When he says he wants to bring more “love and compassion” into the workplace, Max Yoder, CEO and Co-Founder at Lessonly, often gets eye rolls. But he’s serious about it, in part because he finds the culture of Corporate America toxic and has to push back hard. But also because he’s seen the positive effects of that compassion with his own team and wants to spread the word.
Max joined us on The BragWorthy Culture podcast recently to share his ideas.
You can find a lot of those ideas in Max’s book, “To See It, Be It.” It contains more than 100 notes on what he’s learned in work and life. They remind him of his purpose and motivate him to lead with authenticity, grace and gusto. His hope in publishing the book is to help others to do better work and live better lives (free copies are available, you just need to cover the shipping).
In 2012, Max started Lessonly to provide training software to a market that was dissatisfied with the choices available. He asked those who were buying the software what they thought could be improved. Then Lessonly set out to deliver those improvements, inspired by the design aesthetic and company culture of companies that were really growing during that time, like Squarespace, Mailchimp, and Tumblr.
Lessonly was recently acquired by Seismic, another player in the space, and continues its mission of helping team members learn.
Max’s Entrepreneurial Start
Max had an unusual upbringing: his family ran a funeral home. It was connected to the family home by a driveway.
Max credits this with, among other things, keeping him grounded; when you grow up next to death, you don’t have any illusions about immortality. So many of Max’s friends had never seen a dead person, and he had seen hundreds.
It also taught him that there’s not an unlimited amount of time to do all the things that matter to you. Nor is there an unlimited amount of time to give forgiveness or reconcile broken relationships, etc.
Start With Yourself
Max shares a story about holding his newborn child. A nurse came into the room and pushed his shoulders down, asking if he was nervous. He laughed and admitted he was. She then told him that the more relaxed he was, the easier it would be for the baby to relax. Even when only a few hours old, humans feed off the energy of those close to them.
That’s a lesson Max relates to work. If someone is agitated, you don’t want to match that energy. Instead, focus on yourself and make sure you’re calm. That’s the best chance you have for passing on that calm to them.
Max also encourages us to realize that other people get fired up sometimes. They are human and have feelings, and those feelings sometimes are effectively a reflex. We have to be careful to give them the grace to react, sometimes reflexively, but we should not do the same.
Max admits that it was when practicing giving people grace — forcing himself not to act reflexively, trying not to get fired up when someone else was fired up — that he realized just how hard it is to adopt certain behaviors. It’s really easy to tell somebody not to be angry or to react in a certain way. But when Max tried it himself, he realized it’s a journey that requires a lot from an individual, starting with self-awareness about the problem and a willingness to put in the effort to change.
Max knew he had to keep working through those challenges, not just as a leader of an organization or the father of a family, but as a human seeking to improve every day.
But Max also sees limits, particularly with empathy. He acknowledges that it can have its uses but says it takes a lot out of the person who is extending the empathy — after continuously being empathetic for even a little while, that person can find their emotional batteries drained.
Rather than extend empathy, Max offers “compassionate action” as a way to help team members without draining their emotional batteries. Compassionate action has boundaries and won’t open people up to the possibility of burnout.
Set Boundaries With Your Team
Lessonly experienced a lot of growth and Max shares that when it was a small team of a dozen or so, they were spending a lot of time together, building engaging relationships. But that level of intimacy was simply not practical when the company grew north of that, particularly when it grew beyond 50 people.
That meant it was important to strike a balance between emotional “slavery,” which subjects you to everyone’s feelings and judgments, and emotional detachment, where there is no connection to other people. Max followed a concept outlined in Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” — emotional liberation. The concept is simple: be present with an individual and with their experience, but set boundaries not to carry that experience with you.
Setting boundaries shouldn’t discourage people from sharing. Max calls vulnerability a glue. When you’re willing to call yourself out on a mistake, you’re admitting that you’re human and you give other people space and grace to do the same.
This is challenging for a self – proclaimed “recovering perfectionist” like Max, but as we noted above, it’s only in practicing something that you realize how hard it is and can get an appreciation for it.
This type of work environment can serve as a corrective to years of bad “programming” by Corporate America. Max encourages those in charge of hiring to consider hiring for “potential, not credential.” To advance in Corporate America, you may have many hidden wounds that allow you to progress and that can end up affecting others negatively. Those who don’t have the credentials but have the potential don’t have any bad habits to unlearn, and Max sees this as a much better starting position.
Check Out the Full Episode
Max believes that work culture trickles down from the leadership. He frames reactions to challenges as either soul-sucking or life-giving. He keeps striving for the latter, always. If you’d like to learn more about Max and his journey to make himself and the people around him better, listen to our full interview by tuning into the podcast on Apple or Spotify.
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