Retention and culture can be challenging for any organization. However, how do you keep employees when you know the end of the company is in sight? CoreLink CEO Joni Wheeler has created a remarkable culture of leadership and employee growth despite the fact the company is closing.
In this month’s Coffee With Kara, Allegro Group Founder and CEO Kara Jorvig and Wheeler discuss what she’s learned from investing in her employees’ growth and future.
Kara Jorvig: I had an opportunity to meet some people from your team and heard about CoreLink’s culture. I kept hearing about this incredible leader Joni Wheeler, which is why I had to meet you. There is definitely a story to CoreLink and your leadership journey and I’d love to hear more about that.
Joni Wheeler: I joined CoreLink about four years ago. The thought was that we’re either going to transform it or close it because it’s not doing what we originally thought and not offsetting costs as we hoped. About a year and a half in, I became the CEO and about six months later, we heard that our parent companies decided to go their separate ways. They were both going to separate platforms.
It’s kind of like it was a marriage 10 years ago and now it was becoming a divorce and nobody was really thinking about taking the kids, which was us. That was tough. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can close a company.’ I certainly didn’t sign up to shut down a company. We were on this great growth trend over those two years. I had to do a lot of soul searching of how can I do this? How do I tell people they’re going to lose their jobs?
I had come from a company where I encountered about 40 layoffs in the time I was there. I said, ‘We can make this different. We can make this a journey where people are excited to go to the next thing. We prepare them here and treat them with dignity and respect and make this as positive an experience as if we were a growing company.’ That is how the CoreLink Launch was born.
Jorvig: I know some people left their jobs to go to CoreLink knowing it was closing, When I heard this I thought, ‘There’s got to be an incredible story behind the culture and leadership there because why would you leave a job knowing that you’re going to be launched into the market?’ What has been the ability to attract, knowing that you’re going to dissolve?
Wheeler: It’s just incredible. When we put the launch information out to folks and we said, ‘You’re going to get time to really figure out what you want to do and you’re going to get six months notice and severance. We’re going to continue to invest in you every single day. As long as you’re here, you’re a part of this team and we’re invested in you and your growth. We’re going to make sure that you feel comfortable and confident in going to that next thing.’
That’s really what we’ve done. We’ve stood by that and become their campaign manager in looking at other opportunities. All along, we’ve said that culture is inside each of us. It’s how we decide to show up every day. When you’re a growing company, there’s a vision, mission and it’s exciting. We’re not growing anymore. We have a purpose. Our purpose is to leave a legacy for our customers so that they leave here saying, ‘That’s the experience I want forever with any service provider.’
We also want to leave that legacy within our community so that the community knows that they can help each other. We’re here to have each other’s backs, lift each other up, help one another be the absolute best possible self we can be and then leave that legacy in each other. We’re sprinkling CoreLink everywhere we go and behaving as one team with a mission to serve our customers, community and one another.
It’s been so phenomenal. I said that we don’t have to be a leadership team. It’s not one team or person. One person puts a drop in the water and everybody else can create the ripples. Every single person has decided to lead from where they are. They come up with ideas about how we maintain this culture and the idea that we can do this great thing for our customers and be innovative.
“All along, we’ve said that culture is inside of each of us. It’s how we decide to show up every day.” – CoreLink CEO Joni Wheeler
Jorvig: One of your team members said, ‘I’m afraid I’m never going to find something like this again.’ That’s crushing to me. Why are you so passionate about culture and healthy leadership?
Wheeler: It’s such a differentiator. It makes all the difference. Every individual’s experience is, ‘If I go into a place that supports me, empowers me and believes in me, I can do anything.’ Versus an environment where it’s all about the bottom line. When you have people who believe in themselves, each other and a common vision, if you look at productivity and business success, it soars every time.
I’ve seen it. I’ve had the opportunity to lead many organizations and I’ve seen it there. Having the opportunity to lead a company and see a whole company transform and even transform to a new level when it’s closing versus growing, I know it’s true. If we can do it here, we can do it in any company out there.
Jorvig: I think businesses know what they need to do. Meaning they know they need to have a healthy culture, invest in their team and people – but they don’t always know how you build it, invest in and empower people. What’s been the key to your success?
Wheeler: I would say that it’s got to start with leaders. The best outcome that guarantees sustainability is if you start at the very top with your CEO and senior leadership team. But, you have to walk the talk. If you believe that your culture is going to be about trust, dignity, respect, empowerment, then you have to walk that talk.
Where I’ve seen the success of CoreLink, we spent the whole first year focusing on building a healthy leadership team with individuals but also becoming one team that was focused on lifting up our team and helping our customers be successful. If you stay focused on that common outcome, that’s a big piece of it. Also, letting folks know that this is what is going to be non-negotiable. People need to feel safe. People need to feel that they’re treated with dignity and respect and are cared about.
If you believe that I care about what happens to you and you becoming your best self and that we’re going to walk this together, you’re going to be alright. The non-negotiable, for me, is starting with healthy leaders. If you have healthy leaders, we all win.
I also think there’s time. People think investment in people is about sending them to a conference, giving them promotions or climbing the vertical growth ladder. It’s really about time and connecting with your team members. Do you know their passions of what they love to do outside of work? Do you know about their family and what their struggles are? Stay connected with them on that stuff and that will build a foundation of trust and connection.
Jorvig: I hear you talk about a couple different things, which are probably some of the most common things that I see from my desk in terms of businesses that struggle with trust: Conflict-averse leaders within an organization and lack of accountability. From your leadership perspective, why do we struggle with those things? What kinds of things have you done personally to develop good muscles or foundations to help grow your leadership skills in those areas?
Wheeler: With all of those areas come conflict. Conflict is not easy and there’s vulnerability. If I trust you, I have to let my guard down, let you in and let you see not the best of me and trust that you’re not going to use that against me or judge me. I’ve started with vulnerability. I have a lot to be vulnerable about. I have messed up so many times in my leadership career, even just this week. I think it’s starting with showing people it’s not about titles. It’s about that we’re all trying to get to this end over here and we’re going to work together.
Showing your softer and vulnerable side and letting people see that just because you have a CEO title, it doesn’t mean you have it all figured out. I definitely don’t have it all figured out. If I did, I would just be a company of one.
I work hard at that. You don’t have this work-life balance. You have one life. The way I am at work is the way I am at home and I’ll mess up daily and I’ll tell my kids, ‘I could have done that better.’ I think they go, ‘Wow, my mom admits that she’s not perfect.’ I think that translates well in the business world.
Jorvig: What advice do you have for women in leadership?
Wheeler: I think we’ve barely broken that glass ceiling. There’s so much opportunity and I see all these young girls who are looking up to us. I have to keep working on this myself but be bold, confident and keep that voice.
I love when I see women in leadership. It’s such a wide field of predominantly men. I don’t think we have to fight the way they do or lead the way they do. I think our authenticity and empathy, those things are starting to shine more, especially when you look at healthy cultures. I think a woman leader has an edge these days.
I look at my daughter, she’s the future but we have to pave the way and we have to keep it going. We have to make sure that, as women and leaders, we crash that ceiling and it stays shattered forever and is wide open for the future of the young girls out there.
Jorvig: I get asked all the time about the balance of owning a business and wanting to be a healthy leader while raising two girls. It’s hard to have a balance. Boundaries are extremely healthy and important in our family. How have you managed your drive and push to be who you are and who you’re meant to be, but also to make an impact on your family?
Wheeler: Family comes first. There’s no second. There have been some times where I’ve almost made choices to do something different because my kids needed me. At that time, I think whatever happened was supposed to happen because I was able to stay and continue forward in my career and still be what they needed me to be. As long as you have your priorities and my first and foremost priority will always be family.
If I can have a great career and still make an impact there as well, that’s awesome. I’ve been fortunate and had some really strong positive leaders who have empowered me to keep that balance, even when it was tough, and to lean more toward the family when I needed the extra time. I’m very thankful for every experience, every leader that I’ve had.
People say that you take a day at a time. Sometimes, I think just getting through what is right in front of me is what I focus on. Certainly, we all have vision and hope for the future but what’s right in front of me is most important so I think that getting through that hard thing and then the next thing comes along and now getting through that. All of a sudden, you’ve gotten through some pretty tough things. That’s what I’ve tried to instill in them as well.
CoreLink was founded 10 years ago by two former Blue Cross Blue Shield CEOs and it’s a software development and services company, which builds the software to run health insurance plans. However, in July 2017, the company announced to its over 200 employees that they would be closing in the next couple of years. Since that announcement, the company has focused on preparing their employees for what comes next and focused on career development opportunities for their employees.
They’ve also created a website called The Launch to document this journey. The reason for this is best summed up by this description from the site. “These are the stories of the people, the initiatives and the resources that make closing a company with dignity possible. The Launch is CoreLink’s gift to the community to show that it shouldn’t take the end of a season to truly embrace the present.”
What makes Wheeler tick?
Wheeler’s dad worked at a university in Buffalo, New York, where she grew up. He gave Myers-Briggs tests to students and leadership workshops, which means that he would practice on Wheeler. So what did it say about her? At eight-years-old, she was an ENTJ, which means she is a Commander personality: efficient, energetic, self-confident and strong-willed.
But what did Wheeler think about this?
“He talked about an E. I said, ‘I’m an extrovert so that means I have a big mouth and I’m going to be a great lawyer someday.’”
To learn more about Myers-Briggs tests, go to myersbriggs.org.
Watch this interview
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