Caleb Clark and Tonny Lam, the millennial-aged founders of Hook + Ladder, a digital marketing, and lead generation agency in Calgary, Alberta, used a different calculus when they decided to start playing Great Game™ in February 2020.
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Episode with guests:
Caleb Clark and Tonny Lam
Co-Founders of Hook+Ladder
(This episode was recorded in June of 2020.)
Welcome to the "Change the Game'' podcast, where we share stories of open-book management and highlight capitalism at its best. Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the "Change the Game" podcast, with special guests Caleb Clark and Tonny Lam from Hook+Ladder. This episode was recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis in June 2020. Here's your hosts Rich Armstrong and Steve Baker.
Steve Baker 0:26
Welcome to the "Change the Game" podcast, where we unite a community of like- minded and like-hearted organizations who are changing the Game by doing business differently. Every week we're seeking out the most inspirational stories about people who are changing the game, how The Great Game of Business® principles play a role, and how it is done. And we think that's capitalism at its best. So we're trying to find out, what are the lessons people learn through their experience? And what's the big takeaway that you guys, the listeners, can learn from the guest and start implementing in your organizations today?
For what it's worth, Great Game companies and organizations demystify business, they break down the walls and the hype that make business an elite sport for the select few that keeps everybody else in the dark and out of the money. Together, we can save the American Dream by closing the gap between the haves and have-nots. And that's our mission. Our big, hairy, audacious goal is to transform the world, save 10 million lives--transform 10 million lives in the next 10 years. So our community exists for people to learn, share and celebrate the game-changing principles and practices that were inspired by Jack Stack's original book, "The Great Game of Business: A Stake in the Outcome" and "Change the Game." And here with me today is my pal and boss and co-host and co-author of our new book, 'Get in the Game," available where fine books are sold. Rich Armstrong, how’re you doing?
Rich Armstrong 1:54
Good. Good morning, Steve.
Steve Baker 1:56
We have a fun day planned today. Our theme is, why timing is everything. And we've got some pretty cool guests with us today. We've got Caleb Clark and Tonny Lam with us from Hook and Ladder up in Canada. And we'll talk about them in just a moment. I tell you what, I have two quotes. Now the reason I picked two, one is because of our guests. And that is timing is everything. So it's one of my favorites. I know it's probably overused, but it's an old Chinese proverb that says, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now." And I try to teach my kids that but they're not listening yet. So we're gonna find out how that works out.
The other one is, this week in Jack Stack's, semi-weekly calls--when the pandemic first started, we had them every day, and then he started to do them several times a week. But the other day, Rich, you might remember him saying, "Without business, there is no society." And I thought with everything that's going on right now, that we probably need to focus on not only obviously, you know, social change, but the fact is that all of the things that we want to have happen are funded by what is the result of business. And that is really powerful to think about.
I was talking to my daughter this week, and she was really freaked out about what was going on. And she didn't feel like she was making a difference. And I said, "Honey, you know, you can only really affect your sphere of influence. So what are you going to change? How do you improve your little world?" And I thought about that's what we're doing every day at SRC and the Great Game companies, just working on our communities. And you know, it really set her mind at ease. She said she slept better. She felt better about herself. And she started to make plans to do things. So without business, there is no society. I'm digging this stuff.
Rich Armstrong 3:46
I'm glad you had that kind of level of conversation with your daughter. My conversation last night was, her air conditioning didn't work at her apartment. What was I gonna do about it?
Steve Baker 3:57
[Laughter.] I'm not saying that we don't have those conversations. But it's just inspirational, because you're always worried about the next generation. And I kind of feel like we have the next generation with us today. Here's the way I want to introduce these guys because they really need to tell their story. But what we want to talk to Hook and Ladder about today is how a Division One football player and a ping-pong champ can join forces to form an all-in-one team to help you guys build your online marketing platforms or strategy design development to marketing tools and analytics, how in one year they plan to triple their workforce and double their revenue. And they engaged Great Game coach Catherine Fitzgerald to help them along the path. You know, that's what we want to talk about. So welcome, Caleb and Tonny, how’re you guys doing?
We're doing very well.
Steve Baker 4:47
We had a lot of fun preparing for this. I know we're gonna have even more fun talking about everything today, and hopefully some really cool questions coming in from the community. I'm going to start out--I don't want it to be the Steve show here--but I'm super excited. If I get emotional, I'll get a tissue or something, we'll be ready to go here. But you guys have a killer origin story. So tell us a little bit about how you got started? Why the name Hook and Ladder? Tell us about what it's all about.
Caleb Clark 5:15
I'll introduce how we first met each other. Tonny and I were part of the same MBA cohort in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University. And towards the end of our year there, there was an opportunity made available to the class to kind of break into groups for those that were interested to build a marketing strategy and execution plan and then actually take care of the execution for a national car dealership. And they were introducing the Scion, the Toyota Scion, into Canada. So I put up my hand; I was interested in playing a part. And Tonny put up his hand--he was this kid in the front row; I was in the back. And we ended up on the same team. And a bond was formed out of that. We then went on to execute this plan for six months for a paid internship. And then afterwards, we decided we wanted to get into business together. And, Tonny, I'm probably missing a few details there from your perspective.
Tonny Lam 6:20
Well one thing to add is that we really didn't know much back then when we were running that program. But we did learn a lot. A marketing case competition was being held at the MBA school, right? And then they were saying, well, the winning team gets the contract to execute that program. Like I don't know about you, Caleb, but at that time, I was thinking, “Damn, this is gonna be a big opportunity.”
I went into the MBA program as a mechanical engineer, right? I'm a numbers guy. I'm always interested in physics, chemistry, and math. That's my background, right? But marketing was fun. And this sounded like a great opportunity. [I wanted to] go and do it. And then I stood up, like, "Hey, who wants to form a team?” I think he was right behind me. And that's how we got started.
Caleb Clark 7:02
That was 10 years ago.
Steve Baker 7:05
And then you guys took a little bit of a split. Tonny, you went to work for Accenture and got into businesses that were really all over the world, and got to see how business worked in a lot of different cultures and places and geographies. And Caleb, did you go directly into the marketing side? Or what was that part?
Caleb Clark 7:22
Yeah. So we started the business pretty much right away after the MBA, but we could only afford to pay one of us. So we said, “Well, Tonny, you go build a base of credibility and understand how the big guys build a company and do things like operations and finance, everything like that. And I'll go sling our wares on the street and see if we can get some clients from that. So that's what we did. I moved to Mexico, so we could keep costs down. Did that for five years.
Tonny Lam 7:51
And then you worked in your bedroom for how long?
Caleb Clark 7:55
Yeah, same bedroom in Mexico, where it was my office for like four years.
Steve Baker 8:02
Oddly, we're very close to that right now again, aren't we? Because of the COVID. I'm coming to you from under the stairs. [Laughter.] So--
Rich Armstrong 8:12
Where does the ping-pong championship fit into all of this?
Tonny Lam 8:16
I have no idea, Steve, where you pulled that stuff from. I mean, Caleb was a football star, right? And Hook and Ladder actually have some relation to football. For me, I was never really athletic. I used to play a lot of ping pong. I was like a high school ranked player in the province, but that was nothing [worth mentioning] 20 years ago. Right?
But back to what you were saying, Steve, about the path of us kind of diverging and converging again; it was part of the plan. And I would do it exactly the same way that we did it being a financial [garble] matter, a brand new startup for two people who've never started a business before. You know, we have a lot of passion, but we lack the relationship, we lack the knowledge. So when you go outside of business school, two very typical career paths are that you either go into the ibanking route, or you go into the consulting route. And for myself, with an engineering background, the consulting route just makes a lot of sense, like the problem-solving, analytical type of function. So I wanted to work for a big consulting agency and ended up at Accenture. But the thinking was okay, we started the business right after we finished university, or our MBA program; while Caleb's out there really building on the network, building on the digital marketing component, Tonny is going to go learn from some of these big guys on how they run a service-based business, [garble] systems and process or whatnot, right? And then from there, five years from now was the plan to kind of come back and apply the systems and processing knowledge and the network and marketing skill sets and make this a serious thing. That's basically what happened. I think it took close to seven years for me to be full-time at Hook and Ladder, but that's exactly what happened.
Steve Baker 10:07
Nice. So I love the fact that you made a plan and you did the divergence over time and then came back together, because so many people are like, "Someday we're gonna do this together." And you know, they never quite get there. But let's go back to the theme of timing is everything. So in a recent interview with Darren Dahl, you're quoted as saying, "I can't stop thinking about how lucky we are that we started playing just weeks before the virus hit"--meaning playing the Great Game of Business. "I don't know how we would have handled it." And I'm going, "Luck, really?" You literally had just launched the Game the week before the world ended. So what was that like? Was it really luck?
Caleb Clark 10:44
[Laughter.] Well, I don't know; luck is a funny word, right? I feel--maybe grateful is the word and I feel fortunate, because I was mentioning to Darren also that during the meat of COVID, there were a lot of people in my ear from EO network, my forum, different people whose opinion I hold highly, who were saying, "Yeah, you’ve got to take this opportunity to cut some fat, right? Go lean, go back to the old days; you and Tonny have to get through this." And a lot of these conversations were weighing heavily on me. And so, being able to chat with Catherine and really look at, Hey, the plan is the plan is the plan, gave us that confidence to kind of push through.
But the biggest thing is that the team--I think it was the Monday that we announced it, and the next day, on Tuesday, because we had just gone through the on-site, and we had become aware as a team of the financials and how the Game is played and line of sight and all these things, it was unbelievable, sort of the rallying call that naturally happened amongst the team and the confidence that was beaming from people in terms of like, "Hey, guys, we're in a bad situation. But at least we all know what the situation is. And we have line of sight in terms of how what we do tomorrow implicates our survival rates. So that's why I feel fortunate and grateful, because if that information was held just within Tonny and me, I'm not sure if we would have the horsepower necessary to emotionally get through it. Get, being three months, right? There were times where Tonny and I were down--we're human--and maybe someone else from the team would come in and share something that they remembered from the on-site. It was just that little thing, that built us up and our confidence came through. And Catherine, I mean, what can you say? Right? She's been amazing.
Steve Baker 12:46
Yeah, she's radiant, man. She emanates light. Right? [Laughter.] Love it.
Caleb Clark 12:51
So that's what I would say. Luck? Maybe not luck. But fortunate and grateful about that. The timing was ironic. [Laughter.] I would have drawn it up differently--I'm sure you guys draw it up differently. I know the plan isn't to get everyone rallied and then have a global economic meltdown a week later.
[Laughter.] It's not one of the 10 steps.
Tonny Lam 13:18
You've heard the saying that luck is basically when preparation meets opportunity, right?
Rich Armstrong 13:26
Steve Baker 13:26
Tonny Lam 13:26
There's one very specific example that reminds me of the luck in terms of having brought in the Great Game, bringing Catherine, having Michelle Bridges as part of our on-site, and how that relates to the term “luck.” We had our initial on-sites, you know, bringing everyone together--we flew team members from east coast--we are based on the west coast; we have 20 members from Columbia who made great lengths to come all the way up to Calgary. And then we got everyone really excited about the whole system and process. And of course, like Caleb was saying, very shortly after, I can't remember how many, is when COVID kind of paralyzed, basically the continent.
But then one of the things that we were able to do during those first few weeks was to bring the team's financial literacy up to a certain level--not to say that they're experts, no financial ninjas or anything, but at the very least they understand, "OK well, here's the balance sheet, here's a P&L, here's how the company makes money, here's the line of sight"--to a degree. The basics. Which was absent--and I would argue it's absent for a lot of companies. I worked for Accenture as a middle management for seven years and most people probably don't know that stuff. So with that being said, when COVID hit, something that we had to do--actually it was an idea that Catherine brought about, which is a fabulous idea, so thank you for that. I know Catherine is probably listening to this. The idea was, well, maybe you guys should build a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D. So the team is aware of, "Okay, well, if this is a situation, here's what's gonna happen. But we have a plan, and we all have the ability to impact the result, right? I was thinking to myself that was a great idea. If we never brought Catherine and the Great Game system into our lives, we probably might not even have thought about that idea. But let's say we did. Trying to communicate that Plan A,B,C,D to all the team members, without them having a certain level of financial literacy and a thought process about how to proceed, it's gonna be pretty hard. We'd never read a book and went through those exercises and whatnot. So that is one very practical example of what I felt, like we are very fortunate to have done what we did.
That's great. That's great. Did you have any kind of pushback or initial pushback or challenges with the staff accepting this way of doing business, or learning the financials, that sort of thing?
Caleb Clark 16:08
There was some hesitancy in maybe the timing. I know, for me, it's actually funny. On our on-site, Tonny and I, even in the middle of it, we were learning, like, "What are we doing right now, these exercises on the table, or on the wall?" And Catherine and Michelle--you know, Michelle; Michelle is a pretty dull person, right? So she doesn't have a lot of energy or anything like that. [Laughter.] But she was saying, "Caleb, just trust the process." And I was like, "I'm gonna trust the process." But I drove them back to their hotel that night, and I said, "Guys, what the heck was that exercise? Like, I don't get it. I thought I'd get it. And I didn't." But it wasn't till the next day, where it came all in. And so I thought there was a little bit of pushback by me. [Laughter.]
But I think overall, the team was pumped and excited. It's pretty big-time, right? We're bringing two coaches in from the U.S. And it's, you know, two full days blocked off for this. So there was a sense of legitimacy to it. And I would say, overall, that was a big part of why we were able to start playing the Game so quick, was that everyone was just pretty bought-in, I'd say.
Rich Armstrong 17:18
We're always thinking that this next generation of workforce, this new generation--you guys are young entrepreneurs, at least a lot younger than Steve and I--but...
Steve Baker 17:29
Hey, I'm 20 in my head, so just speak for yourself, man. [Laughter.]
Rich Armstrong 17:37
You know, one of the things is that this idea of transparency, high involvement, rewards and recognition, that all those types of things that are elements of the Great Game, do you feel like that resonates more with this next generation, this younger generation workforce? Any thoughts on that?
Tonny Lam 17:57
I think two things come to mind. We run a marketing agency--like you guys look at Caleb and myself, as being young; we look at our team members like they are a lot younger than us--and that's just the nature of the marketing industry as well. And, you know, my first-hand experience on that, given that I have worked in Accenture, and I've seen how they have transformed their culture as well, to become a lot less distinct in terms of hierarchy--like organizations, generally speaking, have become a lot more flat. People have the opportunity to go outside of their own defined role--not to say that they don't fulfill their own role, but to have the option... it welcomes the flexibility of team members going outside and trying to take on more ownership. I've witnessed that as part of Accenture, throughout the course of the seven years that I've been there. But Great Game takes it to a whole different level. It's the next level in terms of opening that up to encourage transparency on that front. The fact is that we're living in a world where information is readily accessible; whether you tell them that information or not, they will find out one way or the other. So you being the leader, might as well give them the information and empower them in one way. So that's kind of my first thought to it.
But the other thought is that if you think about all the different trends in the workforce--like if you think about software development. I came with a project management background, where back 10, 15 years ago, if you're a software developer, every single project is being managed with a waterfall base methodology, where you go, "Okay, well, I'm going to go and plan a one-year program where I'm going to spend the first month analyzing the requirements, the next month designing, the next month building, and then you're testing and then you eventually deploy it." But that system has proven itself to not really work in the world like this, where everything is transforming to be something a lot more agile, which means that you're doing all those cycles within a two-week timeframe to deploy something of smaller value to the team members, so that you can take the information that you gather from the last two weeks to implement it this two weeks, right? When I think about the Great Game, it very much follows those concepts, which is, we go through weekly forecasts, we give team members the information from the previous week, so we can take the corresponding actions in the next period to make an impact down the road. As opposed to the traditional ways of, "Okay, well, it's a semi-annual performance review, bonus or whatnot," which basically doesn't really give people the ability to really make real impact in real time, and no transparency or whatnot.
So I guess that's my long way of answering that question. But if I were to equate the old way of managing a business to a waterfall project management system, whereas like, the way we're talking about the Great Game, similar to more of an agile way of managing a project, to me it's very, very similar, where, you know, that's where the trends are going. The trends are you need to be more transparent, you need to be more agile, you need to be more iterative. So that's part of the reason why I believe that that's the right move for our company as well.
Steve Baker 21:41
Yeah, I love that word "iterative," because it's about, we know where the goal is, the plan is the plan, as you guys have said, but we're constantly iterating how we get to the goa--which, Caleb in your world, football, isn't that the way football works? You know where the post is; it's at the end. But how you get there changes with every play, right?
Caleb Clark 22:03
I think the other reason why the Great Game resonates with our team so much--I mean, this is true of humans, but I think especially with the younger generation--is that they're addicted to creating things, to having their individual fingerprint on things that are built into the world. And you see that demonstrated on social media every day. So I think that one thing that really resonates with Great Game for our team is that they had a hand in building what is the Hook and Ladder version of today, and the classic quote from Great Game: “People support what they help create.” And with that as a truth woven into the fibers of the game, that's why it resonated so deeply with our team. We're literally building something and putting it into the world. So I'm all for that, as a young, budding marketing professional.
Steve Baker 22:59
[Laughter.] I love it. So let's talk about the stuff nobody wants to talk about. When you first started--you've already mentioned Catherine Fitzgerald and Michelle Bridges, one of the great coaches and one of our top trainers. I'm surprised you have a roof, because usually they blow the roof off of the damn place. You hired a coach, right? And so I'd like to know why you hired a coach. You kind of touched on it before, but here's the follow-up that is really bugging me the most. You've got to go talk to your people, who for the first time in their lives are being treated like adults, they're being shown financial information, asked to impact it on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. You're just starting that journey. And you go, "Oh, by the way, we have another expense line. It's a coach." Talk about that.
Caleb Clark 23:47
We heard the pitch. We hung up, we had a conversation. And I remember what you said--
Tonny Lam 23:55
Actually, I remember what you said. You told me that, "Well, it's either we're gonna go and hire a coach, or we're gonna not do Great Game." Well, I can't remember who said it. But basically, what I recall was that we were referencing, you know how many clients that we have talked to who told us that they can do digital marketing themselves, but have never done it? Right? It's like, would you try to learn how to swim if you could hire somebody who is a teacher in swimming? Ultimately, it's just that trying to go solo on doing something that you've never done before, which is extremely important, is probably not the best way, as opposed to having somebody who leads you through the process, right? So we were putting ourselves in the situations of those clients who we, as the expert, know that they don't even know what questions to ask at this point. And we're just acknowledging that we are at that state.
Caleb Clark 24:57
I'm glad we made that decision, Tonny, because like you're saying, I think we naturally both said to each other, "Hey, we can figure it out.” You're thinking in your own head, "We're smarter than anyone in the world, right?" That's what you think. But man, in hindsight, I can think of six things off the top of my head that there's no way we would have implemented or thought about it that way. Or to have Catherine... sometimes we would say things and Catherine's like, "Quick coaching point." You know she's so great in terms of, "Quick coaching point on that." I was like, "Oh, I'm glad we didn't do what I thought we should have done, because that would have been a mistake."
Steve Baker 25:40
So you guys are convinced. You get off the phone and you're like, "Hey." I love the example of the swimming instructor. You can tread water and die. Or you can have the graceful--I like that word, "graceful." You can learn how to let the water float you, I mean, it's not a fight. You guys got it right away. Did anybody else go, "Wait a minute; tell me why we're spending money on this?" I mean, was that a conversation? Or did everybody just go "Oh, okay! Makes sense."
Caleb Clark 26:09
At first, there was a little bit of that. But it was pretty clear in everyone's mind after they read the book. Like we had a number of people who read the book and were like, "It seems to me to be the only logical way to run a business," which is another coined term. But yeah, that was my experience on it. Tonny, I don't know if--
Tonny Lam 26:34
Yeah, so one thing to add is that when we actually had interaction with the Great Game organization, we've already started "implementing" in our own way, which isn't really suggested, but we asked all the team members to read the book, right? Caleb and myself had read the second book, the new book that you guys co-authored. And we have read the blogs, we have watched a bunch of video examples [Laughter.] We actually had a MiniGame that was set up, which is not really a MiniGame, but it's basically a game that we set up for our team--kind of like a game-show trivia for a bunch of questions that Caleb and I created. And basically, we put our team into smaller teams of two for them to kind of compete, and there was a prize at the end of it. That was kind of our way to get the team into it. So compared to somebody who had heard of the Great Game the first time, the third time, you know, we were slightly more knowledgeable on that already. But even with that, I acknowledge that that's when you find out the questions that you know how to ask whereas before we didn't even know what questions to ask.
Steve Baker 27:45
Right. Love it.
Rich Armstrong 27:47
Well, let's put your coaching lessons into play here. There's a question from Joseph, who's from Ireland. And he's asking, "What is the greatest challenge in implementing the Great Game methodology?" What did you guys run into? What would you say that challenge is?
Caleb Clark 28:02
A global economic meltdown. [Laughter.]
Rich Armstrong 28:07
Besides the obvious.
Steve Baker 28:08
All right, Caleb wins.
Caleb Clark 28:12
Go ahead, Tonny.
Tonny Lam 28:15
I'd say any change management, any implementation of a new system, the greatest risk of it not working is when there isn't sufficient engagement across all the team members. Right? And so, if that were the case, then you would just be, Okay, well, there's a few you know, leaders who say, go in there, "Hey, here's a framework, follow this everybody go and do a huddle, and report a number. You own this line, this line, that line." That just becomes another task that we're asking people to do, when they don't truly understand it. And so taking the advice of Catherine, we involved basically a small team of like 12 people, right? So we incorporated everybody into the on-site. We got them to all take part and learn and read a book and ask questions, and they all had one-on-one conversations with Catherine so they understood the why and the what, whereas we kind of figure out the how together. But even after that, as we go through each one of those activities in terms of, what's the proper way of taking ownership of my line in the scoreboard? How do I create the right MiniGames for us? How do I ensure there's a line of sight between my daily activities to the overall company's goal? Those are the things where, as a leader, I think we need to really demonstrate how we can accomplish those things ourselves and lead by example. That to me was the most critical part.
I can't say that we are knocking out of the park. We're still pretty early on in the process. But I'm seeing some pretty good progress there. In the first week or two, the team members were following the activities, but they didn't really get it yet, where as Caleb and Tonny are starting to do more of those activities ourselves--we recently finally created our own individual player scorecard and we got everyone to do it--then they start to have a stronger line of sight, which further can add on to what we had from the on-site where we talk about the concept of line of sight, from the bottom up and top down and whatnot. So I think that is the No. 1 challenge, but that challenge itself, obviously, can be broken down into smaller challenges as well. That's the first one that comes to mind.
Caleb Clark 30:53
I would say, too, if there isn't an opportunity to take theory and put it into practice--like, if Great Game was only ever theoretical for everybody--it would be a challenge, because you can't actually even play the game, never mind win the game or be an all-star or whatever, if you don't exercise clarity through action and being extremely vulnerable. Like we said right from the beginning, "Guys, either Tonny and I can go figure out how to play the Game, and then come back with a more polished version of this. Or we can just jump into the mud together." So if there's no willingness to kind of get your hands dirty, I think that that would create a challenge. Or opportunity. And that's why I say we're lucky, Steve, is that our opportunity was like the biggest opportunity you could ever dream up to play the game--different than SRC, where they kind of built it in the middle of a crap storm, 89 to 1 or whatever it was, debt to equity. Ours was like a week before that. So right away, we only got a week of practice, and then we were thrown into the big arena in terms of COVID.
Steve Baker 31:55
Yeah. For sure.
Caleb Clark 31:55
I hope that answers the question.
Rich Armstrong 31:56
No, that does. The foundational approach--make sure you put the foundation in: why are we doing this? And what is this really about?--is a big one. And then what you're talking about, Caleb; we use the term “learning by doing.” We can teach you all day, we can talk about this stuff all day, but go do it. And clarity through action, one of your values, definitely is that approach. Right? So.. yeah. Very good.
Steve Baker 31:57
You know, I really enjoyed the article that Darren Dahl wrote with you all. The interview was really something and very inspiring. It led to this interview, this podcast. So one of my favorite quotes--I'm just going to read a piece of it here for you. But it ends with my favorite quote out of the whole thing. Because I even started the podcast by saying, you know, people are kept in the dark and out of the money. And so Great Game tries to break that wall down and say it's not an elite sport. But here's the quote. It says, "Since we opened the books and taught our people the reality of the situation, our people knew what to do. They knew what our cash runway was, and they went to work." And here it is: "People can handle bad news. What they can't handle is no news." Man. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Caleb Clark 33:09
That was an emotional decision between Tonny and I to like, have that conversation on the Monday, the infamous Monday. And it was no question that it was the conversation. But it was, like I said before, we're humans, right? So you have no idea how people are gonna react to this. I was overly emotional in terms of people's response to it in terms of how gracious everyone was and how it was like, "Okay, let's get to work." Right? I mean, we had just come off the on-site, so it was just... you know.
Steve Baker 33:43
Oh, man. That's good. My goal is to make you cry. [Laughter.]
Caleb Clark 33:50
You assigned us the best coach then.
Steve Baker 33:53
Good. That's the odd thing--
Caleb Clark 33:56
[Garble] calls up her kids and...
Steve Baker 33:59
Yeah, I mean, that's a big deal. And to have you experience it so early in the process, I think, is great, because this is an emotional thing. Because we're, you know, pulling the curtain back or opening the kimono, however you want to look at it. That is a big deal. And I appreciate you being that vulnerable for us and for the audience, because it is a huge deal for people to say, "I don't have all the answers and I need your help. And by the way, here's the truth." So, congratulations on that.
Rich Armstrong 34:29
Hey, Caleb, you mentioned something earlier, I think both of you talked a bit about that you're getting a lot of pressure. A lot of people were saying, look, you need to be looking at cutting back on expenses--including with marketing business, a lot of those expenses are your people. So, should you lay off your people? And you were seeing your friends and your family getting laid off left and right. And you had a peer group of leaders that you had a lot of advice from who were saying, "Don't be the hero. Lay off your people." Can you talk a little bit about this? I assume that was a tough decision to say, "Everybody's telling me to do this, but I feel like I need to do something else."
Caleb Clark 35:10
Yeah. It was a tough decision because it wasn't a piece of advice that I got out of a book; it was a piece of very resounding advice from a number of people that I hold in very high esteem in terms of what they've been able to do. But ultimately, my decision was just to surface the conversation, surface the feelings between Tonny and Catherine. And inevitably, that's what ended up coming out, which was Catherine's recommendation to do the A-B-C-D. So in my mind it’s like we are reacting by putting something in place that will tell us what to do based on a business case or set of economic information versus Justin Trudeau going on the media and saying, "The sky is falling." Sorry, he's our Prime Minister.
Steve Baker 35:10
Yeah. That's good. Good catch.
Caleb Clark 35:37
Ex-drama teacher and snowboard instructor, but... [Laughter.] But that was the reaction, right? It was like, Okay, this is real for me. And then Catherine stepped up with that recommendation. And I went back to the team, I went back to my group and said, "Hey, this is what we're doing." And then got the opportunity to sort of educate them a little bit. Like I'm a big advocate of GGOB, right? And so I'm in an EO forum talking about the Great Game and the how we’ve used it in our business.
Steve Baker 36:33
You said something really interesting when we talked to you earlier, Caleb, that in your EO group, some of the peers didn't know that going open-book was even an option.
Caleb Clark 36:45
Yeah, I mean, I think they recognized it as an option once we talked about it. But it's not a classically trained principle, of course, as we know, right? And I love EO and I just think there's an opportunity to take bits and pieces of both. But the Great Game is different because you can stop one person, but you can't stop 100, right?
Steve Baker 37:07
I love it, man. You just keep preaching the gospel, baby. So we're gonna get practical here; we've got a couple of questions from the community. I was going to ask you, what was the biggest stumbling block you encountered? But let me paraphrase that in some questions. So Sandeep has a couple of questions for you. How many days did it take for you to reach your first huddle? And I'm gonna guess that that meant from inception. Any idea?
Tonny Lam 37:36
So before the Great Game, I mentioned how we were mostly an agile organization, right? So we practice scrum rituals, and we have our own kind of an all-hands meeting kind of rhythm as well, before we started implementing Great Game. So before we actually brought Catherine into the family, we had already attempted a huddle. While I was working in Accenture, I had witnessed the practice of the Great Game with another company, which is really, really well done, from my perspective, having seen many massive organization--the biggest bank in the world, the biggest mining companies in the world, and like fortune 10 companies, I've seen how they've operated and how their team members' engagement and behaviors are. And then my very, very last client before I left Accenture was one which practiced the Great Game. And I got in there, and I see that at the 10:57am every single morning when they have the big huddle, and that's what they go through, they go through the scoreboard and talk about the celebrations and whatnot. Right? They go through that system.
So we tried to imitate what they were doing but shortly after, realized that I know there's a lot of things that we missed-- key components of it. So the answer to that question is that very shortly after they won--they won the on-site, where we came together and Catherine and Michelle, were here--I think by the next week is when we started the first huddle already. But then the huddle gets improved and perfected week by week. The meeting minutes get stronger and stronger, people's understanding about the weekly forecast get stronger and stronger, right? People's ownership about their line item that they're going to be reporting games during the scoreboard section.
Caleb Clark 39:34
It was ugly to start. I think what you're saying, too, is but clarity through action and I do ... another testament as to why you get a coach is that there was one particular meeting where Catherine pulled us aside and basically slapped our hands and said, "Okay, guys time to grow up now, and time to get on board here." So it was love--
Steve Baker 39:55
Caleb Clark 39:57
But yeah, we started right away and it's now to a place where I would say it's classic huddle.
Steve Baker 40:04
Okay, awesome. Thank you. We'll come back to that, by the way, but this is another question from Sandeep: "What did you do to jump from Great Game to MiniGames?" I'm kind of interpreting that as saying, you're working on the big game. Have you started playing MiniGames?
Caleb Clark 40:21
We are. We got a big pizza game going right now. And we have an office chicken-wing game going right now that has a very football motif to it. I think we struggled out of the gate understanding that the mechanism of the game needs to roll up in some way to the critical number. We were practicing the concept of playing the game and having a measurable goal but, you know, refining over time... We have three MiniGames in place right now, and all three of them directly impact, you know... We're a first year GGOB team, so we're leveraging net profit as our critical number. Which is good for us. And so I would say we're playing good games right now. Our first version of the game was right during COVID. So it was difficult.
Tonny Lam 41:21
Yeah, essentially, we defined our initial three games, but then when COVID hit, some of those things that we were striving for are no longer relevant. So we had to stop those games, because they were like, the thing that needs to be done is no longer needed in the marketplace. So we came up with new games, but I'd say we're definitely picking up some good traction in terms of how the MiniGames are driving behavioral change.
Steve Baker 41:47
Mm-hmmm. Yeah, I like that word, "driving." Because we're always looking for drivers to that critical number, for sure. I have another question, and then I'll turn it back over to Rich. So you're 12, 13 weeks in; what would you say to people who say you're in your honeymoon phase, and you're all just infatuated with the Game, and it's all shiny and new and doves and rainbows? But, you know, let's get into this for a while. What would you say about the honeymoon phase?
Tonny Lam 42:16
Yeah, my answer to that is .... you know, we've witnessed a number of different frameworks and methodologies in terms of business management. And in my case, because I have the benefit of being a consultant--and as a consultant, before Hook and Ladder, we always basically immersed yourself in the client full-time; there were some clients that I was working with full-time, not 9 to 5, but like every day for a year and a half, so you know the company really well. And I've probably worked for at least seven or eight organizations throughout my time at Accenture to be able to see the different impact on the way people practice business. And like I mentioned, I've seen humongous organizations, famous organizations, ones that your public perception is that these guys probably got their things together, right? Well, I can tell you, comparing what I've seen in these other organizations versus this last organization that I was part of, which is a big company growing 20-plus percent, every single year, and how they are forecasting and what they hit is actually basically identical, right? Which is really amazing. And you get in there and you can see people are really passionate about what they do. They really appreciate the opportunity that they're there. Right? So with that information, as a background, I have a lot of faith, I have a lot of confidence in the system, beyond just what I've seen firsthand with Katherine and Michelle and our team, but also a reference point in all these other companies. So that's my answer to that.
Steve Baker 44:01
Great. Caleb, did you have something?
Caleb Clark 44:05
Well, right now we're working on some pretty intense SOPs for some of our different systems and Great Game methodology is being woven into those. So by default, any new person that comes on is supposed to indoctrinate themselves in these SOPs and it's woven into the narrative. I think that because the team is so bought in, that's going to give us a very bright post-honeymoon phase, versus if it was just Tonny and I continually needing to shove it down throats ... that would be difficult and we'd be at greater risk for having the honeymoon effect.
Steve Baker 44:42
Yeah. I do love the fact that, just for our audience, you also subscribe to Jocko Willink's book, "Extreme Ownership." So I know that discipline is a part of your pattern here. So between discipline and then creating processes, because processes outlast people, you've woven into the DNA, the fabric of the business, some sustainability. So sustainability practices along with that discipline, that's the magic. Good stuff, guys.
Rich Armstrong 45:12
Well, let's talk a bit about the post-honeymoon phase. You guys are a fast-growing organization as well. You mentioned one earlier, Tonny, the last big company saw they're growing fast. How do you see the Great Game of Business and the practices helping you manage that level of growth?
Tonny Lam 45:28
It's a broad question. But the first thing that comes to mind is that by enabling the team to have the information, to have that transparency, that growth doesn't just have to be something that Tonny and Caleb are going to come up with. It's going to be something where the team knows the direction, it knows of the KPIs, and they know of their stake in the outcome as well, that we can really leverage the collective wisdom of the team to drive that growth. And you know, that's going to change, that's going to be iterative. But the fact that we have a lot of brains, as opposed to two, gives me that confidence.
Caleb Clark 46:09
And I would also say that because the big goal of the MiniGames is not just to have net profit impact, but also create systemic behavior change, I think that that re-establishes what our foundation is, and you can only grow on a strong foundation and strong foundation is inspired by behavioral change. Right?
Rich Armstrong 46:28
We talk a lot about grading the business, you know, it's certainly about process. But you even mentioned earlier, Tonny, about driving the behavior. And you know, sometimes the frameworks don't necessarily focus on just behavior change, getting people to think differently and do things differently and act on that. I think that's a good point. That's what drives sustainability in the end, for sure.
Tonny Lam 46:50
Totally. I was an employee for a very, very long time. The mindset is huge. If you go to somebody who has never been exposed to this type of thinking, and you talk about mindset, to them it sounds like a very, very fluffy word. But now, for me, having experienced that, and having been consuming a lot of different content and thought leaders and how they open up the mindset to take, for example, an ownership mentality, I can say there's a huge impact to what one can accomplish with an organization. So, for sure.
Caleb Clark 47:29
One other thing I wanted to say is that, a lot of times, we think that if we hire a coach for whatever it is, then that gives us license to sort of turn ourselves into autopilot, and just let the coach take over. I know there were a lot of cases where great coaching is definitely part of the equation, but as leaders, you have to really, really lean into it; otherwise, it's not going to happen. In those early days, I admittedly couldn't see the light, you know, in the first 2, 3, 4 weeks of it. And so that's when we leaned on Catherine's shoulders, but at some point, we needed to really meet our end of the bargain, and really lean into it. And that's when the sparks started to fly a little bit. And now that we're like--Catherine's last week was her last week, so we're flying the plane by ourselves right now. And I feel a lot more prepared than I thought we were going to be.
Steve Baker 48:28
There's a little known Great Game practice to, when no one's looking go, "DAAAAAAAH!" Like that, and then you feel better. No, that's awesome. I'm so excited for you. Whenever we start with folks, and this has nothing to do with an age group, either, absolutely everybody I've met anyway--Rich, tell me if I'm wrong here--but everybody starts with this phrase: "Yeah, but we're different." Meaning, our industry, our business, my team, etcetera. Look, Mom told me I was special, and I still believe it to this day. But I will say this: You're in Canada, you're in digital marketing that's changing all the time. Tonny, you've seen businesses all over the world. Tell me, does it matter that you're in Canada, that you're in marketing? Are we unique? Or what is this Great Game? How does it apply to anybody? Does that make sense?
Tonny Lam 49:25
I think the concept of empowering people through transparency is universal. Right? There may be cultural differences where one way of communication may work for one country but not for the other. But in terms of, if you are bringing on people that you respect, you think they're intelligent, they have the skill sets and brought them to the table. Why would you believe that somebody with less information is going to perform higher? That logic to me just doesn't make sense. So the concept about empowering people through information transparency, to me, works everywhere.
Steve Baker 50:08
Yeah. Caleb, you got any thoughts on that?
Caleb Clark 50:12
Yeah, I mean, we're all playing one game, and the way it's measured is with revenue and cost, and dollars and cents. And I think leaning into that universal language... I mean, the fact that we're playing the same game as a heavy duty mechanic company--and we do social media and influencer campaigns and digital advertising--it's just like we're leaning into the exact same truth. That's the universal language right there.
Steve Baker 50:45
Awesome. I love it. Love it. Rich. I think you had some stuff coming in from the community, didn't you?
Rich Armstrong 50:51
Yeah, another fairly technical question. But I think it's very, very important. How do you phase in different financial terms and reports? So what was your way of introducing people to the financials, those terms and reports?
Caleb Clark 51:13
A firehose. No. [Laughter.]
Tonny Lam 51:19
I know that when we first started out in the on-site, there's a level of foundational knowledge, which talks about just the basic financial things. By the way, Michelle Bridges is really good at doing it. I can't say across our team everyone is super numbers oriented, but they all walked away with a good amount of financial foundation. That being one thing. But something that Michelle said during the on-site, which I think really resonated, is about relating some of these company financial terminologies and information to any team member's personal life. Because everyone has a balance sheet personally; everyone has a P&L personally. And those things will make sense. Everybody has to pay your mortgage or your bills or whatnot. Well, what does the balance sheet of Tonny Lam look like? If you can make that analogy for them, and they can click--first of all, it does two things. One is that you help them understand the financial terminology better, so that they can practice it in the business. But it also helps them personally, in managing their finances as well. So that's the first thing that comes to mind.
Rich Armstrong 52:37
Great approach, great advice.
Caleb Clark 52:38
We rolled out all of the classic P&L line items all at once. I mean, we obviously consolidated certain lines, just to make it easier for understanding purpose. We defined what would go into overhead, for example, we defined what that meant. But in our weekly huddle, it's just one overhead number that Tonny reads out, and then everything else is broken down by our service area revenue lines, and their corresponding either subcontractor or fixed costs. And so all the classic P&L and balance sheet stuff was just all rolled out at once. And we just committed to a couple of weeks of narrative around explaining all those numbers.
Tonny Lam 53:19
We also have financial soundbites that we incorporate in our huddle, which kind of helps us slowly drip information about, like... you know, in one of the huddles, we'd have financial soundbite we’d talk about, you know, just the concept of cash flow. Why is it so important? How do we look at our health of cash balance, for example? Something along those lines. When it comes to learning something brand new, I do believe that constant repetition is what helps, right? When you say it the first time they get 20 percent of it, when you say it the second time, third time, and then when they can relate it to their personal experience as well then eventually take it home with them.
Caleb Clark 54:05
It's when they start making fun of you behind your back, saying those terms, that's when you know they got it.
Steve Baker 54:13
[Laughter.] I love it.
Rich Armstrong 54:14
You know, guys, I'm just curious. What's your long term vision for Hook and Ladder? Where do you want to take this organization and where do you want to take your people?
Caleb Clark 54:23
Well, we want to be on the stage in Missouri at one point, but that's....
Rich Armstrong 54:27
Oh, an all star. Okay!
Steve Baker 54:28
Yeah, baby! I love that aspiration.
Caleb Clark 54:34
We want a lot of things. I think I want the stake in the outcome to be something that is very significant. If the stake in the outcome is significant, that means that everything else has been taken care of. We want to fulfill a big part of our mission, which is to play the Great Game of Business in a way that leaves people much better afterwards than they were before being a part of the organization. We love digital marketing, but it's not all we ever talk about. It's not the reason why we're building an agency where... We've seen people's personal lives transformed by being a part of Hook and Ladder, and so that is definitely a big part of what I want to see going forward. And obviously, all the classics: we want to be profitable, we want to have great cash flow, great revenue, so that we can feed that mission, not so that, you know...
Tonny Lam 55:32
I actually see a lot of similarity in terms of the Great Game organization's vision with our vision, right? Like Steve, you started out saying that a big part of what the Great Game organization is about is basically empowering people so they understand that this is not an elite club or whatnot. Right? So, in our case it's very similar. First of all, practicing that Great Game allows us to do that to our employees, our team members. But at the same time, we're a marketing agency, and one thing that we see as a challenge in the industry is that there are certainly those elite concepts where the large organizations have access to marketing that the small and medium-sized businesses just don't. So our vision is to go and level that playing field in that arena.
Steve Baker 56:26
Yeah, I love it. Democratize digital marketing. That's awesome. Gentlemen, what can I say? Caleb Clark, Tonny Lam, thank you so much. I got some takeaways. I always like to kind of wrap it up with some thoughts because I'm a simpleton, so if I can get it, anyone can. I love the comment about people being addicted to creating things, and they want to put their fingerprint on it. I think that is awesome. And we all want to be valued. And that's a great way to do it, to have an influence on the future and be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Would you learn to swim without a swimming instructor? That is like, No, thank you. It sounds terrible. So I like that one. How about, you just said these two: when the stake in the outcome is substantial enough, everything else is taken care of. That's awesome. Because that means everybody sharing in the rewards they created right through their efforts. And finally, we want to leave people better off than we found them. Man, that is right at the heart of our mission. So guys, man, what can I say, thank you so much. Appreciate you.
Caleb Clark 57:30
Thank you, had a lot of fun.
Steve Baker 57:30
Yeah, lots of fun, lots of fun.
Tonny Lam 57:32
Likewise. Appreciate it.
Rich Armstrong 57:36
Thanks for your insights. Enjoy.
Steve Baker 57:38
Rich Armstrong, thank you as always. Be sure to tune in next time for the "Change the Game" podcast Have a great weekend.
The "Change the Game" podcast is produced by the Great Game of Business. To learn more, visit great game.com
Transcribed by https://otter.ai