An Interview with Gary Bren and I am the managing partner and co-founder of Turner Technology
By Keith Hernandez and Pavan Kumar Prathipati, Creighton University MBA students
Can you tell us about yourself and your company background?
My name is Gary Bren and I am the managing partner and co-founder of Turner Technology. We founded the company in 1992. I was a lead network engineer for the first eight to ten years and I’ve filled a variety of roles over the years, however, I did not run day to day operations until 2012. One of our partners decided to step back from running day to day operations to help his family. We did not have sales and marketing presence until 2012. I was focusing on leadership program; the idea was to figure out my next step in business. We decided, in 2012, to focus on business growth by doing a rebranding exercise. We took decisions such as having a group of clients assigned to each partner and introducing a program called quality living, one of our partner has majority contribution to it. We are on an upward trajectory as shown by our growth from four to 25 employees. We are also the longest term service provider of IT in the area.
Can you define ethics and tell us what ethics means to you?
John Nash, the Noble Prize winner, recognized the fundamental idea that the most successful negotiations are ones everybody wins at least a little bit resonates with me. We live in a social fabric surrounded by the people and I think we have responsibility for the people around us. Our core ethics reflect the idea that it is not about us as “ourselves”, it is about us as a “community”. We have to trust and respect the people around us. We should have an understanding of repercussion of our actions on others. When we do that we can positively change the world around us.
Do you think there is a difference between “ethics” in general (personal) and “ethics in business”?
Not at all. Ethics should be a reflection of who we are, no matter what we’re doing or where we are.
Is there a formal ethics program at your firm? If yes, who started it & what prompted the start?
When we started the business one of our fundamental objectives was to create a business that reflected values we felt were important. Over the years those values have been expressed and brought to life more and more. We have found that our best profit in business comes from treating ethics as the real currency we exchange with our employees, customers, and community.
What were some challenges along the way? Was it hard to get it started?
Not really…but we think that's because it has been part of the fabric of our business since we opened our doors. It probably would have been harder to implement if wasn’t congruent with who we were as business owners.
Were employees receptive or hesitant?
Because our ethics have been a consistent element of our business since the beginning, we have hired employees that reflect our culture and then make sure the values are reinforced every day. We do an annual employee engagement survey. The numbers show that we have better employee engagement levels compared to national average (National 35: Turner 49). This level of engagement is reflected through lower turnover, a stronger team and high levels of customer service and satisfaction.
Let's talk about the ethical culture at your organization. What is tolerated and what is not?
We encourage trust, independent thinking, and respect for teammates, clients, and community. Selfish behavior that negatively impacts the team and community is not tolerated.
How is ethics infused in your organization?
It starts with our value system, which is expressed through what we call “The Turner Way:”
- We treat our clients and team like family.
- We elevate others’ success.
- Our actions transcend titles.
- We lead by example.
Everything we do is done through the lens of those four values. To make sure everyone lives by the values, we divide the company into three teams. The membership of the teams changes every year. Those teams meet at the end of each month to discuss who most personified those values during the last month. This is a powerful way to engage our team in thinking about our value system. The nominations are used to select the Associate of the Month (AoM). We hold a full company meeting every month after the team meeting to read our all the nominations and to award the AoM. You cannot create an ethical environment if you don’t live it, breathe it, reinforce it and talk about it every day.
Would you give us an example of one of your policies that promotes ethics?
As part of interviewing and hiring new employees we ask a series of ethical questions that are used to determine a prospective hire’s compatibility to our culture and values. Here is an example:
A co-worker has screwed up at a client site and you’ve discovered that he/she is the reason you’ve been troubleshooting the problem for four hours at a $900 cost to the client. The client asks you what happened. What do you say?
We call this question “The Bus Toss”. If the interviewee flat out blames the co-worker, we disqualify them. Before they start the exercise, they are told they have an engaged boss and other teammates. We don’t want them to lie, but we want them to defer the answer to their boss and not toss the co-worker under the bus…because when that happens, everyone gets tossed under the bus, including the client.
Do you have stories that are told over and over again that define the honesty, fairness, respect, etc. upon which the organization is based on ?
One example was an employee who had just been working with us for two months and he asked us for 6-8 weeks of unpaid leave. He was a third of the networking engineering capacity and we as a company really depended on him. He and his wife had been trying for seven years to have a baby with no success. They had put in for an adoption and just found out they were accepted. They needed to go to Vietnam for three to five weeks to pick up their new son. In the framework of our ethics we looked at the situation and arrived at a better idea. We decided to give him 8 weeks of paid vacation to pick up their child and spend time with his family before returning to work. As a short-term business decision people might think that was a crazy decision. As a reflection of our values, it was the only choice for us. As a long-term investment, until he left the industry 15 years later, he was one of our most loyal hard working model employees.
Another example is about an employee whose family was about to have its first baby and its first bankruptcy. We wrote a balloon note to pay off their debts and started weekly financial sessions on how to manage their money. One year after the baby was born the grandparents wanted the family to move closer to them so they found him a job. We let him leave still owing the rest of the balance of the debt that he owed us. A year and a half later he paid off the rest of the balloon note. They have four kids and are leaders in their community and we know we had a part in that happening.
The most recent example happened in the last few months. One of our Engineers' mother was suffering from stage four pancreatic cancer. He was out of the office caring for his mother and family for almost seven weeks. He didn’t know that we were planning on covering his entire absence, but his co-workers came together and volunteered three weeks of their vacation time so he wouldn’t have to use all of his time. They also came together and covered all of his responsibilities while he was gone. I have never been more proud of our team.
What do you personally think are the most important business core values? Describe.
If you do not create an environment of trust among your staff you will never get highest level of productivity, employee retention, and customer satisfaction. If you want to get good results, employees should be able trust that their employer will care about them and their welfare. Trust, Respect and Integrity are most important values, everything else is built off of these base values. To make this real we must show in our actions that employees and people matter to us.
Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was hard to handle.
As an example of how we treat our team, we had an employee that was a source of negativity and problems but he held a number of key certifications necessary for us to support some complex products used in mission critical applications by our clients. We had invested significant time and focus on trying to mentor and guide him, but he was not making sufficient progress and his behaviors were impacting our team.
We could have let him go and hired someone externally to quickly take his place, but we didn’t think that gave our associates an opportunity to grow into those skills and responsibilities. As a result we sat down with three associates who would be most impacted by the decision. Working with them, a plan was defined to give the employee the best chance possible to resolve his issues, while also allowing the three associates to grow into the skills and knowledge necessary to supplement or replace the employee.
We then gave the three associates a hand in the decision: Do we replace the employee with an external hire or follow the plan they built with the involvement of leadership? We felt it was important that they had a role and ownership in both the decision and its related implications.
They chose to follow the plan that had been developed, knowing that they would have to play a role in giving the employee a fair chance while building their own skills and knowledge. After eight months it was clear that we were not going to get sufficient change from the employee and the associates had developed the skills to either supplement or replace the employee. As a result, the management team decided to terminate the employee and recognize the efforts of the three associates. We have seen a dramatic positive impact on employee morale and engagement as well as customer satisfaction as a result of this process.
How does it feel talking with us about ethical quandaries you faced? Or talking about them in the firm? Is this something you do a lot? That is, is ethics talked about or just assumed?
Ethical values are real only when you talk about it and live them. You should be proud to talk about them. Ethics do not come from wishes. Ethics come from dependable, consistent actions and behaviors.
Are there unethical behaviors that give other companies and/or business people a competitive advantage?
It’s easy for companies to act in what they feel are the best interests of profitability, but in doing so to make decisions that in long run compromise the well-being of their employees and customers. In the long-run, short-cuts often turn into expensive detours. We’ve been in numerous competitive situations where competitors took short-cuts to try and get a deal that were not in their own best long-term interests.
What are the biggest ethical challenges that you think face the younger business professionals today?
There is a lot of pressure on young professionals to succeed. Too much of our current culture is about money, celebrity and success. But the reality of leading a successful life has never changed. It’s always been true that Trust, Respect and Integrity are real currency that genuinely successful people operate on. These days’ people don’t ask why question enough. It’s too easy to not evaluate facts and to accept convenient sources of information. You have to question yourself “am I doing the right thing?” Talk to people face to face rather than on e-mails/phones.
Does constantly training people (showing videos, influential talks and sending texts) in organization will make any impact on moral behavior of employee?
Absolutely. We have an employee that was going to Japan with his wife to visit her parents around Thanksgiving. He came down with pneumonia two weeks before he had to leave. He struggled through the first week, then went to the doctor. The doctor told him that if he got bed rest for the following week, he’d be able to go to Japan. He had sick leave banked and could easily have done so.
However, he decided that he wouldn’t leave his team short-handed for a month and without telling anyone, cancelled him going. He was voted the associate of the month by the team and the goofball of the month by the management team. We told him that while we thought what he did was cool, we told him that if ever put work in front of family again, we’d put him on the plane to Japan ourselves.
This same engineer was the one whose mother died from pancreatic cancer two months later. Yes, talking and acting ethically does impact behaviors.
© 2017, Kracher & the Business Ethics Alliance