Alex Hillman – the Founder of Indy Hall and who is also the creator and lead instructor of the Community Builder Masterclass, an intense course that teaches community leaders, managers, and corporations how to build a cohesive and robust culture. He conducted a workshop on ‘Building an Amazing Team (Culture)’ at the Day 1 of CUAsia 2018. The session aimed to inspire the audience to try something a little bit different from what we see every day, when it comes to teams, team building and hiring. Alex shared some of the specific tools that are used at Indy Hall to keep the communication tight, as well as some of the habits, ritual, and practices they use to remind them that they are and should be there for the same reasons as the members – because they want to be there.
As a solo founder, Alex was the one to unlock the doors to Indy Hall first thing in the morning, and the last one out. After a year and a half, he hit a breaking point; he realized that all of his time and energy were being invested in Indy Hall. He then began to look for someone who could take over some of Alex’s workload, thus allowing him to utilize other skills or to explore other personal and professional opportunities that could potentially bring in revenues to be reinvested back into Indy Hall. Alex then pitched an offer to his friend Dana, an artist, “Your job is to watch me work and to look for things that you can do, as good or better than me; and your job is to take them away from me.” Beyond that, he also asked her to look for ways to make Indy Hall better and said, “In return for you taking the position of making Indy Hall better, I promise you that Indy Hall will make you better.” The idea is to hire someone who wants to be there and offer him/her exposure to a diverse pool of people. It will be his/her, job to spend every day with the members, to learn how they work, to watch what they do. In return, they may be inspired but best of all, they are likely to find a way of working they didn’t even know existed. During that time, Indy Hall had 75 – 80 members, Dana would not have 40 hours a week worth job, but she would still need to be there for the 40 hours of business. Alex’s offer to her was that Indy Hall could afford to pay her for roughly 20/22 hours of work a week, while the other 15 -20 hours depending on the week, would come out of his pocket. “This was not about hiring an employee for Indy Hall, it was about me buying my time back,” said Alex. He suggested Dana to use all the resources and people at disposal, to figure out how she could be a member of this community, over the next one year. Dana got exposed to software companies, and she realized that she had a talent for communication. While she was trying to figure out what kind of company she wanted to work for, one of the clients introduced her to dog training, and now she is a professional dog trainer. When Alex observed Dana serendipitously forming one connection to the next, leading her to take a path she would have never taken in the first place; he realized that this is a job not for a person who knows what they want to do, but for a person who has not quite figured it out yet. He stated, “This is a person who is going to come in, with eyes wide open, and will use this as an opportunity to explore in exchange for running a coworking space smoothly.” It was not a ‘forever’ job, it was a ‘one-year’ job, which means Alex looks for someone new to replace him every year. They have done multiple generations of this approach to hiring at Indy Hall.
Adam Teterus joined Indy Hall the same way, within six months of his joining, Indy hall started to get involved in training and educating other coworking spaces. The conferences became more prominent and consistent; they began publishing, sharing, teaching classes, running workshops. Alex watched Adam excel in not only the job he was doing at Indy Hall but also teaching others. Two months before the end of Adam’s year, Alex inquired about his next step and was ecstatic to hear that Adam wanted to stay at Indy Hall and do more of what he was doing. Alex then had to buy back Adam’s time so he could work with him on the training and education programs; he hired a coworking researcher who was doing ethnographic observational research of a coworking space, at that time. “My point at sharing these stories is to inspire you to think about the different ways people get value from being employed by you, but also to show you that sometimes there are strange and unexpected ways to find who it is that you are going to hire,” said Alex.
Alex has had multiple conversations about where to go to hire great people, and he is often asked to share any tips or tricks that work better consistently. His first recommendation would be to look within the community. There might be some super members, who can oversee some of the operations of the space. If not, at the very least, they know people who hear them talk about how great it is to be part of the community you provide. This approach would give you a very likely network of people who would love to be there if only there were a way to.
The next two recommendations may vary from region to region, but one is people who have gone through Starbucks management training. Starbucks, being a massive national company, has a highly regimented, very well structured training program to take people who have no leadership training, no management experience and make them good listeners. The Starbucks management style is listening oriented set of tools, set of practices and approaches which translates well into all the work we are doing in coworking spaces.
His next recommendation is perhaps one of the strangest places to hire people from, the improv community. One of the hardest parts about recruiting and building a team, in coworking today, is that there is no set tools, systems, even books and documentation you could give to a new hire and say here is everything you need to learn. “Improv is effectively empathy as a team sport,” stated Alex. It teaches you not just to listen and react effectively, but it also teaches you to understand and anticipate how other people are going to do and help them reach to a greater place than where they thought they would reach. He said, “That is literally what our jobs are every single day, whether that is for our fellow team members or our coworking members themselves.”
Alex has learned that you don’t get good at running a big team until you learn how to work with one or two people. They came up with the idea of not just sharing ownership, but making sure that there are multiple projects and multiple efforts given to each department. Rather than dividing into roles, they focus on projects and make sure that at any given time everyone has the opportunity to lead a project as well as play supporting role. At Indy Hall, everyone finds projects which are suited to their strengths, and if and when they do need help, their number one goal is to help them succeed.
Indy Hall has spent ‘disproportionate’ amount of time with team members facing writing. Initially, it was because Alex was having a hard time shifting from everything being his voice to have others express their writing styles. It was a in-person practice of how to create a brand guide or style guide for writing. If the writing was meant to get people’s attention and influence member action, no less than 1%, other than the person writing it has eyes on it. This approach was to help each other make sure that those who were going to read it, would know where it was coming from. Alex shared, “Having another set of eyes has become a huge part of the bonding process in most of the communications that we do.”
Next, Alex mentioned some of the challenges they had faced when they were trying to build a team, as well as the ways in with they tackled each obstacle. One of the biggest issue with small teams, in particular, is the fact that you may own lots of projects, but you are not clear about your job title. Regarding transferability of skills and somebody’s ability to say that this is what I did at this company, it is valuable for people to have a title, even if it is one that is relatively made up. They also ended up in situations where it was also unclear to the members as to who to go for what. “We’ve had to get clearer about, Adam mostly focused on things that were outward facing, and Sam mostly focused on things that were inward facing, and I get involved when something/somebody is confused,” said Alex.
Alex repeated the words of Grace Sai, and said, “The best way to help your team get better is to work on yourself.” He was referring that one of the challenges Indy Hall faces is Alex himself. He spent a lot of time realizing that a lot of the struggles that his team was going through was generally because he was in the way. His solution to this was to tell his teammates, “If I am in the way, it is your job to tell me. I am not going to be offended, and I am not going to be upset because it is my way of knowing that you have got this.”
The other challenge he mentions is one they have not solved yet entirely; it is the idea of advancement. Adam is the only person who has been at Indy Hall long enough, for there even to be an advancement. Whereas for the others, they advance out of Indy Hall, which was by design. As Indy Hall continued to grow, occasionally there were those who wanted to pursue a career at Indy Hall. It made Alex think of ways to create advancement, after all, we can invest in people in different ways, but how do they know what they are reaching for next. They have addressed this issue with rituals, that they have built into their daily, weekly and monthly practices. They have a channel on Slack that says ‘daily goals,’ this platform is provided to the team as well as the members. It not only keeps you informed on what your teammates are doing, but you can also tell if someone has a goal that is much too large. For example, if some have the same daily goal for three days. “Building this into the daily ritual gives me visibility. Not just to see what people are doing, but also to know when they are stuck and not asking for help,” said Alex.
They build on the daily goals, with a weekly stand up. Every Monday morning, they get together for 30 minutes to run through the happenings at Indy Hall, such as a problem or even sharing any big win. They have a fiscal calendar that goes up on the board, all the events for that month are on there, both members related stuff and internal deadlines. It also includes personal goals, if you can recall, the goal of somebody coming on was not just to be working at Indy Hall but to also be working on their projects, which means working on their own personal and professional advancement. The goal is to be on the other side of the table. It is easy to slip back into that job mindset, an employee mindset. Alex believes that these personal and professional goals do not take away from the ability to be a successful community member of the team. He pointed out, “They are always there, but I think traditional work tends to ignore it and pretend that it is a sideline, we’ve just brought it back into the conversation.”
Town Hall is something that does at Indy Hall including the team and the members, either quarterly or every month. It is mostly a quick checkpoint with the community; how have things been going since the last time they had a town hall, such as any significant wins, any big stumbling blocks, etc. This approach is a way to create a path to transparency, to allow the community to observe how everyone works as a community. They are continually working on making sure the members know where they are, and how the staff can help the members best.
Lastly, Alex mentions the various trips, retreats, and conferences they organize. It is not only limited to coworking retreats. For example, if one of their staff members wants to go to an improvisational event, Alex supports them and even pays time off, since that event could potentially lead them to discover or build the next thing. Alex emphasizes, “Constantly investing in folks, not just in ways that it benefits Indy Hall, but knowing that if they feel invested in, they are going to continue investing harder into the community as well.”