Thriving Company Culture through the Eyes of a Solar CEO
By Tamara Staton, Owner Thriving Solar- A regular column to give a sense of where and how culture is thriving in the solar industry, and how you might begin to strengthen company culture in your own company or place of business. I conducted this interview with Rick Campfield, CEO of SunModo with over 20 team members. I chose Rick because, as company CEO, I knew that he would play a strong role in driving the company culture at SunModo, and could offer valuable perspective on his process.
Tamara: How would you describe your path to becoming the CEO of SunModo?
Rick: The majority of my path has been spent on the demand side of the meter. If you think about a meter in your home, when it spins, you’re consuming electricity and paying money to the utilities. This consumption, or demand side, from the lights, the HVAC equipment, to the microwave.are the things that are consuming the electricity coming into your home. The majority of my executive career has been spent on that side with Siemens, Johnson Controls and a Schneider value-added reseller. I’ve experienced several different positions and industries in my career, along with dozens of different bosses (from each one, I gained something different – what to do, what not to do...) and a few seasons as a consultant. Now I’m on the supply side of that meter and my career up to becoming a CEO gives me a perspective for which I’m so thankful.
Tamara: And why SunModo?
Rick: It was kind of fortuitous. I’m a mechanical engineer from University of Washington. I received my Masters with an emphasis in Business and International Marketing from Willamette 5 years ago, quite late in my career. I did that strategically because I wanted to have more skills and knowledge that would position me well since my education and formal degree was a long time ago and the world has changed. I really wanted to know and understand more, and position me to be a viable CEO.
There are several reasons I ended up at SunModo. The higher you go in an organization, the more susceptible you are to being the scapegoat. So, I found myself unemployed several times throughout my career. And I started a consulting practice to keep myself busy and provide for my family, and not have to micromanage my wife and kids. That time as a consultant gave me a skillset and appreciation for business and leadership that I would not have had otherwise.
The owner of SunModo, Tony Liu, happened to live in Vancouver, WA. I also lived in Vancouver. I’m proud of Tony. He is an entrepreneur who really understands that everyone has their set of skills and abilities and recognized he needed a lifeline. It was recommended that Tony hire a CEO and through mutual business connections I was recommended.
Tamara: What does a ‘thriving culture’ mean to you?
Rick: Thriving culture, great question. It’s one where, on Monday, the alarm clock goes off at 6am for the employee, and they are looking forward to coming into work and doing something that they love to do. That, to me, is ultimately how SunModo thrives. We have fully engaged employees who love what they’re doing, and who have a passion for this industry. I’m hoping that we’ve hired people that are gifted in certain areas and fulfilling those gifts, and that everyone has the right heart spot in the roles that we’ve hired them to do. Because where your heart is, your passion follows.
The second piece of that stems from the customer. When they receive a SunModo box, they say, “Wow, this is good.” Then everybody in their food chain that is going to consume that product -- whether it’s the warehouse people that have to unpack the box and put it on the shelf; or the installer that has to roll the truck, pick it up and install it; or the financier that has to worry about whether it’s going to hold up -- it’s a good experience for all of them.
And so that’s the other part of the thriving; if I take care of the employees and equip them to be successful, and get the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus, they’ll take care of the customers, and the customers will take care of my cash. That’s the way I look at business.
Tamara: It seems like what you’re saying, is that it is almost cyclical because the customer’s positive experience ends up feeding the employee's positive experience.
Rick: Exactly. As a CEO, I may have to focus and pay attention to three legs of “the stool”--- leg one is the employee; leg two is the customer; leg three is the cash, and that’s the order I look at it. But some days I have to reverse that order and look at it differently, depending on what the situation is.
First of all, in terms of the hiring process, we write a healthy and specific job description. It’s not usually a straight ‘cut-and-paste’ because we modify and play around with it. We want to make it feel like SunModo, and what we’re trying to accomplish. If you read our job descriptions on our website, you’ll see that they feel and read a little bit different. We establish a 30-60-90-day goal for that individual before we even hire or start interviewing. I really want to think through ‘Do I need to hire, and if I do, what are they going to be doing and what do we expect from this individual in 30-60-90 days?’ Then, we go out and interview for eight specific traits. Those eight traits have nothing to do with ‘Can you type?’, ‘Do you know Microsoft?’, ‘Do you know solar?’ Those are all important job requirements, but I am looking for the individual that also has those ‘eight traits’ because I can’t teach traits like integrity and intuitiveness. All I can do is shape them a bit. I’m really trying to find the right wiring, the right x-y chromosomes of individuals to be on our bus.
I think that if every CEO would consider focusing on the order I just described, we would have healthier organizations and employees that make it all happen. I am big a fan of the leadership book Good to Great, written by Jim Collins. There are some specific things that great leaders with enduring companies need to do. So, the overall successful and thriving business is really driven by leadership.
Tamara: Where do you see aspects of a thriving culture at SunModo?
Rick: Great retention rate amongst staff and customers, increased revenue and margin year after year, as well as testimonials from large recognizable customers that validate great product, great company, and great service. Those are some of the things that are coming to mind as evidence of a thriving organization -- all of which, I just realized, happen to line up with the three ways I do business.
Tamara: I can imagine that as CEO, you can experience stress at times. When culture is thriving and you see that, does it reduce your stress level?
Rick: Yes, but it also creates a level of healthy stress to keep this momentum going; I can see what I need to keep doing and what I need to keep paying attention to. Having good retention, great employees, having revenue go up, having the customers like us and stay with us definitely reduces the stress. No question about it. And it’s a healthier stress when that all happens. On the flip-side, I take a perspective of having a healthy pessimism for the present and when it doesn’t happen, I’m looking for ways to improve and try to understand what the market will do to remain nimble as necessary to thrive.
The eight traits come from a very strong Christian background---treating others how you want to be treated, making sure that you’re concerned and consumed with helping others more than yourself. I tell the team, it’s not about me. If as a CEO I get a parking spot, everybody gets a parking spot. If I get a jacket, everyone should have a jacket. Every position in the company is absolutely as important as the next. If it wasn’t so, then why fill that position? We all have different capabilities and responsibilities and roles within the organization, but I am no better and greater than anybody else.
Our new headquarters is evidence of that [read more about that here, in the Vancouver Business Journal]. Our culture is very open. You hear about this Open Door policy? Well, I’ve never had a door here, and neither has Tony, the CTO and founder. And our new headquarters that we are building doesn’t have doors either. We are in the cubes with the team. I have small conference rooms if we need to have a private conversation, but yeah, I’m no greater. I try to remain humble.
Tamara: What specific things have you done to support positive and thriving culture at SunModo?
Rick: It starts right up front, as someone walks in the door, getting the right person, doing the due diligence to make sure that the person stepping on the “SunModo bus” is the right one. They know what the expectations are, of them and the team . We have a very litigious onboarding process and training curriculum, to make sure that they, as well as their family & significant other, feel welcomed, warmed and valued so that they are absolutely as productive as possible the first day. And then we do Lunch-and-Learns, the traditional parties, one guy is always doing weekly happy hours, and we’ll do a jersey night for the first college game day or the NFL. I like to identify reasons to have some fun and get the team to participate in stuff. In the future, I want to do some outreach projects to get people engaged outside of these four walls, which will include things like doing a blood drive as a team while we all get dizzy as we say goodbye to our blood.
Tamara: By ‘outreach’ do you mean community service?
Rick: Yes. We have provided discounted products for non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity. I am also on the board of a a non-profit, Twende Solar, to bring solar into third world countries and those places that can’t afford to power light bulbs and computers. I want to give that opportunity for employees to participate in the installation and give their time.
Tamara: Is there anything that you’ve tried regarding positive team culture that didn’t work? If so, what what might you change about those attempts?
Rick: We started, from day one, a ‘lightning round’ and developed a social covenant as a team. We have shaped and changed the social covenant several times because it wasn’t quite working. I wanted to make sure it was effective for everybody and not just me. I am not big enough and proud enough to overlook those moments when I mess up. If I implement a process or need to re-do something, I’ll be the first to say ‘all right guys, I screwed up, let’s try something else.’ . I think that if someone is trying to instill positive team culture it doesn’t matter if you fail, at least you’re trying.
Tamara: What primary challenges have you needed to navigate in the process of supporting people and creating a positive company culture, and how have you overcome some of those?
Rick: A couple of things come to mind: number one is not expecting or mandating that the way I would do something is the way that the employee has to do it. Equip them with what they need to do and let them do their job and not micromanage them; hold them accountable, coach and counsel them, and hope that they see a better way and improve.
When I go out on a call with anybody I’m always asking a question up front and a question at the end: “What is our single objective of this call?” and at the end, ‘How did we do?’ It's making sure the team feels like they’re equipped to do what they need to do, and they know that the CEO or any other manager is not going come down on them for making a mistake. It’s okay to make a mistake but don’t keep making the same one, because then we have some issues. The other thing is the balance of this conversation and the feeling that it may invoke in our team. If the team were listening to this and you asked for a thumbs up or a thumbs down, as to whether what I am saying was true or not, they’d probably start to move their thumb towards the middle because I am not the easiest guy to work for -- I have high standards and high expectations. This is because our customers demand it, so every decision I make, I try to make from the lens of the customer or the employee. And those two vantage points will typically, change the decision of the task at hand.
So, for example, I walked by the warehouse and one of the boxes on the pallet-bottom looked crumpled, and I said to the warehouse guy,
“Hey, what do you think? Is that damaged or not?”
“Nah it's probably fine, it’s just the weight of the box.”
“Sure, but if I’m the customer and I get that, my first reaction is going to be that I wonder if the one on the bottom is crumpled and damaged.”
So, that’s the toughest thing for me is to not demand, “Hey guys, check that out,” but making sure I equip them to look at it from the vantage point of either the customer or the employee that is going to receive the action of my task.
Tamara: In closing, is there anything that you would like to add?
Rick: If you talk about culture, every company has a thumbprint that defines their culture. I am trying to shape a thumbprint in the company of SunModo that really does focus on the three things that we talked about earlier on: the customers, the employees, and the cash. And the hardest thing as a leader is to make sure that those are all in check and not one of those is whacked out of place but rather balanced. That’s what I try to do every day, whether today or five years down the road. I am extremely blessed and thankful to work for a founder that really recognizes his expertise and the help he needs. We have truly become great partners to check and balance one another, and it’s been effective.
Should you be interested in learning more about integrating a thriving culture into your own business or team, contact Tamara Staton directly at thrivingsolar.com. You can also find related articles on her blog that can support you in strengthening company culture, including her latest post entitled, Hiring Your Own Company A-Team.