I believe that the work we do to make organizations that are great places to work is also what is going to create very high performing companies. I’m looking forward to a world where we just accept that as fact, where we believe that our biggest responsibility as leaders of organizations is to create places where people want to work, are inspired, fulfilled and supported, and can experience work as having a connection to their life and purpose in a way that goes beyond just having a 9-5 job.
In this episode, Richard and Peter talk with Mark Ethier, founder of leading audio production software company iZotope. Even if you’ve never heard of iZotope, you’ve heard the results of their products—they’ve won Emmy, Oscar, and NAMM awards for their contributions to TV, film, and music production.
Among other topics in this dense episode, Richard, Peter, and Mark discuss how iZotope went through different “stages” of Agile, what Mark has learned in two decades as a leader, how to develop managers, and the future of work and of music.
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Welcome to the Humanizing Work Show. In this episode, Richard and I interview Mark Ethier, the founder and former CEO of iZotope. iZotope is one of the most respected companies in the field of audio. They develop technology that helps musicians, music producers and audio post-production engineers create amazing sound without getting too mired down in technical details and clunky user interfaces.
Izotope products have been lauded by several well-known musicians like Trent Reznor, Kimbra and Skrillex; music producers and engineers like Emily Lazar, Larry Klein, and Young Guru; and post-production experts like Lora Hirschberg of Skywalker Sound. Their products have received dozens of industry awards, including multiple technical Emmys. iZotope has also received many awards for their company culture, and we’ve been fortunate to be involved in helping them out from time to time where we’ve seen that culture firsthand from Mark, through the executive team, and out through everyone we interacted with at iZotope.
It was always a joy to visit their office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to see what they were up to and to see what a human-centric, customer focused company can really do. In this episode, Mark shares insights into the myth of a single passion, the importance of range, both individually and collectively, and some of the lessons he learned about founding and scaling a company; the important role of executive coaching; the different stages of Agile that iZotope went through; and how to lead through big, difficult changes. Mark Is that rare combination of brilliance, humility, and heart, and we hope you enjoy hearing his inspiring story and the way he thinks.
Mark Ethier, welcome to the Humanizing Work Show. We’re so glad to have you join us today.
Thanks for having me on.
So there’s, I think, kind of a myth in a lot of the startup world, in a lot of business thinking that successful founders are like laser focused only on the business; but your experience has a pretty broad range of skills. You’ve got a dual degree in music composition and computer science from MIT; you were active in soccer; we’ve talked a little bit about some involvement you’ve had in your wife Claire’s business, right, with Curious Spice; you do a lot of traveling in kind of an interesting way. I’m curious how you think about this balance between “I’m laser focused on the business,” but “I have a pretty broad range of interests and focus.” How do you think about that?
Yeah, that’s a really interesting question because I was just reading the introduction to Designing Your Life, the book about how to think about where you go with your life and the introduction says, one of the myths is that everyone has a passion. And it’s funny you say it that way because I feel like I always struggled when the guidance counselor said, “What do you want to do with your life? What’s your passion?” And I said, “Well, I like this and this and this and this and this,” which felt very unsatisfying to the guidance counselor and being able to give me advice on what I do next. But I think for me, and it’s even reflected at MIT—and the way that I think the world goes; and the reasons why we’re doing the work the three of us do; is that the world is heading in a direction where it’s the integration of potentially completely disparate things that are creating the solutions we need for the incredibly complicated problems we have.
I went through a period of feeling like I was doing it wrong, because I didn’t have the one thing that I absolutely knew I wanted to do. I started at MIT as a physics major and then moved to Arrow Astro and then finally said, “Wait a second, maybe I’ll do this computer science thing.”
And even in starting my company, in some ways it was just, “Well, I really like computers. I like people, I like music and I’m trying to record my own music. Let me just see if I can do all that stuff together.” It wasn’t even as if I had a vision or a clear idea of “This is what the company is going to be.”
It was just sort of an amalgamation of the things I was interested in and working on with some friends, and it just grew organically from there. So I feel like for me it’s been very, very much a relief to sort of experience life that way, since so many of the messages, as you were saying, were about the clarity and the focus and “He always knew what he wanted to do.”
And I’d be lying to you if I even know now what I want to do. I feel like we’re all just figuring it out and that’s okay.
I’m curious if that influenced how you think about hiring, or who you work with, or whether you see a mix of that in the people you’ve worked with.
Yeah, that’s a great question. I will say that I was in an industry that was very insular at times. A lot of people would be in it because they were connected to it. They had a hobby in it. They were passionate about the space in some way, which is totally fine and it’s wonderful and it’s important really.
And I found that it could lead to thinking that was very much in the box of how things had always been done. And so for me, when we thought about hiring, I would have people who would come to us and say, “Well, I’m not passionate about music or audio or the recording space.” And I felt like I often had to give them some confidence that, “No, no, no, that’s a great thing!”
The person who first developed our really practical, deep learning application for auto mixing had no background in music or in audio, and he was bringing techniques and methods that he had built in radio signal processing to apply it to music. But that’s sort of an example where, by bringing someone in who came from a different industry, a different background, a different experience, we were able to create a solution that didn’t exist in the space we were already in.
So I feel like for me, it’s such an important aspect of thinking about hiring– and the word “diversity” gets thrown around a lot. But I really consider having teams that are able to work together effectively, have different backgrounds, have different experiences, is one of the crucial parts that allows us to come up with solutions that have never existed before by bringing those different experiences and backgrounds together to create something totally new.
So it’s interesting because I was thinking about range as an individual. But the point you bring in, when you’re building teams, is that they have a similar range– and you can get a much broader range, obviously when you have multiple people who each have their own experience and their own perspective and their own interests. Thinking about it, it almost had two holistic levels: People that have some range; teams that have more range; and organizations, an even broader range.
And I think this is not a judgment of people who have a very singular focus. But I think, from my own experience, having a very wide range of interests from stunt kites to soccer to cooking to food to travel, also made it possible for me to connect at a human level with more people. And so if all I cared about was music and the best guitar riff from the last 50 years, I could definitely connect with a certain set of people, but some people who didn’t care about that may not have made the same connection with me.
And being able to build that connection and trust is so important; and how we build the environment where people can actually perform the best.
So you talked a little bit about founding iZotope out of that stew of interests that you had. Tell us a little bit more about how iZotope got started.
So as you described, in my undergraduate degree I had a degree in music and a degree in computer science, and they were actually completely separate. They were not in some way combined. It was actually a very conservatory-like music degree. And the computer science degree was really more abstract. I like to say MIT is really good at creating computer science professors. It doesn’t necessarily prepare you for actually writing code.
But I had been preparing to record my own composition. The MIT Symphony Orchestra was performing something and I went to go make my own recording. And I’d never done this before. And it sounded awful. And that started some of my own experience of figuring out how to manipulate or modify sound.
And I was on the cutting edge of the mathematics signal processing side, and so I knew there’s a lot that was possible. But when I started to look at the products that were out there, they were built for professional recording studios. So they were incredibly expensive. They were built in workflow paradigms that made sense for a professional studio that had been around for 30 years.
But they meant nothing to me; and I couldn’t afford them anyway. And so with some friends, we got together and many of us saw sort of the same problem at the same time: All of these home hobbyists, recording musicians who had computers that were fast enough to record something– MP3 was around–that meant once you recorded it, you could actually put it out in the world. And there were things like Napster, which in their best form were designed for an everyday musician to have a distribution platform for their music. But the tools for media production were not built for those people. And so we started by just building things for ourselves and we were lucky that as we put them up online, a lot of people downloaded them and got excited about them.
And that was enough for us to say, after we graduated, that we would try to make something that we could sell to people. So it was literally the end of the summer 2001 when we put out Ozone, which is a product for audio mastering, which is sort of the final stage in music production that makes it sound radio-ready.
And we put it up on our website for I think $99 and emailed all the people who had downloaded another free thing we’d made. And we probably only made a few thousand dollars that first month, but that was enough for us to afford food and rent and we were off and running from there. It’s really that organic–we were the customer at the right time when there were more of us in the world. And we came in at a point where the status quo of the industry was bringing the digital equivalent of the analog products, which made sense for the people who had come up in the analog world. All these pieces of hardware, the software looked like hardware, it operated just like the traditional studio– but we’d never been in a studio.
And so that was meaningless to us. And so for us, we were coming from a background of playing video games and using Microsoft Office, and our first version of the product was incredibly visual and interactive and took advantage of the mouse and the keyboard shortcuts and the visualization that was possible. And there was definitely the group of people who are the analog folks who said, “What the heck are you doing? This is unusable.” And then the people who had our experience, said, “Oh my gosh, this finally makes sense to me. I can see the sound, I can see what I’m working on.” So it really was a combination of we were in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills and interests and lucky enough to have enough resources that we could spend a summer working for free.
And we were off and running. And I should say this is 2001, so right after the dot com bubble had burst. So the idea of raising money for tech was just not even something we considered.
We have never seen a founder have it all figured out from the beginning, especially a first-time founder who is coming from the “solve my problem with a product” side of it. And then, as you transition into “I’m not just a product developer, I’m the leader of an organization now,” what are some of the leadership lessons you learned in the early years at iZotope?
Wow, how long do we have today? I feel like very quickly, one of the books, when I’m mentoring new founders, which I always make them read is Michael Gerber’s E-Myth, which I think really sums up my experience. You go into something because you have a passion for a craft, and for me it was building a product and making a thing that could help people record music.
And very quickly, that myth was broken. And I realized, “Wait a second, no, it’s about managing an organization and managing an organization, managing people, planning– all of the other things that go around budgeting, all the other things that go around, how you actually create the environment and the context where you can do that sort of work.”
And so I’d say early on I spent more time probably thinking about people and relationships than products. And I say that because as you all know, when you start a company, especially if you’re in your early twenties, you don’t have any money, you’re living paycheck to paycheck or, you know, sales to sales every month. And it can be a very stressful environment and it can bring out the best and worst in the people.
And so we had about six founders when we started the company, and within a year we were down to four. And then a couple of years after that we were down to two. And so I think navigating all of those changes from “Hey, let’s get together and start a company,” and then starting to actually navigate through, “Okay, who is really on board? Who has a shared set of values, who has the right complementary set of skills that we’re going to need as we move forward?” And even “Who’s in the right stage of their life that they can afford to do this right now?” Because one of our co-founders had kids and we didn’t have health insurance– we barely had paychecks.
And eventually he said, “Okay, I need to tap out because I need health insurance. I can’t keep doing this.” And so I think navigating a lot of those personal challenges and sort of the stress, creating an environment where it could be contentious at times, probably sent me down the path where almost my first passion was around the people in the organization and how do we build culture; because I just saw how quickly that became the key to unlocking kind of how we’d succeed as an organization– as a company.
Those are hard conversations to have, especially realizing a co-founder isn’t in it as much with you—they’re not feeling it as strongly. And I’ve seen that a lot. What advice do you have for somebody who’s in that situation?
Wow. I can’t tell you how many founders that I’ve met with where I ask them, “How’s it going? And they tell me all the financials. And, you know, we keep digging down, digging down, and eventually we get to this: “But there’s my co-founder and I’m having trouble. I’m having X, Y, Z problem with the co-founder.”
I mean, it’s almost a cliche that I go into these conversations and expect we’re going to get there. And that maybe comes back to my first point where it feels like a lot of this comes down to the people and how the people work together. The thing I say more than anything else when I’m in those conversations is people articulate what the challenges are, what the problems are, how they frame the differences between the two or more founders, and they’re sitting in the room.
And I say, “Have you said these things to your co-founder?” And I would say 95% of the time it’s no. And the other 5%, it’s like “I think,” and I said, “Okay, I think you should be really certain that you’ve told your co-founder these things.” So it feels obvious. But I feel like so often the biggest meta lesson I learned as a leader was to take the things that are intrinsic and make them extrinsic.
So the thoughts you’re having in your head, as long as you’re having those thoughts in your head, no one else knows them or understands them. And so you have to do everything you can to try and get those out. And as you know, that’s not always as easy as just saying it. It’s making sure that they understand it and comprehend and really can use that to move forward in some way.
And so for me, that’s the biggest advice I give people: You need to have open conversations about where you’re at and what you’re thinking about and do it early and often, because the next objection I often hear is, “Yeah, but these have been problems for a couple of years and it’s almost like at that point it feels like such an epic conversation to have” –because it’s not, “I have something I want to talk about that just came up.” It’s “The last two years I’ve been sitting on this thing that I haven’t said to you, even though we spent 80 hours a week for the last, you know, nine months together,” or something. So that’s my advice to founders: You have to consider the personal aspects, the relationship aspects, how it relates to your life– because those things are so core and so crucial.
And yet if you look at the Lean Canvas, there’s no mention of the life goals of the people who are creating this canvas and really trying to make sure that’s part of it.
Mark, you and I discovered we had a shared connection in Bill Joiner, the great executive coach who you’ve worked with for quite some time, and who I had done some studying with. At what point did you start thinking about, “Oh, maybe I should reach out to an executive coach?” And how did you find your way to Bill?
And that seems like one way to help co-founders, or leaders have those conversations. So I was curious about that. What’s the story there?
Yeah, it’s a great question. I would say that I had definitely been a student of books related to organizational psychology, sort of what motivates people and trying to figure out how I could apply that to iZotope as it grew. And I had a friend who was actually at the Harvard Graduate School of Education working with Bob Keegan at that point.
And so I got exposed to some of the constructive human development theory and some of the aspects around how we develop as humans. And as a quick aside, it seems like for the last 40 or 50 years people say, “Oh, the brain stops developing at 18 or 21. And every couple of years they acknowledge, “Actually (eventually), it keeps developing through your entire life.”
And so thinking about how we actually leverage and are intentional about how we do some of that development is really important to how I thought about my own life and how we support people in the company. And Bill Joiner wrote a book called Leadership Agility, which talks about how to apply these principles of constructive human development, how we develop as people over our lifetime, to leadership, and how being intentional about how we develop our underlying skills or capacities in these areas can actually have a meaningful impact on our ability to be a leader.
And I read this book and I was really moved by it and it really spoke to me on where I was. It helped me to actually frame where some of my challenges were with the rest of my team. And I did something which I’ve now realized is maybe another piece of advice I’ve given everybody: You can just email authors. You can just email them and say, “Hey, I really enjoyed your book.”
And as Bill would say, “Even though a lot of people have read my book, I don’t get a lot of emails about it.” And so he responded to my email and we ended up getting together and talking through it. And at some point I’d say the conversation I had with him was the questions he was asking, the way he was trying to frame sort of my challenges made me realize that I wanted that on a regular basis.
And so, yeah, I worked with Bill for, I want to say almost 12 or 13 years and it really was an important support in some major shifts and transitions in my own capacity as a leader; and I definitely recommende to get into the work and have a coach. I have a friend who was a coach for Olympic Pole Vaulters and he always said it very well: “People will say, ‘Oh, you know, I need an expert as a coach, someone who knows more about this than I do.’”
And this person would say “All the best athletes have coaches, and there’s nobody who’s better than them in the world.” So you can sort of understand that a coach, just being on the outside, being able to observe and not be inside your brain, can bring a lot of value. And so you’d be surprised at how a coach who knows nothing about you, your business, your life, your industry can actually provide a huge amount of value by just asking good, insightful questions and helping to reframe the problems you’re seeing in the situations you’re in.
Zooming out a bit from your own leadership development to iZotope as an organization, it seems like iZotope has gone through a few different stages of Agile, something we’ve seen many companies experience. How would you describe those stages and how did your thinking about Agile evolve through those various stages as the leader of the organization?
That’s a great question. Yeah, I would say we kind of went through, I would say three different iterations of – I don’t even want to say Agile because the first one was so not that. We were a smaller company, and we were trying to figure out how to scale. And we had a part of our leadership who operated in a very command and control way, as in, once a week we’d get together with the engineers and say, “Okay, here’s all the stuff you need to do, okay? See you in a couple of days, go get it done. Finish your task list out.” And that was in some ways very effective and efficient. It helped us to grow. It was not an environment that the engineers necessarily enjoyed. I remember one engineer who decided to leave, who was one of our top engineers, and he said, “I get it, I get it, I get it. You know, you get to start a company so you can tell everybody else what to do. Now I want to go start my own company so I can tell everybody what to do.”
And I was thinking, “Oh, that’s not the take away I want from what it means to work at this company.” And so we brought in a version of Scrum.
And what went wrong is that we did not bring the mindset or the values. We brought a process. And that process, (I’m going to be unfair to one of our other leaders) meant, “Wait a second, instead of sort of haphazardly telling everybody what to do once a week or sort of ad hoc, every day I get together with all of them and I get to tell them what to do? At a daily stand up? This is awesome. This is way more efficient.” And so I think we sort of took it like totally sideways from the intent and said we took the same mindset and the same values and applied it to a structure which meant we met a lot more often. So I’d say it actually sort of went worse, not better when we brought that in and it was enough that we stopped using that process because it became even worse for the engineers and their experience.
It took us a while before we even came back to try it again because, as I’m sure you’ve been through before, it’s almost like we needed to rehabilitate the organization: “Okay, we are going to be bringing in Agile or Scrum.” And those words then became dirty words because they remembered how awful that thing was that happened the first time.
So that was the first iteration. And the second iteration was when we were going through some major scaling. At this point we were 50 people scaling up to about 100. We’d raised our first round of capital and we were growing quickly. And part of that was one of our co-founders was exiting who had been sort of the product engineering/project management brain.
And instead of just replacing that person with one other person, we ended up bringing in a team that was head of engineering, a head of program, product, or project management, a head of product management. So, sort of scaling the position to realize it was actually several disciplines, not a single person. And in that we made a second mistake from my perspective; and I’m sure you could interview 100 people and get 150 different answers, according to the experience and what worked.
But we dove headlong into SAFe– the Scaled Agile Frameworks– and that was a mistake for our company. I’m sure it works for some other companies, but it went from a place where we had maybe too much command and control to almost an abdication of control over the organization in the way that we operated. And so we had a lack of understanding of Agile values and even the process at some level, at the executive level.
And so it was sort of in some ways doomed not to work, because the executives didn’t really understand it or weren’t bought in, in some cases. And we had a group of people who were being asked to operate in a super independent fashion, who had never had the experience of doing that without the training or experience to know how to operate as coaches or to operate with higher levels of autonomy.
And so I sort of realized– this analogy is going to feel really tough– but my four year-old is currently in soccer practice. And they basically just practice sort of doing things with their feet. And I sort of imagine if we said to her, okay, great, you figured out how to kick the ball now. Okay, it’s 11 v 11; Go! Go for it.
It sort of felt a little bit like that, like people are saying “Okay, I know how to kick the ball, but how the heck do I plan the team and where we are and what the strategy is?” The way that ended up getting implemented was really we cut off some of the people with experience from being able to support the people that were doing the work day- to -day, for two reasons:
One, there were actually structural reasons why that was happening– to create that separation. But also the people who knew how to do the work didn’t have experience delegating it. And so it was hard for them to even know “How do I take my skills as a manager where I can tell people how to do their job, and turn that into a coach where I teach them how to do something, or I build capacity in them?”
And so that became the next major change. And it ended for us as the worst growth year of our history. We ended up having to have some layoffs as a result because we couldn’t actually sustain the organization as we were. And it really had the effect of us having to hit the reset button a second time on what it meant to be Scrum or Agile and sort of again have another bad view of it.
And this is going to sound like a big advertisement for Humanizing Work. Maybe it is, and that’s great. But for me, the third time that really took was when the executive team that I’d put together believed in the ideas, believed in the values behind it, believed in the mindset. And a big part of that was then, Peter, you coming in to work with the team and for us to then be able to take it from, “Okay, I get these exciting ideas—now how do we start to put this into practice in an organic, experimental way where we get it, we try it ourselves, and then we try it with a group of people?” I think you put it well, we even offer up a product to one of the teams and say, “Are you buying this product?” and allow them to really opt in and be part of that. That was for us the beginning of really this third wave that started to actually take hold and I think work for us.
And it really started with the mindset and values and the executive team doing the work themselves, ourselves. We operated as a Scrum Agile team and that’s really what for me started to break through and make something that actually stuck. So it’s almost like we went, the first time, we went really down in the weeds organic– just process and that led to super levels of micromanagement.
Then we went the other extreme where we said, “Okay, big process,” and we’re cutting everybody off. So they have huge amounts of autonomy but without the right level of accountability and support. And so then that went sideways the other way. And finally, the third way, we sort of Goldilocks’ed it to just the right process and amounts, and building it slowly, organically, over time so that it was a real authentic change in the organization, not just an imposed thing from the top down. So that’s the long answer to that question. But yeah, I’d say three really main phases and pretty huge shifts. And I would say for myself, I don’t think I fully understood what we were doing until the third wave. There were versions of each wave–I sort of got pieces and started to figure them out, but the third time is really what I feel like. And probably if we did it a fourth time, I’d probably say it was the fourth time that I figured it out.
The way that the executive team at iZotope functioned, using Scrum, I think is still pretty unique and you may not know this, but that was largely an experiment for me too. When I came in and did that training, it was really a hypothesis that, you know, this really should work at the executive level. If we reframe the product as the company’s culture and we do little sprints that have feedback as well, could you describe a little bit just the mechanics of how the team operated as an executive team using Scrum, kind of what parts seemed to really work well, what parts you didn’t really need that much or wouldn’t look like Scrum to somebody that wasn’t, you know, at an executive level? Any context you could give us, I think, would be really useful.
Yeah, absolutely. And I’m trying to think. I would just say we did all the things– I mean, from the level of I was the product owner, I was responsible for the backlog, which was usually features for the organization or for the board or, you know, stakeholders that we had. We met every other week and did an exercise to groom the backlog, and we did estimation with story points, which felt very abstract at times.
But that was a crucial part of how we got alignment and understanding of what we were trying to do. We had daily stand ups where we were reviewing the items we had pulled into a sprint to try and get done. We did retrospectives at the end to decide how we wanted to work differently in the next sprint, and we’d take on some work items and then try to improve the next sprints.
And we used it in a frame where we were running two-week sprints, really, as an executive team. We met with our board about once a quarter and we had all hands company meetings and planning exercises we did once a quarter. So we sort of built in a framework where we would structure all of our work to almost prepare for the next major company quarterly meeting or board meeting.
And so, by the time we got around to the third month of the quarter, we were in the phase where we were working with teams to figure out what the goals should be as inputs into the next sprint. In the second quarter, or in the second month of the quarter, we try to take a step back and look at the longer term strategy, longer term goals, a longer term financial model, just to see whether or not anything had changed that would cause us to sort of iterate on that for context, for the goals.
And the first month of the quarter was usually focused on trying to support teams as they were getting up and running with the new goals, the new, you know, quarterly company Sprint we were in overall. and that became occasions that we worked in pretty frequently, with maybe the only other key thing is that usually in the second month of the quarter, we would go offsite to spend time on team development and how we operate better as a team.
That was the oter major thing. So that was sort of the overall cadence in the approach we had. I mean, the only other thing I would say that maybe is important is we had all hands company meetings every Friday and we would tell everybody what we were working on in the sprint. I learned pretty early on that if you don’t tell people what the executive team is doing, they create stories about it and it’s usually bad stories, and so we were as transparent as we possibly could be with the company saying, “Here’s what’s on our backlog, here’s what we’re working on.” And, you know, I think it probably worked well. And then they saw the output of that in some way in the company or in the organization.
What would be an example of an item that would sit on the executive team’s product backlog?
Working with a team to set the goals for the next quarter could be an item. We had organized the company into a set of cross-functional teams. At one point we had about five of those teams, yeah, five of those cross-functional teams in the company. And so one goal would be to sit down with one of the teams to help them collaborate on setting the goals for the next quarter.
That could be an example of an item on the backlog. It could be preparing for the next board meeting and putting together the actual presentation for the board meeting. It could be at that level. It could be doing the work to prepare for a company meeting. It could be knowing that we wanted to run an experiment with a team to operate in a different way.
I’ll make it really concrete. We got to a point where we used OKRs. OKRs were sort of what we called the GPS of where we’re going. And then we used health metrics to be the gauges of, like, the gas and the oil. So even though we wanted to go to California, if we were about to run out of gas, we wanted to make sure we knew that and we stopped and, you know, got gas in the tank.
And so an experiment we ran with the team was not just OKRs. We’re also going to introduce health metrics as another way that we stay in sync and, you know, help to hold the team accountable as they do their work. And that would be an example of something that would have been on the backlog to work with the team on.
Beyond the executive team, what else did you do to make this third stage or wave of Agile actually work successfully across the organization?
I would say I don’t know if it ever worked fully, successfully across the entire organization. It was always a work in progress. You know, we also have the downside of knowing where we wanted to be and what we wanted to be able to do and just always be in iteration. So I know that wasn’t your question. But I think just to acknowledge that, I wouldn’t say it was perfect. We had a lot of work we still wanted to do and figure out.
Yeah, and feel free to talk about that: the vision and the gap and how you navigated that too, when you can’t have it all on day one.
Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, your question teed it up pretty well. It’s kind of a combination of education and rehabilitation with people across the organization and teams because we were asking managers who historically had operated as command and control managers where my job is to make sure everybody’s doing the right thing, to instead switch into a mode where they were acting as coaches, saying, “Okay, here’s the goal I want to achieve and I’m here to help you and I’m going to make sure I create the capacity and education and resources and whatever you need in order to be able to achieve those goals.”
So I feel like that was the most important part and really, starting from the mindset and not just the “Here’s where you stand on Tuesdays,” but the why behind it. Especially, this could be a different in engineering company or different types of companies; but definitely a company that’s very scientifically minded or engineering minded. They were always asking why, which is awesome, but it meant you had to start there.
Otherwise, you know, it would be hard to get someone to really embrace a new idea or approach. So I think education is probably the biggest part and the rehabilitation for me, was, using concrete examples, people who had come from companies where acknowledging that they were failing was not okay, to making them realize that failure is just a form of learning and it’s something that we need to amplify and celebrate and learn from so we can move forward.
You could say that’s education, but sometimes it is rehabilitation; because there was real– I don’t want to use the word “trauma,” because I think that’s probably unfair and too strong. But there was definitely a mindset of being afraid– of sharing some things at the executive level or wanting to come into a meeting with an executive or an executive team and have everything be perfect; when for us, when that would happen, that was usually the first sign that something was not right. If everything was perfect, probably something was not right. Because I’ve never been in a situation where everything is perfect, but yeah, that’s how I think about that.
I know because we were around for a lot of this, the way you approached education and leadership development for your managers was pretty unusual– not the way most organizations do this sort of thing. So maybe you can explain how that went down for our audience who didn’t get to see the process over a couple of years there?
Yeah, I have the downside (or the benefit) of never having had a real job. So it’s interesting to hear you say that, Richard, because I would not have known that that was not something that other companies did. And also, I felt like we were about at 15% of the level I would have wanted us to be at.
And so I would say, to think through it in a couple of different levels, I wanted to be in a place where any employee who wanted to work with a coach could work with a coach. And we had a pretty good portion of the company working with coaches. The entire executive team worked with coaches. Many of our senior leaders work with coaches, there were employees throughout the organization who had opted in at some point.
I would be lying to you if I said I’d figured out how we made the budget work so we could get everybody to do that. We’d contemplated whether or not we could build an in-house team of coaches. So having someone who’s there to be able to support the development, who’s an independent entity, who doesn’t, you know, sign your paycheck or hire or fire you, was important. Having on demand education was an important thing. So we offered employees LinkedIn learning, which had a lot of amazing content actually, which was pretty great. We had a series of internal education programs. We called them tech talks because it actually started as more of a technology thing, but it evolved into a broader thing. And so, as an example, I had given talks on accountability; on meetings; on human motivation, other topics that could be useful or meaningful to managers.
We obviously had Humanizing Work come in and do some long form training about how to develop into being a coach from a manager and thinking about what the differences are. And I think that was over what, six or eight months, and meeting every couple of weeks to do that and having groups in between that were meeting to talk about it.
And I think even in that, the biggest challenges were always “How do I make time for this?” And we kept having to make it okay and figure out how we iterate on the goals we had so that people could actually set aside time for learning and development and also getting the output of other parts of the business that need to get done, and trying to figure out how we connect those two things together so it didn’t feel like “I go off over here and I learned something and then I need to go back to my job.” But people could actually feel like the learning is accelerating the other work that you have; and I know we did a lot of work with the two of you trying to figure out how to incorporate this and make this meaningful to what people need right now.
And I think being good product owners, we did a lot of inquiry and investigation and trying to get from the senior leaders, “What is the thing that’s top of mind that you need help with?” and try to put that in right away. But those are some of the levels of education that we had. So from the very formal to organic to on-demand and more structured, like, “Okay, we’re all going to go together and do this thing’ times, as well.
Yeah, that experience working with you and your team on developing training and some mental models for the role of management was hugely formational for us. So shout out to iZotope for being partners in that: like the “three jobs of management” model and the series that we offer around that– You were the guinea pig on what is the right set of skills that we really need to teach.
When you’re trying to empower people, when you’re trying to empower teams, then what do managers even do? What’s our job? How do we define it? How do we know if we’re doing it well? So that was hugely formational for how we thought about that.
Yeah, it’s funny. We had an incredibly talented director of QA—I don’t remember the exact title, but who had worked in more traditional organizations and had been very successful. And when we put in the SAFe framework, (Skilled Agile framework), it immediately cut him off from what he knew, his superpower of how he managed and what he did. He ended up leaving because he said, (you just put it well,) “I’ve known what my job is my entire life. I can’t do my job now based on how this structure is built, and my team is failing?’” This is the worst of all scenarios for me. We didn’t have that education piece at that moment to say, “Okay, here’s how you bridge the gap from how you used to operate to how you need to operate now to be successful in this new way of working.”
So I’m glad you said that, Peter, because it was almost a direct quote from that incredibly talented employee who we didn’t give the right tools to, to figure out how to operate in this new way of working.
Yeah. And it’s something we hear all the time. In the Agile community when we’re doing it right, we’re trying to empower individuals, we’re trying to empower teams. But then it’s “We need enabling constraints for that autonomy. And so how do we enable those constraints that are appropriate– that are the right ones?” And so working with you, we really were able to answer that question more effectively than we had ever been able to in the past.
We just never found good answers either. If we’re trying to empower our teams, what do we do? And it’s like, “Oh, there are three things you need to do. You need to create clarity, increase capability and you need to improve the system. This is your job and here are the details around that and here are the skills that you need to develop, and here’s how you transition to that. So it was really powerful for us as well.
That’s really cool. Yeah. I feel like you put your finger on what might be one of the hardest things: that balance of autonomy and accountability that we definitely struggled with. And when I talk about rehabilitation, one of the reasons I did a series of talks on accountability was because accountability was connected to being caught doing the wrong thing.
And I tried to reframe it as accountability being around learning, development, and focus. It’s the person who says, “Hey, you had this goal. Are you still on track with that? Because I know it’s easy to get distracted” or, “Hey, you’re falling behind on what you expected; do you have the resources you need?” or “You’re falling behind. Do you have the skills you need to be able to do this, or do we need to rethink the goal because it’s actually invalid? And really having to switch to that mindset, so that people didn’t view accountability as “Oh [he spells out S.H.I.T.]! I got caught.” I don’t know if this is a kids’ show, so I’ll just spell things. So probably not a kids’ show.
Only kids who can spell; so…
[Laughs] So anyway, I think about that. The point you brought up about autonomy and accountability and learning how to operate in those spheres, and that was definitely one of the harder balances to get, right, and also to retrain all of us around what accountability in its best form can actually be.
And I hear you throughout a lot of this story and building in feedback loops and learning all over the place. I think even in the way we approached the management training series, it wasn’t “Here’s three days of new concepts taking you out of your work.” It was, “Here’s a couple of hours in a structure for you to go practice and apply it and learn what works and what doesn’t, before we do the next thing.”
Yeah, let’s talk about the business model shift. Over the past few years, iZotope’s been in the midst of a pretty significant business model shift from perpetual licenses kind of to the way I ended up as an iZotope customer was I’m buying the music production suite and it’s great. But upgrades had to be pretty big for me to get to buy another one, just like the old Adobe Creative Suite and shifting to subscriptions, which is a huge change in a lot of ways beyond just how do you go to market with a product?
How did you think about making such a foundational change in a company and how do you approach it?
Yeah, and I should just give the caveat that I left as CEO of the company more than a year ago at this point, or about a year ago, I should say, at this point. And so I’m going to speak historically about some of the work that we are doing around this. And really it’s funny that you bring it up in this context of this conversation, because I would often think about where does the fundamental belief that the world is complicated and unpredictable and therefore we often in that domain need to run experiments and build up feedback mechanisms so that we can learn, figure out what we learned, and then adapt, keep doing that, thinking often where are the places that that has broken down or where are the structural barriers that stop us from doing that? And I’ll give you an example of a classic one and one that makes some of these, I think, true Agile transformations so hard is we had banks that provided debt lines for the company and you know what banks want? They want 12-month plans and changing that is a really big deal. Even with our investor, we got them to a place where I said, I can come back and be wrong every 12 months, I can be right but be really conservative about it and therefore we’re not really pushing things. Or we can just accept that the world is complicated and unpredictable and we are going to be in partnership and every three months we’re going to look out at the next 12 months and figure out how things have changed or shifted.
And, you know, don’t let us just use this as an excuse to underperform. But let’s also recognize that the world shifts and changes. Therefore, we need to do that. But that was a really big deal because so many of these organizations, whether it’s banks or investors or–you know– public markets have the same problem, have this built in expectation around predictability, which is, I think, a myth.
And so I think it makes it hard to do some of those things and I bring that up as an example also for the way that especially software is developed and delivered to customers, because in a world where we don’t know exactly what the customers want, we can do our best. We did a huge amount of research–one- on- one interviews, survey interviews, all sorts. We have people who actually worked at the company who were experts in these things.
We had lots of different ways that we could bring in and sort of figure out what the next big idea was, the next big product or big problem that we should be solving. But the reality was, until we actually put the thing out into the world, that’s when we actually figured out whether we got it right or not.
And so when I took something like Ozone, which is our first product we ever launched and we were on a cadence of about every two years we would release a new version; and guess what would happen? We’d do all the work we possibly could. We got a huge beta. We then put it out in the world and within 24 hours we would get a thousand amazing suggestions of things we should improve and do better.
And we said “Awesome. They go in the backlog for the next release in two years,” right? And that just seemed kind of crazy or the internal one would happen where we would be. “Let’s take RX, which is our audio repair product. One of our researchers would discover a new way to more effectively remove a specific type of noise. And we’d say “Awesome! Slate it for the next release in 12 months.” And you know, all those people doing post-production or audio production of some sort would want that as soon as it was available, because it might save that take or save that, you know, that recording that they made. And for me, that just felt like that wasn’t right–we should be operating more clearly in partnership with the customers. We should be delivering small amounts of value on a frequent basis, getting their feedback and incorporating that back in to make the product better. And if you think about the way that that model actually happens, it’s not just a one-time payment and then two years later another payment.
It made sense for us to think about how we line up the way that we are providing value and getting paid for value so that everything was lined up structurally as well as the way we operated as a company. And so for me, that’s sort of the idea of subscription as an ongoing conversation. And I want to say “experiment,” because it’s more than that.
It’s an ongoing collaboration with your customers to say, okay, you’re going to pay us a smaller amount of money on a regular basis. And what we’re going to do is we’re going to continue to bring you the things that we have as we make them. And your feedback is going to go right into the next thing we do in the next month or the next three months, whatever, you know, that that cadence is. And so for me, it sort of just started to become really clear why that’s such a powerful model. When I started thinking about all of the amazing, valuable feedback we had that we just would sit on for sometimes literally years, or the new ideas we’d have where we’d have to wait and sit on them until the next major release…
And people say, you know, okay, well, you could just put those things out in the world for free, and that’s possible. But the economics don’t work. And I want a business that’s sustainable so that we can continue to do this, provide this value. And so that was one way to sort of get there and get closer.
And so for me, it really represented a much more fundamental shift in bringing the way we operate inside of the business to how we interact with our customers. And I’m telling you all the things that the rest of the world already knew, but in our industry, it was still a pretty new idea to operate that way and was still pretty experimental in many ways.
What changes were required to actually pull that off?
I would like to say that the experiments we ran in order to create this third Agile transformation, those were all in service to and knowing that this is the way that we wanted to go, because we realized that we were operating more functionally before we went through this third phase, or third transformation. And we realized that having a product development organization hand off a feature to a marketing organization to hand off to the sales organization, and then for customer care or customer support; and then taking all that learning and putting it back in at this huge functional level, was too slow and too siloed. So we weren’t getting the level of collaboration we’d want across all the different parts of the organization. We realized that if we wanted to build products that were every 12 months, or 18 months or 24 months, that was fine because there was plenty of time to sort of hand the thing off and move over here; but that if we wanted to be doing that on a cadence of weeks or months, that we needed to create smaller slices, cross functional slices across the organization that could work together on a regular basis to make those things happen.
And so that, for us, was sort of a fundamental shift in the organization structurally to say, “Okay, we’re not going to be organized by functions, we’re going be organized by cross-functional teams that can each own a stream of work that’s constantly going out to the world.”
And that, as you both know very well, was very difficult because there were ingrained ideas of “In order for me to [I’m going to make up an example. So nobody feels hurt by this] in order for me to be ready for the release, I need six weeks to do photography.” And when you’re trying to put a release out every two weeks, you need to rethink the six weeks you used to have for photography and figure out what could you do in two weeks.
And so some of that was a pretty fundamental cultural shift where going from a big bang release every two years where you had to get it right or your job was on the line because if we went and launched the thing and it didn’t work, it wasn’t as if we had another launch just behind it to sort of make up the difference– to a mindset of being experimental and iterative and it being okay to put something out in the world that maybe wasn’t quite right, or we weren’t sure if it was going to work because we’d have a chance in the next two weeks to improve it or to shift it or to change it or remove it if it wasn’t actually working. And that was so hard for people to get the idea of and I’ll give Steve Jekko, who is one of our Agile coaches, a lot of credit for bringing a lot of the phrases like don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough things like that.
It really took time to get to a place where “I want to be good. I want to look good in hindsight.” So instead of thinking that “I’m gonna do all this planning and have it figured out and look great,” “I’m going to put things out in the world and I’m going to learn.”
And then in hindsight, I’m going to look like a genius because I responded to all the feedback and all the things that were good or bad and made it better. But really that was probably the hardest part. So structurally we can say, okay, we’re all cross-functional teams, but then to shift the mindset to one where it’s, okay to experiment and to try things and to learn from those quickly and then, you know, adapt and iterate.
But a very different way of working than when you have a big release that you spend two years preparing for.
What’s an example of something one of the product teams was able to do in a product? When you reduce the downside risk from the high- stakes, every two- year release to the more frequent, “We can safely try something whether it works or not.”
Yeah, it’s a great question and I would say one of the teams we had was creating a product that was designed for home hobbyists, brand new musicians to recording who didn’t necessarily have any experience with that. And so we were starting to inject pieces of machine learning that could do automatic detection of instruments in order to prepare their mix so it sounded good as if they had a professional helping them out. They had an assistant there, sitting next to them and doing that work. And it was definitely something that if we had done one of those launches where it was every two years, we would have expected a correct identification 95% of the time because we know, okay, that’s the last time we get to do this for another two years.
But because we were able to iterate and felt okay with that, we put it out when it probably did 50%. And you know what’s great is that we then were able to collect information on what was working and what was not working, which actually made it better faster because we could actually collect data on the actual customer recordings and how we were doing it, and being able to identify them.
So is that a different UI then, in order to learn from it, like, “Hey, was that an electric guitar? And if not, correct me.”
There were some ways that we could actually tell if people were correctly, or we were correctly identifying things. We tried to not be too much in their face because the last thing you want when you’re trying to do creative work is to have to flip into a mode where I’m going to help you develop your product. So it was more that we would identify when we made a suggestion, did people accept the suggestion or not, or did they identify it with something else?
So it was more subtle ways where we got that data but didn’t interrupt their flow so that they could collaborate with us in product development, if that makes sense,
Shifting forward a little bit, you and I have talked a few times about this idea of creating playbooks for companies and like a lot of private equity firms, have playbooks, right? If they’re going to invest in a company–if they’re going to acquire them, then they will offer up playbooks for how to run the company successfully.
And we had talked about how some of those playbooks have some really interesting plays in them. Others maybe are a little bit old fashioned way of thinking about running companies. Would you explain this concept for our audience, like what is a playbook? And then how do you think about those now? And if you were to build your own playbook, what would you want it to look like?
Yeah, I mean, I think another way to think about it is it’s a set of best practices. And for all of the (I’ll call it “brand challenges”) that private equity have, they’re motivated to create companies that are very successful and so and are able to do it across very large portfolios. And so are able to actually see patterns and trends, and then share those with the rest of the companies to say, hey, these companies over here have been succeeding in this way by operating in this way. Maybe you should try that out. And I think the challenge comes up when you don’t know whether or not those lessons can actually translate, because there are a lot of lessons that I think do translate and that are incredibly valuable when you’re in those environments to have a set of best practices that you can incorporate, and as I like to say, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If you don’t have to– just take advantage of what’s there. And so the skill or the difficult part is to figure out where is the part that’s unique to every business, that you can’t just take the best practice because that’s the unique core that actually makes this company different from everybody else.
And how do you evolve those playbooks over time? And I know that’s one of the places where, the ideal of the industrial revolution and terrorism and being a big motivation for why we have the corporate incentive structures, you know, the bonus structures that we have today that’s been around for a long time because it’s always been there and I have not dug deep enough and I feel like I should to see whether or not there’s actually someone who’s studied whether or not those work or not, because in our my own experience, we, we moved away from extrinsic motivators like the incentive bonuses and saw some success with that, you know, sample size of one, so it’s hard to then extrapolate, but that can be the downside is if you have playbooks that have been a certain way for a long time, it also could be hard to maybe move past them when their best practices–What does it actually take to unseat a best practice that’s been used for sometimes decades? And it’s an opportunity, I think, for us in the work that we’re talking about here, because if we are able to figure out how do we start to distill down the ways of working that we’re talking about, whether or not the model of management versus coaching is an example of that and creates a data which shows this actually performs better–this has better outcomes then I would be willing to bet that it would be adopted as a playbook for a lot of organizations. And, you know, it’s a kind of a cool opportunity to see how could we do that or how could we go after that.
One of the things we’ve talked about is what would a modern playbook look like that built in all the things that we’ve learned about, you know, more modern ways of thinking about how human beings actually are motivated and what things that are the right ethical things to do correlate with better chance of business success. I’m curious, what are some plays that you would run like even if we were to do a first draft and put it out in the world and see if it sticks, what would be in your first draft of a playbook?
It is a deep question. It’s a good question. The reason I’m pausing and hesitating is that I think a lot of the key lessons are meta lessons in that you can’t just say, here’s the algorithm, go and do the algorithm. I’m going to be unfair because I’m sure that SAFe is a more developed and thoughtful structure.
But very much for me, my experience with the scale Agile framework was here’s the thing, go do this and you will be agile. I’ll call it “performative agile: in that world. And so I think for me it’s harder when the key first step is about education and development. And so it almost feels like to me the first playbook has to be how do you train a whole bunch of CEOs and get them to understand the value of operating the business in a fundamentally different way.
Because if you don’t have the buy in from the CEO, then I think the rest of the organization is going to be hard pressed to make progress that way. And I say that having been a CEO and having gone through some of these transformations myself and I don’t think it’s something where there’s a playbook, you can just run.
I think there’s some level which is experiential. I think there’s some level which is having to meet people where they are in their own journey and development cycles. So what was compelling to me may not be compelling to some other CEO at that point. So that’s why I paused in all of that– is it feels like we need to create the conditions where any of the modern ways of working could even be accepted.
And I’ve had more than one conversation with CEOs where they take as fact that bonuses, management by objective bonus structures, are law. They are just of course they work. What do you mean? Companies have been succeeding for decades with these structures. And so kind of having to think about how do we challenge those core assumptions and retrain folks to maybe think differently about how some of the work we do in the modern world may need a different approach.
But so I’m not sure if a playbook is the right… It feels like rehabilitation camp– experience or rehabilitation camp. I mean, I know this is part of the work that you’ve been trying to do and figure out how do you break through? I think the playbooks can come after that. But if you don’t have that that underlying condition that I feel like you’re probably not going to make much progress.
A couple of years ago, iZotope merged with Native Instruments as part of Sound Wide. And then you stepped down from your CEO job, as you mentioned earlier, to take on a board role. Now that you’ve stepped away from Izotope full time, what are you focusing on these days?
I’ve been asked that question. I look back and I say, I’m really busy, but I can’t remember what it is exactly that I’ve been doing. The best way to think about it is for me, is that one of the reasons I stepped out of this role is that I now have two children, and so around the time I made the decision was right when my second child was going to be born.
And by having the decision to have iZotope and Native Instruments combined as a company, it’s even more of an international company. And I realized I was going to spend a good portion of my life on the road and not actually being with my kids as they grew up. And that was not a personal decision I wanted to make, but I have been spending more time actually doing mentorship for other entrepreneurs and leaders, which has been really fun to sort of take the experience I’ve had and see how it can help or not, other people in different industries, different experiences. And I have been working a lot with a couple of nonprofits that I work with and one being from the world that I was in, the music and audio recording world is a nonprofit recording rehearsal studio, which in Boston, true of a lot of other cities, due to the economics of real estate, especially, a lot of spaces where musicians go to play and rehearse and perform and record are closing.
And so we’re trying to figure out how can we fill some of that gap in, to keep the rich cultural identity of a city like Boston intact, while the traditional places people go to do that go out of business. And so during the pandemic, we grew our size by about ten times. And I’ve been bringing some of the lessons I’ve learned about what it means to scale to this nonprofit context and nonprofit world as well.
What’s that one called, let’s shout it out.
Oh, the Record Co. It’s a good point– I buried the lead! The Record Co In Boston.
Yeah. Another kind of related question is I remember there were a couple of times where we were trying to connect on a call and you said, Well, I’m going to be in Ethiopia for a month. And it struck me that that’s not a common response to here’s what I’m going to be up to. So I get the sense that you might travel in a fairly unusual way.
Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Yeah, I think it’s funny because I did not grow up traveling at all in my family. I think we drove about two hours to the coast of Maine. I live in Massachusetts. And that was normally where we’d go for vacation. So it wasn’t until I actually started iZotope that all of a sudden we had actually our first sale.
Some customer in Italy paid $79 for our first product. And I remember, oh, we’re international. So it was actually driven more to do the international travel based on the business and the work there and kind of caught the bug and the interest in understanding other cultures and seeing firsthand how other people live and meeting musicians and otherwise in other countries around the world, and I think I was driven to explore places that maybe were not as frequently visited. And so I remember for a while people were always shocked when, I think it was 28, I vacationed in northern Iraq in the Kurdish controlled areas of Iraq. And it was an amazingly rich experience because it’s not a place that’s a tourist country. And so when I would arrive in a city, somebody would come up to me and say, “Why are you here?”
And eventually I remember the Kurdish minister of culture showed me around one of the historic sites because he heard someone was in town and wanted to be able to show it off. And so that sort of really authentic experience where you don’t feel like you’re experiencing a country, the veneer of the big tourism complex, I don’t know what to call it, “big tourism,” is always been something that I chase. And when I met my wife, we connected immediately on travel. Our first date. She warned me that she was moving to Bangkok and she did– she did move to Bangkok playing hard to get and we have enjoyed traveling and her business is in spices and so she travels around the world directly sourcing spices from the countries where they grow.
And so Ethiopia is a great example where we went and I was there and I met with musicians, some of the top producers in Ethiopia, people like Arbogast. We should put some links to their music. It’s amazing music. And she was there visiting farmers that grow really unique Ethiopian spices like Karima and things you probably have never heard of.
And it’s such an amazing way to experience the world where we weren’t again, not just there as tourists. I was in the home of these producers in and us meeting with them and talking to them about their lives and their music, and then with my wife, we were out in the far western part of the country where there wasn’t really even in a hotel.
We stayed at a sort of a research facility and then were visiting the farms nearby and the farmers that grow the spices that she imports. And so I feel like I’ve always encouraged people. When you travel, there’s one thing when you go and you experience a tour and do that. But if there’s any way to break through that and actually be with the people and hear really what life is like on a day-to-day basis, that’s what I’m always striving for when I have those experience, and I will say it helps me to better understand the customers that we served when I would go in the country, in the home studio of somebody in Addis Ababa who’s using our products, there’s nothing that makes you realize just how wildly different their life, their experience is and how you can think about how you build the products to help them in their creative expression for music in the same way that I’m trying to do the same for, you know, a studio in New York.
So for me, that travel incorporating all of those different parts was always something I love doing. And I would say that’s the hardest part about the pandemic. We sort of had to put a pause on a lot of that travel and my wife went to Vietnam a couple of weeks ago. I’m very envious of that. So we’re hoping to take our now bigger family on the next major trip, and we’re not sure where that’s going to be yet.
How old are your kids now, Mark?
Thanks to RX, you can remove my cat scratching on the door? Hold on a second. Oh cat!
Yeah. I’ll fully shout out RX and all the Izotope Products.
It has saved my bacon many times.
Yeah, when we’re editing, we go video first and then into audition for the audio. And then I have programed a keyboard shortcut: “X” is “Send to RX.” [Mark interjects, “Awesome!] So my round trip to Rex is very quick. I go right into what I need, fix it, bring it back in to audition.
So thanks for the awesome products.
Thanks for using them and being part of why they exist.
How old are your kids now?
I have two girls that are four and sixteen months.
Four and sixteen months, very tiny. Richard and my kids are at the stage where our kids are going out into the workforce and I’m curious, you know, with the way that you think about how work should be and how life should be, what do you hope work is like a generation from now when your girls are getting into the workforce?
I mean, I think about the self-determination theory which was made popular by the book Drive and, really thinking about autonomy, mastery and purpose. And for me that’s where my brain went is having them be in a place where they feel like they are deeply connected to the purpose and the mission and can understand the work that they do and how it contributes to something bigger, that they are constantly challenged and developing in ways that are meaningful and that they have the independence to figure things out for themselves in that context.
And I feel like it sounds so basic and simple, yet I’m sad to say, I think it’s still very unique that people have that experience, that they’re able to actually have that connection to those three; autonomy, mastery and purpose. And at a level that I think would make everybody enjoy their work a heck of a lot more.
Have you seen that the U.S. surgeon general just released a report on mental wellbeing, mental health and wellbeing in the workplace with five clear recommendations? The episode that we just released is talking about this. And it it’s like self-determination through the lens of, why this matters to the long term mental well-being of the United States.
Yeah? that’s really amazing. I mean, I also see that the power of an individual employee and we’re even watching it now as, as there’s a further drive to unionize is, I think in large part due to social media is getting stronger and stronger and stronger. And I’m finding the early 20 somethings that I talk to are starting to demand these things and so that’s probably what’s going to shift the way that organizations work as they struggle to figure out how do we keep people employed? And I mean, we can see industries right now that are struggling, employ people. And I think one of the fundamental reasons is some of them are not good industries to work in. So we have to fundamentally evolve restaurant culture.
We have to look at how we make restaurants a place where people can live and enjoy their lives. And that will be a reckoning that, I’m sure this generation is going to drive, which I thank you for your work. 20 somethings. Keep doing it.
Yeah, I know that you’re an explorer, that you’re deeply curious about things. I frequently discover that you and I have independently discovered the same book that was really interesting. I’m curious if you’ve had any recent discoveries like that around like it could be a book, it could be a podcast, a website that was like, “Oh, that’s pretty cool–there are some good examples of what might be possible.”
Yeah, I think right now I’m in the midst of this Designing Your Life book, which is based on a Stanford course and I, I think there’s a lot around how to be self-consistent in your life that maybe speaks to the way that work could be. So that work is still a separate thing and that’s okay and has its place, but that it still fits into a larger narrative of your life, which isn’t just “I do this to get paid,” and I feel like that’s inspirational and that they’re trying to create and in many ways apply experimental Agile design thinking principles to how you think about what you’re going to do in life and run experiments and use that as a way to actually figure out what connects with you and what allows you to sustain yourself. And I feel like that’s been more recently somewhat inspirational to me to think about how we’re consistent across our entire lives and not just in the context of work, and that just seems like– it’s funny, but the first thing I talked about– purpose, right? To be connected to purpose, you have to have some understanding of what that purpose means for you. And so if you don’t come to the table with an idea of what is meaningful for you and what your values are, then it probably makes it hard for you to find an organization that’s doing things and has a culture that really resonate with you.
What else do you want to say to our audience? We have a lot of people that are interested in this stuff. Whatever we asked you that you wish we had asked or what other ideas does this conversation spur for you that you want to share?
You know, there’s one topic you didn’t talk about, which I’ve been thinking a lot about, which is innovation, because it’s such a word that’s almost lost its meaning in many ways. And I say all of that because I see the way that the organization works as being fundamental to how sustainable innovation happens. And I say sustainable because there are definitely people or moments when there’s an innovative thing that happens, and a person has this ability or this moment where they come up with an idea that has never been seen before, and then a company rides that forever. But as I think about what’s necessary moving forward, it’s about continuous innovation. And I’m proud to say at iZotope, RX, one of our products for audio production clean up that was used in TV won two Emmy Awards– technical Emmys– because the product had continued innovating to a level that they said this actually deserves a second Emmy.
And for me, the ideas and the concepts we’re talking about here of creating a shared context, creating cross-functional teams, creating the support mechanism so that you can get out of the way and allow people to think creatively about how they understand problems in the world and use the collective team experience and talents to solve those problems is how innovation has happened in my experience.
And so I always want to bring some of that back, that even though innovation can happen and from an individual sort of, you know, being the font of ideas, I think sustainable innovation happens from these high performing teams being given the right context and support so that they can actually just go and figure things out themselves. And I think that’s something that maybe we can do better at talking about how we can build organizations that are innovative in the work that we’re discussing too.
As I’ve dug into this a little bit, the research I’ve found, sometimes we’ll call it innovation, other times I’ll just call it creativity. But everything I’ve read about this is that like there’s this myth in the world of single inventors, right? Because it makes for a great story, and it allows us to tell a hero’s journey story arc around some single person.
And Isaacson even wrote about this right in his book on this that there’s almost no single inventor of any of the great ideas that we think of, ideas that were invented by a single person. It’s always a pair or a small team or a triad. And so I think it’s really relevant in how we think about structure in organizations that it’s going back to the first topic we talked about. It’s about having range and a breadth of perspective and ideas. And it’s the intersection of this thing you saw over here and that thing you saw over there and saying, “Oh, wait, those things are related.” And what if we… right? And you create conditions for that, will you create a higher likelihood for that when you structure the organization correctly, give them the context and support like you’re describing that those ideas might intersect?
Yeah, absolutely. And I would say it’s not just the psychological safety that allows them to try things that might fail, but the structure that lets them fail. And I mean things like if a team is on a schedule with a budget that has zero wiggle room, do not expect them to do innovative things.
They need some space where they’re allowed to fail and get things wrong in order to do that. And that can be very hard because that goes all the way back to expectations set with the market or with the board investor on down. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of elements to really getting that formula right to create the environment where there’s the chance for those things to happen.
Well, Mark, thanks so much for spending the time with us today and sharing your wealth of knowledge with the Humanizing Work Show audience. It’s been a pleasure. Any last words of encouragement, advice or uplift-ment that you would share?
In the over 20 or so years that I built iZotope, I’m incredibly proud of what we accomplished. We won multiple Emmy Awards, we won a technical Oscar, and we were named a top place to work. And for me, those things are all connected. And so as you think about the work that you’re all doing to try and make organizations that are great places to work, I believe that is for the future and where we’re headed also what is going to create very high performing companies.
And so I’m looking forward to the world where we just accept that as fact. And we believe that our biggest responsibility as leaders of organizations is to create places that people want to work, are inspired and fulfilled and supported and can experience the type of connection to their life and the purpose of what they’re trying to do in a way that goes beyond just them having a 9 to 5 job.
So I think the work we do is incredibly important and it’s not easy; but it’s worth doing. And I think that’s how the future is going to be. And so we are all able to do some little small part to get us closer there.
Awesome. Where can people find you on the socials or the internet if they wanted to connect with you?
The easiest way to find me is really on LinkedIn. I am woefully under social media’ed in this world. I do have a social media presence on Twitter, but a presence is I think I’ve posted four or five things in my entire life. So maybe that can be an experiment I run: to actually post more than four or five things.
LinkIn’ll work. We’ll drop the LinkedIn and that way people can find and connect with you. Thanks again.
Yeah, great to be here. Thanks for doing all the work you do as well.