Business Services,

Interview with SurveyGizmo's CEO and Co-Founder Christian Vanek

January 11, 2017

by Amelia Peacock

Clutch spoke with Christian Vanek, CEO and Co-Founder of SurveyGizmo, about employee feedback and job fulfillment.

Christian Vanek is the co-founder and chief executive officer of SurveyGizmo. He consistently provides solutions for companies to collect, centralize, and distribute data in order to help companies make informed business decisions.  He has a passion for facilitating company-wide communication to elevate company culture and increase productivity and a determination to set high standards and foster innovation within the data industry.

Founded in 2006, SurveyGizmo is a powerful, online survey platform that empowers business professionals to make informed decisions. SurveyGizmo provides survey software to over 205 countries, with 50,000 new surveys created and 7.5 million responses collected every week, for customers like Fedex, IBM, Microsoft, Bloomberg Television, GE, and ESPN. It has been recognized as a leader in the survey industry for its innovation, service, and value.

Learn more about SurveyGizmo here.



Small Businesses and Employee Feedback


Is there a reason why small businesses give significantly less feedback to their employees than enterprises?

In a small business where the entrepreneur is still heavily involved at all levels of the organization, unstructured feedback and a lack of evaluation is the status quo. CEOs are probably entrepreneurs because they had an idea, and they wanted to solve a customer's problem. Then, all of a sudden, they have these employees. Very often, CEOs don’t have the training necessary to provide regular, structured feedback.


Early on, if you are doing feedback, it’s probably less formal. It could be on paper. It could just be a quick conversation between people. But as organizations scale and grow, payroll and employees will be one of the largest expenditures and the largest investments managers deal with. Managers will realize that if they can gain an extra 5% of value from their workforce by providing better feedback and training, it’s totally worth it. That doesn’t occur at the small business level.


Do you have any advice for small business managers who are trying to increase the amount of employee feedback they provide?

Larger organizations put more emphasis on the task at hand, than the performance of an individual, because they define the task better. I’m willing to bet, if I were to ask these respondents how many actually have a structured and formal job description and role outline, their answers would be low for smaller businesses compared to companies with 5000+ employees.


Sometimes unstructured feedback may not be useful feedback. When SurveyGizmo was really small, people felt they were getting a lot of feedback from me, but they really weren’t. Instead they were getting casual communication with the founder. I think they misinterpreted that as feedback about their job. I would love to see smaller organizations do more written feedback. Managers will learn that you have to put it in writing, even if it seems very corporate. There’s a lot of legality and fairness reasons that point to why you need to write down reviews and provide clear communication to your staff. It makes everyone happier.


How would you translate informal feedback systems into something more formal or measurable?

I think it’s important to understand why formal feedback is very important, even if your company is small. As entrepreneurs, we get very wrapped up in our own businesses, but we also have a responsibility to the people who work for us – to their professional and career development. It’s very easy to push off giving them critical, candid feedback.


Recording what feedback you have given lets you measure improvements early on. Those people that are working for you will probably go onto other jobs in the next few years, particularly the younger generation. Without giving good feedback, documenting feedback, and having formal job titles/definitions, we’re really doing a disservice to the workforce. Every employer needs to take responsibility for their employees’ career developments.


So start early. We had around 25 or 30 employees when we created a role called director of employee happiness. I can tell you, it was one of the best things we did as an organization. It eased the transition into a more “grown up” organization, and it also reduced the overall drama and tension within the startup at that point.


Millennials, Job Fulfillment, and Employee Feedback


How has your experience with employee management been affected by the changing workplace age demographic?

Thinking back to my earlier career, I can see that every early career – when you’re 18 to 34 – is just your starting career. You’re going to make a number of leaps and bounds in order to find the fit that works for your financial obligations, future planning, and what you actually want to be doing with your life. Even if we had asked employees a generation ago whether they were planning to quit their jobs, the percentages may have been a little smaller but probably not by much.


In my experience, and in the research I’ve seen, the “experience fit” is more important to this generation than generations in the past. They may make a couple more leaps than Xers or Boomers did early on in their career. It’s not disloyalty. It’s an exploration of self and how they want to fit in the world.


The 23% of Millennials receiving informal or ad hoc feedback concerns me. I hope the feedback is being written down. An email would suffice. It might seem like a great idea to have that casual feedback once in a while – at least once a month – but an email recapping what you discussed is vital. A year from now, when you’re looking at performance and salary reviews and trying to understand your workforce, you’ll want that email. You won’t remember the casual feedback. As a software vendor, I should point out that you can do a lot of this online with data collection tools.


How do you think managers and CEO’s should understand the changing attitudes Millennials bring to the workplace?

I feel like we should print Keep Calm shirts for CEOs who manage Millennials. If you’re a small business and you have a large number of early-20s to early-30s working in your organization, particularly if they’re career oriented but entry-level jobs, be patient and give feedback.


There was a disservice done to that generation in primary education concerning the competitive nature of the workplace. It was the era of “everyone gets a ribbon for participating.” That was so unfair in the end. You’ll probably notice in the first couple of months that when a younger individual encounters a problem, they’re more likely to need to be coached through that problem, but they’re very technical, self-motivated, creative, and great at lateral thinking. You can use that to your advantage.


But if they move on, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t consider it an act of disloyalty or a failure of your organization. Exit interviews are key to understanding the motivation and the reasoning for why they’re leaving. Then, get continuous feedback – don't just provide feedback to staff – but ask for continuous feedback from your staff in order to understand whether their needs are being met professionally and personally.


Millennials are more likely than other generations to want their education to count toward promotions and raises. In your opinion should managers take this into account?

For me, knowing that you come from a background, such as an educational background that supports creative thinking and problem solving, is important. But then I want to see your job performance. After nine months, I have a good idea of how an employee is going to behave on the job and that should take precedence over education, particularly for raises. I also think it reinforces some racial bias when you look at education in hiring, promotions, and raises. It’s a dangerous thing to filter resumes on. I would recommend that educational background be used as additional information in the hiring process but not as screening information.


Employee Expectations, Promotions, and Raises


How have your employees' expectations about promotions and raises changed as SurveyGizmo continues to grow?

I don’t have data to back this up, but my gut says that [changes in employee expectations] are related to the fact that in a larger organization, you’re more likely to have a defined role and clear metrics you need to meet, whereas in a smaller organization, you probably don’t. It’s more that you do everything in a small businesses. You probably don’t have a list of things that you can look at in a quantitative way at your six month check-in. You’ll probably be judged more on an ad hoc basis. I was pleased to see that as organizations scale up, there is an increasing desire for measureable outputs to be a major factor in overall raise consideration.


The one other thing that we’ve had to educate our employees about is that the market is a factor in raises. It’s not a popular factor. It is one of the areas where, regardless of how well you are doing your job, there’s a point where it no longer becomes cost effective to provide large increases in salary. This is never popular. We run into this problem in our service departments, where we see customer service as one of the core values of our organization, and yet, when you look at the overall market, the role is not as as valued as say, software development, or design, or things like that. This leads to people not developing full, relationship-based careers. They go more technical instead, since there seems to be more market desire for those skills.


How can managers be more attentive to their employees’ desired evaluation factors?

I think [managers] should consider evaluation factors on on an individual-by-individual level. The good news is, if you have good relationships with your employees and you don’t have too many of them, you should be able to understand how they want to be judged and considered for raises and promotions. If you’re doing a really good job, your employees should know what the expectations are and how the organization will weigh different factors. There could be a huge gap if you’re in an organization that is data focused, and measurable outputs are going to be the number one factor; yet, your employees want to be judged by their attitudes. You’re likely to run into a barrier with them that will cause frustration, miscommunication, and potential attrition. That’s on the manager. Those conversations need to happen early.


Check out more from Christian Vanek in 9 Expert Tips on Using Feedback to Increase Employee Engagement.

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