Our guest today is a member of the COO Alliance and 34 Strong’s Co-Founder and COO, Darren Virassammy.
As the co-founder of 34 Strong, TEDx speaker, and someone who is obsessed with seeking personal greatness through connection with nature, Darren is uniquely positioned to help those in corporate America and individuals reach the potential they desire.
Darren works hard on his own personal development through his hobbies, passions and personal life. As a husband, father, avid bassist and black belt, he believes down-time is just as important as work time.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- The effects of being disengaged in work
- The loop effect of workplace engagement and overall happiness and well being
- Lessons Darren learned from his short time teaching in college
- How to onboard a veteran into an entrepreneurial organization
- What are the warning signs of when a culture goes too far
Connect with Darren Virassammy: LinkedIn
34 Strong – https://34strong.com
The Honor Foundation – https://www.honor.org/
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Our guest is 34 Strong’s Cofounder and COO, Darren Virassammy. As the Cofounder of 34 Strong, TEDx speaker, and someone who’s obsessed with seeking personal greatness through connection with nature, Darren is uniquely positioned to help those in Corporate America and individuals reach the potential they desire. Darren works hard on his own personal development through his hobbies, passions, and personal life. As a father, husband, avid bassist, and black belt, he believes downtime is just as important as work time. Amazingly, this is actually the very first in-person live podcast interview I’ve done. Darren and I are sitting in Barbados doing this interview. Darren, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much, Cameron. It’s great to be here.
I’m looking forward to this. You and I got to know each other through the COO Alliance. When I said I was coming to Barbados, we decided to get together. We got together for dinner, and I met your wife and you’ve met my fiancÃ©, and got to learn a little bit more about you. Tell me a little bit more about, first off, what 34 Strong is and how you got involved in that, and then I’m going to go back into your career a little bit and we’ll go from there.
34 Strong, what we do is we focus on creating great places to work just across the United States, predominantly. We work through creating strengths-based organizations. For those of you that are familiar with the Clifton StrengthsFinder Assessment, that’s one of the tools that we use as a starting point. We get into creating organizations that focus on what’s right with people that’s strength-based focused, and then also how to create cultures of engagement where employees are actually engaged in what they’re doing, and how to actually sustain that for the long-term.
The other question that you asked was about my journey into 34 Strong. The fascinating part about that, Cameron, is my journey was born from being actively disengaged in work. I was in a position where I felt the pain of being an employee that had checked out. It was fascinating. Right around the time, my daughter was born. My daughter was born in 2012. That December, my wife, my daughter, and I took our first family trip together, just the three of us. My daughter was about four months old. We went to the Big Island of Hawaii.
One morning, she was laying on my lap after we took a walk. I just took a sip of coffee, and then she laughed out loud for the first time. That was one of the most amazing and terrifying experiences of my life. The reason it was amazing was obviously because she was laughing out loud for the first time, which was truly epic. I’m like, “That’s so cool. She’s got all this potential. She’s going to do all these things.” It was terrifying because in that moment, I realized this girl has all this potential. I started thinking she’s going to walk, talk, play soccer, she’s going to do all these things. Then, I had to look in the mirror and say, “What happened to my potential? What am I doing?”
I’m living a life and here I am with the two most important people in my life, my wife and my daughter. Yet, I was commuting a hundred miles one way to my job, four days a week. I’d be leaving at 5:00, 5:30 in the morning, getting home at night and she’s just getting down from bed. I’m like, “This is no way to live.”
It was fascinating because I think this actually happens to a lot of people. I had gotten really good at something I really didn’t like. I was a Senior Project Manager for a commercial construction company in the Bay Area in California. I got promoted, I moved up through the ranks, but I did not love the work that I was doing. It was not engaging at all. I was actually starting to disengage in that role. I came back from that trip and I knew something had to change.
I was teaching at a local college in the Sacramento region at that time, just one class. It’s just basics of business to introductory college students. I really have come to believe in divine timing more and more. What happened, I came back from that trip, and the college told me, “We have a lot more classes you could teach. We’ve had some transitions. You can come on board as a full-time instructor, and we’ll pay you about 40% of what you’re currently making.” Crazy, old me said, “Yes, I’ll do it.”
I cut a deal to stay on with the project management gig to transition out of that, help hire my replacement. We were going through a software rollout. I knew that I wanted to do something different than what I was doing. Before I knew it, within two months of that period, a mutual friend of my business partner and myself actually said, “You two should sit down and have coffee together. I think that you’re similar enough and yet different enough where you can be aligned.” He was thinking of 34 Strong. He had gone through the Gallup certification process to become a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach. We sat down, we had coffee, and the rest is history. That was back in 2013.
When you were so actively disengaged at work and doing that crazy long commute, it’s hard for me to picture you as disengaged. You’re one of the most engaged, energetic, and positive. I’ve only been in Barbados, this trip, for three days, and I saw you at the gym two days in a row. You weren’t at the gym, you were destroying the gym. You crushed that place. Were you disengaged in your personal life as well, or were you living a good personal life but disengaged at work?
I think I was unintentionally disengaged in my personal life. That’s such a profound question. Nobody has ever asked me that.
I wonder if the work was starting to bleed in and hurt you personally as well.
If I didn’t have that moment with my daughter, that’s exactly the path that I was headed on, which is why it was so terrifying for me because I looked at the path that I was on. It’s like if an airplane’s off course by a degree. It’s taken off from New York heading to San Francisco, and it’s one degree off to the South. Over the course of the first 60 miles, it’s barely noticeable. If you travel the whole distance, you’re 500 miles off course or something like that over that distance, and that’s massive. On a day-to-day basis, you don’t realize it. You don’t realize the tax that you’re actually paying is your family’s paying that tax. That’s what was going on. I don’t think I realized it at the time.
I was wondering if your daughter’s laugh, if you were like, “If she’s happy, and why am I not happy?” I wonder if that was the wake-up call.
It was the fact that I’ve grown over the years. I feel like I’m a pretty resilient person, which is cool, but I think sometimes you can put on this cloak of resiliency, which sometimes is a bunch of BS. We just put it on and say, “Just rise up, just deal with it,” then we actually don’t deal with it. I’ve grown into a place in the construction world. I would say all of us would describe it as you would just armor up. You just go into the day because you knew that in the way that the dynamics were in that respective space. It was in commercial construction. There was always this delicate balance between architect, general contractor, and then the client, and who’s actually responsible because nobody wanted to get stuck with the cost of the mistakes. You were constantly playing the game of CYA, Cover Your Ass, and that just got exhausting.
How many years were you there?
In that company, I was there for about five years. My total time in construction before starting 34 Strong was about ten years. I was in residential for about half that time, and then in commercial. They were very different experiences.
What do you think you pulled from those experiences that you still use now? What were the skills that you started to develop back there? As much as you may have hated the job or you were dying inside, where do you think you grew, and what did you pull from those?
I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for those experiences. Let me say that in the world of the two elements of construction I had, the residential side and the commercial side, I had some of the absolute best teams that I’ve ever worked on in my life, where I saw how things come together, and how you’re able to get things done over the long haul when you’re on a community and you’re building out a project of homes. It was in tract housing that I had started in fresh out of college. When we got that working and people were listening and respecting each other, it was like clockwork. We had targets and we were just blown past them because our team was so aligned.
On the flip side, I was able to see exactly the kind of leader that I never wanted to be, and create the emotional connection. When we talk about leadership and people growing into managers, sometimes, as you know, you’ve got to invest in your leaders of course. There are some people that get into leadership roles reluctantly, but they don’t think sometimes necessarily of the toll. The power that a manager has over another person’s life and the emotional baggage that it carries.
I remember as a 23-year-old, a year out of college going into a job on the residential side, I was on a team that was amazing, and then I got transferred to another team. My boss on the second team within the company, he was such a hard-nose and so challenging to deal with. He made everybody feel like crap. I remember I was healthy. I come home, and I’d be leaving the job site, driving away in my truck and thinking, “God,” just miserable because I had to leave and I knew I’d come back. Three days a week in the middle of the night, I didn’t drink much, didn’t do drugs, I’d wake up at 2:00 in the morning and I’d throw up. That went on for about 4 or 5 months. I never had any gastro issues or anything. I never have since, and that was happening.
That toll and those physical elements of what that felt like and that awakening that happened probably about 8, 9 years later with my daughter, I don’t look at those rough experiences as something that I’m upset about. I’m thankful because it’s made it very clear in the work that we’re doing, what we’re transitioning, and when we can see a manager starts to shift the ripple that that has to a parent going home, being a better mom, a better dad, a better student in their community. That’s why I do the work that I do, and that’s why my business partner, Brandon Miller and I we started 34 Strong. It wasn’t just for the cultural transformations, it was for the ripple effect for the next generation.
I don’t think I’ve even had any of our guests on the show talk about the ripple effects that the business world has on people’s personal relationships and lives. I’ve talked about really caring about people and then they’ll care more at work, but I’ve never heard people talk about how the business can send those negative or positive ripples back into the workplace. Do you teach your leaders and employees about that? Do you talk about that or is that something that’s more internal for you?
This is at the core of what we actually explain. I think Gallup has found that at least 70% of an employee’s engagement in their work is tied directly to their management. Who you put in your manager roles, your productivity, your profitability is going to ride or die by that. By default, that engagement is going to ripple into how they show up at home. When they’re able to go home and be better versions of themselves at home, and they’re more engaged in their family or their community, with their loved ones, guess what they bring back into the office? It comes right back.
Gallup has a lot more of the data and some of the statistics on that, but there is basically a loop effect between workplace engagement and overall happiness and wellbeing in life. It’s massive. When we’re in a state where we’re feeling a level of engagement and happiness, it’s not a function of, “People are going to love their job every day.” I want to be pretty clear on that. We step into some really treacherous situations, and it’s called work for a reason. Sometimes it’s rough, but when the teams are aligned, you have the confidence that you can pull through, and we have to invest in our wellness and happiness and they are correlated. It matters.
You have that power over people and it ripples over into their health. There was some study years ago that was done about heart attacks on Monday mornings. People are more likely to have a heart attack on a Monday morning because of the Sunday night scaries that they have. You can measure people on a biological level and their chemistry. You start seeing everything starting to shift on Sunday for the wave going into Monday, and people are more likely to have a heart attack. There’s a heart attack spike, and it ties in right to that.
My ex-wife and I were talking about this many years ago. I was probably 4 or 5 years into 1-800-GOT-JUNK, and I think it was a Monday morning, and I was super excited getting ready to work. She was like, “You’re so lucky. You love what you do.” I said, “What do you mean?” She goes, “Most people don’t like their jobs.” I was like, “What do you mean?” It didn’t even make sense to me because I’ve been so happy in my career for so long.
She talked about 3 or 4 of her friends who actually hated their careers. I realized that I never heard them talking about it. I didn’t realize how hard it is for people on that. I guess I’ve just been super fortunate. The work that you’re doing on building these company cultures, and what we’re going to talk about 34 Strong is critical. I want to go back and ask one more of your learning questions, and then we’ll talk more about what you’re doing at 34 Strong. What lessons did you pull from the college teaching side of things or when you were teaching, even though it was only for a few months? Was there anything you gleaned from that experience because that’s really rare?
I actually did that for more than a few months. It was a crazy period of life, Cameron. In 2013, we started 34 Strong. I was doing the college teaching game for that whole year. I was still working about fifteen hours a week with the construction company, and then moonlighting to try and figure out how to build 34 Strong. 34 Strong, a concept was there in 2013, and we formally really launched in late 2013, 2014. I taught for about four years. It was personally so rewarding because it was interesting. Some of the components that we were building in 34 Strong, I was able to actually work with students and test it out in that place.
One of the things that was really powerful for me was we actually had a lot of vets that were coming out of the military, that were going to school, and that were going through the struggle of transitioning into civilian life. One of the hugely rewarding things for me on a personal level was getting to a place with all students, but particularly with the vets coming out of different branches of the US military, foot soldiers, ground soldiers. Some of them were coming out of Special Forces, but getting to a place with many of them where they actually felt like, “I can talk to you.”
Many of them, after 1 quarter or 2 quarters said, “I’ve been really struggling with this. The fact that I feel like I can talk to you, you’ll listen, and you’ll open up some perspective on how to use my relevant experience and strengths that I had maybe when I was in war, when I was on the battlefield, and how to actually apply that in a civilian manner.” Just hitting those switches and show them there are parallels here, “You’re not completely alone,” and letting them know I never served a day in uniform, but I’m willing to listen and go through it.
That told me that I was on the right path with the work that we were doing with 34 Strong because that hit home. From a culture standpoint, it was Heald College at the time, and they had been one of the best workplaces in America in Fortune for multiple years in a row. It had been around since 1861. I experienced that. I saw what a super high-performing team was. My colleague in the Business Department, I’ll never forget working with her, Robin Arthur, absolutely, amazing person. She was like my work wife. We would call ourselves work spouses, but we had each other’s back through course development, course design, different shifts.
I experienced so much there that rippled into what organizations could be. Like you, you’re like, “Monday’s coming, I’m excited to go to work.” I realized that was the model for me at the same time I was in the construction company. This juxtaposition of seeing, “This is what a work can be like,” because I was doing that part-time while I was in the doldrums with construction. I was like, “I could either do something about that and have the chutzpah to go out on my own and take a jump into that, or I could sit on the sidelines.” My business partner and I met. He was built very similarly, had this vision, we sat down, and we really connected on that side.
I’ve got a question on working with vets. I’ll give a basis for my question. You said you’ve never served a day in uniform. I’m Canadian. We don’t generally know people who have served in the military. There’s about 1/10th per capita in Canada or in the military versus the US. We have 1/10th population. It’s about 1 in 100 less people that we would know. I actually don’t even know anyone in Canada who’s ever been in the military, which is really weird.
We don’t have the experience in Canada, at least of having that to come and work for us because it’s like nobody’s in the military. We’re like the Swiss. It’s really weird, but there’s a huge need for this in the US with so many vets coming out. How do you bring a vet successfully into an entrepreneurial organization or into a company? How do you onboard them in a way that you get the best out of them, you honor them, you respect them? Maybe not honoring so much as like, “You’re a vet, we’re proud of the war,” but how do you honor them as a human? What their needs are? What their differences are? Are there any thoughts around that?
I can only speak from my experience in the classroom. I also have done work over the past several years with The Honor Foundation. They’re based in San Diego. They have multiple campuses all across the US and they’re expanding internationally. The Honor Foundation, just to give a little bit of context on what they are, who they are, they have served predominantly the SOF community, so that’s the Special Operations Forces. The bulk of their cohorts, thus far, have been Navy SEALs and the support groups for the Navy SEALs. They have these cohorts that go through and they help them to transition into civilian life.
I’ve worked not directly with those groups, but with the organization itself to help align their culture through scale. It’s a group of many vets. Let’s just put it this way. When I’ve been there with the twenty people, never have I felt so safe in my life. It’s like, “I’m here,” and you’re just with some amazing human beings. What I think is really important is to remove the lens of what is seen on TV. You see these movies of, “They’re a warrior. They’re a soldier. They’ve gone through.” It removes the human elements of who they are and what they are going through.
A dear friend of mine, a gentleman who is up on our foundation, Joe Lara, who really helped to grow their community, and Matt Stevens, who is the CEO over there. Conversations that I’ve had with them individually and then collectively across the board is, “Just remember we’re human too. We have these tight bonds and these tight teams. When somebody gets injured and somebody dies on the battlefield, we still have to go and fight and battle. We hurt, we cry, and we feel it just like everybody else, but when you see what happens on TV, that gets removed.”
When there’s this step, from what I’ve heard from them coming back in, that’s what a struggle can be sometimes, “How do I take my applicable skills of what I have here and translate that and going for it?” On the most human of levels, let’s not forget that these are humans that have seen things that many of us can’t even imagine seeing.
You and your partner were starting off building 34 Strong. He took the CEO role. You took the COO role. How did you decide on what parts of the business to run? How did you guys divide and conquer on that?
It’s fascinating, and I think this was a tell of our partnership earlier along. There was literally no debate about it. It was just as we were mapping and visioning the company, both of us actually came to the same conclusion. I’ve had years of project management experience, systematizing, growing out, scaling for companies from over a decade in construction, and directing a purchasing department. It was very much creating the systems at scale.
He had been more of a solopreneur, an excited visionary going through PASIS, hadn’t necessarily gone through the process of scaling an organization, but brilliant ideas and a complete energizer bunny. He brings so much energy to the table with an idea. Just by talking and hearing him speak, you might have thought, “You should have done something back in 1982.” He’s just literally verbally processing an idea out. I can bring that sometimes, but his level of doing that was so powerful.
When we actually looked at how we showed up and interacted, we realized that was a better title for him. For years, when it was just the two of us and a handful of support staff for our early years, we often operated like co-CEOs. As we’ve grown and scaled, that’s one of the things that I feel like has been important. That’s why when the COO Alliance, and that’s been growing and I’ve always followed your work for years and going through. When I saw that coming up, I said, “I really need to put on my big boy pants now where the company is going towards.”
We’re in a season right now of really defining, “This is what a successful CEO role looks like. This is what a successful COO role looks like.” That’s how we decided that. Just keep this in mind too, we were doing a lot in the earlier years of the delivery, the design, the build of content, and going through. There’s been this journey of letting go of some of the facilitation side that we’ve done, some of the coaching side. You’re a master facilitator coach and all of those pieces, but when you’re in the business chair and you’re operating, you can’t be in that space. That had been in the past. We were the primary economic drivers of the company.
We’ll talk a little bit about some of the growth that you’re getting from the COO Alliance and what you’ve done in your own stuff. I want to go into what the beliefs are at 34 Strong about what makes a great company culture. I’ll just ask that for now. I have a follow-on question that I don’t want to lead you with yet. Tell me what do you believe makes a really strong company culture?
A big part of it starts at the top within alignment. Oftentimes, we’ll hear the lip service and you’ll see it where you want it rippling throughout the organization, but the leaders seem to have their own set of operating principles, their own set of rules. If a company wants to see culture that is strengths-based, where we’re focusing on what’s right with people, seeing a culture where employees are engaged. On Sundays, they’re not generating. Their heart rate is not going up. They’re not feeling uncomfortable about coming to work. They’re not miserable about leaving work because they have to come back.
When they’re at the dinner table and they’re asked, “How was your day at work?” They’re not miserable about that. Or they’re not at the dinner table and their son or their daughter or their wife or husband does something, and it triggers them because of an action that they’d experienced at work. A lot of times the response that we get on that side, that’s not what we want. We’re clear on what we don’t want.
What do we want? We want people to, when they’re asked those questions, they’re smiling. When they’re going home, they’re not just making a living, they’re making a difference. They’re aligned with the fact that their organization and their role ripples into something greater than themselves. What does this look like from a cultural standpoint? When the leaders are aligned, we feel like they’re modeling what they want to have in the culture. They’re messaging it and they’re mirroring it back. When they’re modeling it, they’re modeling exactly what the behaviors look like.
We follow Lencioni’s model of the ideal team player. I think you’re familiar with that. Ideal team players are humble, hungry, and smart. He breaks down what those actually mean. We try to model that as leaders individually and then collectively within the team. If somebody is overreaching on the hunger side, or if we’re as a leadership team moving in a place, are we being a little too hungry and we’re going to run the ship aground. We can check each other on that and have healthy conflict. It’s because healthy organizations and healthy culture is not the absence of conflict. In fact, conflict makes us stronger. It makes us healthier, but we’ve got to model that. We’ve got to message it not only in our own organizations, but the ones that have successfully transitioned where they’re sustaining it.
Our success rates and our case studies that are written on our websites are actually companies that are no longer working with us because they’re standing up on their own, which is what we always want them to do. They’ve written about us and they’ve gone through because it hasn’t been that we’re doing 34 strong. We’ve created a strengths-based organization. We’ve created an engaged organization that’s coming from within. The messaging, this is the part that gets exhausting. It’s important, and I’ve heard this a lot in COO Alliance and when I’ve hung out with a lot of different leaders across the board. I’ve told them that already. I’ve told them what our vision is. I’ve told them these elements, and we’ve got to be a repetition officer. We have to keep repeating that because our teams that we lead might be aware that’s the vision or being an ideal team player, “That’s our vision,” but we’re not messaging it frequently enough.
It’s like going to the gym. If you go to the gym on the 2nd of January and you do nine hours of bicep curls, you’re going to be sore as hell the next day. If you’re like, “I don’t have to work out for the rest of year,” that’s not going to leave any results. It’s the repetition of those pieces. When I talk about mirroring it back, what that means is if I’m working for you, Cameron, and you catch me doing something right, modeling the behavior for instance, what we’d want to see an ideal team player, making a decision, being empowered, you’re going to mirror that back to me. You’re going to show me that’s what I’m talking about. You’re going to catch people doing things right. When those three are flowing, that’s where we start creating the cultures of more of what we like to see. Oprah Winfrey said, “The more wins that you celebrate, the more wins you have to celebrate. It’s catching people doing those things right but it starts with how we model it.”
This is a strange question, and it comes to me because I was on an episode of a podcast called A Little Bit Culty. I was interviewed on when company culture goes too far and becomes more of a cult. You might’ve actually just touched on it a little bit when the company is pushing too hard or when we’re going too fast. When do you think culture goes too far or how do companies misuse it, maybe even not intentionally? It’s a weird question.
That’s a good question. The part about culture that’s fascinating, whether you want it and whether you focus on it intentionally or not, you’re going to have it. You’re going to get it by intention or design, or you’re going to get it by accident. Choose wisely. There’s a notion that we’ve been in rooms in Vistage and rooms of CEOs like, “I don’t have time to focus on culture.” You’ve heard that story as well, “I don’t really have a culture.” That’s your culture. That shows up.
You’re going to get some of those elements either by intention and design, where you have the control, you’re making the investments, or it’s going to show up and it’s going to take on a role that maybe you don’t want to have. Make sure you’re carving that path. Where can it get too culty? Sometimes I’ve seen this where the culture, it seems like we can focus on that above just some of the basic capacity of what the business is actually doing. There has to be an alignment with what the business needs and the overall organizational objective. If not, you can go down the path of creating this great culture. You’ve got to ask the question periodically, “Is this in alignment with our external brand?”
We can think of culture through this lens from a branding perspective. This is the best way I can articulate this. You’ve got your external brand, which is what your customers and the public sees, and then you have your internal brand, which is your culture, your company experience. Those two brands have to actually be in alignment. If those two brands are out of alignment, and you’re saying one thing to your customers, but you’re out of alignment with what’s going on here, or you’re so focused on the internal culture and you’ve created the cultiness of what’s going on. That’s not actually an alignment with your external-facing brand. That will create some serious ripples because your internal culture will be saying, “Why are we doing this here? Should we be doing that?” That can be good if you’re allowing those conversations to take place because those two should be checking and balancing each other.
The analogy I like to use, I think there’s a healthy amount of tension that can exist between those two brands. Think of the Golden Gate Bridge. You’ve been across the California, we’ve all seen it. Cameron, it stands because the cables are tightly pulled to both sides, and that gives it its strength. It’s not because the cables are hanging slack. The cables are pulling in different directions, and that gives rise to the brilliance and the strength of the bridge. If we think of our brand, both of those brands that we have to manage, that they’re the bridge that we have to stand up, but there’s the north side and the south side of the bridge that we have to have to stand up.
It’s going to feel like there’s tension through the questions that we’re asking and it’s actually completely needed. Instead of being conflict diverse or thinking of it that that’s actual conflict, it’s not conflict. It’s making sure that we’re actually evaluating, “Are these in alignment? Are we getting too deep in the culture? Are we forsaking the culture of who we are at our core and the values for just chasing after money, that’s actually terrible business to go after?” That’s where that crossroads actually is.
I want to ask you some more questions about the work that 34 Strong does with clients, but I want to talk to you about some of the work that you’ve done on yourself. You mentioned you joined the COO Alliance because you wanted to put on your big boy pants and grow. What was it that you were looking for in terms of your own growth? Were you cognizant of what it was? Was it just getting into a community to see what’s there, what you can learn? What were you looking for?
I have been just an entrepreneur. It’s interesting, when I’m hanging out with COOs, sometimes I feel like the odd duck, which you’ve talked about as well, because we’re more energetic. We’re both founders of companies, and COOs that aren’t necessarily founders are going through, it’s a totally different vibe. As a founder, as an entrepreneur, I’ve been in the sales chair and the marketing chair. I still do a lot of deal negotiation. I love that stuff.
I wanted to really dig in as 34 Strong is growing and scaling, and has expanded our company to really dig into what are all the things that maybe haven’t hit my radar so I’m not playing catch up. We tripled the size of the company from 2020 through 2021, and we did it. I will confess here, as I’ve done many times before, we did not have the systems in place. Our team was able to rise and we stitched it together with bubble gum and glue sticks and all of the things, and the systems have come a far way.
My goal in joining is starting to awaken what’s the stuff that maybe I’m not even thinking about. There’s a saying, “WIN stands for What’s Important Now.” That’s really critical. What’s important right now is getting the team to a point where they can handle the catch-up process. I have to be in the look ahead. I’m doing the control burns. I used to use that analogy.
You were asking for lessons, one of your earlier questions from my project management days, that’s what my role was as a project manager. Find out everything that could burn down out ahead. If I had to create a path and there was stuff that was in, do the control burns so we could keep the project moving. That’s the role that I haven’t been able to do, and that’s just from I don’t know what I don’t know. I want to hang out with companies, with COOs that are further up market than me that can help pull along and get me asking better questions and get us, as a company, asking questions of maybe who we have been considering and that’s definitely been happening.
I don’t remember if you mentioned the word vulnerable or if I did, but where do you think it has served you as a leader to be vulnerable at work, and where has it hurt you or has it hurt you?
In my business roles, being vulnerable was always something we were taught not to do. In the construction industry, it was thought that you can’t show your hand, you can’t do this. It created a lot more tension and stress I needed. The reason I know that is because I had three clients that I can remember vividly, where we actually spoke openly. They were our most productive jobs in terms of the pace that we worked out, the teams, the way that they were built. They opened faster, which meant that the client was opening those stores quicker. They were more profitable for them, and they were more profitable for us.
Those were three clients I specifically remember, but within the industry, they were unicorns. They were complete unicorns in the way that we built those teams. The rinse and repeat of that, that showed me that’s how I want to be, but I couldn’t be that because of the environment. It’s like if you’re a cactus trying to grow in the middle of the tropics here, it’s not going to necessarily grow. Your Arizona cactus isn’t going to grow effectively here in Barbados.
The way that it has served incredibly well through my journey within 34 Strong has been there’s a level of trust. When people are going to follow you, they need trust. They need compassion. They want to know that you can connect with them on a human level. We’ve acknowledged to our team we tripled in size, and we are still playing catch up right now because of where we’re at and the challenges that that put on that I felt personally, and being able to talk through that. All it’s done with direct reports and within our company is it’s opened up the floor of trust.
One of the stories that I’ll share that I’ll never forget this day was in March 2020, when we made the decision that the best thing to do for the company at the time because of COVID was to furlough every single employee to get them to the front of the line in the US because we knew the wave was coming. Hardest day in business. I told that story at a retreat that we had, and how difficult that day was for me. I’ve told that story dozens of times, but looking at the size of the company, because we’ve grown so much from the small team that we were then. I’m looking and I’m seeing it, I got choked up and went through. I didn’t expect that. I was totally overcome with emotion.
The thank yous and the accolades that that led to is like, “Thank you.” People were able to see how impassioned we were with this as leaders in going through and that it’s real. The final more recent incident that I’ll share with you is one day, I completely overdid it on Zoom. I was on one of those days where it was like nine hours, you barely had time to get up and pee and get water. It was meeting after meeting. It wasn’t calls. They were video meetings.
The next day, I was facilitating for an executive leadership team where it wasn’t just something that I could go through. I needed to be very present and thinking, and my brain was just shot. Next morning, I knew it and I had to throw in the towel. Thankfully, it was a small enough team that I’ve worked with and said, “I’ve got to reschedule this because you’re going to be getting a really crappy version of me.” I use it as a learning lesson for the team, and it created a level of awareness within our team to check yourself because we talked about that. When I talk about messaging, modeling, varying. We message, “Take the break, go out, take the walk, if you need to,” but didn’t model it.
I acknowledged I totally screwed up in modeling that. You’re going to see my calendar and say, “That’s what Darren’s going to expect of me.” Then, I totally crashed into a brick wall, and it was a terrible idea and it’s led to pacing in my life. Actually, when I’m having those conversations with people, they’re hearing it from the lens of, “This is a guy who’s trying to model it and how he’s living, how he’s going through, and he messaged it because he totally said he ate crap for a period of time.” It was a bad business decision for us as well.
I want you to go back to the 21, 22-year-old Darren, you’re just starting out in your career. What advice do you wish you knew back then that you know to be true today?
Take the time to sit with yourself and dig into what your core drivers are. What are your core values? What is the script that you’re following? Is it your script or is it somebody else’s script? The 21, 22-year-old script of me went through college. I was a box checker, Cameron. That’s what I was, and there are a lot of box checkers in this world. It gets you to a solid life for other people to look in on. I was one of those people. I checked the boxes. I went to school. I got a good job. I was getting a good solid income. I was climbing the corporate ladder. I went on and got my MBA. I did all those things.
Whose script was I following? I had never really thought that I had the power to write my own script. Remembering that we are actually holding the pen to write that script and that we have the power to write that script, I think, is really important. Jim Carrey said this, but something along the lines of, “If I can screw up doing something I dislike, why not screw up doing something that I love?”
It’s really powerful if I was talking to my 21, 22-year-old self to be willing to do the work and to get comfortable being uncomfortable because that’s where the growth zone is going to be. Not only for myself personally, but in relationships, because it’s oftentimes in those periods, not creating conflict for the sake of creating conflict and fighting, but working through those, sitting through those and asking, “What are the gifts that are coming here?” Final piece, when it feels like the world’s shitting on you, ask, “Why is this happening for me?” Keep asking it because in the moment, it sucks and you don’t have the answer. Keep asking that question because it always reveals itself in time.
Darren Virassammy, the COO and Cofounder of 34 Strong, thanks for sharing with us on the show. I really appreciate your time.
Cameron, thanks for flying all the way to Barbados just so we could do this together in person. I really appreciate being here.