Our guest on the cavnessHR podcast is Greg, the anonymous founder of the anonymous employee feedback platform, aSuggestion.
Through aSuggestion, he and his team are able to draw forth constructive and meaningful commentary from employees across the country. Helping employees to share feedback and become more engaged both at work and in their personal lives as well.
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The cavnessHR Podcast can be found at the following places:
Social Media links for Greg below!!
Greg’s Book Recommendation: Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT by Paul L. Marclane.
Click one of the links below to purchase Greg’s book recommendation.
Jason: Hello, and welcome to the cavnessHR Podcast. I'm your host, Jason Cavness. Our guest today is Greg from aSuggestion. Greg, are you ready to be great today?
Greg: Jason, yes, I am. Thank you for having me today.
Jason: Thank you, Greg. Greg is an Anonymous founder of the anonymous employee feedback platform, aSuggestion. Greg has decided to break his anonymity – at least in part – to share his perspective on the state of the employee engagement industry. Through aSuggestion, he and his team are able draw forth constructive and meaningful commentary from employees across the country. Helping them to share feedback and become more engaged about their work and in their personal lives as well. Greg offers us a unique, outsider's perspective on engagement and we're pleased he could join us on today. Greg, first, once again thank you for taking the time to do this podcast with us. Tell us how did aSuggestion start and what has been the journey so far.
Greg: Sure. Well, Jason, again, thank you for having me, I'm appreciative of your time and the opportunity to be here. So, how did aSuggestion start? That's a fine question. Now, I’ll try to keep a very long story short for you as best I can. aSuggestion was really born out of our own personal experiences – and I say “our own” meaning mine and my wife – it happened that my wife is a teacher (and I'm very sorry to share this) but she works in a very toxic environment. The environment, the school, that she teaches in has not only dissuaded their employees from sharing commentary. But they've actually shut down any mechanism for which those employees might share their feedback, which is really just a sad state of affairs. So, when we launched aSuggestion, I launched it so that we could design a platform allowing employees, like my wife, to have a voice where, otherwise, a voice had been taken from them.
Greg: Literally, that's how we came about. It just so happened when we started aSuggestion – admittedly, I don't have an HR background, I'm not an HR veteran by any stretch. So, it's not as though we launched aSuggestion based on my vast HR expertise – we launched it for that specific purpose. It just so happened that we backed into the employee engagement industry. So, the last year and a half or so, as we've gotten this platform up off the ground. I've learned an incredible amount about the employee engagement industry and how we can adapt our solution to draw forth substantive, meaningful and constructive commentary from employees in organizations all over the country. So, that's what we do.
Jason: So, Greg, when we connected a few months ago, I believe another story you told me was when your kids were taking karate classes and the instructor came in at different dates and times. So, this isn't just for work, it’s for all aspects of life, correct?
Greg: I'm flattered you remember that story. The core of what we do is to create an environment where employees can share constructive, meaningful, substantive dialogue with their employers. We do invite people to do so anonymously – we talked a little bit about that if you like – But it dawned on us, as we set forth to design this platform, there are times in life, moreover, than just a person wanting to share feedback at work. But there are also times in life where, for whatever reason, I, as a human being, walking the face of the earth, have wanted to share commentary or feedback or constructive criticism with other organizations that are meaningful to my life outside of work. So, the example you offer, Jason, is, as it happens, I have two kids – a 13-year-old little girl and a 12-year-old little boy – both of whom are actually black belt in karate today and their karate instructor’s a great guy.
Greg: But he's always changing their schedule around, he's changing his class schedule around. He'll move a class block from one day to another, he’ll extend the class time from this to that, and every time he does this. He drops a rock in my pond because whenever he changes his schedule, I now have weeks of rescheduling other activities for my kids because he can't seem to hone in on his own schedule. He's a good man; I don't want to tell him how to run his business, but at the same time, I'd like to say, “hey, do you think you could stop changing your schedule around because every time you do, you cause ripples in my house.” So, when we designed this, not only do I want to draw forth meaningful commentary from people about their experiences at work but also about any other organization that touches the person's life outside of work. Whether that's in a karate studio or my kids at their schools, or the gym I go to, or the church I go to, or you name it. So, when we designed aSuggestion what it's really become today, I want people to look at the platform and think in terms of online, iterative, personal and professional suggestion boxes. That's really what we're here to achieve.
Greg: Ultimately, the benefit of this platform for an engagement manager, because we touch so many aspects of a person's life, they're more likely to come back to the platform again and again and again and, by virtue of that increased interaction. Now I can deliver to an engagement manager an entirely new stream of ongoing, iterative and constructive commentary from their people that they otherwise may have never had before. We think it's a pretty good niche.
Jason: That's good. I know what you mean by the schedules because all my kids are grown, but growing up they played sports and just doing the schedule. One time, this guy called and is like, “hey, I’ve got to delay the practice by about an hour,” okay, no problem, that’s one time. But, there was this one guy like every day you call us, changing schedules, that’s a pain. But I know exactly what you mean. It's a very challenging, it's a lot of moving pieces if you have multiple kids playing, doing activities, at multiple locations.
Greg: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Jason: Greg, from your point of view, why is it important for this platform to be anonymous?
Greg: Good question. Jason, from your HR perspective, I'm sure you can appreciate this. There are times where I'll have conversations with organizations across the country and some organizations kind of shudder a little bit about the idea of anonymous commentary, meaning, “oh, my goodness, I don't know what we're going to get here; are we opening up Pandora's box.” There are other organizations that I speak to that appreciate that anonymous commentary will actually allow people to let their guard down a little bit and speak a little more freely. So, I tend to be of the latter camp. For whatever it's worth, Jason, I actually have a Psychology degree and I can appreciate people and their innate human wiring. People are just predisposed to avoid pain; they're predisposed to avoid conflict.
Greg: We're not conflict-oriented individuals and no matter how many times an HR manager or an engagement coach might come into an organization and say, “yeah, everybody go ahead and just speak your mind and be free and be open,” no matter how many times you say that to people, some people are still going to be kind of skittish and kind of reserved and kind of nervous, because, again, just by nature of how humans are wired, we are wired to avoid pain and to avoid conflict. So, if that's the case, I'm not necessarily promoting anonymity.
Our system is structured around anonymity and we invite people to share commentary anonymously, you're not forced into anonymity. But if there are things that you feel sensitive in and uncomfortable in sharing. We want to allow our users to still speak their minds and to do so in a way that they feel comfortable and safe in doing it. The message then goes to the HR manager, and to the organizations that we need to be able to deal with the commentary that we're being offered and not spin cycles trying to identify who was it that issued this post and why did he do it anonymously; let's actually work with the content they're given.
Greg: Conversely, if the owning of responsibility is also on the person authoring their comments, if you're going to come here and just hide behind your keyboard and tear into somebody because you think you're safe and you can just blast somebody from behind your keyboard, my platform’s not for you. We're not here to foster an environment where we're just going to light fires and throw hand grenades. If you're going to come here and offer a comment, even though you're anonymous, do so but do so with a purpose. That's the message and that's the space we're filling.
Jason: That's a good point. So, Greg, how often do companies come back and say I know what this comment is, all these comments, but it doesn't represent the majority of my company, so I'm not going to take any the action. How often do you hear that from companies?
Greg: So, I hear it on occasion but, again, when we reach out to organizations, the method is twofold. One, the message to the employee’s potential users is, if you're going to come here and offer a comment. But imagine your mom is standing over your shoulder watching what you write; so, do so with a conscience, do so with a purpose, do so with a constructive mindset. As an author of your commentary, consider the end user, consider the recipient. If you actually want to effect change – which is really what this platform is intended to do – then you need to consider your audience as you offer your post. You're not going to do that with four letters and expletives. Again, you're not going to do that here. Conversely, the message to our clients, the organizations, that we're working with, from an HR perspective, we need to consistently communicate to people that you may or may not get what you want, but at least you will be heard – that is a huge piece of our platform.
Greg: That's a huge piece of our messaging. All too often, I come across organizations who say, “yeah, we just conducted a satisfaction survey, we haven't had time yet to go through all of our results. We don't know when we're going to get back with a notice to our people and let them know what our findings have been and, in the meantime, the employees are thinking, “why did I even bother offering feedback, nobody's doing anything with the commentary I offer; what's the point, why bother, nothing changes.” So, from an organizational perspective, whether the commentary is one-off or relatively rare in nature, or the commentary is shared by others, it is important to get back to your people to let them know, “yes, you have been heard.” That is a key message to the relationships that we cultivate with these organizations, the way in which we’re working with our users.
Jason: I know in my experience in HR, most of time people just want to be heard, they just want to vent or tell their problems or anything like that. They just want to know, “hey the company or the hiring reps listen to me.” Then that’s how they solve the problem right there.
Greg: Well, again, it doesn't necessarily mean you're always going to get what you want, but at a minimum, yes I've been heard. Going that far is actually quite a step further ahead from where a lot of companies are today. I'm not bad-mouthing any organization in particular. But it's not uncommon to hear that problem. I've heard that time and again. So, we work very strongly with our users and our organizations to make sure that we are communicating, “yes, you will be heard.
Jason: I used to tell people all the time we're going to find a solution, But it might not be the solution that you're looking for but it would be a solution that’ll help everybody out. So, Greg – tell me if this is right – so a company signs up for your platform, a person involved in that company will make a comment. Now, does the company give a reply on the on your platform to that comment, or how does that work?
Greg: That's a fine question. We very strongly advocate for two-way communication. Here, again, from a number of the conversations I've had across the country, organizations large and small, I've talked to organizations who tout that their communication with their employees is quite high. When I asked them what that means, they say, “well, we often have our CEO or CFO, he puts out a company memo once a quarter.” That's great, but that's not communication with your people, that's communication at your people – you're talking at them. So, we advocate very strongly for two-way communication. So, the way our platform is designed, if a user comes along to the system and they offer a post, not only can they share a link to their colleagues, they can drop in five, ten, fifteen, fifty different email addresses of people to whom they want to receive an invitation.
Greg: So, these people can come along and become invited into a conversation thread and now weigh in on any given topic. And, at the same time, when an organization is designed in the system, Jason, if you’re the head of HR for Acme Corp, I can identify you as a key contact for Acme Corp and then you too can be invited into that conversation thread. So, now, by the time you come along to the system, you have an entire thread of individuals who have chimed in on any given topic. Hopefully, the best ideas have been nominated up to the top, which gives you something to work with. Now, you as the HR manager, on behalf of Acme Corp, you can now come along and offer the appropriate company response, or take action, or even respond back and try to draw forth even more commentary. So, to that end, it is very much a two-way communication vehicle.
Jason: Yes, and I'm actually using your platform and, to me, it’s very user-friendly, so I really like it a lot. Next question. I don't know if you'll be able to tell me this, but do you know, like on average, how long it takes for companies to reply to these comments? Do you track that in any kind of way?
Greg: So that's a fine question. Our turnaround time is pretty short. I can't give you a sweeping generalization, but the bottleneck in our response-time isn't a systematic bottleneck because as soon as the user issues a post and then they want to send off invitation emails to folks to come participate in the discussion thread, well those messages go out immediately. So, then it just becomes a function of how are we competing for the attention of the recipients. So, Jason, if you've got a stack of papers on your desk, and maybe you're going through open enrollment, you may be otherwise predisposed and maybe you don't respond as quickly as you could have or should have, whereas a couple weeks from this date, you might have a little bit more flexibility on your hands. So, that's an overly worded way of saying there's no system limitation; it just becomes a function of the bandwidth of each of our users.
Jason: Greg, next, talk to us about a time you were successful, what you learned from it from the success, and what we can learn from the success.
Greg: Well, Jason, as I already mentioned in the course of our call thus far, I don't come from an HR background. For what it's worth, I actually come from a sales background and so I'll borrow from my experiences as a salesperson and tie that into what have we learned going forward with aSuggestion. As it happened several years ago, we – the company I represented at the time – were working on a pretty large-sized deal with an organization out of North Carolina. Unfortunately, at the 11th hour – this is a very complex deal, a lot of stakeholders involved – and, unfortunately, at the 11th hour, the deal fell apart. It turned out that there was one individual who, unfortunately, we didn't cover our bases as well as we could have or should have, and this one person managed to go up to leadership within his organization, unravel the whole deal. So, you can appreciate, in that moment, from the worldview of a salesperson, that kind of hurt. I wasn't a happy guy that day. I remember getting the phone call from my CEO at the time who said the deal fell apart; I sat on my couch in my office just kind of stunned for a little bit. So, I sat there for a little while and it occurred to me, well, I can either continue to sit here or pick up the phone and make a couple more phone calls – which I did – and ultimately came across (it was either that afternoon or the next day) I came across another opportunity out of New England who, six months from that incident. They became our new customer showcase; they were a show site for us, it was tremendous. So, what I learned from that experience was, effectively, the value of persistence.
Greg: I apply that going forward here, with aSuggestion, for the following reason – as we are carving out what we identify to be a pretty unique niche in the arena of engagement, you need to understand it's not uncommon for me to hear the following. When I talk to engagement managers all across the country, most of the time, I hear, “well when we engage our people, we do a satisfaction survey, we have an 800- phone number set up that doesn't really get used a whole bunch, we do a company retreat or pizza luncheons or an ice cream social in the kitchenette, these kind of things.” All those are great; I encourage companies to keep doing them, those are fantastic. But when aSuggestion comes along and we talk in terms of creating a vehicle to share ongoing, iterative and yet constructive feedback for engagement managers, while, at the same time, through the same tool, employees can now take this platform with them outside of work and find benefit in it for their own personal lives. If they want to share commentary about their kids at their school or their karate studio or the gym they go to or the church they go to, here is a tool that actually provides utility to the individual and, by extension of doing that, now the engagement manager will win.
Greg: You can appreciate, Jason, as I communicate this message, there are some engagement managers who kind of get confused a little bit; they think, “well, wait a minute, why do I care about commentary from my employees with their kids at their karate studio, I don't care about that.” I understand why they say that. Frankly, they shouldn't care about that, that's not something the engagement manager needs to deal with. But, by virtue of offering a tool that the employee will realize value in in their day-to-day lives, they're going to come back again and again. Now I can create this new channel of feedback for the engagement manager so the engagement manager wins in the process. I share that story with you, Jason, because the value of persistence, as I see it, is trying to carve out this unique niche and, effectively, if you'll allow me to be so bold, I think we're actually shaping or reshaping how people think about engaging their employees overall.
Jason: I have to agree with you, Greg. So, for yourself, is it safe to assume that your sales background has been a big help with you as you build out aSuggestion?
Greg: Well, I would say yes, just by virtue of, one, dogged persistence and, two, I haven't been too afraid of hearing people say “no”. Because a salesman by nature, we're trained to live on when somebody says “no” and that's okay. There have been some organizations who haven't quite married into our concept yet, which is fine, and there have been others who have and we're delighted for the ones who have thus far.
Jason: You were right about saying “no” because a lot of people they hear “no” and they just stop and give up. You're going to hear “no” multiple times throughout your life and you have to be able to deal with that and convince them to tell you “yes.” That’s in my opinion.
Greg: Very much so. You’re right.
Jason: Greg, next, talk about a time you failed, what you learned from this, and what we can learn from this time you failed in the past.
Greg: Wow. Well, so I shared with you that story about the loss that then turned into a success with a different organization, I guess I would go back to that same example with the organization out of North Carolina. I learned in that the value of covering your bases meaning when I call into organizations today, I'll often deal with an employee engagement manager or I'll get them on the phone and, nine times out of ten, they're appreciative of what we're trying to do with aSuggestion and the positioning we're taking. Once we've done that, however, then we need to permeate throughout an organization because, often, you'll have, whether it’s the COO or the CEO, or other key stakeholders within an organization, who, at times, senior leadership is actively engaged with employee engagement efforts. Then there are times where senior leadership is not dialed into employee engagement efforts. So, trying to move beyond HR into other areas of senior leadership within an organization to teach the value of why this matters, well, those are stones we need to turn over. That's one of the lessons I came away with from that experience out of North Carolina, and it's served me well thus far.
Jason: Greg, I’m going to guess that most of the companies are from the US. Do you have any companies outside of the US yet?
Greg: Great question. Interestingly, I've learned over the last many months, employee engagement out in the UK is an entirely different animal than it is out here in the US. I found it reasonably consistent (this is not necessarily a rule of thumb, but it's been reasonably consistent) that a lot of companies out in the UK are already thinking they maybe two or three steps ahead of where a lot of companies are here in the US. Interestingly enough, I've got a couple of strategic partners out in the UK; one of my partners out in the UK is working with a company out here in Minnesota. So, who knew, I had to go across the Atlantic to come back to the Atlantic, which is fine – it's a fun ride. But, generally speaking, that's where our efforts have been thus far, we have had some interesting dialogue with some folks out of the Canadian market, and, at some point, we intend to have this grow well beyond just those three areas. But you start in your backyard and you work out from there.
Jason: Yes. As far as marketing aSuggestion, do you have a marketing plan you use? Or are you just relying on cold calls or cold emails? How do you get the word out about aSuggestion?
Greg: Well, that's a multi-pronged approach. We've been spending a fair amount of time networking at local SHRM events, both SHRM locally and SHRM nationally. We've got a presence on a variety of different social media – Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter and you name it – so we're out there. I've been leveraging LinkedIn pretty extensively. In fact, Jason, if I remember correctly, I think you and I first came across each other over LinkedIn. So, it has served me quite well to that end. Then beyond that, we benefit greatly just by virtue of word of mouth. The system isn't designed specifically for millennials. But everyone seems to appreciate when I make this statement: you can't find a millennial these days coming into the workforce who doesn't have a smartphone in one hand and a latte in the other – that's just how they're wired, and they're great.
Greg: Now, our platform is ideally designed to allow that caliber of individuals, people who think in terms of, “how can I share commentary immediately and mobily.” That's just how they're wired today. So, why not cater to their interest and cater to their needs rather than, “here's my annual satisfaction survey that came out across my email just because it's now the end of January and that's what we're supposed to do.” So, again, I use the millennial example, but for millennials to baby boomers, we've got users of all backgrounds and technological expertise and so forth. It's been a fun ride. So, I don't know if that specifically answers your question. But, really, the word of mouth of the platform has been our greatest marketing strategy thus far.
Jason: Okay, that's good. Greg, next, tell us something that most people don't about you. Of course, your family, close friends know this but most people don't know this about yourself.
Greg: Well, my wife often tells me, “Greg, you're not as funny as you think you are, so stop trying.” So, I'm learning that lesson. For whatever it's worth, I live down here in Connecticut and have been now for about twenty years. Most people that I have these conversations are surprised to learn, as I've shared with you Jason, that I don't come from an HR background. A lot of the conversations, and a lot of the pearls of wisdom that I've been able to accumulate, I've learned greatly from relationships like I have with you, Jason, where I have conversations with folks and I'm learning, by extension of what you folks – my HR contacts, these relationships, my engagement manage relationships – I'm learning through your experiences.
Greg: So, I guess what is probably most surprising, at least for most of the people that I have initial conversations with, is I'm learning this HR space, I'm drinking from the fire hose. And it's been a fun ride to be able to piece all these components of my background together, whether it's the sales background or my psychology degree (or I minored in philosophy, for whatever that's worth). What I've come to learn over the plus two years now with regards to aSuggestion and how it positions well for both the HR manager and for the people themselves as they offer commentary, piecing all of that together and putting a bow on it in such a way as to present it to people in a digestible manner, that’s taken some time but it's been a fun ride. So, I hope that answers your question.
Jason: It does. They say sometimes the best people to disrupt the industry is people who have no experience in the industry. They come in bright, shiny, they have no preconceived ideas of what's going on. So, they’re the best ones to disrupt something, like you're doing.
Greg: Well, I'm not really hoping to turn the industry on its head, but I wouldn’t mind turning it on its side for a little while, that's all right.
Jason: Yes. Greg, so we've come to the end of our talk. Can you provide us with some social media platforms so we can reach out to you or aSuggestion?
Greg: Sure. So, aSuggestion – if you couldn't already tell – it is live and up and running right now, so it is quite literally www.asuggestion.com, so you couldn't get any easier than that. I hadn't mentioned it to you thus far, Jason, so it's probably worth noting the core of our platform is free. I've got users who sign up every day for free. I've got organizations who are registered in the system for free. Free is my favorite price. So, with barriers to entry, you can't get any lower of a barrier entry than free, I would think. Now, we do have an enterprise offering and I can talk to users about that if need or interest arose, so I would invite people, if you wanted, to get in contact with us, go to aSuggestion, click on the little Contact us link; those messages come directly to myself and to my team, happy to respond to those, and, if at any point, anyone ever wanted to email me directly, they could do so very simply at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason: Thank you, Greg. For our listeners, all those links will be provided in our show notes. So, Greg, before we end our talk, do you have any last words of wisdom or advice you’d like to pass on to listeners?
Greg: First of all, I want to say thank you again, Jason. I consider my relationship with you to be a friendship and I'm delighted to be here and so I thank you for your time and the opportunity here. The only other pearl of wisdom that I would offer is much what we've talked about thus far such that, whatever your strategy is for engaging your people, you need to do so in such a way that your people feel they are being heard. So, if we can have a hand in that, and we can help you in that process, that's wonderful I applaud it and we'd love to explore that with your listeners. At a minimum, whatever you're doing, make sure that your people do feel that they are heard. Having been an employee who has been both engaged with my organization, with my previous employers, and also, admittedly, disengaged from my previous employers, I know the difference between the two and really it does come down to, “do I feel like I'm a part of this team” which you're not going to get a person to feel that they are part of the scene if they don't, first and foremost, feel like they are being listened to. So, if you had to come away with anything, I would offer you that message. And, again, if we can have a hand in that, we'd love to do so with you.
Jason: That's a great point. I don't think some companies realize how much more productive engaged employees are versus not engaged. I'm not talking about engaged going to ice cream socials, but you come to work, you actually think you have a purpose you know what the game plan, versus another company, where you come to work 9 to 5, you have no idea what’s going on. I don’t think companies realize how much more productive they get out of engaging employees.
Greg: Well, I'll share with you, Jason, (this is nothing new, I'm sure you've heard this before) but roughly 70% of all employees are either unengaged or actively disengaged at work. So, 30% or below are actively engaged. And I'm not so naive as to think that by virtue of aSuggestion coming along and creating this comment-sharing vehicle, this commentary platform, I'm not so naive as to think that the comment-sharing vehicle itself will now create engagement by itself. But I would offer to you (it's very simple) you can have good communication in an organization and not have engagement. However, it good communication is a cornerstone to any engagement strategy – and I feel that both with the engagement vehicle we have, with the recognition and rewards components of what we offer, we can go a long way to helping and creating that engaged workforce. That's really what we're here to do.
Jason: Then, for the percentage that are disengaged, I have to wonder what percentage of those people are looking for another job while at their current job, instead of working.
Greg: Yeah. So, an employee turnover is a big, big problem these days. I've read somewhere, it could be upwards of three times the cost the employee’s salary to actually turn over the new employee, hire, train, all that fun stuff. So, we're talking real dollars; this stuff matters. And, again, if there's any way in which we can contribute to helping both the employer find, keep, and retain, those good people and help the employee to feel like this is an organization – whatever organization they're a part of – but this is an organization that they want to actually be a part of themselves, then we're serving everyone, we're serving the greater good for all involved. That's what we want to do.
Jason: Yes. Greg, thank you very much for being on our podcast today, I really appreciate your time and taking the time to talk to us about your platform. I believe it’s a great platform, we’re looking for great things from you and aSuggestion. Listeners, thank you for spending your time with us, we really appreciate it, and remember to be great every day. Thank you.
The cavnessHR Podcast can be found at the following places:
Social Media links for Greg below!!
Greg’s Book Recommendation: Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT by Paul L. Marclane.
Click one of the links below to purchase Greg’s book recommendation.