Leadership + People: Episode 52 - Joel Clark - Part 1 of 2
In this episode Joel Clark CEO and Founder of Kodiak Cakes, tells stories from past jobs and how former employers influenced him and the experience that taught him that genuine care does more to motivate than any amount of finger pointing.
- Deciding if you work best alone or need a partner to bounce ideas off of [00:45]
- Why being optimistic is crucial not just for an individual but the entire company [02:40]
- Set expectations for feedback from day one. Do it often and with respect [04:31]
- How one jerk boss and another who genuinely cared helped shape his leadership style [10:22]
- Demonstrating care takes consistency and really listening to their needs and concerns, both in the workplace and outside [13:31]
- Why putting workplace culture as top priority will impact your numbers positively but not the other way around [15:31]
- A costly mistake and how the way his boss addressed him increased his motivation and drive [19:23]
This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: September 26th, 2018
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 Joel Clark.
JOEL CLARK “What I like hearing from other people is, you know, other types of people they work around that you know set a good example to them, or had an impact on them. And you know, maybe how my style might have changed because of other people that I worked for.”
00:45 JL: So in the first episode we talked about Shark Tank. We talked about growing 100 million dollars a year in business. Talking a little more… Going a different direction here on this episode. Can you talk about dealing with isolation and finding a cofounder, and what that was like for you and why that was valuable for you?
Value in Partnership
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. So when I took Kodiak Cakes over, when I was 23, it was just a little tiny business. And I was running it from home. My parents basement actually. And it was just me. So I was all alone. And I did that for goll almost seven years. So I had a job that I’d do during the day. And then I’d go run Kodiak Cakes at night. And I learned pretty fast that I was pretty tough to be alone. I didn’t like being all alone. That was hard for me. And so when I quit my job in 2004 to do Kodiak Cakes full time, my dad joined me. To help me, out of retirement. So he was 65 at the time. And he and I just started working on it. And we worked together for almost four years, like I said before in the first episode. But it was so much fun. And I loved having him there. And we bounced ideas off of each other. And just having someone there to be a partner with was really important for me. So when he retired when he was 70. This is in about 2008, 2009, that’s when I hired Cameron Smith, who is our COO now. And he really became a cofounder for me. And I just felt that that’s what I needed. That was my style. I need to have somebody working with me, that’s partnering with me and helping me make decisions. And some people are fine or probably okay with being alone and just having people report to them. But for me that was something that I really needed. And also just having great relationships here at work. That really helps and it’s motivating for me.
Creating Optimistic Culture
02:40 JL: That’s great. When you think about this idea of connection and human connection, my guess is you know it’s pretty easy to see what an optimistic guy you are. It comes across. When you think about making that contagious, across an organization, what does that look like for you?
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. That is important. A couple of things that, well there a couple of things that I do. One of them is I really do try to deliberately surround myself with optimistic people. Because I feed off of that, right? As people we can feed off of each other’s emotions and personalities. And I really like being around optimistic people. So, you know, Cameron for example, he’s our COO, I mentioned. But man, he’s one of the most optimistic people that I know. And so he’s been just a… He’s had a huge impact on just the way that I am and motivating me and helping me to be optimistic and to stay super motivated. So I think that’s good. But then also you just have to be careful about being negative. You just have to be really really careful because people will take that and they will run with that. And so we have to just stay positive, stay optimistic and not let the issues that come, we can’t let them bog us down. And we cannot act like it’s the end of the world when little things come up. That, I think, can do a lot of damage. And so being positive, staying optimistic is crucial.
04:14 JL: So what about, you know, you’ve got a growing organization, what about when you have a team member that needs some correction. Somebody who isn’t living that way.
JOEL CLARK: Yeah.
04:24 JL: And you realize that this isn’t a little thing. This is, you know we probably need a real talk about it.
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. Yeah.
04:31 JL: Any thoughts about how you approach, you know a conversation a lot of managers and leaders prefer to avoid?
Laying the Foundations for Feedback
JOEL CLARK: Absolutely. Honestly Jess, early on I was bad at this. I really was not very good at it. And it was hard for me to approach and have a candid conversation and give direct feedback. It was hard. I kind of felt like I just wanted to lead through example. And they’ll get it. They’ll come along, you know. And that can happen when you’re five people. You don’t, you know people do. They kind of come along and see how you’re working and it sort of happens. Culture sort of happens. As we grew, we number one felt the need… We realized we need to establish our culture. Write it down. And then we what we started to do was we started to hold each other accountable for our culture. And so it’s now like 25% of our bonus is living our culture, living our values or culture. We call is our Kodiak Code. So if someone is not living it, or they’re doing something wrong or whatever, we now have really honest, open conversations with people. And that became part of our culture, was to have candid feedback. But the way we do it is always respectful. And so that became a big part of the culture too. That yes we need to be great to work with. We need to work well with each other. But we also need to have candid feedback and let each other know when we are needing to improve something. But it always has to be done with respect and with high EQ. Because then you can handle those things. And then people appreciate the feedback.
06:03 JL: Well you’re helping them make sure they get their bonus at the end for the year right?
JOEL CLARK: That’s right [laugh]. Exactly.
06:08 JL: But it’s not the easiest thing right? If we are frustrated enough with someone that we need to have a talk with them. Are there things you tell yourself? Is there any tricks or ideas for the rest of us? You know it’s finally gotten to the point, we are ready to talk to somebody about something and we know that we need to get in that good place so we can enter that conversation with respect?
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. A couple of things that I do, I will make myself some notes. I will write it down. I will think through the things I need to mention. And then you just do it. You just start. You have the conversation. And it gets easier the more of them you have. But there is one strategy I think that helps a lot with making the conversation easier to have in the beginning. Which is to set the expectation upfront that you’re going to give honest open feedback. One of our leaders here, her name is Darla, she is our VP of sales. And she is really good at this. And she tells people from the beginning; ‘hey I’m always going to tell you if there is anything that I see that you need to change. I’m always going to help you. I’m going to coach you along.’ And so people know from the beginning that she’s going to talk to them. She is going to give them feedback. And it’s okay, because it’s established that’s how it’s going to be. So when people come in and get hired here at Kodiak Cakes, we tell them from the beginning; ‘hey, we’re going to give you open feedback. And we’re going to ask for it too. We want it back. It’s going to be two ways. You’re going to have a chance to be totally open about how you feel about your boss. Or how you feel about this or that.’ So setting that up from the beginning really helps. You just tell people ‘Hey. I’m going to be talking to you. I’m going to give you feedback. I’m going to tell you what I see, what I hear.’ And they love it. And they appreciate it.
07:52 JL: So that can be, you knw that can be dicey depending on the culture someone else comes from.
JOEL CLARK: Yeah.
07:57 JL: So it’s nice to hear that you’re actually living it. But for other folks who feel like when my boss says that it’s more like the New Yorker cartoon when the boss comes in and says “I want you to tell me exactly what you think of me even if it cost you your job”.
JOEL CLARK: [laugh] Yeah
08:14 JL: So how do you signal to people that get them to actually believe it’s safe enough to say what they mean. You know especially larger organizations there’s a lot of what gets said and what was actually meant underneath.
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. That’s true. That’s totally true. One thing we do is we talk about it enough and we ask for it enough where people actually become more comfortable. At first you are right, someone probably won’t. They’re going to be pretty guarded about what they say. Because they’re not really sure. Do they really believe you? Do they want to take that risk incase they… There really could be a repercussion there. But I think overtime the more you, the more time you spend with people and the more you ask for feedback and the more you give it and the more I guess safe they feel, then the more they’ll open up. And that’s when you can make progress with, you know, improvements or changes or things that need to happen. And so I think it’s just talking about it a lot. And actually genuinely wanting feedback and giving it. That helps.
09:21 JL: Yeah. Well, it sounds like it works. It sounds like people are seeing someone else give that feedback and then not getting fired or not getting dumped on later, right?
JOEL CLARK: Right.
09:35 JL: They see that example. So let’s go another direction. You’ve done a lot of PR in your life. What’s a question we haven’t asked yet that we should ask that you want to get asked.
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. I think, you know, I think something that might be kind of interesting is like… You come across a lot of different leadership styles. And something I think is interesting for me is always hearing… What I like is hearing from other people, you know, other types of people they work around that, you know, set a good example for them or had an impact on them. And you know, maybe how you know, my style might have changed because of other people that I worked for. That’s interesting.
10:22 JL: Yeah yeah. Let’s hear it.
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. So I mean, I had several jobs growing up. [chuckle] And I remember I worked my first job in high school, was working for this pizza place. And the guy that I worked for, he was just a total jerk. He was just mean. I mean he really was mean. And one night I almost walked out on him. It was just the two of us. He and I were working this busy friday night in this little pizza place you know. And he was just kind of yelling at me. And just being rude. And I was working my butt off man. I was running back and forth, cleaning the tables, serving tables, doing dishes. I was doing everything. And he was cooking. And I… Man and I was a hard worker. I remember thinking I want to leave. I should just leave and just you know, stiff this guy. [laugh] You know, leave him out to dry on this busy Friday night. And I didn’t. Probably a good move that I didn’t. That would have just been revenge. And that’s never good. So I didn’t, but what I learned was you know, you don’t really have to be a jerk. [laugh] You can get a lot more out of people just being kind and nice, you know, being open feedback, telling them what you want. So later I worked for a guy in Salt Lake. A guy named Clark Lauder. He sold electrical products. And this guy was awesome. I mean l loved working for him. This was when I was in college. He was the opposite. He was a guy that cared about all of us. He cared about us individually. About how we were doing. How are lives were. He cared about our work and if we were enjoying our work. And it was such a change for me. It just opened my eyes up to that; hey you can be a really nice guy and still be a really great leader and a really great boss and get really great results. And so you know that’s kind of… We talked earlier in the first episode about relationships and that just made me… It motivated me to work hard for this guy. And so I kind of learned, or I kind of thought from that type of experience, I want to be that type of guy. I’d rather be the type of guy that really has good relationships and empowers people and cares about them. That’s really something that helped me in my life.
12:30 JL: Can you think of an example? Was it that he took you aside and was interested in what you’re interested in? Any thing, any instances come to mind that would illustrate of the way he lead?
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. I mean. I remember one example. He would… And this probably happened quite regularly. But I remember one time he pulled me aside and said ‘Hey. How are you? How are you doing?’ He said ‘I know we’ve given you a lot of work. And you’re doing really well.’ He told me that. He gave me feedback. He said ‘You’re doing really well. And we want to give you more.’ And he said, ‘Can you handle it? Are you ok?’ Because I was going to college at the time too. And so, I just liked that he cared. It wasn’t just about, what am I producing? What are my results? What are the dollars that we’re bringing in? He genuinely cared about my workload. If I was enjoying the work. And if it was too much. Or if it was the right amount. I mean that was just one example. But it was one of those things that I appreciated because he was communicating and he cared.
Demonstrating Authentic Concern
13:31 JL: So what was it about the way… Because other leaders could read that script. What is it about the way he was asking that you knew it wasn’t just a management trick?
JOEL CLARK: Gosh that’s a good question. I think it was over time. Right? Because overtime he demonstrated over and over that he genuinely cared about me. Little things like ‘Hey Joel. How are you today? How’s your college class?’ You know. ‘How is this? How are your parents?’ You know. Little things like that I think over time is really how you really build it. You’re right. You could ask that. You could go through that script. But it may not be perceived as being super genuine if you don’t have a relationship that’s deeper than that. And so I think that’s what it really was. And I saw him, I saw him care about other people in the company. I was young but there were these guys that had been working for him for years. Years and years. And they liked their job. And I knew that he really cared about those guys and their families. That it wasn’t just about the boss making a lot of money. It was about everybody in the company. And so I saw those things happen too. And so I kind of picked up on those elements. And then that’s how I knew he was genuine.
14:50 JL: Yeah. I heard a quote recently. A real friend is someone who asks how things are going and actually listens to the answer.
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. [Laugh]
15:00 JL: Sounds like he was like that.
JOEL CLARK: Yeah totally. He actually did care. You are right. Because we can ask but you can kind of tell when someone’s like mmmh. I’m asking that because that’s what you do, you know. Rather than actually caring.
Workplace Culture that Leads to Numbers
15:13 JL: Yeah. So it’s great to feel like; I like my work. And everybody talks about workplace culture these days. And then secretly leaders know; hey my promotion, my bonus, my stock options. What the board wants from me is; we’ve got to post the numbers.
JOEL CLARK: Right. Yeah.
15:31 JL: And so with you guys having such growth. I mean you have this workplace we’ve been talking about. But you also have the growth. What do you attribute that to? What do you… What would you say, or advice you have for folks who maybe aren’t as happy with their growth and want to kick it into a higher gear like you guys are?
JOEL CLARK: Well I think one thing… I mean I really do feel again, like you just said Jess, culture is always talked about. But I really do feel like it’s the lifeblood of our company. We feel like it’s number one. The numbers have to be number two. Because they depend on the culture. They depend on the people. So they have to be. If the numbers are number one then you start leading that way. And people start to know that all you really care about are the numbers. Then the culture gets damaged. And people started checking out mentally. Because what we are really trying to do is we are trying to get people to want to be here. We are trying to get people to want to give their best and to give everything they have. And so I think if culture is truly cared about and focused on as the number one priority, and you really do work hard to build it and manage it, because culture has to be managed as it’s always changing. Then I think, then you can really can start to focus and you can hit your numbers. Then you can figure out what are the weak points. What are the areas where we are strong? How do we build on those? And what are the things that are making us successful? And how do we build on that? That’s what I would say. Just it really does need to be the number one focus. It just needs to be. Even if that sounds cliche. It just has to be. And then you can… Then you really can have the ability to drive and hit your numbers because you’ve got people who want to be there and will support you with that, with your goals.
17:24 JL: Well and you know, while I’m playing the devil’s advocate a bit there. I think the reason I was pushing a little but on it is for me it sounds like, and I want you to correct me because I’m going to put words in your mouth a little bit. It sounds like a little bit of what you’re saying is by people knowing that you care about them first, and that… That that authenticity is alive and well, then your ability to ask them to bring their A game, is not just the boss because he said so, because he wants those numbers. It’s almost more like a friend or somebody you like is making the request. And it’s less of a, you know, in addition to the ‘you should’ there’s this whole, like we stated in the first episode, because I like my boss I’m more likely to bring that discretionary efforts. Is that fair?
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. I would totally agree with that. It’s like I would completely agree. You’re there. You start to want… People that you have really good relationships with you can align pretty fast. As soon as your boss cares about something, you’re going to care about it too. Because you really have a relationship and you care about what he cares about or she cares about. And so I think that is the reason why. I think what you say is true and I think that the reason why is we care about things… We want to care about things that other people care about, when we have a great relationship with them.
18:45 JL: Well, I’ll put you on the spot and if you don’t have a story for this just tell me.
JOEL CLARK: Okay.
18:48 JL: Can you think about a time when you did have an instance, like somebody screwed up something for the numbers. And you have this temptation to give them the gears or whatever. And it really comes down to that choice between the numbers and the human. And it was, you know, tempting to choose the numbers.
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. I know we’ve had situations like that where… And I can’t think of one particular instance.
19:23 JL: I know I’m putting you on the spot.
The Costly Mistake
JOEL CLARK: That’s ok. But I know we’ve had instances like that where there’s somebody how messed something up and it might have been costly. Then maybe we were tempted to come down hard. But what does that do. I will tell you… An instance comes to mind where that happened to me though. So this boss that I was talking to you about. His name is Clark Lauder. And one time I made a pretty stupid mistake. And I authorized a bunch of product. Like several thousand dollars worth of product to be shipped out to a building site, before the building site was ready to receive it. It was costly because we had to ship the product twice, when it never should have gotten out. And I remember being really like; ‘Crap. I really screwed up. And this is going to cost the company a decent amount of money.’ And I remember thinking to myself ‘Man. You know, Clark has every right to really get on me for this. He really does. He can be so bummed.’ But he didn’t. The way he handled it was awesome. He basically said ‘You know it’s alright Joel. We make mistakes. We make mistakes. These things happen. And then we learn from them and then we get better. It’s not the end of the world.’ It was awesome because then I was like, man I’m going to run through walls for this guy. I’m going to bust my butt and I’m going to make it up to him. I’m going to be better. He actually turned it into a really motivating experience for me.
21:01 JL: You know, I love that story. My hero, this guy named Terry Warner, he says something like, along the lines, I’m going to miss quote him but like… ‘When we point fingers, people’s conscience defends them. But when we don’t people’s conscience convicts them.’ Right?
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. [laugh] Right.
21:20 JL: You can think about the leadership thing of ‘well we’ve got to let them know that that’s unacceptable.’ You already knew it was unacceptable. Right?
JOEL CLARK: Right.
21:29 JL: And what you told yourself, what’s the effect that had on you versus anything he could have said to you right?
JOEL CLARK: Oh my gosh totally. He handled that so well. Gosh. I got motivated as a result from that. I did more good in the company over time just because I cared about him.
21:48 JL: Love it. Well for people who want to try your products, where’s the best place from them to connect?
JOEL CLARK: You can get Kodiak Cakes in most grocery stores, like Costco. A lot people like to get them at Costco because you can get a pretty big box and it’s a pretty good deal. And then you can get it at most other grocery stores like Smiths and Target and Harmens if you’re in Utah. And you know it’s actually going out into Walmart stores pretty soon. So you can get it there too.
22:15 JL: Congrats
JOEL CLARK: Thanks
22:17 JL: Love it. Well thanks again for all your stories. This was a great episode.
JOEL CLARK: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
22:20 JL: You bet.
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