Trailblazing Culture & The Tucson Desert

This is a story of how a business owner who grew up in the heart (some would say hood) of San Francisco ended up shifting her company’s “office” to a horse ranch in Tucson, AZ. Let me preface this by saying I have no business owning a horse ranch in the Sonoran Desert. Up until 2 years ago, I wore Ferragamo mules and balanced on a BART train every morning to work from our office in downtown San Francisco. Up until six months ago, I had never even heard of a javelina, let alone imagined I would confront an angry herd of them in my front yard! Perhaps I took the label “trailblazer” a little too literally.

But the last two years of life amidst a pandemic have offered a plethora of lessons as well as opportunities to question the things we previously believed were sacrosanct, including, among so many things, the office. For so many years, as a business owner running a recruiting firm, I believed it was imperative for credibility and company culture that we have an office. I blindly accepted that having an office was what you did. Never mind that office space in downtown San Francisco was the second-most costly item on our P&L after employee salaries and benefits, I never questioned the necessity of the office. All that changed when COVID hit. With shelter in place orders in San Francisco that were perpetually extended to waives of variants that kept us siloed for indefinite amounts of time, the office was no longer available to us, and we were forced to pivot.

I’m not going to lie; those first few months were rough. Like so many small, privately funded companies, our business basically bottomed out overnight. Couple that with the added pressure of maintaining payroll, preserving jobs, and shelling out obscene amounts of rent each month for what was, effectively, a ridiculously overpriced mailbox. Something had to give.

After months of fretting, I realized that the source of my anxiety was my attachment to getting back to business-as-usual and my frustration that I couldn’t for reasons outside of my control. And then it hit me — surrender. Stop trying to control things you can’t. Stop resisting and allow the change to happen. Not the first (and probably not the last time) this lesson has appeared in my life.

The most exciting thing about leadership is that, along with the tremendous burden and responsibility comes empowerment, agency, and the ability to chart your own course. As I began to accept and embrace the changes around me, it made way for new questions and thoughts. Even if it were available, would I want to go back to my old way of life? What kind of lives do my team and I want to lead? What types of experiences are most conducive to building unity and connection within a team? What is the optimal recipe for productivity? How can we shore up training and knowledge exchange in a remote environment? How do we create opportunities for learning and collaboration if the office is no longer available to us?

During the pandemic I discovered new pleasures, interests and activities I never had time to cultivate before and I had more space in the day for observation and reflection. Turns out leadership lessons and metaphors abound when one has the time to witness and process. My newly discovered love of sourdough breadmaking teaches that the dough has to be stretched and pulled to its limits in order to build structure and strength in the loaf, which suggests to me that we, like the dough and most things in the natural world, are programmed for adversity and resiliency. Watching the yucca tree in my front yard struggle to regenerate itself from a frost until I was willing to cut off the dead top and start over taught me that you have to be willing to recognize what’s holding you back and, most importantly, be willing to shed it for renewal to happen. We’ve now adopted this as a mantra at our company. We tell each other to “cut the yucca tree” when it’s clear energy is being misdirected and needs to be reallocated toward a higher-yielding effort. And I wasn’t the only one on our team discovering new joys and sources of connection. Nearly half our team adopted puppies, something they couldn’t have done as easily working from an office, some built coops and started raising chickens, while others tackled ambitious home construction and renovation projects. Were we really willing to trade these newfound pleasures and freedoms and, moreover, was it even necessary to think in those terms?

Releasing the constraint of the office freed up not just financial resources, but creative resources as well. Once I accepted that an office no longer served our needs as a business or the lifestyle we desired as people, it made way for new ideas to emerge. I was no longer lamenting the past; I was dreaming up a new future and finding myself exhilarated by the possibilities to reinvent. While I was comfortable letting go of an office that required us to be there daily, I also knew the right balance for us ultimately needed to entail periodic in-person time. One of our core values (long before Zoom became a way of life) is Touch Over Tech and that became even clearer in the isolation of the pandemic. Tech is incredible for the convenience it offers, but relationships cannot fully root or develop as long as people remain largely anonymous squares on a screen.

With my end game clear, I began a multi-state quest to find a retreat-like space that could hold us, that brought us closer to nature and away from the restrictions, complications and intensity of city life and that offered a soothing backdrop to facilitate meaningful personal connection.

In relinquishing the office, I had to solve for and accept the following 4 things:

1. Change — I had to be willing to recognize that things had permanently shifted. Lifestyles were different, expectations and sentiments were different, and people’s physical locales were, in many cases, different. (50% of our team left the Bay Area in 2020). There was no going back. On top of that, it wasn’t necessary, and we didn’t want to. The only way forward was to reinvent and change.

2. Trust — I believe there are two primary reasons leaders feel a false sense of security in having an office. The first is productivity. Without an office and the ability to observe people, how do I know if people are doing their work? How can I feel confident people aren’t goofing off all day? Easy. Hire people who care about the things you are working toward and solving within your organization and whose love language aligns with the work they do at your organization. Supervision and scrutiny do not motivate people, but finding people who intrinsically care about what they’re doing creates an evergreen resource for motivation. The other reality for us was that 2021 was a banner year. We achieved the most on a gross revenue and EBITDA basis in our entire history and we did it all working remotely. Hard to argue with those results.

The second reason leaders take comfort in an office is the (yet again) false belief that by having an office and being able to keep tabs on people, you can keep them from straying or at least make it more difficult for them to interview elsewhere and leave you. Lots of fear-based thinking here. To that I quote the incomparable Madonna from an interview with Howard Stern, taken completely out of context but it works nonetheless… “You have to get over it. Here’s the thing, if they’re gonna do it, they’re gonna do it. If they’re gonna leave you, they’re gonna leave you. If they can be taken, let them go.”

3. Culture — I don’t subscribe to the convention that a company’s office is what defines its culture. Culture is the biproduct of authentic, spontaneous and sincere moments between people that create trust, solidarity, and a sense of belonging and joy. Culture does not happen because you simply group a bunch of lounge chairs together, add some ping pong tables and offer employees free lunch. Those are distractions and perks at best, they are not what creates adhesion and unifies a team. In the words of the great Maya Angelou, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Recognizing this paved the way for the types of intentional gatherings, connections and interactions I wanted to facilitate when the team got together.

4. Training and Onboarding — This along with culture were the biggest drivers for coming up with a non-office way of getting together. While we developed a lot of additional training resources and tools to support our new and ramping hires that included someone to oversee training, a complete overhaul and refresh of our training materials and the production of training videos and resources, none of these could take the place of learning through osmosis and proximity to peers, something we like to call “ear hustling.” Having a place to assemble that would support training efforts was also an essential criterion.

The solution I ultimately arrived at is a sprawling, serene horse ranch in the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, situated at the base of the towering Catalina Mountains and nestled amongst a verdant desert jungle. To solve for culture, training and meaningful interaction, our team now meets there quarterly for several days at a time. Having visited Miraval Resort together as a team several years prior and experienced the undeniable power and grounding of the desert, landing in Tucson felt like a familiar friend and a logical choice. Not only is this space a place to convene, it’s also a place to regroup and reset, to brainstorm and work on our most urgent challenges in a serene setting that instantaneously quiets the distractions of the world and allows you to be reflective and focused.

Our first time at the ranch our team created impromptu morning yoga sessions to start the day under the canopy of mature mesquite trees and the soundtrack of the wild birdlife that can be heard throughout the property. They ended the workdays with walks at sunset and outdoor fires in the kiva that went on until the early hours of the morning. We bonded over run-ins with snakes (true story), we gathered kindling for fires, we ear-hustled, we made butter and tapered candles, we collaborated, we facilitated coaching and training sessions and we connected with new co-workers in person for the first time. And, we did it all without cubicles.

Written by Jessica Vann

Posted on

December 20, 2022


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