How Uptake helps employees grow, whether they stay 3 years or 30

Andreas Rekdal

By some reports, the average worker changes jobs every three years, causing companies to rethink their relationships with employees. But how do you design a new social contract from scratch?

For Gentzy Franz, the opportunity to take on that challenge was tempting enough to spark a move from academia to Uptake. His approach to professional development is to set employees up for whatever their next thing might be, while at the same time offering continued growth opportunities that are too good to pass up.

UPTAKE AT A GLANCE

FOUNDED: 2014.

WHAT THEY DO: Uptake provides predictive data analytics tools for major industries like rail, energy and heavy equipment manufacturing.

WHERE THEY DO IT: Chicago’s River North.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Uptake strives to help people thrive professionally, whether they stay for three years or 30.

UPTAKE UNIVERSITY: Where employees can take a storytelling workshop or course on ancient thought and its ties to modern business.

BUILT ON EXPERIENCE: Co-founder and CEO Brad Keywell also co-founded Groupon, Echo Global Logistics, Mediaocean and Lightbank.

IDEAL CANDIDATES: People who are confident and comfortable with a quick pace and with challenging the status quo.

You’re Uptake’s director of organization development. What does that mean, exactly?

If you want to develop an organization as a whole, you need to develop the people within it. My job is to create the right programming, experiences and environment for helping our people grow, both individually and as a team. That work basically breaks down into three buckets: talent, learning and culture.

Helping our talent grow and perform requires understanding their goals and showing them what we need them to focus on and prioritize to get there. The second part, learning, makes employees more engaged and curious, boosting collaboration and innovation.

Culture is a bit more nebulous, but it’s something we focus on a lot. Our work on culture ranges from events and programs to our open floor plan and stocked kitchen. Culture isn’t about free candy bars or kegs. It’s about candor, conversations and getting to know one another.

What can you do to promote candor and open conversations?

One cool thing we've done is the storytelling workshop within Uptake University, our place for continuous learning. The workshop is led by a master storyteller, and it gives us an opportunity to tell our stories to one another. Hearing about someone else at a human level increases your empathy. Increased empathy breaks down barriers, which means really, really cool work can get done.

What other topics do you cover at Uptake University?

We have a philosophy course about ancient thought and how it matches up to modern business practices, and we’re building a meditation room where we’ll host meditation classes. We also have artists teach classes on subjects like typography and how to put together your own zine.

Finally, we’ve formed a partnership with The Second City. Improv is all about keeping a conversation going and being open to another person, but it’s also a lighter way to get people to engage with our values.

What are you proudest of when you think about your company’s culture?

We’re a data science company, and without data scientists, we don’t have a product. But I never get the sense that data scientists see themselves as rock stars, or that other people need to bow to them. That kind of attitude comes from the top.

It seems like you take a broader view of professional development than a lot of companies. Why is that?

People stay with a company for about three years on average, so it’s not the days of old where you can offer a pension as an incentive for people to stay for a lifetime. We want to offer something to our employees beyond just a paycheck and an opportunity to engage in meaningful work.

We have decided to focus on community, knowledge and skills, because those three things will benefit our employees both internally and externally — whether they stay with Uptake for three years or 30. We want the relationships people build at Uptake to turn into networks they can rely on. We want people to gain an understanding of our industry and how work gets done here.

The key is to ensure that your value as an employee continues to rise as long as you stay here. We hope you’ll stay, but we’re not under the illusion that people will stay forever — and we know that means we need to offer you something portable.

So it’s not so much about keeping employees from leaving as it is about setting people up for success?

Right. Everybody wins. A lot of companies don't want to talk about that, or they want to create an environment where people are disincentivized to leave. We want to create an experience where people know they have options, but where they stay anyway because they’re growing.

Based on survey results and our attrition rate, we’re doing a pretty good job of creating that kind of environment. We're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. We have all of the growing pains of a young company. But I'd put us up against any other company at our stage.

Speaking of growth: a lot of people at Uptake are becoming managers for the first time. What advice do you give them when they take on those roles?

The number one thing is to talk to your people. That seems simple, but managers consistently fail to do this because they get busy with their own jobs. It’s also important to be very thoughtful and direct. Being thoughtful without being direct doesn’t accomplish much, and being direct without being thoughtful is too harsh.

Collaborative culture is a hot topic, but how do you go about creating it?

People need to trust each other. Collaboration requires becoming vulnerable to each other in admitting that we don’t have all the answers. That’s difficult to do, and we’re not always going to succeed. But we really want to continue focusing on what we can achieve when people embrace trust.

How do you encourage employees to open up in that way?

Our Second City classes start that conversation out of the gate, but we’re also rolling out conscious leadership practices across the organization. Conscious leadership is about coming to each moment in the present, and trying to understand the other person rather than seeking to confirm your own perspectives.

In measuring performance, we try to measure those behaviors as well. Performance isn’t just about how well you accomplish your goals — it’s also about how well you work with other people, and how our values show through in your work.

Uptake works with really big clients, which can mean the financial stakes for each project are really high. How do you keep that from becoming an disincentive to take risks or admit mistakes?

We know we're going to make mistakes, but when we do, we roll up our sleeves and come up with solutions. That fearlessness is sometimes dizzying. We are less than three years old while partners like Caterpillar have been around for more than 100. But we’re led by experienced executives who had a firm vision in partnering with Brad — and Brad knows how to build companies.

In addition to your work at Uptake, you’re also a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. What drew you here from academia?

Academia is all about asking questions, trying new things and exploring new territory. I pursued a Ph.D. to understand what makes people tick at work. For me, Uptake is the coolest natural experiment for walking in and trying some of this stuff out.

Brad has always been very open to trial and error, which means we can take some risks so long as we don’t make the same mistakes over and over again. To me, that combines the best of both academia and industry, while at the same time providing an opportunity to change the world.

 

Photography by Chris Murphy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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