Ep 106: Conscious Culture in a Remote World, with Sarah Hawley

Sep 21, 2021

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Conscious Culture in a Remote World, with Sarah Hawley

On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Sarah Hawley discuss how remote work not only allows you to create a more conscious culture, it also ensures greater alignment within your business relationships.

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Duration: 30:14

Kelly: So welcome back to Thrive, your agency resource. My guest today is my friend and what I would call my sister in spirit, Sarah Hawley. She’s the founder and CEO of a company called Growmotely. And what they do is they culture-match professionals with growing companies for full-time and part-time remote jobs, obviously, very, very relevant in today’s climate. Sara, thank you so much for being on the show. You know that I am always excited to be in conversation with you.


SarahThanks for having me here Kelly. It’s always good to chat.


Kelly: So, let’s just start out by talking a little bit about Growmotely. And kind of like, what the conditions and everything were for all of this to kind of come into alignment literally right before the pandemic, because a lot of people I would assume, who are listening to this just from the introduction, they would think, oh, well, of course, that business emerged out of the pandemic. But actually, prior to that, it had been in development. So, I’d love to hear a little bit about that story. And just kind of like, maybe touch on a little bit of like, what you’ve discovered about yourself as a leader with the start of this whole company.


SarahYeah, for sure. It is a fun story. So, I guess I started my entrepreneurial career as a financial advisor running financial advice businesses. So very similar in a lot of ways to a small agency where you have professionals to deliver a professional service and you have support staff and things like that. Most of my companies were 10 to 20, like team sizes of 10, to 20. And I started in 2010.

And around 2014, I started feeling like I created a business partly to have more freedom and flexibility and to be more in control of my destiny and all of that. Yet, here I am, in the office working longer hours, because my ego is, I need to get to the office before everybody else and show them how much of the hard work I was talking about. It’s really late at night. And, travel has always been such a big part of my DNA. And it was such a high priority in my life. And I was finding, I wasn’t able to do as much of it as I wanted.

And so around 2014, I decided, I’m going to turn my companies remote. I want to move to the United States. I’m from Australia, if people couldn’t tell. And, I’m going to do this. I’m going to turn my companies remote, so that I can have more freedom and flexibility. And of course, back in 2014, in the world of financial planning, everybody was like, you can’t run a remote financial planning company. It’s only like a few tech companies that are remote. And I was like, well, you know that I love to prove things wrong. And that was just like a little bit of extra fuel on my fire to say like, yeah, I can do this.

So, I basically embarked on that journey in 2014. And it was amazing. It was really phenomenal to start going down this path of hiring talent in other parts of the world, of turning the company remote, of getting rid of our office. We went through like maybe about a year of transition where we used co-working spaces and different things, but pretty quickly, everybody just loved being remote. It meant we could hire people anywhere in the world. So, it made a lot of sense to just go fully remote.

At that same time, what I was realizing was, I want to hire people anywhere in the world I can. It doesn’t really matter to me, but I don’t know how to find them. It’s all well and good for me to say oh, I could have a client services person or a marketing manager or whatever out of Argentina, but like how do I find that person in Argentina. So, I had a couple of other friends who also were turning their companies remote, and we decided to form a business that would be a remote recruitment company. So pretty much like a traditional headhunting recruitment sourcing type agency but purely for remote talent global and so we built that company, use it as a base, use it as the company that would do all of our own recruitment for our own firms.

We had a few other clients. We had a general manager in there and it kind of grew a little bit but it was never really like a massive company. It was a side project. And, I successfully turn my company remote. I moved to the US. I’ve gained all this freedom, flexibility. I became a better leader, which I’ll talk about in a moment. So that’s like a whole other thing.


Kelly: Right, right. Right.


Sarah: And then, around 2018, I sold my last financial planning company and I was like, I’m done with finance. I want to kind of do something else and along the way I had bought my business partners out of the Grow My Team, the remote recruitment company because none of them were very interested in it.

They were like it’s not growing very fast. I don’t really like it. And for some reason, I just kept being like, I don’t want to let it go. I don’t know. I feel like there’s something here. And remote work feels like it’s going to be the future. I don’t really know how this business fits in. But like, I’m not ready to let it go. So, I bought them all out. And in January of 2019, I stepped in full-time as CEO to this remote recruitment company.

Fast forward about six months, around mid year, and we’d had a team meeting where we’re still talking about the same issue that my business faced originally. Grow My Team also had that issue like it wasn’t that easy to find talent in different parts of the world. I always had to research different job boards in different countries and be posting things up and using different groups on social media.


Kelly: It sounds super time-consuming.


Sarah: Yeah, it was really time-consuming. And if you wanted to get into a new region, you had to research like, where do people in that region, and that country specifically looked for work. And it was after that meeting that I kind of got off. And I was like, that’s the problem. Like that’s a problem that we could solve. There’s no global remote, no global job board. We have country specific job boards, but we don’t have a global one. And as I started dancing with that idea, I saw that well, it’s not just when you hire or when you build a global team, it’s not just the job board and finding the talent, but it’s also paying them and engaging them and contracts and payroll and lots of things.

And I started thinking, well, we could build tech that does the whole thing. You post a job, you look for people, you funnel the recruitment process, you make a hire, the platform can take care of the contracts and monthly payroll and all sorts of things. So that was kind of the idea I was dancing with and what ended up becoming Growmotely.

End of 2019, I decided to raise a small pre-seed round to build the MVP of this technology. And ironically close to that round, 32% oversubscribed on March 13, which was Friday. Yeah, before I went into lockdown.


Kelly: Yeah.


Sarah: I know it was slightly different in different parts of the world. But it was roughly around that time. And I don’t watch the news or anything. So, I really didn’t know what COVID was. And it all came on me really fast. So that Monday, I was locked down. I was like, what is this all about, and then a week, one, two weeks, and then all of a sudden, the two-week lockdown was extended to a month and two months. And obviously, we all know where we’re at now. But pretty quickly, I realized, whoa, the entire world just discovered remote work.


Kelly: So, so badly.


Sarah: It’s so amazing. And intuitively, I knew like people aren’t going to want to go back because I didn’t want to go back. My team never wanted to go back once we went remote. Obviously, the conditions of going remote during COVID are a little different. Like usually remote work doesn’t look like you’re locked in your house with no options to go outside. But I still knew people would be experiencing the benefits of not having to commute, not having to do all the things that’s required to get your house in order to leave. Like it’s all this little stuff that we were so used to that we didn’t think of.

But once it’s taken away, it’s like oh, well, that was actually a lot that I used to have to do just to go to work every day. Not to mention having to be in physical space with other people for 8 or 10 hours a day. And like emotionally regulating everything that comes with sharing space with people. That’s not necessarily your choice of people like you might like them and everything. But people have different personal habits. People have different introverts and extroverts and all this different energy flowing around. And we never really thought about that. That’s what we were asking about teams to like, come into an office and surround themselves with other people and all these other things and be able to regulate that and perform at a high level.

So, I kind of knew that obviously, as soon as everybody starts experiencing remote work and being able to be a little bit more in control of how and where and when they work, they’re not going to want to go back. So yeah, ever since then, we’ve been working really hard to build our MVP, which we launched in April of this year. We’ve just closed a seed round last weekend actually so that we can continue to build our tech team and continue to market and get our product out there. But yeah, it’s been an incredible journey. So much fun. I feel like I was born to do this. I love being in technology. I love being in this space. I’m just so passionate about what remote work brings to the world.

Yes, for everybody it’s like freedom and flexibility and all that but diversity and inclusion. There’s so many benefits there like you can very quickly unpack a lot of unconscious biases that exist when you can hire people all over the world. You can hire people in different parts of your own country. And I don’t know there’s just so many ways in which I’ve seen firsthand all of those biases just start to fall away and it does level the playing field for people a lot.


Kelly: Yeah. So first of all, congratulations on last weekend, the seed funding but so you just kind of touched at the tail end of that, like you kind of touched on what we might call, part of conscious culture, right? And consciously creating and hiring, not only hiring, but like so there’s the hiring aspect of diversity, equity, inclusion. And then there’s also the conscious leadership aspect of being able to support your people’s values, like you said, their emotional well being, all of these other things, their flexibility, their work life, balance their mental health things along those lines. So, what you’re actually talking about is conscious culture in this remote world. So, can you talk a little bit about what we mean, for anyone who might be unfamiliar with that? What do we mean by conscious culture? And can you give another example of from firsthand experience, something that you have encountered?


Sarah: Yeah, I’d like to give a little example of like, where I’ve seen my own unconscious biases, like get unpacked, before I just go into the conscious coaching, but I once hired someone remotely with a disability, and I didn’t know they had a disability, and I didn’t find out for a year later, and it didn’t matter. And I really was honest with myself, and I’m like, I can’t be sure if that person had walked into my office, and I had compared them with whatever other candidates wider in the pool. I can’t be sure what my biases might have made me do. I like to think that I wouldn’t have but like, at the same time, I haven’t seen a lot of people with this particular disability working in this particular business. Like, I didn’t even realize that I might have actually been biased. And when I found out I was like, wow, that’s so freakin cool that I got to unpack that without even realizing it. And the other thing is, for anyone who likes to travel, every time you travel, I’m sure you experience that kind of unwinding of like, oh, like, everybody’s just a person. And everybody’s just the same, even if their skin color is different, or their background is different, or they grew up in a different kind of cultural environment. Like at our core, we all want to be seen, valued, all of that. And I get to experience that every single day in my team, because I have team members from all over the world. So those are just some of the ways that I think, it’s like a byproduct of hiring remotely and globally that you start to unpack things and make different decisions. And it’s really, really beautiful and expensive.

To answer your questions about conscious culture and like what I think conscious culture is, I think it really starts with knowing in truth and owning, what is the innate culture of our organization. And being okay with it, like not saying it’s not the buzzwords of like a conscious culture is. These five things, it’s flexible, it’s that, if you’re not flexible, that’s okay; if you have a more rigid, structured type of culture, brilliant. Talk about that. Own that. Know that that’s who you are.


Kelly: So, it’s the authenticity piece. Is that what you’re saying?


Sarah: Yes, exactly. And owning it and knowing it and confidently putting it out there and trusting that will call in people that also like to operate in that way. We are very flexible and fluid and have less structure than what some people would like. A lot of people would not like to work with me because it’s a little bit too flowy. And there’s an element of organized chaos in there. We do have systems and processes, but even though it operates within, as I say, this fluid, kind of organized chaos type thing, we have a little bit less hierarchy, and less attachment maybe to titles and things. And that’s not good or bad. That just is how we are.


Kelly: That’s right.


Sarah: And having hierarchy and structure is not good or bad, either. It’s just a way of being. And I think consciousness is bringing awareness. It’s very definition is bringing awareness to how we are, being able to observe it, understand it, not label it as good or bad and just be able to effectively kind of communicate it. And trust that will attract people that work in the same way. When we are in alignment with who we are as an organization, it also becomes very easy to then navigate out of situations that are not in alignment.

 Let’s say we take on a business partner. We’re doing work with someone and all of a sudden, we start to feel like this is not right. And then you can start to say, well, they operate in this way. And we operate in that way. Once again, not good or bad. It’s just creating friction points, because there’s a little bit too much difference between what is each of our central points, and then we can just have a really transparent conversation. That is not like you’re wrong. You should be doing it this way. It’s just like, hey, like I observed that you guys work in this way. And I observe we work in that way and it’s causing a lot of friction points and what do we think about potentially like moving in a different direction and you can do that, like so gently and so, with respect and with gratitude for whatever has been and kind of move on whether it’s a team member, whether it’s a business partnership like anyone really.

So, I feel like yeah, maybe. Yeah, exactly, totally with a client, and I think unconscious culture is very much like believing that our way is the right way, the only way and everybody else should just be this way. And like, if they’re not, they’re wrong. It’s very like…


Kelly: Resistance.


Sarah: Yeah, a lot of resistance and this idea that others are bad. And that there’s a negative and a positive or a good and a bad versus just being like, this is our truth and our highest alignment, and this is how we want to operate and you’re not wrong for being different. It’s just not working well for us, or what have you. And, I think really like having that awareness and that ownership of who we are as a culture, like, not trying to put ourselves forward is something that we’re not. And I think this is pretty much if anyone, like as an individual, if you go on a journey to do more personal development or healing become a more conscious individual, it’s exactly the same process.

It’s like letting go of the judgment of self-understanding who we really are as individuals, being okay with that observing when we might be in a trigger, or we might be acting in a way that we can see is not in our highest integrity and being curious with ourselves, and doing it and applying that same logic to others, or that same compassion, that same thinking to others. I feel like a conscious culture is kind of bringing that same development of consciousness within oneself into the organization.

For me, I kind of experienced the organization as energy in a way where I can see the color of it and the vibrancy. And I can also feel like, if something’s off, it’s like, there’s another color in that energy bowl. And I like to think of it as colors versus like, once again, right or wrong, good or bad. It’s just like, oh, it’s color of our company is this throbbing green energy bowl, and I can see this red, or this purple energy over here, like it’s not bad, it’s just purple, not green. And we need to like, get the purple out, because it doesn’t work so well with what we’re trying to do.

And I know that’s very, like esoteric and stuff, but it’s how I kind of experience it as well. And I think there’s an element of intuition as well, that comes with looking at our organizations with more consciousness and trusting both like data and what the market might be telling us but also like listening to ourselves intuitively as the leaders of this organization and letting our people tell us what they’re feeling, what they’re intuiting and kind of like comparing that intuition with some data and things like that to make informed decisions.


Kelly: Right. It’s so funny I’m sitting here noticing that I have like the largest smile on my face because you literally just dropped like a knowledge bomb. I love this definition of this like the way that you embody conscious culture and the way that you talk about it. So, for me, kind of what I pull out of that from like the either definition, or like those little golden nuggets is like, it’s not about adhering to like the Bernie Brown definition of like conscious culture, right? I love her.

But it’s not about that. It’s about authenticity, right? And then there’s this idea that being curious versus having binary thinking like black and white, good, bad, right? I’m right, you’re the wrong type of thing. And then there’s the element of self-awareness and all of the things that come with self-awareness, right? It’s just and then this last part about intuition, I think those four elements, I’ve never heard conscious culture kind of defined or talked about exactly like that. That’s why I was smiling because I’m like, it just resonates so much.

And I don’t think that these are typically like what you would find if you’re googling, like, what is conscious culture online. You’re not going to find it talked about like that. So no, I really appreciate you for always being like a really interesting perspective to those things. And this is why I love talking to you. But so specifically for like the small to midsize agencies in particular, right? I could imagine that as we’re talking about remote work, there is often this question that comes up, like there is definitely a palpable difference in the dynamic between in person interaction and remote work, right? Like, we can’t talk about that. So how do you suggest some ways that you can deal with that if you are a small to midsize, like marketing, advertising creative technology agency?


Sarah: Well, to go back to your point of like, staying in that mindset of openness and curiosity and non-binary thinking, I think it’s also important to realize like there’s a difference, but neither is good or bad. So, I think that’s like a really good starting point. Because definitely there’s rhetoric out there, oh that’s the same as in person. But said in a way that is like, this person is good at. And I just think, it’s not the same as the truth. But is it better or worse?

No, it’s just different. So yes, I love being in person with people for sure. And my ideal in my company is to bring my entire team together once a year, because we are global. So, it’s obviously a lot more of a big deal to bring a whole bunch of people together once a year. That’s what I want to do. I think that’ll add a lot of value. However, there’s a lot of advantages to not having to be in the same office all day, every day with people. Because I also get to choose everyday who I am in presence with. And right now, I’m in Montana, with my husband, my baby, and a couple that were really close friends with their baby. And we’re all working and hanging out for a couple of days. And I love that I have the sovereignty to choose that, like the people who I do want to be in presence with each day, each week, each month. So, I think there’s also this idea that working remotely means we’re isolated, which is not it. We’re just having some flexibility and choice of who we might want to be spending time with or when we might want to be alone or whatever it might be. Anyhow, I kind of just wanted to frame that up, just to keep people in this open curious kind of space super important. But when it comes to actual practical things for continuing to maintain and build culture, I mean, even I’ve been remote, as I said since 2014. So, it’s in some regards a little bit hard for me to remember like that was that like mission because it was a while ago. But one thing I will say to people as well as the culture exists, culture always exists, whether you are being intentional with it or not. And whether you are remote, or in person, there’s still a culture, there’s something that’s going on that’s defining who you are, once again, bringing awareness to it.

 So, thinking that we don’t have culture because we’re remote is incorrect as well. It’s just like still being intentional with it. So, if you’re a business that is transitioning, you once all did come into an office and that same team of people are now adapting to working in a different way. I think there are really interesting ways to translate what you were doing into what you are now doing. So if it was, let’s say every Wednesday was pizza lunch day and that’s what you guys always did. You order pizza in the office and sit and have lunch on Wednesdays. You can still do that online like Wednesday can be you can block out the calendar and its social and we all jump on Zoom or Google mates whatever we use, and everybody gets a Grubhub or UberEats voucher or whatever and order some pizza to their house like you can still do things like that. On Friday nights, it was when we would all go to the bar together or something. Some companies do that.

You can do 4pm on Fridays. We all jump on Zoom. We stopped working and we have a cocktail together and hang out so we can translate some of the things that we were doing into an online environment and once again I’m not saying it’s the same or it’s better or worse. It’s just there are ways that if that existed in your culture before you can carry it forward. And then I can just give some examples of fun things that we’ve done over the years that are for us, we’ve been fully remote, fully global especially in my company now always. So, we didn’t have a culture to translate. We’re just kind of who we are.

 So, we have one all company meeting a week, which everybody gets on. This is more just like my FaceTime with my team as the leader. I want everybody on for one hour a week with cameras on. Doesn’t matter where you are. If you’re in bed, if you’re at the hairdresser, I don’t care. It’s okay. Just come to the meeting, turn your cams on, and let’s all kind of listen and chat and there’s a few different people who report on different things. We kind of keep everyone up to speed. That’s really important for me because outside of that we work fully flexibly async, which is you work in your own time.

 And we spent a lot of time talking about having your own individual personal boundaries. Like I don’t mind if somebody works best from 6pm to midnight, like that’s totally okay. But I also want to be able to work when I work and when I fire something, it does not mean that you need to reply to me. I trust you as an adult to reply, when you decide is your best time of the day to work. So, we work in that very async kind of way. So that one company meeting a week is just something we all commit to, to at least get that Face time. We have a social dropping on Fridays, where there’s one hour in the calendar, that everyone can just drop in and say hi, and the only rule is that you’re not allowed to talk about work. So that’s something that we created. And I didn’t have that in Grow My Team, my previous company, but we created it in Growmotely because we were a new team that came together fast, and we needed some time to get social and get to know each other outside of work. So, we were kind of intentional with that. And in that meeting, we can have different topics. So, somebody would ask a question, and everybody would just answer it. And I mean, there’s lots of fun things you can do that are not devalued by decks of cards, literally, that are like conversation starters, a simple way to just be like, okay. So those are some fun things we had a Halloween party last year where everyone came in costume. And that was fun, because for some people it was like 5am, and they had to get up and put their costumes on and for other people it was like the evening time, but it was really cool. And everyone was just in costume from like, here up. It’s kind of funny as well. And something really awesome that my team did for me, I had a baby in March, and I went on, like a month or so of maternity leave. And about two weeks before, they called a marketing meeting. And I was like, okay, like my marketing manager wants to meet with me. So, I thought it was just myself and one person and I went on to this meeting thinking it’s just going to be like you and me sitting here, and the whole team is there.

And they’re like, surprise, it’s your surprise baby shower. And I was like what? And they had sent gifts to my husband. He was in on it to bring in to me, one by one as they kind of went around and like said what their gifts were and they had done so much. We also did a really fun secret Santa at Christmas where everybody was given one person and then they had to create a gift that could be given in a meeting online. So, people were like, wrote poems that other people made funny little gifts that they would like to show with everybody. Someone did like a card or an Oracle card reading, like fun stuff. And we spent the whole meeting just like it wasn’t a meeting that we spent the whole party the other day just going around. And I mean, this team, they love each other. Like really, really good friends. And so those are just some examples of things I’ve experienced, and then things that we do intentionally. And we have a really strong culture, like right now our happiness score is 9.1 out of 10. It was 9.4 out of 10. Last month, I asked my team every single month, how happy are you out of 10. Because I like to keep a pulse on where we’re at and where we are in a good place. And if it ever drops below nine, that’s when I’m like, alright.


Kelly: Wow, that’s a pretty high standard.


SarahI have a high standard.


Kelly: Wow, that’s great. I love that. I’m assuming you ask as a follow up, like, what is the reason that it’s not a 10 out 10 and then you’d come up.


SarahYes. How happy are you out of 10? And why did you give that score? And so, people can say I’m happy because I love it here or, this is what’s bothering me right now, what have you. So yeah, that’s something I’ve been doing since 2016-ish, I think. And when I first did it, the score was only about a 6 out of 10. And, I guess that wasn’t terrible. But it was about five, but it didn’t feel good. But this was my step, in like, I know that I can do better. But how do I do better in every other area of my business? I have data. I ask. I research. I understand. And I need to do that with my culture as well. And so, I started doing that. And it really transformed me as a leader. I think whenever we kind of turn the spotlight on ourselves, and we’re willing to ask for feedback or look at ourselves doing those hard things, that’s when the growth really happens. And over time, I think I became more confident. I can say I became a really good leader after that. But it was quite some years of looking at all of that feedback and being able to integrate it and process it all.


Kelly: Yeah, yeah, no, that’s great. Wow, I absolutely loved this conversation. I think the examples that you’ve given are really great, really actionable, really tangible, maybe people can kind of see themselves in a lot of these things. And if they had questions about whether you can actually develop a true culture or proper culture, working remotely, I think this kind of answers the question. And again, it’s not right or wrong, as you said. We’ll leave it with it’s just different, right? And so, I really, really appreciate your time. I will post links to Growmotely in the show notes. Sara, thank you so much for being with me today. I really appreciate it.


Sarah: Thanks so much for having me, Kelly. It’s always fun to chat. It was great.

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