This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews for my exclusive column on Thriving Culture. The intention of this series is to give you, as a reader, a sense of where and how culture is thriving in the solar industry, and how you might begin to strengthen company culture in your own company or place of business. I conducted this interview with Kelli Wolford, Office Manager at Synchro Solar, which currently employs 10 solar team members with 2 solar install teams.
Tamara: How would you describe your path to becoming office manager at Synchro?
Kelli: It's been an interesting path and one that, a decade ago, I definitely did not see myself going down. I graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree in philosophy which, you can imagine, opened all kinds of career paths for me. So with that formal education, I decided to move to Portland with my husband to see if there was anything for me here. I was very lucky to meet with John Patterson, owner of Mr. Sun Solar, who saw a lot of potential in me. I remember very specifically when he hired me and said, "There's a lot of work to be done, and you seem like a person who can handle a lot of work. I just want you to delve in and see how you can best help this company.”
At Mr. Sun, I worked on all sorts of administrative tasks, some project management , and eventually worked on many of the HR and marketing issues. From there, I ended up working with Brion at Synchro Solar, which has been a fun and fabulous journey. When I started with Brion, he had just become the sole owner of the company, and in some ways was starting fresh. Going from four owner-members to sole owner was a big step, full of great risk and responsibility. It's really worked out for him because he's made a lot of smart decisions.
In my past three years at Synchro, I see myself as a goldfish. A goldfish grows in accordance to the size of its habitat and I've essentially grown with the company, filling needs as they arise. At one point, for example, we found ourselves in need of a new bookkeeper. Having had no experience as a bookkeeper, I dove headstrong into training to build a solid skill set. I think that's one of the really beautiful things about Synchro Solar, is that we're working for a man who really believes in training, continuing education, and really pushing yourself to learn new things. That's really kind of the root of it. Started at the very bottom and now I'm managing our growing company of ten. It’s very fun.
Tamara: What does a thriving culture mean to you?
Kelli: I would say a thriving culture is one where the team leader is strong, the team itself feels empowered to do their work in the best way they can, and everybody feels as though they're on stable ground. Everyone has a good foothold in what they're up to and how to best proceed. There are also small things that come into play here, like how a clean or friendly office affects people's work happiness. Paying attention to those details can really make a big difference in not only productivity, but in the stress levels and how people get along. While people in our office may not express a strong preference for clean and tidy, there is a marked difference in how people react when the office is clean. I think that's one element of being an office manager that is really important -- knowing the small things that people might appreciate even if they themselves don't know that they will.
Tamara: Where do you see aspects of a thriving culture at Synchro?
Kelli: I think there's a very strong feeling that we are a team and we all love what we do. I think about the faces at Synchro Solar, all the members of the team, and I see a group of people who really care about what we're doing. I think that plays into a thriving culture tremendously because we're all there for the same reason, to make money and have fun while installing as much solar as possible. Having that collective goal is the king of the mountain of having a thriving team and a thriving culture We all work very hard but, we also get to have fun together. That's a huge goal for Brion, to make sure that his staff are rewarded with some fun times for their hard work. One of the mandates at Synchro Solar, for example, is that you take your birthday off. Brion believes that a birthday is a special day, and he's willing to pay them to go have a fun relaxing day. I love that.
Tamara: How does a thriving culture affect your ability to do your job well?
Kelli: It is so tremendous to be at work and see a group of happy people doing work that they love, it’s the key piece of the whole thing. Thriving culture makes my job a lot easier. When the culture is thriving, people feel happy about their work, the team comes together, and there's a strong sense of increased productivity. In a small company like this, when a problem arises or underlying issues plague the work that we do, everybody is affected and wants to be a part of the solution. When the culture is thriving and people have the sense that they’re a part of the team, communication is better and people can better focus and stay on task. When culture is thriving, the multiple drawbacks of miscommunication fall away and everything runs more efficiently. It's really about the energy and the way that people are feeling about their work because even though we all have a love for solar, if the company culture is not thriving, it almost doesn't matter that we all love our job and we love what we're doing. A lot of that just slips into second place. At Synchro, we aim to provide the environment for people to be heard, feel included to work on a solution, and to be aware of what’s happening. That makes it so much easier.
Tamara: What role do you play in supporting a thriving team culture at Synchro?
Kelli: I wear many hats at Synchro Solar and often my head is more on the business development side - tracking numbers, making projections, long-term planning. But, as office manager, it always comes back to the day-to-day for me, and part of that is making sure that people are working in a nice environment. The importance of that, in my opinion, cannot be stressed enough. I've worked in some unpleasant environments. I think that everybody wants to work in an environment where things are running smoothly, where things are tidy and organized. We can all do our work better when things are organized. I think that's a big piece of it --keeping an eye on how people are doing in the day-to-day with their personal organization and comfort in the office and field. Clarity and transparency, as well, around things like payroll and unemployment, adds a level of calm to the office – people seem to appreciate that there's somebody looking out for their best interest.
When I first joined the solar industry nearly ten years ago, I became aware of a company called Synchro Solar that had a reputation for greatness. They had a reputation of being the friendliest company, with the highest quality, and was known to have been formed by a group of people who loved solar and what they were doing in the industry. That spoke to me in such a way that I, for years after that, yearned to work for this company. As I grew the solar industry, I found my place -- working with people who loved their work and remained committed to quality, customer service and kindness. When I was approached by Brion several years later to join the team, I naturally did a little jig. And with time, my goal became to support the transition from four owners to one, helping Brion maintain the same level of quality and integrity that had drawn me to Synchro Solar in the first place. That is the backbone of everything that I do at here, from how I speak to people on the phone, to what we do in the field, to how we structure our marketing to maintain that level of integrity and to keep that spirit alive. I don't know where Synchro Solar would be without quality and integrity as its core, and that's something that I truly strive to maintain. That's why we chose to hire you as consultant, to help us fine tune our future. Brion got into this business because of his love of solar and his desire to help all Oregonians become energy independent in a high-quality way. But as we grow, how do we maintain the backbone of our marketing allocations and strategic decisions, while considering our long-term goals?
Tamara: What challenges have you needed to navigate in the process of supporting people and creating positive company culture, and how have you tried to overcome some of those challenges?
Kelli: One of the challenges that we have had as we've grown is retaining our installation teams. In the solar industry, there’s a limited supply of people who are appropriately licensed and interested in getting on a roof. It’s tough work. One of the ways that we've tried to address that is to create more of a team environment. At the root of this challenge is the general schedule of the crew – after being out all day, they come back and go home. They don't get to be involved in the day-to-day office interactions. They don't necessarily get to be around if we all decide to go to lunch. They might not be around when I bring donuts into the office. That is something that I have been trying to work on – integrating company culture into the field, and creating more overlap between field and office staff so that we can all spend more time together. The Office staff is around each other all day so we know bits about one another’s’ personal lives. They know that I have chickens, grow a garden and love to cook. But it was only this week that I learned that one of our installers also loves to garden. I had no idea! Had I known earlier, I probably would have bent his ear many times over, exchanged notes, and talked about all the things that I love to talk about when it comes to gardening.
To overcome this disconnect between office and field, we’ve been working to implement more face-to-face staff meetings. Previously there had been meetings between project managers and install teams, as well as office meetings, but we didn't really have many all-staff meetings. That has been something that has, and will continue to make a huge difference in how we work together as a cohesive team of ten. Being together with the install teams to discuss company and industry business, as well as project specifics, has proven to be tremendously valuable, not only from a business and efficiency standpoint, but culturally as well. We’ve also implemented a Shop Day – one day each month where everyone is on site doing their work, organizing the shop, and having lunch together. Everyone bustling in and out creates increased opportunity for heart-to-heart and face-to-face interactions. It's really simple but we're doing it together and building a stronger team.
Tamara: Is there anything you and/or leadership at Synchro has tried, in regards to creating a positive team culture that didn't work, and what was done to improve the attempt?
Kelli: It often happen that somebody will propose a happy hour gathering after work. There's a place for that, and at Synchro Solar, we certainly partake in that kind of tradition. However, as a stand-alone, it’s not necessarily the key to improving culture. Not everybody drinks alcohol, and there are those who need to just head home after work. People have kids, and other responsibilities. Without having more institutional or formal things planned, like different company parties or lunches, some people get skipped over with that type of tradition. We had this great picnic, for example, where we all played disc golf together. There’s greater nuance and more benefit in such an event than in the simple invitation for beer. We’re working on establishing more inclusive traditions in a way that build culture and togetherness.
Tamara: Is there anything you would like to add before we wrap up?
Kelli: I think that it can be a stumbling block for small companies to lose focus and veer from the original heartfelt mission. But without that, the foundation crumbles. People continue to tell us that we’re friendly and clearly committed to quality, and as a small shop in the world of big companies, this goes a long way. For us, it’s about bringing energy independence to our customers, to work as a team to design and build quality renewable systems that create positive energy. We are built on experience, and lead with change – change in a world that is ready and waiting.
Should you be interested in learning more about integrating a thriving culture into your own business or team, or how you might attract more customers, ease communication, and align company profits with the growth of solar, contact Tamara Staton directly at thrivingsolar.com. You can also find related articles on her blog that can support you in strengthening company culture.
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