CV #18 Red Caffeine: On Culture Reinvention, Emotional Intelligence & the “Platinum Rule” in the Workplace
RED CAFFEINE AT A GLANCE
Founded: Red Caffeine is a marketing and technology company located in Lombard, IL. The company was founded in October of 2013 by Kathy Steele with the help of the “original eight” –– the original eight team members from Kathy’s previous company, Desert Rose Design. Desert Rose dissolved earlier that year due to a values-misalignment with her former business partner (more on this later).
Employees: 22 | Revenue: 2.3
Purpose: To entangle ourselves with our team, clients, and community to fuel meaningful impact.
Mission: We believe in building badass brands that clients want to with and employees want to work for
1) We embrace transparency. 2) We uphold a culture of learning. 3) We are intentional in our relationships. 4) We play to win together. 5) We believe in work/life balance. 6) We hug it out. 7) We own it (good or bad). 8) We are client advocates. 9) We give it back and pay it forward. 10) We make an impact with our flava.
Community: A huge priority! In 2017, they contributed over 515 hours of their time, $9,950.00 in monetary donations, and $52,810 in-kind donations, totaling: $62,360.
LET THE TOUR BEGIN
I arrived at Red Caffeine in downtown Lombard, IL and was immediately impressed by the design of the office space. While the outside of the building is rather historic-looking, the inside is modern with open-spaces, hard wood floors, and a fantastic grey and red color scheme. While visiting, I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with Founder and CEO, Kathy Steele. A few weeks later, I chatted via phone with Kathy’s first hire and Red Caffeine’s Art Director, Clarissa Johnstone, as well as Albert Davis, a newer team member and Graphic Designer. Here were my takeaways:
1) You Can Always Reinvent Your Company Culture
Kathy Steele, Red Caffeine’s CEO and Founder, took me through the same presentation she takes every new team member on their first day– a presentation on Red Caffeine’s history and reinvention as a values-driven company. Kathy believes that sharing their origin story grounds team members in their company core values and helps to create an inclusive team environment. The origin story has a strong impact on team members as well. As Graphic Designer, Albert Davis, shared with me “It [sharing the history of Red Caffeine] made me admire Kathy even more than I already did. She started from her house and made it into an awesome thing that it is now. She was pretty transparent – she showed the pitfalls and the process. She shared how Desert Rose fell apart and the mistakes she made and what she would do better. I’m early in my career, and you know what, it helped me realize that as long as you can look at what you did wrong and move forward it’s not that bad.”
Here’s the short version of the story:
In 1996, Kathy left her job as an inhouse graphic designer to start a small boutique design firm. In 2003, she met her former business partner, who had a complimentary skillset and a passion for business. Without much fact checking, they became business partners and grew Desert Rose Design to a team of 16 and 1.3 million in revenue in ten years. Looking back on the company culture, Kathy admitted that Desert Rose Design wasn’t a great place to work. They were more project focused versus relationship-based and would work with all types of clients to keep their business afloat. Furthermore, Kathy and her partner had a command and control leadership philosophy and were not very transparent about the financials of the company. “I was raised old school and I had a mom instinct,” said Kathy. “I didn’t want the kids to know things weren’t going well. [What I learned is that] people assume things are either way worse or way better than they really are.”
On New Year’s Day in 2013, her business partner unexpectedly asked Kathy to file a business divorce. In hindsight, Kathy recognizes this was likely due to their values misalignment and approach to business ethics. “If you don’t have values alignment from the start, you will not be able to weather the ups and downs of business,” said Kathy.
The company essentially split in two. For almost an entire year they stayed in the same building, until the divorce was official. It was a very hostile environment, but Kathy’s team stuck by her side as they worked on developing the new company together.
As Art Director, Clarissa Johnstone, shared with me “Kathy wanted the eight of us to build the new company. We made sure we were going to have an awesome culture and we worked on our values. We decided that we were going to be transparent, open-book, and learn about the finances of the company. It wasn’t going to be just Kathy’s company, it was going to be our company.” Kathy’s mentor and longtime values-driven leader, Tom Walter, led the team in a values-exercise to help them articulate what their company core values were. To reinforce these values they had weekly “Culture Club” meetings where they talked openly about the state of the company, which is continued to this day. As Clarissa stated, “The culture is a total 180 from what it was before.” And as a testament to that statement – Clarissa shared with me that six of the original eight are still Red Caffeine team members today.
2) The Importance of Culture Club and “Breaking Bread” Together
For the last five years, Red Caffeine has met together every Friday for one hour for their weekly Culture Club. According to Kathy, Culture Club began informally as an opportunity to “close the door and get away from the toxic environment [of Desert Rose Design] and talk about the type of company we wanted to become.” Today, it is a time to order in lunch, “break bread together” and talk transparently about the company they are today. This includes answering any questions on team members’ minds, sharing industry best practices, as well as team member accomplishments, and concerns. Culture Club is separate from their Great Game of Business Huddles earlier in the week, where each team member owns a line item and share the finances of the company. Recently, they decided to keep the two separate in order to preserve Culture Club as a more informal gathering. According to both Kathy and Clarissa, Culture Club has been instrumental in keeping the lines of communication open for the entire company, especially during their exciting period of rapid growth.
3) Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace
Emotional intelligence (EI) is key to understanding yourself and building strong relationships with others, which is why Red Caffeine strives to create an emotionally intelligent culture. To help team members develop their EI, Red Caffeine joined the Junto Institute, an entrepreneurial leadership program that offers forums, classes, mentoring, and subject specific round-tables for values-driven leaders.
A few years ago, the entire company of 12 went through the Junto Institute’s 10-month master class program to develop themselves as leaders and as a team. The results were tremendous. Today, Red Caffeine continues to send at least three team members a year to participate in their 10-month master class program. Furthermore, they provide an additional three team members the opportunity to sign up for their monthly electives, which they report out on during their weekly Culture Club.
To continue their development as leaders, Kathy and the three department heads meet monthly with their Junto Institute mentors for two-hour coaching sessions. This led to the discovery of takeaway #4…
4) Treat Everyone How They Want to Be Treated – Not How You Want to Be Treated
One of Art Director, Clarissa Johnstone’s, biggest ah-hah moments in leadership was forgetting the golden rule and replacing it with the platinum rule. “We all know the golden rule of ‘Treat everyone how you want to be treated’ but Red Caffeine has a platinum rule,” said Clarissa, “Treat everyone the way they want to be treated.” The overarching theme to the rule is to get to know every team member as individuals. “I go out of my way as a manger to get to know team-members personally: how they grew up, about their siblings, past jobs etc.,” said Clarissa. “You have to get to know the person you’re coaching in order to communicate properly. No one should feel like they have to leave their personal life outside of the door.”
The platinum rule also includes small examples, such as having all team members fill out a “Celebration Wish List” when they first come on-board. This way Red Caffeine knows how to best celebrate their special occasion, whether it’s with mimosas, bagels or root beer floats. The platinum rule also includes having flexible work schedules. “There are no clock-watchers at Red Caffeine” said Clarissa. “Some people work from home, some people come in at 9:00am, some people come in at 10:00am, some people split their day between the office and at home — whatever you need to do to be productive.”
5) Volunteering Together: Community Matters
According to Kathy Red Caffeine contributed over 515 hours of their time, $9,950.00 in monetary donations, and $52,810 in-kind donations, totaling: $62,360 – in just 2017 alone! They strive to do quarterly events together, ranging from volunteering at the Zoo to the Illinois Food Bank, to Women’s Shelters. However, their biggest event of the year is the Beat Tom and Bill Foundation, where they shut the entire company down for a Friday to raise money for local families that are dealing with cancer. “We all attend the golf outing and sponsor two holes. We play games and have a big dinner and a silent live auction. It’s a really great event that means a lot to us,” said Clarissa.
Red Caffeine’s Community involvement is both planned and spontaneous, “Someone may say, ‘why don’t we do something for this awesome nonprofit’ and then people will volunteer and come together. We try to figure it out by committees and we throw it out to the team. It’s not a requirement, but we encourage people to be involved.” Some words of wisdom from Clarissa, “Everyone wants to volunteer, so if your company puts it together, it just makes it easier to do it.”
Red Caffeine, was able to reinvent themselves as a company by defining their core values and building their company with these values front and center. They changed their leadership philosophy from top-down to all-in together and practiced transparency through both their weekly Culture Club meetings, as well as their Great Game of Business huddles. In addition to building a collective culture, they also strive to grow and develop as individuals. Through emotional intelligence trainings, and the platinum rule, Red Caffeine team members know that they can be themselves at work and show up show up wholeheartedly.
Red Caffeine is Company Visit #18 of Touring with Purpose. Interested in reading about previous company visits? Check them out below:
CV #7 Think Company: Building a Culture That Eliminates Uncertainty, Prepares the Next Generation of Leaders, & Cares for Employees
CV#8 Essential Ingredients: How this 100% Employee-Owned Company Leverages Their Team's Wisdom, Strengths & Community Passions
CV #13 Scribe Media Pt 2: The Power of Language, Defining Your Culture, & Bringing Your Whole Self to Work
CV #15 Call-Em-All: How they Turned the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team into a Formula for Success & So Much More