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In this episode, you will meet Curtis Hite, CEO of Improving. Curtis shares important lessons he has learned along his entrepreneurial journey. Mostly importantly, believing in yourself, but not too much because you’re part of a team.
Transcripts are generated by machine learning, so typos may be present.
Welcome to the Building Texas Business Podcast, interviews with thought leaders and organizational visionaries from across industry. Join us as we talk about the latest trends, challenges, and growth opportunities to take your business to the next level. The Building Texas Business Podcast is brought to you by BoyarMiller, providing counsel beyond expectations. Find out how we can make a meaningful difference to your business at boyarmiller.com and by yourpodcast.team where having your own podcast is as easy as being a guest on ours. Discover more at yourpodcast.team. Now. Here’s your host, Chris Hanslik.
In this episode, you will meet Curtis, the c e o of Improving. Curtis shares several important lessons he has learned along his entrepreneurial journey. Maybe the most important being believe in yourself, but not too much because you’re part of a team. Curtis, I want to thank you for taking the time to join me on Building Texas Business.
Alright. Thank you for being having me here. I appreciate you, including me.
So let’s get started by just you introducing kind of yourself, but more importantly your company and what it’s known for.
Alright. So Improving as a modern digital services company. I think what we’re probably known for most though, is our, uh, participation in leadership in the conscious business movement, uh, in the United States. Br That’s
Great. What inspired you to start improving?
Uh, there’s actually a story I consider an origin story here.
That’s good. We’re here for stories. Okay.
Okay. And I was working two companies ago at, uh, Raytheon. It’s a very large company, over a hundred thousand employees. I was very ambitious as a young man, and I had this idea of creating an internal consultancy at, uh, Raytheon had some skill sets that were fairly, uh, unique at the time with the technology transition, similar to where we are with AI today. But that was object programming. And so, uh, I, I came up with a business plan with my partner there and we presented it to the leadership. It went all the way up to, to Boston. And when a letter came back, it, it included the words or the sentence, tell the software we need to get back to work.
Oh, okay. And,
And so I I, I kind of reflected on that being part of a hundred thousand person organization. Those words were never intended. I get that from my eyes. Right? Right.
Intended for more of the senior, uh, executives at the organization, but it kind of inspired me to say, well, wait a minute. Maybe I can do something different. This is a good business plan, had developed it on my own, and instead I took that out and found three partners that were already in the industry and started my first business. But that was the first business. But that’s how I got started there. Okay. It’s kind of pushed there. And this was after four and a half years of being, uh, at this larger company. And then the second story, the origins to this one is rooted in that company, the three partners that there were three partners from Raytheon, three partners from this new business expe. And in the end, without going into a lot of the details, I felt very maybe betrayed by one of the partners and, and, and, and maybe misled was the a a better word.
Uh, very misled and taken advantage of. And I always remembered that feeling. So take the, that those two stories plus one more, which was we sold that business to a French organization and we went public during the dotcom days. And after several years of running that business, the French business let me go. And we were experiencing literally record revenues at the time and record profits. Even a majority of the prophets of the group were coming out of North America, which I was responsible for. And I remember the shame that I, I felt in that moment and embarrassment and, and all the raw feelings that go with that. And there’s a little bit of irony there because I might have been thinking about leaving or trying something new, but that kind of jolted me and I had something to prove. Yeah. I had no intention of going back into the services business again. Yet I found myself with something to prove, creating a new services company that was fueled outta shame. And some people may not like
That. Uh, well, I, you know, it is interest you say it that way. ’cause my sense is if people were really honest about it, they’d probably come to the same conclusion you just did and did years ago. Is that maybe some shame or embarrassment fueled them to prove somebody wrong and got them going? I, there’s anything wrong with that?
Yeah. I, I’m not gonna say there’s anything wrong because shame, if channeled properly can be a great motivator. It’s not the healthiest of feelings. I get that.
It does create a high degree of motivation or demotion depending on how you are built,
How you let it handle or affect you. Right.
Right. And so my partner Rick, in this business, he actually three or four years in, and we very quickly grew. We went from 600,000 to 2 million to roughly 6.8 to 10 million in our first four years. And he was worried that I would lose the motivation. Right. And, and that really didn’t happen. It shifted and motivation came from a different place. But in those early years, I remembered the earlier events and, and what can I learn when shape this in this company? And I didn’t wanna mislead anybody
From lesson, from lesson two. Yeah. I, I didn’t want to feel like a number or anybody to ever feel like a number. I was 1, 3, 9, 6, 6 2, that was my number at the large company. And that’s what you would give that number instead of
<laugh>. Right. And I felt a little treated that way when I tell that software, we need to get back to work. Right. And so when we formed the company, culture was a very important, and perhaps one of, I think our greatest accomplishments is that we’ve been named over a hundred best places to work. We’ve been number one here in Houston led by Devlin Wells. We’ve been number one in in Dallas. We’ve been number one in Texas. We’ve been number one in Ohio. And it’s not about being number one because in almost all of our offices were recognized, but it’s just really about the executives at the company caring about the employees. Right.
The way they feel valued. Right.
And that’s what I’m genuinely carrying and valuing the employees. Although it’s not all about the employees all the time either. It’s just careful balance. Sure. Yeah.
Well, and if they don’t feel valued, you’re not gonna win awards like that. Right. Because they pull into your organization to really try to get a pull feel for the pulse and what’s really going on. Well, thank you for sharing the origins, because I, to me, there’s so much learning in that and in each entrepreneur’s story, you know, there, there’s different things that cause inspiration and from ideas and knowledge to emotions and feelings. What I gather from yours is there’s kinda a series of three different setbacks, if you will, that you learn from in different ways. An idea of being disregarded by a large corporation, hear those stories all the time, partner issues in a business, and learning from that and hear that represent, you know, guide people through those issues all the time. And then this kind of the shock of being let go when you thought you were doing everything right. So I think it’s, you know, it is a really cool Yeah. Well rounded story. Summarized it well. So when did you talked about starting improving with your partner. What year was that? Give us a, a reference in time. The
Very end of two things. Okay.
So, wow. So you were a few years into that company. You were talking about the success over four years, you hit economic, you know, crash in oh eight, but you, you were thriving through that.
Right? We actually, uh, built the company in the great recession and we grew every year through that environment. In fact, we’ve grown every year in our history. So we’ve never had a year, some years it’s small, a few percentage points, other years. It’s, you know, big growth. But that really, it’s core of one of our values, which I call involvement, or which we call involvement in that our success is a consequence of our collective involvement and leaning on each other no matter what the conditions are. Good times, bad times. So yeah. Really have a big team and I really believe that. Yeah.
So you’ve then managed, at least through a couple big downturns. You talk about the, the great recession. Obviously we had a global pandemic. What are some of the, um, maybe lessons learned that you could share about how you kept focused to allow the business to continue to grow, even though the world around you is like, you know, in chaos?
The first thing is remembering you’re a team. Sometimes as entrepreneurs, it’s easy to, uh, become self-reliant sizing your own role in this and maybe even disregarding the roles of others. So I highly encourage people. And I, I had that lesson early on that I don’t have tendencies to do that. In fact, I I know deep down the exact opposite is true. And pull the team together. And what are we going to do in these crisis or these downturns? What are some of the ideas? So that also lets you know you’re not alone. That’s
A good point.
Uh, a lot of business owners, including myself, I often feel alone.
But I’m reminded that when I ask for help or I’m a little bit vulnerable, then I’m not alone. I’d simply feel alone often because of the own barriers that I put up for myself. And that would be the number one thing I would remember in any of these downturns. The second is to remain focused on what is most important. And that’s, uh, unfortunately sometimes that’s keeping a business alive and being, uh, not only an active member, but, um, considered a leader in conscious capitalism. Movement, people sometimes misinterpret that means we can’t do layoffs. We can’t because we’re a conscious business. How those are contradictory. They’re, they’re not contradictory. Sometimes we have to make the decisions to keep a business healthy. And, and unfortunately, when you care about the employees, yet at the same time, we have to make decisions. ’cause you care about the business and the longevity. Sure. With the employees. It, it requires difficult decisions. Don’t be afraid to make ’em, but make ’em with a, a caring heart.
Right. But I wanna talk more about the conscious capitalism movement, but you’re, I think you hit on something that’s very important. Not losing sight. At the end of the day, you’re kind of responsible for a healthy, thriving business. Doesn’t mean you’re not gonna face hard decisions that affect people’s lives. But the other thing I think I’ve learned, and I curious if it’s been your experience, is when you’re faced with those hard decisions, the sooner that you can make them, and not rationally, but with good information, the better off everyone involved is the employees affected the company yourself as a leader, you know, in moving through that process.
That’s true. In, in my career, I’ve had to do layoffs three times. Okay. One was during the.com bust. Sure. And Enron was our largest client. We built their software. Let’s not, we don’t need to visit that story anymore.
It wasn’t us, but we built the software. And then the second was during Covid was such a rapid decrease, people pulling back in business and services, just a lot of fear in the industry. And then the most recent one was some restructuring that we had to do this year. Okay. In, in a weaker and, and very, what I call volatile uh, economy. And they’re never easy. And I know they’re imagined by people that are affected as this is easy, but they’re not. But we can’t be afraid. And I learned from, I was forced into it with Enron. Sure.
40% of our business went away in a single day. Covid was the same thing. Sure. Right. We had business units that lost 65% of their business in three weeks. And when you look at that, you’re forced into very expedient decisions. But it, it slowed down enough to make the good decisions. Right. Right. And don’t be afraid because you’re going to get negative push back, but treat people with respect and treat people with care because these are real people that have real lives. And it’s a very sad thing.
It is. It is. And another word I’d add, add there. Treat people with dignity. Yeah.
It, it is not an easy thing to have to go through as the leader making those decisions. So let’s talk a little bit about the conscious capitalism movement. ’cause you talked about it and referred to it twice. I, I was fortunate enough shared with you before we started recording to speak at one of their events. I think what they is all about is just so wonderful for the business world. Share a little bit about how you and improving have been involved in that.
I got invited in 2009 and I mentioned earlier my motivation was kind of shame when we’re trying to survive and build the business. But about three and a half years in, I got invited by a good friend that I still do business with and friends today to this c e O summit in Austin. And it was a phenomenal event and it was really shifting in my motivation. The keynote speaker there really let, had a statement at the beginning of his presentation that landed with me. And it was that outside of sales professionals, IT professionals have the worst perception amongst CEOs. And I got really defensive because we’re an IT company. And I’m thinking in my head, and I’m journaling instead of listening to the presentation. And I kind of realized in our own business, wait a second, our industry has earned some of that, not all of it. Okay. And whether it’s perception or reality, we have to own it. And that is when I actually shifted the, my own motivation was to change and shift that perception and not feel victimized by it, but to really turn that into energy on how do we change that as an organization. So I was inspired by that event. Okay.
The people at the event, John Mackey of, of Whole Foods who originated the tip Kindle of Container Store, Doug Row of, of Trader Joe’s. These are really great leaders inside these businesses. And I, and I got inspired by them plus that message. And I wanted to help the organization. So through helping the organization, the local chapters, speaking on it quite frequently, not being ashamed to be a capitalist, but knowing that capitalism can be used for something even greater than the good it already does, is become the foundation of our business. I call it the philosophy of our guiding principles.
Yeah. I love that. So taking that, how does that, or how has it, and how does it continue to shape and influence the culture at improving?
Well, the first, a year later when I was with my partner at a conference or a seminar that was being taught by Steven Coy on trust, I kind of had the epiphany that the reason why we had the perception was because the CEOs didn’t trust their IT organizations or partners a lot of the time. So we refocused our value to include this concept of trust. Okay. And I consider three of our values are identity, but one of our values, building trust is our ambition. And so this combination of changing this perception by focusing on trust has reshaped our business for the next decade. 70% of our employees participate in trust pods every week, voluntarily. They don’t have to trust BOT is a group of five to 15 individuals talking about these 13 trust behaviors, how they’re going to use them, uh, in their daily lives with their clients, our, our stakeholders. Right. But the biggest effect is how it affects you outside of business, how it affects your relationships at home and with your friends. But this is a relentless pursuit when you think that 70% of our employees voluntarily join these groups and talk about building trust every week.
That’s, that’s amazing. What, I guess I’m, what I’m assuming occurs in the, through the participation in these trust pods, is it almost a blending of work and work life and family or personal life? And there it is, allowing for a bridge, which to me is so important because I think it’s a mistake when people think I’m gonna drop who I am as a person or what goes on in my personal life when I step in the office and vice versa. Because there’s a, to me, a natural blend, it’s like, let’s just acknowledge that it’s there, but how can we help them coexist?
Uh, I, I completely agree. Different conversation. Different presentation. But I really don’t believe in the concept of work life balance because it really suggests there’s one or the other. Right. And they’re, they’re not connected in any way. I love many of the premises behind it, but I’m a proponent of an integral life. Yes.
Work is part of your life and family is part of your life and health and maybe faith and or learning, right? Everybody has the areas of their life that they prioritize. But this is a, and work is almost in everybody’s life. So how do we integrate these? Right. And these trust pos become a significant way of integrating and we help, I at least I like to think, and I often get this feedback that the people who participate in these trust pos with the intent of applying it at work benefit even more at home.
Yeah, I can see that. So you’re a software company. Let’s talk about, I mean, just saying that as it is to me, infers innovation. So what are some of the things that you do as the c e O to help encourage and instill the employees at improving, to be innovative? To act innovative? Because with some of that, you know, you have to create a safe environment and allow for failure. So what are some of the things that you have done or are doing there improving to help foster that?
I referred to one of our values before that our success is the consequence of our collective involvement. And I’ve referred to trust. One of the trust behaviors is to listen first. And really combining those two things to try to be innovative, to gather ideas. Right. As a C E O, you also have to be mindful that you’re going to get a lot of good ideas from your employees when you ask. But you can rarely execute on ’em. All right. So at any given time, there’s probably a hundred things I’m gonna put in quotes. The world’s be doing
Well, but we can only do three or four of ’em. So I really try to make an effort to listen, have our other executives at the company listen, try to bubble up some of the most important ideas, but also represent what’s important to the business and where the important ideas to our employees overlap with the important ideas to the business are those that we take. Because sometimes they don’t always Right. Overlap. Right. Employees may want something or the business may want something and it doesn’t overlap. So that’s a way that we prioritize. But I would say of the ideas of the programs we have in, in place of the, uh, initiatives, we have something called come together that is a phenomenal, uh, gathering and creating connection. The vast majority, 90% don’t come from me, that come from the company. Yeah. And it’s just listening and, and finding the good and finding the value is often probably, and letting your own ego. You don’t have to be, this is for the entrepreneurs out there. You don’t have to be all the source of all the good ideas. In fact, I would encourage you to be, take more pride on identifying the good ideas Yeah. Than being the source of the good ideas. There’s
A, there’s a lot of satisfaction, I think, when you can get to that point of being proud of someone you hired that maybe you helped train or develop or created an environment where they could be trained, developed, create their own opportunities and, and reward them for the ideas that they come up with. Right.
Absolutely. It’s a
Whole new level of satisfaction.
Frees you up as the leader to do so many more things. If, if the, if the pressure of all the good ideas is off your shoulders,
That that’s right. Or all the accolades is off of mine or other executives, we actually have a homegrown product that’s, I believe it’s part of our competitive advantage. It’s called Engage, but it’s about measuring this involvement that I’ve talked about. And employees get to enter in things that they are doing to benefit the company, often, all often while benefiting themselves. And it tracks these things and even assigns values to them so that when they do this, they kind of know how they’re participating and, and how they are adding value. And a major part of our profit share is based on that. Oh
Wow. That’s, yeah. Well, as you know too, right, if you incentivize a behavior, you’re likely to get people to behave in that way. So if you incentivize something like that, yeah, they’re, I imagine the engagement’s really strong.
It is for two reasons. The engage creates visibility. So as the c e o of a 1600 person organization, how do I get visibility to what people are doing? I have detailed visibility into what people and I look at this. So they often get accolades. So people that are seeking kind of affirmation and things like that’s their reward for something like this. Those that might be more utilitarian and might be more motivated by money. There’s a money component to it for those people. But not everybody’s motivated in one way. So we try to create a mixture.
I like that. So changing, uh, the, the subject a little bit, but still to building a company, driving it to success, you have to work outside your organization with other stakeholders or, you know, surrounding yourself with a strong team, you know, external professionals. What are some of the things that you have done to identify key partners, build and maintain those relationships that have benefited, I guess, or allowed for improving to grow to the company? It is today
You use a, a very important word for me, which is a stakeholder. Here we’re big proponents of a stakeholder model, not just a shareholder model. And it, it’s very important, I believe, to make sure like you would your own employees, that all of the stakeholders have a certain alignment with your values and your ethos. You’re never gonna get perfect alignment. ’cause these organizations have their differences, which are wonderful, but you can kind of tell those that align similarly and those that don’t. So when we look at suppliers, what are the suppliers that have a similar set of core values? How do they treat Right. Their own suppliers? Because we treat our suppliers better than our own customers treat us, right? Yeah. Very important. Sure. How are they treating their own suppliers? When we look at partners, right? A lot of partners out there are looking at it, what’s in it for me? And despite the rhetoric of us, you can sift through that. Is this a partnership? Are they sometimes willing to go first? Do we go first? Right? I view conscious capitalism, the movement this way, it’s a partnership. But we were going first all of the time without resentment. Right? Right.
At, in, in the long game, that ends up paying even though that was not our purpose. So looking for this alignment becomes key just like you would for with an employee.
Makes sense. It makes sense. I like the, uh, truth of suppliers are better than the customers. ’cause without those suppliers, you can’t serve your customers.
No. Right. Well, I’m not saying we treat our customers worse than our suppliers. I said that we treat our suppliers better than our customers treat us. Oh, that’s
Right. Yeah. Yeah. Because
We give, we try to treat our suppliers as if they were a customer. Yeah.
Makes sense. Well, like I said, they’re integral to you delivering on your promise.
Let’s talk a little bit about leadership style. How would you describe your leadership style? And maybe, I’m probably pretty certain based on this conversation, how you would describe it today versus maybe 15 years ago and, and maybe some of the things that occurred to cause or help you evolve to where you are today.
I would describe myself as very positive, high energy. I genuinely care about people. And I believe, and this isn’t hubris, but I, I think many people would agree that I rely on inspiration too. And I think I’m fairly inspiring and the right circles, both one-on-one and, and at least at, at a larger level. But when I look at some of the lessons, how that inspiration has evolved over time is very important and is kind of very different. When I was younger, I tended to rely on kind of leading by example. And if I did everything, then people would be inspired and follow. And that works to some degree. And that’s a common source of inspiration for people. Like, oh my gosh, look how hard Curtis is working. And Right. He really cares about the business. I might do the same thing, but I do believe that only goes so far. It’s
Kinda like the command model. And I think even Jim Collins talks about it, you can only get a company so far if it’s the charge up the hill type of leader. Right. You could be successful. But to a point
And to a point. And I switched to trying to inspire with vision, the vision of what we could be the vision maybe of what I personally can be. And I started with my own personal life books and creating vision for myself. But switch that to the organization inspired by a leadership group training sta out of Dallas. And to even put together a 10 year vision for the, the business. And so today we have a 10 year vision, we have three year visions, we have one year vision. These are all written. But I, I tend to be able to see things. Yeah. See the good in things. And that’s one thing. That’s why I said I’m positive. So that’s, I I see the good and can inspire around the good versus the negative or polarizing concepts. Yeah. In our world today,
What I like about that, ’cause I can identify with that, is that positive attitude is kind of how to interpret. What you’re saying is, is that you’re in control of that, right? You can control whether you’re really gonna bring up positive mindset to whatever the circumstance is or not. And you choose to say, I’m gonna look for the positive and then try to be inspirational about what we can do in this circumstance. Yes.
I think that’s effective leadership, right?
Positivity is a choice. Yes. Right. And whether it’s in our personal life or a professional life, we can in almost any circumstance choose to find something of gratitude in the circumstance. There are things, I get it, that we, it’s too hard to, to find. And I’m not diminishing those, but for most things in people’s lives, lives and, and that becomes a choice. I’ve also found, and for anybody listening to this, think of your three favorite managers, leaders you ever worked for. Would any of your favorites ever be described as negative? I’ve asked this more than a thousand times. And outside somebody hearing this and trying to prove me wrong, nobody ever, not a single person has ever said yes, their favorite was negative. It is some, it is a of the most effective leaders. Positivity is one of what we have found to be the six most common traits. It
Didn’t surprise me at all. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, it didn’t surprise me at all. So let’s kind of just to wrap up this, uh, conversation. What I always like to ask guests to do is, we’ve got an audience of aspiring entrepreneurs or maybe just started our own business. What are one or two nuggets of, you know, my guess takeaways that you would say, Hey, if you’re out there doing this or thinking about it, if you don’t do anything else, then do at least this one or two, two things. Or maybe avoid X and learn from my mistake. Any, anything that you can draw upon in, in your experience of, you know, two, I guess two companies, three companies now that you could share?
First I would say believe in yourself but not too much. And remember, remember deeply in your heart that you’re part of a team and while the pack, maybe nothing without the wolf, you have to remember that the wolf is also nothing without the pack. And these things come aligned. So it’s a team effort. And very early on to, and, and this is a radical idea, I shared 87% of the company. And this was not just me, this was my partner coming alongside saying, let’s do, so my partner and I combined had about 23% of the company voting units so we could be voted off the island at any time. Interesting. That is sharing in the success of the company. And that’s one of our tenets today of creating a good work en environment that we really did share. From an equity perspective, you may not have to share that much. Okay. Right. But it worked for us. Yeah.
I’m not, and I’m not gonna complain, but I, what I found most commonly, the most owners that we’ve found, true owners in any business has been six. And we’ve talked to a hundred of businesses, yet we have hundreds of them and we’re privately held company.
Yeah, no, that’s impressive. And uh, definitely putting your money where your mouth is Right. About trusting the collective group to be successful. ’cause they’ll benefit from it as much as you will.
And then they, we found people have stayed, they’ve benefited and they’re inspired off into work. Yeah. Harder towards a collective goal.
That’s great. That’s great advice. Yes. Thank you for that. Thank
So on the personal side, we, we’ll lighten up the, the mood a little bit. So what was your first job?
Oh, first job was mowing lawns because I got in trouble as a kid. Don’t want to share that full story, except me and my brother <laugh> created some napalm, burned some people’s tires, thank goodness only. And I ended up mowing lawns for a long time to, for free <laugh> to buy the tires back and all
Of that. Yeah. Oh that sounds that, yeah, there’s a deeper story there for sure. Okay. Tex-Mex or barbecue, what do you prefer?
Okay. No hesitation there. I like it. Oh,
And then last question, if you could take a 30 day sabbatical, where would you go and what would you do?
Wow. I don’t know where I’d go, but I know who I’d go with and I would take my two kids. Okay. Colin and Autumn.
Awesome. That’s great. No, no. Better people to spend time with, right?
Alright, Curtis, thank you for sharing your story and, and being so open about what you’ve done through your career, the setbacks, the the successes, and what you’re doing now to build improving to the the amazing company. It is.
Thank you so much for having me today.
And there we have it. Another great episode. Don’t forget to check out the show notes at BoyarMiller.com/podcast and you can find out more about all the ways our firm can help you at boyarmiller.com. That’s it for this episode. Have a great week and we’ll talk to you next time.
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