Leadership + People: Episode 47 - Ryan Sanders - Part 1 of 2

In this episode COO and Co-founder of Bamboo HR Ryan Sanders explains the value of Choose Focus Finish Repeat and how revenue is an output of an organization’s activities, not a central goal. Sanders shares how apologizing for poor listening keeps his listening goals on track.

Show Notes

  • Using crucial conversations and core values of assuming the best and being open to improve communication [02:28]
  • A vacation bonus that encourages memory making [04:00]
  • How alignment among partners and a determination to build something enduring beat entrepreneurial odds [07:08]
  • Building slowly on established foundations [10:07]
  • Choose Focus Finish Repeat, the mantra that pushed growth and positive change [11:27]
  • Revenue as an output not a goal [14:04]
  • Using a google doc to better understand the other side and find the best solution [18:14]
  • Apologizing when we fall short of our goals to keep us on track [19:57]

Show Audio


Patterson, Kerry. (Eds.) (2012) Crucial conversations :tools for talking when stakes are high New York : McGraw-Hill,


This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: August 21st, 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.

JL: Today on the show we’ve got Ryan Sanders.

RYAN SANDERS “In fact, you know, one of the key things for our success has been, over the last several years we’ve up with an annual theme to kind of rally the company around. You know, the year that we saw some really impressive growth and some exciting changes inside of our organizations is when we focused on execution and we had this montra of: choose, focus, finish, repeat.

00:49 JL: Co Founder and COO of Bamboo HR. Ryan thanks for making time.

RYAN SANDERS: It’s a pleasure to be here Jess.

00:57 JL: So you guys, for people who don’t know you, been around ten years. Almost 12,000 customers. You’re in around 100 countries. You’re stuff has translated into 11 languages. Anything i’m leaving out there for major wins for the company?

RYAN SANDERS:. That’s a great start.

01:13 JL: So when you think about the show here, Leadership and People. You guys have a bit of a different approach to business. Can you talk about that approach and in your mind how that relates to leadership and people?

Beyond Lip Service: People First

RYAN SANDERS: You beat. So you know one of the things for us that is essential obviously is people. And it’s easy to say. It’s been talked about and given lip service to over years and years. You’ll see it in all kinds of management leadership books and articles. But we really try to put that to practice to work and actually have bet on this as part of the way that we grow business. And our focus is, we definitely emphasis not only just the people aspect. In making sure the people are important and feel valued and contribute and are engaged in the work. But that they know that we care about them. That is…  We know that the individuals are the ones that are achieving the various, our various objectives and goals. And we make sure that we give them the right timing and attention. And make sure that they know they are cared for.

02:28 JL: You are right. There are a lot of people that talk about that. And it is easy to pay lip service to it. I get this sense that you guys have maybe taken this to the next level a little bit. Are there some examples you can share with us?

RYAN SANDERS: Yes. So I guess there’s a few things that we think about lot. From a communication aspect, we’re big on the idea of crucial conversations. A lot of the folks here have read the book Crucial Conversations. But we actually put it into practice. not only in our day to day but we’ve implemented that as part of our core values. So we have two core values that tie into this. One is assume the best. And the second is be open. Assume the best is for us critical in that if somebody says something in a meeting or a presentation that is offensive or frustrating, or whatever, we kind of take the approach of ‘hey everybody’s trying to do the right thing’. ‘Let’s start from there’, that assumption. But still will have the conversation. And that’s where be open comes in. Which is you know, if Jess, you and I are in a meeting and you said something crazy and I’m freaking out. And it’s on me afterwards to pull you aside and say ‘hey Jess you said this and it felt like this or it made me think this. What’s going on?’ And nine times out of ten, you know it’s just an interpretation. It’s something that got miscommunicated or a misunderstanding. And rather than me just sitting there getting frustrated or wound up over this thing, you and I have a chance to talk and nip it in the bud right from the beginning. And we encourage these kind of conversations all over the organization. We try to live them. You know,  I had one just a couple of days ago. When a guy I thought was really frustrated with me and turned out… it was nothing. He didn’t even realize he was looking at me kind of weird. And he apologized, and now we kind of joke about it that he gives me an extra big smile when I walk by him in the hall. That is really foundational. Because, another one of our bets or one of the premises of how we do business is most problems in business are communication problems. So that’s one big one for us. Another one is, you know, we try to think of benefits and things that help employees. We’ve done a couple of different things that are somewhat unique. There are others that do it but they are really important to us because of what we hope they accomplish. One is we offer a paid paid vacation. Basically it’s a bonus kind of reimbursement for taking a vacation. So we hope people go make memories with the people they love. As long as the employee is on the vacation we don’t care if you take grandma or your spouse or you know, your kids or you go with your brother or sister or whatever. We’ve had people take amazing trips all over the world or even just here in Utah. Just experiencing new things and making those memories. Could we have put those dollars into another benefit program? Sure. But we feel like these kind of memories that people make while they are on vacation is the glue that holds relationships together. So that’s just a couple.

05:50 JL: Yeah. So that’s a really interesting one. So what are the parameters? What are the rest of the details on that?  

RYAN SANDERS: Yeah so you know, it is taxed like a bonus. But basically, you know, if its plane tickets, cruise tickets, hotel, you know, restaurants, things like that you turn in up to $2000 and we will do that bonus out. And, you know, the only thing we don’t do are like sunscreen and bermuda shorts. Those are on you to pay for.

06:19 JL: [laugh]

RYAN SANDERS: But it’s one of the those great opportunities. We’ve seen people take longer vacations because of it. Or you know kind of different areas of the world. You know this world’s an amazing world, so it’s fun to watch people go explore it. And have exposure to new and exciting cultures. And then come back refreshed and and ready to go. So they’re eligible for that every year.

06:47 JL: That’s awesome. Well, you know another thing I want to talk about is, we were chatting for just a minute before getting going here about this being your tenth year in business. And you know, according to the entrepreneur stats, you know with this being your first business you probably shouldn’t be lasting this long. Statistically right?


07:08 JL: And I want to talk about something that you brought up earlier about maybe having a little bit of, you know, not having quite the same focus on the all mighty dollar that maybe other entrepreneurs have. And if you feel like that’s part of the reason you’ve lasted so long or any  just any insights you have about why you’ve beat the entrepreneurial statistics as opposed to other folks.

Planning for the Future

RYAN SANDERS: Well it’s a really great question. And I certainly… you know there’s always an element, at least in my opinion, there’s always an element of luck for any entrepreneur that’s successful. Kind of the right time, right place and definitely there’s an element of that. When we started in 2008, you know, for small or medium businesses there were not a lot of options for HR software online. So we kind of fit into a really nice niche that has proved to be successful. So there’s an element of that. There’s an element of luck even in just running across wonderful entrepreneurs here in Utah that have been very kind with their time and you know, sharing thoughts and ideas even as we’re just getting started. The other thing for us is you know Ben and I, we didn’t start this to make money. We started it because we wanted to work together. We started it because we felt like we wanted to be able to create a great product, and serve our customers exceptionally well. And at the end of the day it all kind of boils down to create an enduring great company. That kind of alignment from the get go and for the last ten years has never waviered and it is awesome to be able to come to work everyday, have a partner I’m totally aligned with and not worry, you know if he’s trying to do something wonky or if he wants to take the business in a particular direction that maybe we don’t agree on. So that creates a foundation for our partnership that permeates through the organization. And people know one, that we’re a couple of goofballs and two, that we care very deeply about the product we’re building and very deeply about our customer. And we absolutely love our team. So that focus is interesting. Cause we end up making long term decisions rather than short term decisions. We still make plans and figure out what we want to commit to quarter by quarter. But We are always looking for the long term because we always plan on being around. We are not trying to flip it. We’re not trying to go public. We’re not trying to raise a bunch of money. We’re trying to do the right thing and do the things that make sense. And place certain things like people and culture at the top of the list when it comes to decisions we make rather than ‘hey how do we use revenue numbers’.

10:07 JL: So what’s an example of where that might show up?

RYAN SANDERS: We’ve, you know, it’s… Ten years, you know you hear some wonderful wonderful stories of companies that just had an incredible hockey stick growth in both revenue and employees in the first 2 or 3 years. There have been many times where we’ve sat down. In fact one specific example is when we sat down at one point and we said, ‘Hey we can go higher 100 sales reps today’. You know, and I think we were probably around 25-30 sales reps at the time. And we said ‘No we can’t absorb that as an organization right now’. And so we made a more conservative hiring projective. And went and executed against that. And we chose… Sales reps at least for us because of the way our marketing machine works and some other things, sales reps equal additional revenue for the organization. But we recognized very very quickly that it would start to shake and maybe slowly destroy the very foundations we built. So we decided to grow a little slower in an effort to preserve those things.

11:19 JL: And so how, by the way, how many staff are you at total?

RYAN SANDERS: We are at about 400 employees now.

11:27 JL: And so does that impact the way you’re creating the product ,you know, this HR product for small and medium business online? Going through the growth yourself.

Choose Focus Finish Repeat

RYAN SANDERS: Yeah. It’s interesting because it really again forces you to make really wise decisions. When you have those constraints there’s a lot more creativity that comes to play. Those constraints on a number of employees. And so we have to get really smart about what we choose to do. And make sure we get those things done and then move on to the next thing. So there’s that. That allows for additional creativity and additional planning and just laser focus. In fact one of the key things for our success has been over the last several years we’ve come up with an annual theme to kind of rally the company around. You know that year we saw some really impressive growth and some really exciting changes inside of our organizations is when we focused on execution. And we had this montra of choose focus finish repeat. And that CFFR montra was on that everybody across the organization repeated. And it was this idea that you might see in a book like… Oh I’m trying to think what the book was. I’m freezing here.

12:50 JL: Don’t worry. It will come to you as soon as the interview is over.

RYAN SANDERS: [laugh] It’s… Gosh I can’t even remember the name of the book. I was so excited about it.

13:01 JL: Can you repeat those words again? You said them kind of fast. I just want to…

RYAN SANDERS: Yeah. Choose. Focus. Finish. Repeat.

13:09 JL: Okay.

RYAN SANDERS: So the idea is you prioritize well and you make a selection of which thing you need to do. And then you focus on that thing and you actually get it done. Get it across the finish line. Because we tend to feel like we’re moving lots of initiviates forward inches instead of feet or miles. And if we focus on just a handful of initiatives we get those things done and then we are able to benefit from those things going forward. So that kind of discipline is one of those things that… It’s hard to explain how important that is. And how much it has had an impact on us. Because we used to be in the mode of let’s just start a whole bunch of things. And we get them done. We get some done. But we… They take a long time. But when we focus our organization on a handful of things those things become really powerful.

14:04 JL: You know, this idea of putting people first and building a culture it’s obviously something that people talk about like crazy. Is there a time that you can think of where that was a hard decisions. Or is there… Can you think of an instance where the constraints of the business were really giving you some push back on you know, make the money or stick to the purpose there?

Revenue as Output Not Focus

RYAN SANDERS: No fortunately we’ve just been aligned from the beginning so that it’s never been an issue. The interesting thing has been when we have new folks join the organization, especially you know what we call the broad-shouldered folks where it’s kind of senior leadership and things like that. When they come in from organizations that only focus on the revenue don’t take the whole picture into account. It’s at those times that we’ve had to had those conversations to explain that this is the path that we want to follow. This strategy is one that will work. Again we’ve certainly been lucky or fortunate or blessed but at the same time we feel like there’s an awful lot of balance and we focus on those things first, rather than just revenue. And the revenue is ultimately just an output anyway. It’s an output of whatever we do. And so fortunately it feels like we’ve grown all while we focus on these things.

15:37 JL: Yeah. So you know humans and changing is something a lot of… It’s not always a comfortable thing right? So I’m interested with these folks who have been successful in the past maybe with some different habits. When they come over and things are different. Can you talk about any things that you do or any of your leadership philosophy to help them maybe pave some new roads over old ruts.

RYAN SANDERS: That’s… Wow that is a great question. It’s, and frankly it’s an area that we need to continue to do better in. We… A lot of people when they come over in all parts of the organization, they come over and they see kind of our mission is here, our values. And they’re like ‘Yeah. Yeah. Those are cute. Those are nice. We’ve heard great things about Bamboo but we’ll see if they actually live it’. And then we’ll get emails out of the blue. Ben and I; I’ve been here for 2 months and I just want you to know that this is the real deal. And those are some of the most humbly kinds of feedback we can get. It is our greatest desire that we are true. That we do have some integrity as far as what we say we value and how we actually behave. So those things are one of those things that we just treasure and cherish because it’s actually working. But, when those don’t happen. When there are kind of, you know, bumps up against the culture, up against the values. Then we have to have conversations. So you know, again it’s those crucial conversations that are so essential where I can sit down with a senior leader who might have found success in another organization. And say ‘Hey. The reason that we don’t do it that way is this…’ Rather than just say ‘Hey we don’t want to change’. We want to be open to those kinds of things. Because we want all the goodness that anybody can bring from anywhere else.  Sit down and say, ‘here is the reason why. Let’s talk about it more. What is it that you are trying to accomplish? Why are you feeling like you are not finding success here? Why are you feeling like there’s a better way? And if there is a better way let’s adapt.’ Which fits perfecting into one of our other values which is grow from good to great. We believe very firmly in that on both a personal and professional level.

17:56 JL: Any tips for the rest of us who maybe feel like we worked hard to get this our way and maybe we want to become more humble in listening to the ideas of new folks in the organization?

RYAN SANDERS: That’s a hard one because I like to be right. But sometimes I get that way.

18:14 JL: Yeah. Me to. Me to periodically. [laughs]



RYAN SANDERS: It gets in the way of listening. You know I’ve found that you know when somebody will propose something or share something they feel like needs to change and I’m kind of stuck in my rut so to speak. Then what I’ve got to, you know… I’ve found it really helpful to actually write down what it is that they’re seeing and why that’s important to them. Literally crack open a google doc and start to write it down. There is a power in not just talking about it but seeing it together. And then talking through it at that point. I find when I do that… And I’ll explain it to individuals that I’m sitting down that this is what I’m doing. I’m not trying to surprise or trick them or win them over just to my idea. But it helps them understand that I’m truly trying to understand. So you know. Ben actually has a great quote on the wall. It says, you know, we need to make sure that we are listening to understand rather than to respond. And that’s something that we think about a lot. And that’s something that I’ve tried, you know, especially this year… Just tried to practice a lot because I can have some of those natural tendencies to think, hey my way is the right way. But again there is something magical about having a document open where a clear statement of the problem or clear statement of the opportunity. And then talk through it from that perspective. Because often in conversation we get lost. And we start to argue emotion. Or start to exclude facts and then there’s not an opportunity to let the best idea win.  

19:57 JL: So I’m really interested in this idea of working on it, you know. We’re all familiar with how meaningful repetitions build the new neural pathways. And the 10,000 hours and all this kind of, books about habits in the business literature right? I’m interested what that looks like for you. Is it something you think about before the conversation? Is it through conversation you are monitoring yourself and asking am I listening for understanding or am I listening to respond? Is it evaluation afterwards. What does it look like?… For you to work on?

A Listening Apology

RYAN SANDERS: Yeah. It’s kind of an ever present thing. You know, a few years ago I got some… And again in another crucial conversation, I got some feedback from one of our recruiters. And she said ‘Ryan we need you to think out loud. Please think out loud’. And I thought ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I can tell that you are thinking about it. And your personality is one that I can tell that you need time to process and to think of your response. But there are times when it really makes sense for you to share your raw and unfiltered opinions’. And it was really insightful for me to learn that. And you know she even gave me a little post it note that said P.T.O. Please think out loud. And I set that on my monitor and ever since I’ve done similar things where you know if there’s something I’m trying to work on, like the listening, then I make sure that that’s, you know, either on a post it note or where I put my goals. And it’s just something that is ever present. And because of that, I use every single opportunity to practice. And now that doesn’t mean that I get it right from the start of the conversation. But I will catch myself and then work on it. If I don’t and there are the occasions that I don’t and I just kind of…  I’ll rush through a conversation. I feel like I’m you know… One of the things I do to help me stay committed to this is I’ll let the person know and apologize. So I’ll try to send then an email or the next time I see them I’ll catch them and just say hey I didn’t do a very good job at this. And I apologize and next time I’ll do better. And because I don’t like…

22:17 JL: What’s their reaction?

RYAN SANDERS: Usually surprised. You know, you get a note from me and be like… uhhhhhh. I don’t know if you need to apologize. [laugh] But for me it’s important because I want them to know that I value them and that I’m working on these things. And you know nobody likes to apologize so it’s a good reminder for me to be careful in my conversations.

22:45 JL: That’s awesome. Well I think this is a great place to end part one of the interview. So everybody please tune back in. We’re going to be asking Ryan a bunch more of these types of questions. How to become humble. I like it.

Hi. My name is Logan Wilkes and I’m the CEO of Corporate Alliance.  A few years ago I moved to San Diego to build a new market for us there. The biggest deterrent I had to success was I didn’t know a soul. I often thought to myself, if I just had a thriving network or influence this would go 100x faster. To be honest with you I had never felt so alone in my line. Because a) I didn’t have an influence and b) I didn’t know anyone who was going through the same thing I was. If you have ever felt like this and you were looking to grow your influence join us at one of our upcoming events. You can check us out at corporatealliance.net And you can request an invite to one of our upcoming experiences.

[END] 23:01