hard. I can remember sitting in on some of your meetings and folks are like okay we want to go do this and we want to get this winning move. Again, that is sometimes can be two times revenues over the next three or four or five years. How do you go about knowing that you are successful? I know it is just challenging for you guys to sometimes come up with a metric. Is it one of those things that you try to put as good as metric as possible and then maybe over a couple of quarters the metric gets clearer or do you not stop planning until you get a good metric? How do you guys sort of balance them?

Amy: Sure. Well, it is challenging. I think that you work with the best data you have. I think that something we have learned is you always wish you had better data to be working with on some of the priority setting and you do not want to get into a state of paralysis with that. We work on the data and we know what actions we want to take to get better in collecting the data. We need to set the priorities and then we define the best indicators we can around what it will look like to finish the quarter in green. That needs to be a really specific defined result typically that we are all working toward. I think hopefully that it is on what you are asking me.

Jeff: Yes. Let me build on something else too that I know I have seen and I hear from lots of my clients. Gosh, maybe it is like our thanksgiving meal. Our eyes are a little bigger than our stomach really is. When you are sitting down and doing this planning, I think you are going to be able to accomplish a lot and you go all this energy and excitement in the room. What have you found about your ability to sort of say how much is the right pace for a quarter, a year? I know that a lot of my folks think they can handle about  nine or ten projects at a time over the course of the year but at the end of the year they find that they are really only been successful maybe one to three. What have you seen about sort of how much to sign up for versus the energy in the room?

Amy: Sure. That is a common challenge. I would say one rule that we have really stuck to is for any quarterly, we break it down to the quarter show or so, in a quarter period time. No person on the leadership team could own more than one of those priorities. That is one way that we use to really minimize what you are describing because it is. You do, you get excited, there is a lot of opportunity. Surely, I can definitely get to all of that in this quarter. We found that really helps us pick. You have to really pick what you think is the most important priority by doing that.

Jeff: Interesting. What do you do in these one-hour meetings? I sort of understand the yearly and sort of quarterly and probably good reviews, resetting expectations, checking on things. What is that weekly one hour meeting? What do you hope to accomplish in that?

Amy: Great question. This is one of those areas where actually retrospecting on right now because I think we have kind of reached the point where we think we can get even more out of those one hour a week, that time that we spend together, we have used it to one, come back to the status of the current quarter's priorities and dive deep into any that maybe are in a yellow or a red state today. That is a time for us to really kind of peel that back. Does that mean we need to apply resources differently, have our priorities changed, that is one way that we look at that. I would say that today, one of the things we have learned, is we are changing or setting a very specific agenda that we want. How we want to see those go for the future. It encourages you, if you make that very valuable expensive time with your management team, you were evolving what that agenda looks like and making sure that everybody has done their homework before they come to the meeting.

Jeff: Yes. I will recap in a moment but one thing I would be listening to this as a listener and saying, 'Gosh, this is all a structure. Where is the innovation?' It seems like a lot of structure and you are very organized in what you doing. Is there is still room for innovation and if so, how do you make sure that actually occurs?

Amy: Sure. Well, I think I am positive by making time to separate yourself from the day to day fires. You need to have that dedicated operation time where you are dealing with the at hand items, but by bringing your team up and out of the weed on a weekly basis to actually look out at those winning moves and those tasks and issues that you said and do a check of them. I think one, that allows for those creative juices to be flowing. It is time to capture other ideas that are floating out there that we need to be considering and talking about. We have what we call winning moves bench. At any point, anyone in the business can be bringing ideas to the table that we think could be a big growth opportunity for the business and we capture those. I actually think it provides structure to help make that innovation time.

Jeff: Yes, good. I like that and I like coming out of the weeds. Most people are buried in by 42 meetings per week and 150 e-mails per day and all that. I think that is great that you get together and talk. Amy, before we wrap up this section, anything else? Any other lessons as you look back the last couple years doing this. Do you want our listeners to understand about the process and or suggestions about how to do it?

Amy: I would just say you need to make time to celebrate your successes along the way. That is something that I think I did not fully appreciate earlier in my career and I think seeing you have got to take that time. We now, we set an annual theme, it is sweet sixteen this year, and we tie our celebrations to that  so it kind of got a final four of big objectives we are working towards for the year and ways that we celebrate those as we hit them. It is just nice. It is everything from a camping post, we have taken the whole team to the lake for a day to unplug and be rewarded for their very hard work. I think that is another takeaway that I have had.

Jeff: Awesome. What interesting things you guys are doing and the reason I really want you all to know is just the explanation of you de-mystifying the strategy thing. Sometimes it is such a big word and do we use Michael Porter's like Five Forces of Strategy and do we have to read these Harvard Business Review article. Let me recap to sort of wrap this section up. A few things I heard from you. Only one priority per quarter per executive team member.  Make sure that we get together on a quarterly basis and have status updates weekly. Let us do a check in to make sure that we are working against those winning moves and we are sharing feedback with each other. We have to do our homework before we come in there. That is a requirement, you cannot come unless you have done it. Then, ultimately, we have to have some measurement which means then we have something to celebrate and that celebrations can be really important. Wow, those are some great lessons, Amy. Thanks so much for that.

Amy: That is good.

Jeff: Absolutely, Amy. Thank you. When we pick back up, what we will do is we are going to move over to some of the culture in Qualtrax and talk about some of the leadership lessons that Amy has done for the culture. We will be right back two minutes. Thank you.

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Jeff: Welcome back. I got Amy Ankrum here today. She is the president of Qualtrax. It is a compliance software company based in Blacksburg, Virginia. We have been talking about strategy and their unique approach to strategy. We are going to shift gears just a little bit here for the second half the show. We will get in to culture. They also have a pretty amazing culture that I love coming into the Qualtrax building. It is just off the campus at Virginia Tech for folks that are trying to place Blacksburg. When you go in there, you just know you are in a place that folks are really humming. They are doing great work and they love to be there. Amy, I am just curious about how would you describe the culture. Let us start there, let us start with a description of the culture and I will ask some follow up questions from that.

Amy: Okay. Well, thanks about our building. I think we are very proud of that. I would say that we have been very intentional about focusing on our culture and making it a place where our team really wants to be day to day and enjoys what they do. I would say a big part of our culture, we talk about that we hire top performers. We are hiring people that are passionate about what they are doing, they share our core values and when you do that, it allows you to take a very results oriented approach to your culture. That really creates empowerment and it creates a lot of freedom in how we work as a team. I think some examples of what that looks like, it is interesting.

We are a compliance software but we definitely do not use policy to dictate our business in terms of how our employees operate. We really look to trust them they are going to make good decisions and trust our management team to coach and develop those employees. For example, we do not track time off. That is something that you take time when you need it and we expect to know that you will be responsible about how they do that. I would say just the other big piece for me around culture is that we have a team that really looks out for each other and takes care of each other and I think when you do that, your team very naturally takes care of your customer. We see that day in and day out. We have what we believe to be unmatched commitment to our customers and it is something that stands out among all of our competitors in the fields we deal in.

Jeff: Wow, lots of good stuff there, Amy, on what you build on it. Let us talk about this user's conference and the culture of that. I got to speak this past year and I would just tell you that there was all kind of performers there that was singing and there was connecting. Heck, I even broke out a little Aretha Franklin, RESPECT, for my part speech of the speech. What is it about what you are trying to do that you think that is so important? This user's conference in connecting, you talked about this unmatched commitment to your customer. Clearly, when I am in there, I see that culture. Why is it that so important and then why do these user's conference? It has got be a lot of money to bring all these people in. What was your strategy behind that?

Amy: Definitely. First, Jeff is an amazing coach and leader, watch the dancing, I am probably going to say about that. Yes, those are really great example of where our culture ties in. We go to great lengths to tie our employees to our customers, to our users of our products and services and to build relationships so that they know who we are serving. I think you get an appreciation for the challenges those individuals are dealing with and it helps drive the innovation and drive the creativity about how do we improve and do even more to help those organizations. It absolutely speaks to that unmatched commitment. We do it in a way where we bring our own personality out. Our user conferences are themed every 18 months and we host them. We have an amazing team that helps put those together. It was user fest this year. We even did a 70's and 80's kind of cocktail party at our building and got to use our disco ball. I think that is important that our customers get to see that part of our personality as well.

Jeff: I think what I like is that you guys live this day in and day out so there is a disco ball there all the time. I am glad that they get to actually use that user's conference, but it is inviting people in. I have worked in playing companies that have foosball tables or pinball machines and they never really get used. When you go to Qualtrax, they have this atrium, they have this space where people come and you see collaboration. I often get there 15 to 20 minutes early and I sit down and it is just like I am there and collaboration happens from the moment I walk in through the door. I think that space matters. That is part of the culture. You chose really good space. I also think what you try to do, Amy, with your team is really foster collaboration and that is part of your core values and that drives the culture. Every time I am there I see people maybe they are developers working with marketing or salesperson in there with someone from programming. What do you do to help continue that collaboration? How do you sort of recognize and support it as a leader?

Amy: Sure. First, I have to give kudos to all of our leaders there at Qualtrax. I think it starts with them, right? It starts with we demonstrate day to day that this is how we want to operate and how we want to see our core values worked out and we want to see collaboration and you can work from anywhere in the world and be a strong contributor of our team. Definitely give a shout out to Ryan Hagan, our COO. He always challenges us to make our culture better and different. I think ways we keep it alive, we have grown over the years, but we stick to a ten minute huddle every morning and that is a quick check in with everyone and we have a few specific things we hit but at the end of it we watch a quick video, we call it a moment of Zen, and this is a chance for everybody to kind of laugh and watch something silly and ditch your day off to a great start. That is one of, I think, many things we try to do to keep it alive and going.

Jeff: While I was there, just for thanksgiving, for the chili Cook-off. While your chili was great, it did not quite get to hold the title within this year. I know Tim Lawson claimed the title this year but maybe just think a little bit to that. What was the importance of this chili cook-off and I think this is a good best practice. Do you want to share some of your chili kick cook off success here?

Amy: Sure. Other than that, I turned over my title. Well, I think if you hire top performers, you hire people that driven, they are working hard, it is important to plan time together when you are taking breaks and doing some fun things together and connecting. We have found a variety of ways to do that. Certainly it is harder with some of our remote people but we find ways to engage with them as well. We also make sure we get them all here at different periods through the year. For our chili cook off, we actually had quite a few of our remote team there as well. That is our replacement for the Thanksgiving potluck. We always do this right before Thanksgiving and we thought that everybody had so many turkey dinners, we are like well let us do a chili cook off. We are a competitive group, it is fun, you get to be the coveted guest Wi-Fi password when you win. It is a pretty big deal.

Jeff: I love it. Do not forget the apron either. You get the bragging rights of the apron, you know?

Amy: Yes, the apron or the trophy. It gets better every year.

Jeff: I love it. Well, what any other sort of fun activities that you do? To me, I think you guys are vibrant and do some great things. I know that you have brought interns come over from Virginia Tech to sort of open houses. What other sort of unique things you do that are highlights to the Qualtrax culture?

Amy: Sure. That is a great one to hit on, Jeff. We, specifically, have been in our new space just over a year and we wanted to be in downtown Blacksburg by Virginia Tech campus. We thought that was such a great opportunity for us to, one, help with one of our key core values which is to give back and many of us are Hokies grads so we love the ability to have interns on staff. We try to have several at any given time in different parts of the company. We do a lot around our engineering team software development. We do some fun things. There are different career fairs going on. We will kind of invite potential intern candidates in and do sort of a little open house and pizza party and bring them in. I think that it is also very re-energizing for our team to do that. I think giving on the mind right now, this week, we are all highlighting the different groups that we give back to. This morning one of our team members talked about the Special Olympics and the works that they do there. I think just being intentional to make time to connect this people and connect with your community, it is an important part of our culture.

Jeff: Yes. Here are a couple of things that I take from your conversation, Amy. Policy should not dictate culture. I really love that line. We can get so hung up with the rules and regulations and all that. Do the right thing, trust your employees, trust your managers to do the right thing. A great example is the time off. If people are going to take time off, we do not need to monitor. Some of that is it cannot work in all cultures, but the more that we can give the freedom over to people to design their day, give them some autonomy, it is going to really work out, also looking out for each other.

What I see a lot of in the Qualtrax culture is taking time to recognize each other and they do not go up to the management team that often. They will go and give feedback to each other. They will praise each other. I think that is a sign of a healthy culture. I love the unmatched commitment to your customers and everyone lives and breathes that. The ten minute huddle still checking in. I love the moment Zen, I have been in there a few times of moment Zen. It is that quirky little thing that is part of your culture. For the listeners, funny or quirky little thing that you can make part of your culture and keep it alive. My final thought too is that anybody can shape this culture. It does not have to be senior management. This is from anybody can bring that to life. Amy, anything that you would like to add, sort of the best lessons learned from your driving the culture there?

Amy: I think you did a great job of recapping. I guess I would just add you are always working on it and I think when you stop listening is when you are going to go backwards. While I love the culture, we are always looking to build upon it. We do employee NPS or Net Promoter Score surveys. We actually have one going on right now and that is a really great vehicle to get more insight into other things you might be needing to look at and consider as part of our culture. I will also add, we just brought in our 13 ft live Christmas tree yesterday to decorate. That is another fun idea if you are looking for things to do as a team. We had a lot of fun with that.

Jeff: That is awesome, Amy. Lots of great cultural ideas. When we come back after our break, we are going pick up and give you a few best lessons learned to wrap up the show. Thanks for being with us and we will be right back in two minutes.

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Jeff: Welcome back. Today's guest is Amy Ankrum. She is the President of Qualtrax. It is compliance software company based out in Blacksburg, Virginia. Today we have been talking about how to build some culture, how do you create strategy and Amy has given many great leadership lessons along the line about how do you do this. Amy, in the last part of the show here, I want to talk about you and your leadership style as well as some people on your team. I know that you are a relatively young leader that has had great success. I have had the chance to work with you for the last three or four years here and I have just been amazed by your growth and how wonderful of a leader you are and how you able to combine, influence, and get people excited but also to drive towards results. When you look back of maybe the last five years of leading the company, what do you think you have grown? Where have you grown and what leadership lessons would you have to share with our listeners?

Amy: Wow, that is a good question. I think I have learned a ton and I learn every day that goes by. Thanks for the young part, I really do appreciate that.

Jeff: Absolutely.

Amy: Well, I would say some of the big things for me, first I have to  give a shout out to I have had some really great mentors and I think that is part of what you want to see because as a leader people that you can help model, see things that you aspire to bring out. Certainly Marty Muscatello and Tim Lawson, they are my business partners. They are the folks that gave me the opportunity to become a part of Qualtrax. Certainly, they have helped shape what that looks like and I think for me it is giving people the chance. I think that is something that I always am thinking about as we look at future leaders in our business. Taking a bit of a gamble on folks.

Yes, they might not have the background that you are expecting for a role but giving them an opportunity to try that out. It is okay to fail, give them a safe environment.  I think those have just been a big deal.  I think I have learned that obviously you cannot do it alone and back to strategy. You should never feel like you should have to be... I think sometimes it is really for me a small business. You are in that head seat, you need to be the one driving all of this. I think I have learned hiring talented people around that can own big parts of what needs to be accomplished for the business and trusting in them. That just feeds the rest of your bench. They continue to do the same. There were a few quick things that jumped out at me. What about you, Jeff? You have been around me quite a bit. There might be other things that I have that you want to see me try out here?

Jeff: Well, one you hit on there is, Amy, from the very first episode we did this Amy is a higher I than D. I think that it is that influencing and drive, you need to be able to do both. I think earlier, Amy, one of the struggles for you was you are really a nice person at the end of the day and is balancing that how do you be nice and still be liked and have people follow you while still having hard decisions. I think what I have seen you grow in the last two to three years is your ability to make hard decisions quicker.

For me, it took a while early for you to be able to say oh gosh that is going to a hard decision and I do not want to upset the team. Now, you are like no we have got really important work that we are trying to do. We have got to make that hard decision and I have seen you speed up your ability to make hard decisions.  To your point, give up control. You have got to trust whether it is Ryan or it is Ken or Scott or it is Diana. The folks on your team, Eliot, etc., they have got to be able to step up and do their own work and you cannot over control. You got to trust them to take that run with it. I think I have also seen you grow in your ability to give away control and start to trust others. What do you think about that?

Amy: Absolutely. I think that is very perceptive. Way back to the hard decisions, I think that is just human nature anyway, right? It is tough and think of it, you do get better at that as you go along and I feel like once you see the results of making some of those tough decisions and how your team responds, it makes that much easier in the future because you know you are doing the right thing. I think that you mentioned a lot of fantastic people in our organization that I am really proud of that continue to help me grow. You always need to be listening, getting that adjusting feedback, and it does get harder in this role for people to be comfortable bringing that to you. We try to take down those walls all the time and create different ways for people to have conversations with us.

I feel fortunate that I have got a team that they do a good job of helping guide me and give me advice. Well, it is a great one recently. He really pushed back on me like, 'Amy, I do not think we are using our weekly hour think time well together. Do you know how much time it is over the year?” He came out with some really good proposals of what we need to do different to make that better. That is just when you used to look back and go wow. It is wonderful when you hire well and you surround yourself with good people.

Jeff: I think that is a great place to stop for now, Amy. What a wonderful joy this has been to have you on the show and your leadership lessons are just fantastic. For folks that maybe only got to hear the end here, some really great stuff around strategy and committing your time to it. Spending time each quarter, not just a once a year activity, and then checking in once a week on this. Getting really clear on your key performance indicators, make sure you have good KPIs. Also, celebrate success so that people can see the right behaviors. Do not forget to also say we may not get this right the first time, let us revisit it. That is what those quarterly and weekly meetings can be is let us adjust. When it comes to culture, trust your people. Let them be creative, invite them in, let them co-create with you, give some of that control away. Let them learn about how dowe do things better, all wonderful things.

Next week on the show, we will be back at the same time and we will have Jennifer Owen-O'Quill. We are going to talk a lot about end year planning, we are at that time of year, about your own goals and what do you want to do to be successful. When you join us next week, we will be talking to Jennifer about career planning, etc. If you want to connect with us during the week, you can follow me on Twitter, @VoltageLeaders. We can connect on LinkedIn at Jeff Smith, Voltage Leadership Consulting. You can like me on Facebook at Voltage Leadership. Hit our website at www.voltageleadership.com or you can e-mail me at jeff@voltageleadership.com. Again, you have been listening to Voltcast: Illuminating Leadership. I have been your host, Jeff Smith. Our guest today was Amy Ankrum. Amy, thanks so much for being with us today.

Amy: Thanks for having me. It was great.

Jeff: Absolutely. We will be back next week at one o'clock Eastern, ten o'clock Pacific. So great that you could join us. Please keep sending us those letters from around the world. In the meantime, go out and make it a great week and see what you can do to lead others more effectively. Thanks and see you next week.