Everyone Quit -- and This CEO Is Better Off Because of It
A startup CEO's radical culture shift almost wiped out the company. But now he has the right staff -- and is finally thriving.
Things were not going well for Chanje. The L.A.-based electric truck startup was rife with drama. Key positions were going unfilled, and the company was struggling to work with engineering partners in Hong Kong. All this forced founder Bryan Hansel, who already had one problematic startup behind him, to face a painful truth.
"I had a personal coach, and he said, "Every CEO gets the exact company they deserve,' " Hansel recalls.
The trouble, they decided, was Hansel's management style, which he describes as "Superman." "If something bad happened, I showed up in front of the room with all the answers," he says.
This was not exactly empowering to his employees, who admired his energy but never had the chance to own a process, or a win. It suppressed any initiative they might have taken and gummed up the decision-making process.
Hansel knew he had to change the culture, fast. Working with his personal coach, Nathanael Chawkin, he decided the focus needed to be weighted heavily toward personal and professional development, for himself and his employees. He and Chawkin came up with a radical culture protocol that embraced self-improvement: All employees would henceforth be required to read books and articles from a core curriculum; spend 20 percent of their monthly work hours on mindfulness, journaling, interactive training and a personal growth plan; and participate in radically transparent (read: bruising) feedback.
Those measures wouldn't appeal to everyone, of course -- but the way Hansel enacted them, they appealed to nobody. "I chose to ambush them at a planned quarterly off-site," he says. "I didn't give them the option or the choice." Superman had struck again. And this time, his staff had had enough. In the coming months, all but one staffer left.
Hansel was now marooned on an island with his own vision. But he still believed in it. Having learned that you can't forcibly impose a new culture on an existing staff wholesale, he set out to find employees who already embodied the ideals he was looking for. To do so, he decided to emphasize the culture as the lead strategy in hiring.
That posed problems of its own. Anyone who wanted a job was certainly going to nod along to Chanje's call for meditation, feedbacking and acronym salad. So Hansel had to hone his skills separating the supplicants from the true believers. "In an hour-long interview, you can see their eyes either light up or glaze over. It's either Who is this crazy dude? or This is what I've been missing. I didn't think it existed."
Even after an offer was tentatively accepted, Hansel piled on warnings. "It sounds really neat, but by month two you're going to hate that you made this decision," he tells potential recruits. Only the most committed said yes.
With a new staff and ethos in place, Chanje is a changed company. One year in, it now has 40 employees -- many of whom were poached from tech and automotive giants like Tesla and Daimler -- and has signed the commercial fleet management giant Ryder as a client. Best of all: "We haven't had a single person leave," Hansel says. "One of our engineers recently told me, "This is the best job I have ever had. And if for whatever reason I ever leave, it will be the best job I will ever have had.'" That engineer, it's safe to say, knew exactly what he was signing up for.
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