Leadership + People: Episode 23 - Scott Johnson - Part 1 of 2

In this episode, we learn from Motivosity’s founder and CEO and chairman of Workfront, Scott Johnson on how he created a business rooted in meaningful actions and gained success through placing value on workplace appreciate and company communication.

Show Notes

  • How Motivosity achieves their mission in making employees happier being at work [01:33]
  • How Scott used personal experiences and realizations to highlight the hardships within the workplace that businesses are missing [05:12]
  • Learning from a bad boss and making your own [09:15]
  • Recognizing the value of learning from other leaders [11:11]
  • Defining ‘enterprise work management’ [15:08]
  • Determining what is really important and how to gain success through reflection [18:01]

Show Audio

Show References

  • None of Note
Scott Johnson part 1-01

This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: February 27, 2018

Show Transcript

BEGINS [00:00]

Welcome to Leadership and People. This is a series that pulls back the curtain on leadership by interviewing CEOs, Senior Executives and Entrepreneurs who had large exits. We ask these experts about how they built trusted networks to rapidly grow their companies.  And what advice they wish they knew if they could do it all again.

HOST – JESS LARSEN: Today on the show we’ve got Scott Johnson.

GUEST – SCOTT JOHNSON: “And honestly some of the things that really just turn me on about leadership, are the examples of great leaders who, because they take some time to do some coaching and to reach out and help people, that they actually become a meaningful part of somebody’s life.”

00:49 JL: Scott thanks for taking time

SCOTT JOHNSON: Hey, thanks! Nice to be here.

00: 55 JL: So you are the founder and CEO of Motivosity and we wanna hear what that’s all about. Founder and chairman of Workfront, BYU professor on entrepreneurship, outdoor enthusiast – am I getting the list covered there? What am I missing?

SCOTT JOHNSON: That pretty much sums up my life. I also have five children and they take up everything that’s left.

01:16 JL: Yeah, well, a lot of folks will know, Workfront – such a significant success story and what you guys have built there. For folks who aren’t so familiar with Motivosity, can you give us a little background on it?

Motivosity’s Mission – Making Employees Happier at Work

SCOTT JOHNSON: Absolutely. Our mission here at Motivosity is to make employees happier about being at work. And that is a topic that is really important to me. I found early on in my career that I actually care about making our time at work count for something and to have it be a meaningful and positive aspect of our life. I know that that is not always the case. And really how things got started here at Motivosity was, that after stepping out of the CEO role at Worrkfront and staying on as chairman of the board, some of my close associates within the company, I started to hear some things, that maybe they felt like they weren’t appreciated or didn’t feel like what they did mattered anymore and I knew that that wasn’t the case. We had unlimited PTO, break rooms, game rooms, free soda, food, company activities, recreation going on, you know there was a lot invested in making sure that people felt like they mattered and yet, there were still people who felt like they didn’t matter. And that was really troubling to me and after having spent multiple years at Workfront, really getting into the mindset of the knowledge maker and what makes a day in the life good for people, it seemed to me that there were some things that companies could do that could do to really operationalize small activities that would make people really feel happier about being at work. And that happiness comes from being trusted to drive and influence results, being connected, being part of the family and being recognized for the things that you do. And so I started building another piece of software, ended up calling it Motivosity and this software, it is a platform where employees can give each other small monetary bonuses for doing good things. It’s a platform where they can connect to each other and break down silos and create communities within the workplace and a place where managers and teams have easier access to really understand who it is they’re working with. So we started Motivosity about four years ago and things are really awesome.

04:22 JL: So let’s talk about this – it’s such an interesting thing to see people invent something for themselves, as a feedback loop, to know if it’s any good. So, how big had Workfront gotten at that point, staff-wise?

SCOTT JOHNSON: So, staff-wise, Workfront was about 600 employees at that point in time. And we had seen it go through a lot of iterations, I’ve seen it go from one employee to a thousand. And there are definitely some inflection points that happen along the way, where you really have to pay attention to culture and be very deterministic about the kind of environment that you want otherwise it will get away from ya.

How Motivosity Determined What Was Needed for Great Results

05:12 JL: Yeah. So, as you were doing Motivosity, what elements were you building from your personal experience and what did you feel you had to go out and figure out?

SCOTT JOHNSON: So, there were some things that–so what I experienced in day to day life, was that there are areas in a typical company that are good. Meaning that managers take the time to be people and to cultivate that human side of work, but there are pockets where that tends to fail. That HR has a lot on their plate and CEOs tend to outsource culture and engagement to HR and then HR is supposed to remember everybody’s birthdays and hire dates and do these nice things and sometimes that doesn’t always happen on time, so you get your birthday thank you from the boss, like three weeks late, which is a bit of a downer. And then I also experience scenarios where the frontline would withhold ideas because they felt like they didn’t matter, that they couldn’t make a difference or that their boss would take credit for their ideas so why even chip in and help. And so those were things that I had definitely seen in ours, and in other organizations, that are not really that hard to overcome and then more generally speaking, after doing additional research, it really became clear that managers are people who get promoted, often times not because of their management skills and their paid on delivering members and the only way to really deliver on productivity in members is by controlling people. So by nature, the role of boss kind of tends to go counter to all of the things that you need to have a high performance and positive culture. So what I wanted to accomplish with Motivosity is a way to push this, all of this, down to the grass roots, so that you didn’t have to rely on management to get great results in culture and collaboration.

07:55 JL: And, so, how big are these cash rewards or how does that system work?

SCOTT JOHNSON: So, what we typically see, in the way that Motivosity works, it’s pretty simple. At the beginning of the month, an employee will get – it’s typically around $5, ya know $5 to $10 – that they can use to say thanks to other people for doing good things. And what that does, it causes them to look around and notice the good that’s going on. And, also, it gives them the power to ask somebody in another part of the organization for a favor and it gives them the power to be able to say thanks, not just in an email but in a social, visible, way, with a little bit of money attached to it. And, what we’ve seen is that that just drives a tremendous amount of willingness to help each other, willingness to collaborate on projects and willingness to do a little bit extra when you’re called upon to do it.

08:58 JL: Yeah. You know, usually on the show, we’re not talking to CEOs about what their business is [laughs] but it’s really fun that this is a ‘Leadership and People’ show and that is really what your business is about.

SCOTT JOHNSON: Yeah, and I’m sorry, I didn’t mean, I hope I am not …[JL interrupts]

09:15 JL: No, no, I am just laughing to myself because normally it’s about running the business but your business is about exactly this, right? [SJ: Yeah] So, when you think about–well, before we got going, you mentioned that, you had seen some less than stellar examples in your earlier career, can you tell about some of your experiences where maybe some of the folks were missing the mark?

The Silver Lining

SCOTT JOHNSON: Yeah, in fact, maybe there is always a silver lining – so, the silver lining is what I am about to say, is that at one point, I came to the conclusion that my boss was so bad, that there was no way I could do any worse on my own in business. And that, I should just go and work for myself. And, so that’s the silver lining. But, I had a boss that some of my favorite stories–let’s see, there was a time where we were late on getting our paychecks and somebody went into his office to ask about their paycheck and he literally fired them over the PA. [JL: Oh, wow] Yeah, it was–so, I had an environment where everyone was fearful of the boss, it was like, you never knew what kind of mood the boss was in and if he was in a bad mood and you happened to show up at his door, it could mean that your job was gone. And, so that fear and that uncertainty really taught me a lot about what I don’t want to do and the impact that being a human has on people not just at work but in their personal lives. Cause’ he caused a lot of people, a lot stress, personally.

11:09 JL: Yeah. What about on the other side? Have there been–are there folks in your life that you feel like have set the example that you want to pursue?

Taking Value From the Examples of Great Leaders

SCOTT JOHNSON: Yeah, I love to read, I love to read business books. I love to learn as much as I can and so I am always trying to adopt new ideas or learn about other people’s perspectives and honestly some of the things that really just turn me on about leadership are examples of great leaders, who because they take some time to do some coaching and take some time to reach out and help people, that they actually become a meaningful part of somebody’s life. And, as we look at what we’re actually doing in this life, isn’t the only thing that really matters the degree that we’re able to help other people?

12:15 JL: You know, it’s interesting. Even from, you know, my background of running a private equity fund, right? You think about, it can be very numbers driven where we won’t interact with, we won’t even interact with the staff of the companies we bought, or stuff like this, right? And it’s very, can be very excel spreadsheet driven, but that point applies there too, of like, if we are, if an organization is impacting customer life and taking care of people and providing service, revenue is a natural byproduct of that, right? [SJ: It is.] When we think about that just quality of life, how happy we are when we’re able to make the humans that we are interacting with, make them smile, like when we’re able to do them a solid, right? I remember being a Boy Scout as a kid and dragging my heels when we were going to clean up some old lady’s yard instead of going to play some basketball and then by the end of it, you feel better than anything you’ve ever done at scouts, you know?

SCOTT JOHNSON: Right. That’s absolutely true and I have to say, I haven’t always been that kind of leader. And when I was first starting Workfront, it was a software company that was bootstrapped for seven years and there was a lot of pressure to make sales, hit numbers, so that we could make payroll and attempt to grow in an industry, that, where, all of the competition was heavily funded and had a lot more resources than we did, and so, I took myself way too seriously and the, kind of, natural outcome of that was to push people and to not be as human and as I would say, ‘we need to be from my perspective today’ and then the investors come in and in 2007, and they add another level of causing you to take yourself way too seriously. Now you have all this money, and you’ve got to deliver a return and it becomes even more about numbers and more about get the best talent, no matter what, and some of the, sometimes that caused me to put our culture in second place and I don’t, I don’t think that’s the best way to do things.

The Secret to Workfront’s Huge Success

14:51 JL: Yeah. Just as a quick tangent, for people who don’t know what Workfront does, can you explain what it does and why companies like Sony and Dell and National Geographic are clients?

SCOTT JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. We call it ‘enterprise work management’. Essentially, if you take a holistic view of the enterprise and look at all of the moving pieces, all of the work that needs to get done, all of the assets that need to be managed – the digital assets that is – the approvals, the reviews, the resource planning, the scheduling, the risk assessments, the understanding of costs of delivering certain outcomes, all of that gets parked in Workfront and organized in a way that even the front-line knows exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, everyday, and how that can bubble up to support corporate goals.

15:50 JL: Yeah. And with many organizational options, what do you think it is that you guys have done special there that, ya know, Sony or Dell is choosing you over other options?

SCOTT JOHNSON: It’s, it’s easy to understand, it’s engaging for the average, non project manager type of user. And it makes people–you know, again, going back to why I even got into that, I’ll tell ya another story – prior to Workfront, I had started a marketing agency and we were doing some consulting in a large company, that’s here in Utah, one of the largest that ever was, so maybe you can guess what it was, but we literally did work for groups of people, that the entire group was working on the exact same project that a different group, on a different part of the company was doing the exact same project. And they both knew about each other’s projects and they knew that one of them was dead on arrival, and yet, they wouldn’t talk to each other and they both kept working on their respective projects. And, it became obvious that that was pretty normal. People were working on things that they knew would never see the light of day and their investing a big part of their life in that and to me, that seems like ‘hey, how demoralizing’ that you’re going to beat your head against a wall for six months for something that nobody’s ever going to see of use. And, so I wanted to help create a solution to this issue of enterprise waste and this lack of visibility and lack of, kind of, strategic placement of resources inside of companies. And so, that’s exactly what Workfront solves, and why companies like Sony and Apple and Google and Facebook and a bunch of other cool companies use.

Advice for Leaders Today

18:01 JL: Yeah. Sorry for the tangent, but back to what you were saying about taking yourself too serious. I feel like that’s certainly a trap that I’ve fallen into – any advice for leaders today, they’ve got a tinge of that, they recognize maybe, maybe I don’t need to be quite like this, for changing habits, and you know, becoming different?

SCOTT JOHNSON: One thing that helps me, is to, just, periodically reflect on what’s, what’s really important. You know if you peel back all of the light layers, it doesn’t matter how big your company was, it doesn’t matter how many thousands or millions of dollars you personally have. Your family’s going to think you’re a hero but only if you are the kind of, you know, father to your family, that is going to earn that respect from your children. The people that you help, are going to care, but it has nothing to do with how big your business got or whether or not you’re on the cover of some magazine or, you know, you’re the big dog in your circle, you know, that stuff, that’s not what lasts. So, I try to reflect on that periodically and make sure that I, I am true to what I am trying to accomplish and that I am not influenced by some kind of fake competitive pressure.

19:49 JL: Hmm. I think this a good one. I think we’re gonna have to continue talking about this on episode 2. We should probably, this is probably a good place to end time-wise for episode 1 but please tune in to episode 2 – we’re going to ask Scott more about this and what the rest of us can do to be more like that. Thanks for making time Scott.

SCOTT JOHNSON: Awesome, thanks!

ENDS [20:08]

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