Ep. 132 – WRA Environmental Consultants Vice President Of Operations, Miles Gullingsrud

Ep. 132 – WRA Environmental Consultants Vice President Of Operations, Miles Gullingsrud

A common theme among seconds-in-command is the tricky responsibility of filtering ideas into different silos of what should be done now versus what should be set further down the road. It is no different for Miles Gullingsrud, the Vice President of Operations at WRA Environmental Consultants. As the pandemic demands organizations to basically slow down, it has become a challenge for those on the operations side to keep things moving in spite of it. This is one of the salient points in his conversation with Cameron Herold. Miles also talks about what his organization does to help the environment, how his role plays into that, and how the organization evolved its culture when the pandemic came.

Miles has more than fifteen years of experience in leading critical and operational support including project delivery, technology, people and culture. With a professional background in administration, finance and technology, Miles brings a blended experience of organizational process and operational delivery. Miles’ background in operations range from large scale procedural companies to early-stage startup environments. This common thread in his work in both types of organizations is a high level of people centricity and building systems to support people in their work.

Miles earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California Riverside and is a certified project manager. He’s active in a number of professional organizations, including the ManKind Project, a nonprofit training organization that offers life-changing experiential training for men, and the Operators Guild, a national organization for senior-level operators to share expertise and best practices. Miles lives in Oakland with his wife and daughter. His favorite activities are cooking, playing music, guitar, bass, drums, piano and vocals. Miles, welcome to the show.

Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

I’m a big cooking fan as well. What’s your favorite dish? If you had to make one more dish for friends before you die, what is it going to be?

Pizza. It’s one of the hardest things and I know how to make it too.

Do you make the crust and everything?

Yeah. Everything is from scratch.

What’s going with it?

Now that we eat vegan, there is a good tomato sauce and some roasted vegetables. My wife made vegan cheese from scratch and we put that on one time, which is pretty good but not worth the effort.

What are you doing for the dough? Are you doing no eggs on the dough or are you doing cauliflower crust or something?

There’s no dairy or anything in the dough. I use a recipe from The Pizza Bible from Tony’s Pizza out here in San Francisco. It’s a two-day process and it’s meticulous. I get it wrong about half the time.

One child so far. How is it living through COVID and managing the business? Are you working from home now through all this?

Yeah, we both work from home. We’re fortunate that our daughter’s daycare is small enough that it was able to open up in June of 2020 with some strong controls that have worked out well so far.

You are lucky. I’m luckier because my kids are older so they get up, do their thing and leave the house. They go and pick up groceries for me. I’m in a good stage, thankfully. Could you tell us a little bit about WRA so we know what the company is and what your role is there?

WRA is an environmental consulting services company that’s more than 40 years old and based out of the Bay Area in San Rafael. It started primarily focused on wetlands research. That’s what WRA stands for Wetlands Research Associates. The Founder, Mike Josselyn is an expert in wetland delineation and also been instrumental in defining policy around how to protect wetlands, how to define them, and all of the science behind it. He’s built the company around his academic and intellectual research. The company has been going ever since.

We’ve diversified a lot since then so there are a lot of different service lines from drone surveys, GIS, all sorts of biological botany assessments and also moving into mitigation banking, which is a little bit like you think of carbon credits. It’s a little bit like that. It’s a lot more complicated, but it’s a similar type of idea and we do a lot of work with that to help offset the impact to the environment for different types of development.

This might be a weird question or I don’t know if it’s controversial, but do you buy into the whole carbon credits or those offsets or would you rather that companies got their crap together and cleaned up their own backyard instead of buying somebody else’s credits?

There’s a difference there that matters. To answer your question with carbon credits, yes, it’s a foolish model. We can get into a whole conversation about pollution and the role of corporate irresponsibility versus consumer responsibility. With mitigation banking, what’s more powerful is it’s localized. Mitigation banking is a little bit more direct. The idea behind mitigation banking is that if you are going to impact the natural environment, you need to positively impact in equal measure in the immediate local environment to balance out that. It has much more relevance because it’s generally in similar habitats and similar geographies. It’s not in some place 1,000 miles away, where you’re theoretically offsetting some impact. It directly relates to the local environment that you’re dealing with.

Is that the tree planting companies that cut down trees then they have to do reforestation? Is that a similar idea?

That’s a simple analog. It’s complicated so it’s highly regulated based on the local geography in certain native species and what impacts and they’re different types of credits depending on what is available. For example, someone might own a piece of property that was developed many years ago, and it looks untouched, but it’s not native anymore and they might be able to invest in bringing back certain native species or improving the water flow of natural waterways through that property. Things like that will have systematic positive impacts on the local habitat and environment for different plant and animal species. It’s not so brute force of cutting down a tree and planting another tree. It’s a little bit more nuanced than that.

I wish my grandfather was doing this interview instead of me. He won the Conservationist of the Year Award in Canada back in the early ‘70s. He was big in wetlands and restocking lakes up in Northern Canada, and also did a lot up in the Arctic. I’m going to guess it was ‘76 or ‘77. I was ten at the time and he was talking to us as kids about the Arctic getting warmer than his memory of back in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

He honeymooned in the Northwest Territories in the early ‘40s. It’s ridiculous. He was up there every year. In the mid-‘70s, he was talking about climate change and what it was doing and the impact. He was upset about it and all of his friends thought he was crazy but he was into this stuff. How did you get involved with WRA then? Was this only a job or did you have some passion around the environment?

For me, there are two threads. One is my professional background and one is my industry background. My professional background is the thing that brought me to WRA. I’ve been in administration at various levels progressively through my career. That’s the common thread but I’ve moved industries a lot. It started in for-profit education in the earlier part of my career in fairly low-level stuff. I moved up the ranks over time and I ended up at a federal school program, Job Corps. There’s a campus out here in the Bay Area on Treasure Island and I worked there for six years. I moved up to administration management. I wanted to get out of that industry. It’s its own industry so I went to work for an EdTech company, which was the thing to do in the Bay Area. I did that for a couple of years.

SIC 132 | WRA Environmental Consultants
WRA Environmental Consultants: One of the things that are big at WRA is the personal relationships. It almost exceeds the technical nature of the work.

 

There was this education theme to it but what was mattering, there was the progressive increase of responsibilities around admin and operations. I left that company and went to work for a consulting firm that we had worked with as clients. I went to work for the firm as an employee and as the Director of Operations. That’s where I got started in professional services. I spent a couple of years there and was introduced to WRA at the right time in my career and where they were as a company. I met with the leadership team at the time. I hit it off with them and have been there ever since. It’s still new.

Would EdTech cover the Khan Academy? Would that fall under education technology?

Yes.

We had the COO of the Khan Academy on as a guest on the podcast as well. I was at the TED Conference when Sal launched the Khan Academy to the world. I remember Tim Draper stood up and he walked out into the hallway. He called his school that his kids were at and he said, “If we don’t start using the Khan Academy inside of our school, I’m pulling my kids and I’m pulling funding.” I’m like, “I liked that guy’s talk.” I thought it was cool. I didn’t jump all over it like that. It was neat. What were your first 90 days like at WRA?

I spent a ton of time getting to know people in my first 90 days. It’s about a 90-person company and in my first 90 days, I spent twenty plus hours interviewing staff about an hour each. Some of that involved a bit of travel so it was half my job for the first 90 days was meeting with people and picking their brains. I had a series of questions. I roughly followed The First 90 Days book and went through some questions from there. I had a point for point list of things that I wanted to cover with each person and synthesize a lot of that to get an understanding of the company. One of the things that are big at WRA is the personal relationships of the people that work there.

It’s clearly the top three reasons that people love working there. It almost exceeds the technical nature of the workers working in the environment. Even though all of our people are scientists and environmentalists, the relationships that they have are still neck and neck. It’s the top reason that they love working there so it was made clear to me before I even started. I invested a lot in getting to know those folks. There was a lot of transition too, but not a lot of crossover with my predecessor. There was a hit the ground running on a fast-moving sidewalk kind of thing trying to figure out how things were running when I got there and trying to figure out how they needed to change. I’m trying to balance the desire to change things quickly while also taking it a little steady. That I would say has been my main challenge.

I’m curious, how did you socialize the fact that you were going to spend so much of your time in that first period with the leadership team? How did you get them to buy into the fact that you’re going to be spending twenty hours a week talking to people and not doing anything?

Because it was so clear to our CEO, Geoff Smick. He had been there for years. He came up through the company, so this was not simply an understanding. It was a firsthand experience for him of how important the relationships are at the company and how meaningful it is. A lot of people have been there for a long time. It was not necessarily something I had to pitch and get anybody to buy into. It was more recognition of what their expectations were and what their hopes were.

There’s a little bit of history. The company was growing. Let me back up a little bit on the story. For many years, the company was between 10 and 40 people for the majority of that time. In the last few years, we essentially doubled in size. In the Bay Area, people talk about scaling and that thing. It’s not exactly that level of growth but it was enough that the people that had been there for ten plus years felt that it had done a 180-degree turn from being what they loved and knew their whole career. There’s a good mix of people that are in the intermediate stage where they had been there through that transition but liked the company as it was.

Nobody was looking for a turnaround when I got there but there were some real challenges in operations and some real issues, and they were more related to personal connection and the people centricity that you mentioned in my intro there. That was the thing that clicked when I met with Geoff and the leadership team in interviews. That was the secret ingredient to our connection. It was my understanding of how valuable those relationships are matched what they were suffering from.

Why did the organization grow? Was it growing in terms of the markets that you were operating in or was it different products that you were getting involved in?

I’m going to toot our own horn here. WRA has an exceptional relationship. We do good work and we have good relationships with people long-term. Over time, that becomes more and more valuable as a company and we’re able to organically grow by virtue of people calling us up asking us to help them out and work with them. Over time, we’ve been able to add more and more people to the company. Environmental consulting is also an interesting industry. There are a lot of specialties and a lot of companies that do one thing.

To do a project, you might need to work with 2, 3 or 4 companies and over time, if you’re doing enough of that work, you can add people to staff and bring that work in-house. That was one of the most shocking things for me culturally is to see the diversity of services that we offer and how much specialization each person has. Over time, by virtue of pushing out a little bit, we’re able to bring people in and expand even further.

Who are your customers? Is it the private businesses or is it government or is it a bit of both?

It’s a mix of municipalities, private investors and some real estate development. We work with lawyers quite a bit when they’re dealing with land deals and a network of people where sometimes that’s our entree into projects where they’re representing clients that are trying to do development efforts. This is an oddball. We got a call about someone who wants to build a home that will be essentially invisible through technology and they want to understand. It’s a weird project but there’s a representative of that person. They want to understand the environmental impact of that type of project. I don’t know if we’ll do that project.

A cool project that’s representative of municipalities is York Creek up in Wine Country, north of the Bay Area here. There’s a hundred or more year old dam there that is not top-notch engineering. The silt from the dam has been affecting the habitat running downstream and affecting the trout population and that kind of thing. That’s a municipal effort to upgrade that dam to restore the quality of that waterway through a premium area of the state. It’s not recreational, necessarily, it’s to bring it back to a natural habitat. That’s an exciting restoration project for us.

This is going to show how Canadian I am but when you said there was a dam I was like, “A beaver dam.” I didn’t even think of a human-made dam. All I switched to and all I can see was these hundreds of beaver dams that my grandfather would be showing me over my time out in the bush with him, which is completely bizarre. With the transition from the predecessor over to you, did you ever have to unwind any of the projects or completely turn people in 180 degrees?

I wouldn’t say unwind. I didn’t dismantle things. The entry point for me into the company was this moment in the company’s history where the company was essentially homegrown. It’s predominantly scientists with a background in environmental sciences, PhDs, Master’s degrees, biologists, botanists, and that kind of thing. Over time, as the company grew, a lot more of the management functions of the company were taken on by people with those sorts of backgrounds. The company had gotten to a scale that was no longer sustainable.

My predecessor had a science background. He’s excellent with clients’ fieldwork and that kind of thing but the scope of operational demand for the company was too great to be able to manage both arenas simultaneously. It probably should have changed many years ago. They tried their best and did a lot of hard work to grow the company and keep it together but it got to a point where we needed to separate those two things out. It wasn’t so much about dismantling things or shutting things down. It was trying to get organized around things and building structures that would be able to take us to the next 100 people.

It’s interesting that you mentioned that there was some change from 50 to 90. I talked to somebody, and they said that the defined transition points in a company are the ones and threes. From 1 peer person to 3 from 3 to 10, 10 to 30, 30 to 100 and 100 to 300. Ninety is in that stage where politics starts to creep in a little bit. There are some people showing up and you’re not quite sure what their name is. You know which business area they work in but you don’t know their name or anything about them. Was there any politics starting in the business when you were there or is there any now, the kind that’s jockeying for positions?

Prior to my arrival, the company went through about 1.5-year reflection process. I worked with a consultant to do an organizational assessment and took a look at what was working well and what was not going well. There was a restructuring that occurred six months or so before I arrived and that is what prompted the position to be changed to become available for me. That’s when the recruiting started. What also happened is that the company had been organized around technical function. There was a huge misbalance across the size of teams. Also, some teams were five, six times larger than other teams. Long story short, there’s a restructuring to move towards smaller units and we call them project delivery teams that are a little bit more cross-functional. There are a couple of teams that are more specialized on purpose.

I would say that it was not highly politicized or highly political when I got there. The dust was settling on that change and people were figuring out what it means to be in those new roles. Some people had become team leaders who were not prior and some people had stopped being team leaders who were prior. There was a little bit of an interesting shift there. By the time I arrived, that transition had pretty much occurred. My role was the last role to change. Also, concurrently, the CFO was retiring shortly after I arrived. There’s a new VP of finance as well. Two out of four of the executive team switched over in the same quarter.

SIC 132 | WRA Environmental Consultants
WRA Environmental Consultants: The name of the game right now is slowing things down. It has been tough to figure out what is needed to be done differently.

 

That’s a lot of change at the executive team level at the same time. Did it make people nervous?

I don’t know that people felt nervous about the change. There has been some anxiety about the impact of processes and procedures and how things work. There’s been a lot of disruption to that because there’s a little transition between those two roles switching over. This is a silver lining or a funny way to spin a positive out of a negative. Thankfully, Coronavirus hit about 2 or 3 months later and all sense of normalcy went out the window.

We don’t have a strong sense of baseline of what things could be like if there wasn’t so much transition. That has multiplied the stress of any organizational change. Meaning we’re already experiencing so much external change in how we work and what it’s like to be a person in the world that any changes within the company multiplied the level of anxiety and tension that it creates. The name of the game right now is slowing things down and that’s been a little tough because I came in wanting to figure out what we were going to do differently, get the lay of the land, and then start putting together plans and executing. I had to take a step back.

What about the whole COVID timing have you had to adopt? You said slowing down. Were you guys a location-based business? Are you now remote? Were you partially remote before or fully remote? Where were you on that?

We’ve been based in San Rafael, which is north of the Golden Gate Bridge. A while back, we started branching out into Emeryville which is East Bay, Oakland area and then in Petaluma, which is about an hour north of that area. We had people that were commuting into San Rafael. Once we got to a certain size, we opened up offices that were further out from that office. We started attracting more people in those regions as well. We started becoming a multi geographic company. We also opened a San Diego office. We had become accustomed to the fact that we didn’t all work in one building, which was helpful.

In the few months that I was there, I was doing that as much as I could while also trying to take the time to get to know people but there was a lot of technology debt. We got lucky in that. By the end of February 2020, which was about five months after I started, we had implemented Slack as a chat system. We had replaced an older video conferencing system with Zoom. The old one was dysfunctional. We couldn’t do video conference meetings successfully. If you weren’t in the room, you were suffering. We also switched over to a commercial cloud file system instead of an in-house system which was helpful because we don’t have people maintaining things in-house right now. We finished all of that weeks before shelter-in-place started hitting. The timing was remarkable.

The point of what I was saying is that we had our foot in the door for distributed teams, but we weren’t thinking how do you do that well. We got the technology infrastructure. What Coronavirus has done is put us on the trajectory of what it means to be distributed long-term. How distributed? How do we shift our interactions and our processes to not accommodate that but to capitalize on it? That’s the question now.

With the multiple locations you were in or multiple cities that you started expanding into, was that as a result of trying to compete for talent in the Bay Area? Was it that you were finding a certain talent and that moved you into other zones? What was the reasoning for that, originally?

Before I answer, I’m reverse engineering and understanding something that was happening in the five years prior to my arrival. I might have this a little off. My view of it is that the tech industry has particularly disproportionate salaries. In what you might call traditional industry, sometimes people are making lower-end and sometimes higher-end but it’s not competitive and relative to the tech industry. There’s not a lot of crossover for people switching between the industries. When it comes to real estate, that’s where you see it.

What we started seeing is that people were moving a little bit further and further away. Somebody might have started working for the company renting an apartment in San Francisco but when they bought a house, they moved the other direction or moved inland and things like that. Some people lived out in the country and didn’t mind commuting and they did that for a long time. That got harder also. What would have been a 45-minute commute is now an hour and fifteen-minute commute.

It no longer works.

Once we opened those offices, we saw people moving to those areas more readily and we were able to attract people more readily into those areas. For instance, when I first got introduced to the company in San Rafael, I first thought, “That’s going to be a little rough for me.” That was my initial thought, thinking about that. Emeryville is down the street from me and that made a huge difference in the initial entry in thinking about the company.

You’ve lived in the Bay Area for years. You’ve got some experience working around this. How do you compete with companies that are prepared to throw an extra zero on the salary with people, maybe not an extra zero but they’re paying twice or 50% more than the market? When you’re not in the tech space or even if you are, how do you compete and attract talent without cutting a bigger check?

We don’t directly compete because of the industry we’re in. I don’t know of a single person with the type of educational background that the majority of our company has that work in the tech industry. The tech industry hasn’t touched the environment much. Where it starts to get a little bit more competitive is with what you might call back-office people or the operations people like me and a little bit more general.

Like IT, there are a couple of computer people or some marketing people or operations people, generalists. How do you compete for those people?

It’s a mixed bag. For me, when I was in the tech industry, I was at a fairly junior level. One thing I noticed about the tech industry is that they don’t value management experience if it’s not in the tech industry. The equivalent in the tech industry is much more junior to what it would be outside of that industry, which is understandable but a little strange. For me, there’s much more of a human side to it. For instance, if you’re talking to someone who’s in a generalist role in the tech industry, they’re going to be experiencing a constant grind to exponentially grow. What I experienced was the opposite.

I started at a company that was on the upward trajectory of thriving. By the time I left, they were on a downward trajectory of shrinking. What I experienced was a year of building systems and then a year and a half of breaking those systems down into smaller modules that could be handled by fewer people with less demand. That was an ungratifying experience. There’s this anxiety that I correlate to the tech industry. I want to be a little careful about what I say here because I don’t want to be overly negative. It’s easy not to like the tech industry. If you’ve worked in it, it’s also easy to say, “I don’t want to do that again.” If you haven’t worked in it, it’s easy to say, “I never want to work in that industry at all,” even though they’re paying 50%, 60% more.

First of all, marketing in our industry is specialized. It’s not marketing in the sense of trying to acquire a million new users a month. It’s in the sense of trying to build meaningful relationships with people in an industry that is extremely technical and specialized. There’s a niche to that. The VP of marketing is in that industry and has a background in that. It’s a perfect role for Liz Agraz. Our VP of finance has a construction background. We’re in the AEC industry, Architecture, Engineering and Construction. There’s a whole industry of people that have a background in that. They have affiliation with that, they understand it and it makes sense to them and that’s their chosen industry.

I’m a little bit atypical. I switch industries but I stay in the same function. Our VP of finance comes from the construction industry. For her, this was a smooth transition. Also, to answer that question, to go a little bit more specifically, we, as a company, have a lovely offering in the sense that we are a wonderful company to work in. We’ve been talking a lot about relationships and people. I feel like I had put on my PR hat here for a second. It’s true to answer your question there. I could tell immediately when I sat down to meet with our CEO that I was having a humane personal conversation with somebody who had a lot of passion about the business and the people that he was responsible for. It was almost a physical sensation of understanding that emotion in that perspective. That’s attractive to people that are used to that grind and that impersonable metric-centered way of operating and build fast, grow, sell, tear it down, leave. That’s not what people at WRA are interested in doing. They’re looking for a long-term and sustainable ways of living.

It is one of the reasons why people are attracted to a culture is the leader. I want to go back to when you were joining the company and you did that time block of interviewing staff. Were there a couple of specific questions or themes that you focused on when you were doing that, that you got the biggest bang for your buck on?

I wish I could remember the specific questions. I haven’t written it down. I haven’t looked at them for a few months. First of all, I had a formal organizational assessment to read before I even started. I understood the analytical, synthesized viewpoint of what was going well and what was not going well. What I was looking for is understanding what people’s individual experiences were working there. I wanted to know what was working well for them, what was frustrating for them, what their hopes were for the company, where they saw themselves going forward and what they wanted me to be thinking about as I got my feet on the ground.

I had some specific questions and I had this dual focus of, “I want to get this lay of the land through this series of questions and a secondary dual focus of getting to know people.” Looking back on it, the primary benefit of that time was getting to know people. It’s almost irrelevant at this point what I ask them. It’s the fact that I spent time with people. Just to clarify, too. I interviewed about twenty people, but it felt like a lot because I was onboarding with so much. That firehose spraying me in the face. I’m trying to sit down quietly with somebody 3 to 4 times a week for an hour of just focused conversation time. That was my primary focus, even though it wasn’t necessarily the majority of my time, but it was the thing that everything else was revolving around.

SIC 132 | WRA Environmental Consultants
WRA Environmental Consultants: Work on the critical few things first. Focus on figuring out what the next step is, and let the rest wait.

 

You mentioned the book, The First 90 Days. I was exposed to that a couple of decades ago as well and it seems to still be that solid book on transition. Was there a time where you had some ideas from these discussions where you wanted to execute and you had to pull back? How did you pull back from executing too soon on some of those ideas?

I would say that I’m in this place where I’m reflecting on my first year. I would say that I did not quite get the lesson to pull back. I started at the end of September of 2019 and I was trying to revise a bonus plan, evaluation process and compensation strategy for the next year. That was foolish and overly ambitious. The reason was that it was some of the top items that people had shared that they were concerned with. One of the things I had to grapple with a little bit was how much of this is me trying to do good by the company versus how much of this is me trying to prove myself to people that I don’t need to prove myself to.

I was real with myself about that, that my motive was that I saw a great opportunity to serve people better and help them have an experience that they not only needed but knew that they needed and felt was detracting from their ability to be at their fullest at work. There was this ambiguity around what it meant to promote to the company. Ambiguity around, “We’re at the same level, but I’m so much more experienced than her or him.”

These questions were getting in the way. You might call that the political stuff that you asked me about. It was just less relevant to me directly. I had a real desire to address those things and it wasn’t possible. When Coronavirus hit, we shifted gears radically to crisis management. As we’re leveling out a little bit with Coronavirus, I’ve been resuming my attention to that stuff but have to recognize that people don’t want it to change that fast. They want it to change slowly, especially on top of all of the stress and anxiety.

I love that you are introspective enough to understand whether you’re doing it for the good of the company or to prove yourself and build relationships with people. It’s introspective to think about it at that level. In terms of people and your direct reports, how do you work, lead, manage and get results through them? Do you have any thoughts or systems around that?

I have three realms of responsibility. In terms of direct reports, there’s the internal operations of the company, then there’s the client-facing operations. There is executive team strategy and that thing. To your question, the first two are the most relevant. The internal operations is my wheelhouse or that’s my platform for everything. Purchasing, admin facilities, reception, technology and IT administration, all of that nuts and bolts stuff. I have a small team of people there. There was a little bit of restructuring there to orient the team towards more of a distributed perspective rather than a facility-centric perspective. That was an improvement when I started.

It’s a fairly junior team relative to the other people that I work with, but that’s my expertise. What I do there is that I guide them through some essential processes for the company, and then I spend a lot of time exploring personal development and leadership development principles with them. I’m the team leader of that group, but they’re a standalone group too. I use that team to pilot and test a lot of the things that I want to roll out to the rest of the company. It’s a nice environment. They can handle the constant tinkering and experimenting because they’re not doing client-facing work.

We don’t want to be trying things out all the time on client projects, but we try on internal projects. The other group is predominantly what we call project delivery teams. That’s eight-team leaders and each manages a team of 5 to 10 people. We have an interesting relationship with those folks because they’re deep technical experts in their fields, of which I am not even a novice and have no expectations of becoming an expert in their fields. We have a personal relationship rather than a functional relationship in the sense that I am much like a service leader in that. I’m there to enable them to be successful as much as possible.

How do you do that? How do you enable them? The interesting conversation around when you get to a certain level or certain size company are often leaving people that have deep functional expertise more than any of us ever will. How do you work with them? Is it growing, aligning, removing obstacles or supporting them?

I’d say there are three things. I’ll go in order of simplicity to complexity. The first one is if there are operational needs. There are things that are getting in the way or little process changes or glitches in the system that they need. We have a monthly invoicing cycle with clients and there are always some questions around late invoices. What’s going on with this client or that client? I smooth out that process with them a little bit and set up a simple way to keep them ahead of the curve of questions that will be asked about where they’re at with their clients and little things like that.

I can deploy the internal operations team to smooth things out, so that’s used to be more facility-related things. Now, it’s more technology-related things. If there are glitches or something breaks, I deploy the operations team there. The thing that I am spending most of the time with though is people management and helping team leaders to navigate some of the challenges of trying to grow their teams. I manage the team’s anxiety through Coronavirus and being distributed and address specific challenges. I operate in a more abstract relational space.

Our CEO is a technical person who’s risen through the ranks to be the CEO, but he understands the business development side and the delivery side. What ends up happening a lot with those team leaders is that they’ll work with him on a specific project and he’ll have a certain level of oversight or responsibility on a handful of projects, even now because he’s cultivated those relationships. He’s much like a business development centric CEO and I’m much like a people and systems centric COO. The third one is what I would call systems and that’s the one that I’ve been talking about mostly here.

I’m frustrated with this because I have a vision in my head of a 90-degree turn on how our systems work from ERP project management, what tools we use, what our weekly, monthly, quarterly cadence is of all that client-facing work and what our people development programs look like. It’s the usual issue of bandwidth and resourcing. The ideas far exceed the capacity to execute. What we’ve been talking about for most of the day to day too is trying to pace all of that change appropriately with people’s tolerance for change and the stress that comes from it. I’m in the business of trying to figure out what the best first next step is and letting the rest wait because it’s too much to take on all at one time.

It’s interesting you go back to working on the critical few things versus the important many. I like that you mentioned slowing things down. How about your own growth as a leader? Where have you had to work on yourself and your growth and skills over the years the most?

I would say the most important one is arrogance and humility, particularly coming into the new company. I had to be mindful that my motivation for the speed at which I wanted to operate was from a service mindset, not a self-centered, trying to earn credit mindset and that kind of thing. That manifests in a lot of small ways too. One of the reasons why it’s taken me so long to recognize the need to be more deliberate in our organizational change is that I feel strongly that it will be better for everybody once we are able to make more changes. I have to set aside my ideas about what we need and listen to people more about what they want.

I feel strongly that our people are our primary asset. Everybody would agree with that statement, but this is where the rubber meets the road. Am I going to listen to them and hear what they’re saying about what they need and why they need it? Am I going to change my perspective and intentions and how I execute going forward based on that? This interview is an interesting transition point for me because I clearly have that realization now, but I have not yet responded in terms of laying out what the roadmap is going to look like accordingly. I’m coming out of the crisis mode of Coronavirus and deep in that realization, but now I’m at the inflection point of moving into the next quarter, the next year of how I am going to play that out.

It sounds like you’ve been deep in situational leadership versus a project rollout or plan rollout as well. If we were to go back to you as a 21-year-old self, what advice would you give yourself leaving university that maybe you know to be true now, but you wished you’d known back then?

I spent the majority of my career thinking that everybody else figured it out way before me and I have to figure out a way to catch up. That was a waste of energy and a waste of time, that thing of proving oneself. What was more powerful is tapping into the thing that I’m most motivated by and I’m most passionate about and delivering that. That’s the thing that’s far more powerful than trying to meet some outside expectation. I’ve spent way too much time trying to figure out what I thought other people wanted of me and less time going inside and figuring out what I had to offer and bringing that to fruition.

We had a COO Alliance event back in February of 2020 and one of our members pulled me aside at the break and he said, “I’m running this 100-person company and I’ve been the second-in-command there for about four years. I feel like a fraud because I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m trying to figure this out as I go all the time.” I went back in after the break and I asked him, “Can I mention that to the group?” He’s like, “Yeah, for sure.” I mentioned to the group and I said, “Just a quick show of hands. Who here feels like a fraud or that they’re figuring it out as they go?” Every single hand went up. You could just see Brian like, “I thought I was the only one.” I’m like, “None of us got this crap figured out.” Every day, it’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done.

There are some lessons I learned from that. My brother-in-law is very successful professionally. Before I had figured this out, I was talking to him and I said, “I’m thinking of writing this book where I interview successful people.” I was thinking professionally successful. I was narrow-focused on that. I was like, “I was thinking of having a set of questions about how they got to where they’re at.” He’s like, “That’s a silly idea. It’s mostly luck.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “You’ve got to be able to do what’s available, but whether you get the opportunity, it’s a lot more to do with luck.”

I don’t fully agree with that statement, but when he said it, it caused me to question that. I think there is a lot of privilege and background that influences what manifests as “luck.” It opened my eyes to the idea that I was on a bit more of a roller coaster where the track wasn’t defined and I was along for the ride. I needed to enjoy it rather than thinking that there was some course charted for me that I needed to try to stay on. The other thing that it opened up for me was when I went to work at that tech company, I had spent six years in a federal education system, which is not modern. It’s a great program, but not at all contemporary.

I went into that organization with real fear and nervousness about whether I could hack it. I spent a lot of time comparing myself to other people thinking, “These people know a lot of stuff. I don’t know any.” They were all smart people and impressive people. Over time, what I realized is that, particularly in the tech industry, in general, they’re holding everything together with duct tape and growing it as quickly as they can making sure it doesn’t break under everybody’s hands. When I realized that, I was like, “That’s how most of the world is operating.”

I was sitting in the boardroom of the CEO of Sprint and I was coaching him, Marcelo Claure. He sold his first company for over $1 billion. He was appointed as the CEO of Sprint by the founder of SoftBank. Marcelo turned to me and he goes, “When will people no longer be the issue?” I started laughing and I’m like, “You’re the 82nd largest company in the United States. They’re always going to be the issue. We’re all bumping our heads.” Miles Gullingsrud, the Vice President of Operations for WRA Environmental Consultants. Thank you for sharing with us on the show. I appreciate the time.

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About Miles Gullingsrud

SIC 132 | WRA Environmental ConsultantsMiles has more than 15 years of experience leading critical operational support including project delivery, technology, people, and culture. With a professional background in administration, finance, and technology, Miles brings a blended experience of organizational process and operational delivery.

Miles’ background in operations ranges from large-scale, procedural companies, to early stage startup environments. The common thread in his work in both types of organizations is a high level of people centricity, and building systems to support people in their work. 

Miles earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California, Riverside and is a certified project manager. He is active in a number of professional organizations including the ManKind Project, a nonprofit training organization that offers life-changing experiential training for men, and The Operators Guild, a national organization for senior level operators to share expertise and best practices.

Miles lives in Oakland with his wife and three year-old daughter. His favorite activities are cooking and playing music — guitar, bass, drums, piano, and vocals.

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