Rob Catalano of WorkTango on having passion not a mission, treating managers like humans and why you should ask for forgiveness instead of permission

Rob Catalano is the Co-Founder of WorkTango, a technology platform that helps companies gain workforce insights and enable agile performance management that positively impacts alignment, accountability and engagement of employees. Rob is an expert marketer and authority on employee engagement, having been named one of the Top 100 Global Employee Engagement Influencers in 2017.  He is an avid hockey and volleyball player, world traveller, and is a self-proclaimed “pointaholic”. Rob graduated from Ryerson University and currently lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Looking back ten years, where did you think you’d be by this point in your career? How did you get here?

Ten years ago, I was definitely thinking about starting up my own company. I didn’t know what kind of company it was going to be per say, but I knew being an Entrepreneur was something that I wanted to do. I’m the kind of person who loves the start-up environment and the roller coaster ride that goes along with that. I like to build things, which is why starting up my own company was very exciting.

With respect to how I got here specifically, I’m of the belief that if you find a passion, work really hard and try to manage that with some sort of balance, you wind up doing something that makes you happy. For me, I loved working in the HR technology space at Achievers as we were trying to change the world of work, so starting WorkTango was an extension of that passion that made a lot of sense.  I don’t have a technical background and I’m not a coder, but my marketing experience and understanding of human motivation as it relates to being consumers has shaped the way that I think about what people are searching for with respect to their own employment. At WorkTango, we don’t have a mission because missions end. We have a passion and that passion is to improve lives at work.

What were some of the most important business lessons that you had to learn the hard way and how have they contributed to your success?

One that really stands out is surrounding yourself with great people. You need to start with “who” then go to “what”. If you are not diligent with surrounding yourself with great people, things usually fall apart. Leaders often have monumental impacts on organizations and if their beliefs and passions aren’t aligned with the organization’s, things just won’t work and it will be impossible to cascade the right behaviours down to the front-line employee level. I had to learn this lesson a couple of times. There have been some situations where I’ve been involved with hiring certain individuals slowly and then waiting too long to cut ties if things just weren’t working out. You need to hire slow and fire fast.

What is the most misunderstood thing around employee engagement that organizations and managers often fall down on and why?

You always hear about organizations saying that they need to “do” employee engagement but employee engagement isn’t a bake sale or a simple tactic. You can’t think of it as an event. I think of engagement as an always on, strategic driver of an organization that is living through the environment that is created on a daily basis. Too often, we forget about why we do these kinds of things. Allowing business leaders to gain insight into their workforce is one thing, but it’s more so about treating your people like true human beings and helping them to be successful.

With that being said, do you believe that managers are solely responsible for employee engagement?

There is no question that leaders and managers have a big impact and there is truth around how most people leave their companies to get away from their managers. I believe however, engagement is about so much more than that. It’s funny because most people forget that managers are still people before they are employees. We assume that just because someone is a manager, they have all of the skills, knowledge and tools to be successful.  We need to make sure that managers are given the proper voice and tools that they need because it’s not easy being stuck in between the needs of the executives and the needs of a downstream team.

If people feel like they are apart of an organization that has purpose and that they aren’t just a number, it does a lot to drive engagement. If the organization has a driving purpose, it’s structured correctly and there is a focus on the right kinds of behaviours, systems, processes and activities, that can be much more powerful than just a good manager.

What does leadership look like to you and how does the next generation need to start thinking differently about what it means to be a great leader?

There is such a strong element of trust in being a leader and there is a great saying that goes something like, “if you are not building trust you are eroding trust”. There is no purgatory of trust. The new generation expects to be given a certain amount of autonomy within a structured environment and if you don’t give them that, you can’t really build trust. It’s ultimately about building an environment where employees can succeed, and the company can succeed. There are a lot of things that go into that like feedback and communication, etc. but we need to think about how to change our leadership styles to reflect the creation of a trusting environment. When I coach leaders or do leadership training, I always ask, “what are the major components that you think will build a great environment for your employees?”.

How is technology changing the HR profession and from your perspective, what will the next generation of HR professionals look like?

When people ask me this question, I always think about it through the lens of how business technology tools in general have evolved across marketing automation, customer relationship management and now, through employee focused HR tools. Across each of these, there is a strong focus on providing real time data to drive better decisions and predicting outcomes. There is no question that these enabling tools will drive HR professionals to become more data savvy but nothing will replace real human conversations and smart business thinking. The tools are not the end in of themselves; it’s ultimately about how do we build a better environment for our people to work in and grow themselves.

What would be your one piece of advice that you give to those in the workforce to help them get ahead in their career and finding work that’s personally fulfilling?

When it comes to finding work that’s fulfilling, you need to align yourself to something that carries a higher purpose. It’s not just about money. As long as you can pay your bills and take care of those kinds of life obligations, what drives us as people isn’t just how much money we make.

When it comes to getting ahead, I would say that once you’ve found a great organization, don’t ask for permission to do things, just ask for forgiveness later. The reality is if you want to do something that you think will make an impact in your organization and you can defend it, just do it. Don’t worry about getting your wrist slapped in the process. I’ve always told my teams this and by doing so, I’ve gotten some pretty amazing results.

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