We welcome Gary Nowacki, CEO of TraceGains, to this episode of the PeopleStar Podcast in which he reflects on the different types of leaders and how it affects people.
Gary shares with us how the company has been growing in its number of employees, how they incentivize their workforce, and how they’ve been self-sufficient recently. He loves to read business books, and from them, he’s recognized two types of leaders: the harvester and the growth mindset leader. He identifies as a growth mindset leader; what gets him out of bed every day is making the company grow. Inside the company, they have a lot of programs that keep employees motivated and connected. Before wrapping up, Gary gives his thoughts on recruitment and finding the best people that fit your organization.
Listen to this episode and grab Gary’s hands-on experience keeping his team motivated and apply it to your people!
Growth is challenging, but it is a fun ride.
Peer-to-peer support helps people feel motivated.
Internal contests help people stay engaged and proactive inside the organization.
Listening to ideas, but also implementing them, makes people feel valued.
Leaders will tell you what to do but seldom share how to do it.
Investing in internal recruit members adds tremendous value to the company.
About Gary Nowacki
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PeopleStar Podcast Intro: Welcome to the PeopleStar Podcast. We deliver leadership perspectives from industry experts on their people, architecture, routines, and culture as they solve HRs newest challenges. And now your host, Julie Rieken.
Julie Rieken: Good day, listeners. Julie Rieken, host of the People Star podcast. And today I'm super pleased to have with me Gary Nowacki. Gary is the CEO of TraceGains, which is a super cool software company in the food industry. And in 2008, Gary co-founded TraceGains and has been the CEO since then. He's got 30 years experience designing software and networks for food, beverage, dietary supplements and CPD leaders. Gary, welcome to the PeopleStar Podcast, I'm excited to talk with you today!
Gary Nowacki: Hey, thanks, thanks so much, Julie, I'm happy to be here.
Julie Rieken: Super cool. So, Gary, for our listeners, will you just share a little bit about TraceGains so they can place who you are and what TraceGains does?
Gary Nowacki: Yeah, we focus on one particular industry, it happens to be a huge industry, it's the food and consumer packaged goods industry. And so we have a software and a network product that connects all these companies in the food chain, which has gotten to be global now. We hear now how wheat prices have skyrocketed because of what's going on in Russia and Ukraine, so that's just one example of how global the food supply chain and industry has become. And so we connect all these companies across that vast global chain and we help them do things faster, things like innovate faster. So right now, for example, we all know there's all sorts of new products and new ideas in the market for alternative meat products, alternative protein, lots of consumers want to eat healthier, they want organic products, they want products with lower sugar, keto, on and on and on. So we help these companies across the supply chain do all that stuff faster and bring new products to consumers faster.
Julie Rieken: That's awesome. And what a market out there and super interesting to hear about how you're even feeling the wheat production in Russia and Ukraine, so this is important work. So this is going to be an interesting conversation between you and I, and I'm excited for it. Gary, on our podcast, we talk about people, architecture, routines, and culture, we'll get to some of that, but before we do, tell me a story. Tell me something that's cool that's happened in your organization lately.
Gary Nowacki: Yeah, well, just last week, we reached our 100th employee, which was kind of a fun, cool milestone for us. And in fact, we just launched a contest within the company, everybody gets to guess, and people win a big prize for figuring out when we're going to hit 200 employees, so people are excited about that. And coincidentally, it was also our seventh year anniversary. Seven years ago, we took our last investment from an outside investor, so as, as we jokingly say, we've been buying our own groceries for the last seven years, so, so this growth has been funded by all the great people on our team and all their hard work to just increase our revenue every year for the last seven years and allow us to hire new employees. And we're also expanding internationally now, we've hired our first employees in the UK. We're about to hire our first employee in the Netherlands, and so that's, that's exciting for us, ao growth is, growth is challenging, but it's also a lot of fun.
Julie Rieken: Well, that's a really cool milestone, 100 employees, I love that! And, and doing it in seven years and having people guess when you're going to get to 200, that's probably pretty exciting for the team of people you've put together and that makes me think in seven years, 100 people, that's a lot of work. What gives you energy to keep going on this? That's a lot!
Gary Nowacki: Yeah. You know, I like to read a lot of business books, Julie, and a couple of my favorites, there's one called The Innovator's Dilemma, which is particularly interesting for growing companies and tech companies. There's another one called Blue Ocean Strategy that I would highly recommend, and then there's one called Play Bigger. And to your question, there's a common thread, one of the common threads behind all three of those books is they talk about leaders who are wired differently and they talk about how some leaders, these books refer to them as harvesters. They're very good at making smart decisions, going in, working hard every day and improving the bottom line and maybe reducing costs, maybe hiring just a little bit more talented people, all these kinds of things. But they're basically maintaining an up and running business. They're not focused every day on growth, and the world needs lots of harvesters in lots of different businesses. And then there's the second type of leader, a growth mindset leader. And through self-discovery over the years, I've come to realize that's who I am and it would drive me nuts to be working for a company where we just try to squeeze out an extra 2% of profit every year and we try to tweak some of the processes that we're doing. I've got to be in a high-growth business, that's just who I am, so that's what gets me out of bed every day. And when we go through the growth that I describe in other growth exercises we've got going on at TraceGains, that just gives me tremendous energy.
Julie Rieken: That's super cool that you figured out this space that that sounds like your native space, that there's harvesters and people with a growth mindset and you find yourself on the latter, which, one of the things that this leads me to think about is if you really have this growth mindset, and you do as evidenced by your growth in the space that you're in, you've got to have fresh ideas. You really do because you can't just be harvesting and looking for those extra two points of margin as you describe. How do you, when you think about this group of people and your forward motion, how do you keep ideas fresh in your organization?
Gary Nowacki: Yeah, it's a great question. And, you know, it's part of our cultural values, one of our cultural values, we call it "we're in this together". And it breaks down into a number of things, like we want to have everybody speak up, we want everybody to bring their ideas forward, we want lots of creative ideas, so we're in this together, I think sort of sets the foundation for people saying, hey, I've got an idea and they're encouraged to bring that idea forward. And then we kind of institutionalize it through things like contest. So we have an annual contest, we call it our annual creativity contest, and lots of people submit lots of ideas, and then the group looks at the ideas and they pick about the best 12 or 13 ideas. And those people get in and they actually pitch, they actually pitch to a committee of their peers of TraceGains employees, they pitch their ideas, just like what you'd see on one of these TV shows, right? Except they're pitching internal ideas and then the committee votes and the top three winners get a prize. The, the number three winner gets dinner for four at a very, very nice, expensive restaurant, so that's probably worth about $1,000. And then the second-place winner gets a long weekend at an exclusive resort, and then the first place winner gets a week-long trip to Hawaii. And so this jazzes people up and they come forward with their ideas. And I think they especially like and appreciate that they get to pitch in front of their peers so they don't feel like this is some room made in a, some decision made in a darkened room by senior management or something, right? It's their peers who are saying, you know, here are the ideas we value the most. So those are some examples of what we do. When new employees join TraceGains, we also make it mandatory, we give them a copy of a book called Play Bigger, and I just love this book. It, it talks about creativity, it talks about growth, and it talks about a bigger growth mindset. And so hopefully that spurs some of this creativity as well. Everybody reads that book and then we talk about it and we do a lot of things associated with that. So I could talk about specific programs we're launching this year that were based on individual employees coming forward with ideas. And it, it's just so critical to our growth that everybody gets heard and, and these ideas come out.
Julie Rieken: I'm honestly kind of speechless like that is the coolest idea. The dinner, the weekend away, the trip to Hawaii, that brings people together to pitch ideas. It sounds like you've had some good things come out of that, have you? Have you taken ideas specifically from those pitches?
Gary Nowacki: Yeah, we've actually run this contest now for, I think this is our sixth year, and we've tweaked it over the years, and it's a good question you ask, Julie, because in the early years we probably didn't have as rigorous a criteria on the ideas. In more recent years, we said one of the criteria has to be that this idea can be implemented in less than a year.
Julie Rieken: Why did you do that?
Gary Nowacki: Because what we found is we, we in prior years, we went back and in some of our first year or two of the contest, people came up with these incredible big ideas. But then maybe because of priorities or resources, we just didn't implement them, they were just too big, too long-term. So now we've encouraged people, yeah, to think big and to come up with big creative ideas. But we've said come up with an idea that you think could reasonably be implemented around here, sometime in the next year, and, and that's been a really good criteria we've put on this.
Julie Rieken: Oh, I love that. What a great learning and, and the experience has led you to that, that's a great idea. It's something that I'm thinking about for our own org now, I love that, t's so cool! This maybe leads to one other question that I wanted, that I wanted to ask, when you are growing, how do you select people with a growth mindset? Are there specific things you're looking for? Because if you've got a growth mindset and you're thinking about play bigger and you're bringing people on that are willing to share these ideas, how do you know somebody with a growth mindset? Do you have indicators that you look for?
Gary Nowacki: Oh, you know, this is such a good question because it's such a tough one. I've read so many articles, The New York Times does, does a series called The Corner Office, for example, where they interview leaders, and this question comes up very frequently, you know, how do you find great people, right? And you'll hear a lot of these leaders, they'll tell you what to do, but not how to do it. And what I mean by that is they'll say, well, you want to hire somebody who just, you know, is a lifelong learner or who has a very inquisitive mindset, right? Because the implication is those are the types of people who are going to help with a growth mindset and come up with great ideas and all that kind of stuff. And of course, that makes sense, you've got to agree with that, but what they don't do is they don't tell you how to find those people, right?
Julie Rieken: Yeah, that's a trick!
Gary Nowacki: Yeah, it's really, really hard. So, you know, a couple of things we did here is, number one, we made a decision about a year ago to overspend and overinvest in internal recruiters. Even though we're only 100 person company, we have two dedicated internal senior recruiters.
Julie Rieken: Wow!
Gary Nowacki: And so they really, you know, our old model was yeah, we had kind of a half time internal recruiter and that person would look at 100 resumes and kind of filter them through and go to the hiring manager and say, here's the 20 I think we ought to set up phone calls with. Now that we've overinvested, we can have these recruiters get on the phone with a lot more people, and because they are senior and they're very good at what they do, and we pay them very well, but, but they add so much tremendous value to the company, right? Because what they do is they ask all these questions and they kind of figure out, okay, here are the people we really think. They're not just checking the box on the skill set of the job description. We think they're actually special and we're really excited about them. And our hiring managers have sung the praises of these two individuals. They've said, this is unbelievable, I've worked for other companies before, I've never felt like HR has been so proactive and has done such a great job of finding great candidates, for me. Now, it's still part art and part science, right? And we make mistakes like everybody else does, but the feedback I'm hearing consistently across the company from department heads, supervisors, individual contributors is that the new people we've hired over the last year or so have been the highest quality individuals we've ever seen come into the company.
Julie Rieken: Listeners, I wish you could see me I'm leaning in hard to the screen about Gary's ideas here, these are great. Gary, let's wrap, thank you, best of luck to you and TraceGains, this has been fascinating. I loved hearing your perspective on what gives you energy, on, on the books that inspire you, on the growth mindset and how you're solving for that growth mindset in your hiring. I'm taking away a lot from this conversation, I hope our listeners do too. So best of luck to you and TraceGains and thanks for being a guest.
Gary Nowacki: Thank you, Julie, really enjoyed it, and good luck with your ongoing podcast.
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