The three leaders who have emerged as the best from among the hundreds of Washington-area Top Workplaces CEOs evaluated by The Post seem to have a knack for the unconventional — reinventing themselves, taking unexpected career moves and fearlessly navigating challenging business transitions. They strive to be more than just decision-makers, applying what they learned along the way to help employees flourish.
CEOs Matt Calkins , Rick Wuest (pronounced “Weest”) and Kim Rishi were ranked No. 1 by virtue of the scores their employees gave them in the survey conducted by Energage.
Calkins, the large-employers winner, oversees almost 1,000 people as CEO of Reston-based Appian. Because he and the two other founders don’t have science degrees, Calkins says he values “non-boxed” candidates without the required background who have a willingness to work hard.
Wuest, the top-ranked leader among midsize employers, is the second-generation owner of Thompson Creek Window Company and Closet America, both home improvement firms based in suburban Maryland. He inherited Thompson Creek from his father and transformed it from a company serving commercial customers to one serving retail customers.
Rishi, who took first place among small employers, gave up a relatively safe job as vice president of human resources for a large tech company to run Studio Bleu Dance Center in Ashburn, Va. She built the school, which also teaches singing and acting, into a nationally recognized program.
Here’s their take on how their unique paths — edited for brevity and clarity — came to influence their conduct, values and leadership style:
Q: How are you different from a typical business manager?
Calkins: Our mission is a little bit less speculative than the typical company on the West Coast. We didn’t go public until [our value proposition] was realized and thoroughly proven. We knew we had the better mousetrap, and we went public for the publicity. . . . We felt we had a great value proposition, and we wanted the world to be aware of it.
So we went public in order to raise our profile to attract more attention, and it worked. We got lots more attention, our industry got more attention, and it really did mark a threshold for us. We were at the point where it was time to seize the day.
I limit how much time I’m spending now on investor relations to just a few days each quarter, and the rest of the time I’m not thinking about it. I’ve encouraged everyone not even to keep track of the stock price. . . . I haven’t checked the stock this week. I don’t care to know where it is. The short-cycle fluctuations are not interesting, and they can only distract.
Rishi: I’ve always been a very hard worker, and I don’t require very much sleep. [I need] like three hours a night. I guess I have good genes . . . both my parents didn’t require very much sleep. Instead I work, plan, strategize and read. So I get a little bit of an advantage.
But I understand the whole idea of work-life balance, and I appreciate that, and I make sure that the employees have that. I feel like it’s my job also to make sure they’re growing and that I provide opportunities for them to succeed in their dreams, no matter what it is: whether it’s to have a family, to be in a professional tap company, to judge dance competitions or to have a good work-life balance.
Q: What did you learn early on that you try to impart to colleagues?
Wuest: At first, we weren’t real clear on strategy, we weren’t real clear on mission and values, and some of these other cultural aspects of the business that are really important.
By the time we got up to $40 million in [annual] revenue — from $1 million — we had layers of managers and a lot of different people in the organization, and I hadn’t put enough credence into building the cultural foundation of the business. It was more culture by osmosis than being deliberate about it.
And I realized that all of a sudden we had built a business where people were making decisions that they thought were best for Thompson Creek, but not always best for the customer. Like setting more appointments than we could cover . . . our people would say, “We want to be at full capacity; we want to be running at full efficiency.”
And I’d say, “Yeah, sure that’s better for us, but what are [customers] saying to their friends and neighbors about that experience?” I told them we need to be more aligned around our cultural foundation as a company. We found ourselves in a place where we had to get in a room and say: “Who are we? What are people saying about us? And how do we make sure that we’re true to our values and our mission?”
So that transformation happened right around 2010 or 2011, where we started getting more deliberate about the culture of the business.
Calkins: At some companies, a “box” happens because you only get to your job because of certain qualifications . . . but at Appian we started out without those qualifications. I don’t know that I have ever had the qualifications for the roles that I’ve attempted. I and my co-founders started [Appian] without a science degree among us. I was 26 years old.
So I figure you shouldn’t discount what people can do if they’re willing to work hard and they have the basic ability. So at Appian we allow for a great deal of . . . “non-boxed” career movement. Number one is switching between departments into something in which you have no background. We really get a lot of fluidity between departments and people have made fascinating moves from one to the other.
It’s a way of saying, “We don’t value you for your skill set as much as we value you for you . . . for your ability to become what you want to become.” We’re grounded in respect, and part of that is letting people define themselves.
Rishi: I went to George Mason [University] and had a wonderful time, but then I had to pay off student loans. I made the decision not to go to New York and start auditioning. So I worked in the business sector for a company called Service Financial Corporation. It was the largest provider of student loans. I was in the call center.
From there I went for my master’s [in human resource management] and went to a company called Vastera. There were 17 people when I started, and when I left over eight years later, there were maybe 800 employees in something like 12 different countries. They used software to automate the trade process of importing and exporting, and I ran their human resources department. I was part of them going public as vice president of HR.
But back in college, I had been teaching for a studio called the Academy of Dance and Movement, and when the owner of the studio got ready to retire, she reached out to me and said, “I’d like for you to take it over.”
I felt like this was the opportunity that I was supposed to take, and I honestly didn’t think I would be doing it this long, or that I would be doing it on a national level. It stayed Academy of Dance and Movement for about a year and then we changed the name to Studio Bleu. That was 12 years ago. My best friend says to me all the time, “When are you going to go back to being ‘HR Kim’?”
Q: How do you make sure other people's opinions are valued in your organization?
Wuest: I’ve always been fascinated by social sciences and behavioral sciences. At this point, all we’re doing is we’re managing behaviors and we’re managing processes, and I’ve always made mistakes when I focused on the processes instead of the behaviors and the people.
Patrick Lencioni wrote a book called “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” and we’ve embraced the principles he put into that book as part of this transformation of our company. On the wall in many of our rooms you’ll see our mission in the middle, the values on the right and the Lencioni Pyramid on the left.
It starts with trust. We’ve got to believe that we all have the same objectives for the workplace. The individual that’s a bit of a maverick and doesn’t want to be aligned with teamwork and accountability probably isn’t going to build trust in our organization, and that’s probably why they don’t belong there.
But from trust you can have conflict. I can say: “Look, here’s what our objective is, and I know you want to go up the north side [of the mountain] because that’s where the sun’s going to hit it and soften up the snow, but some of us want to go up the south side. Either route will get us there, but we have to go together.” And we’ve got to have that out, have that conflict. Then we can go to commitment. And once we commit, there’s no wavering; that’s when accountability kicks in.
And that’s how we get to results . . . at the top of the pyramid.
Calkins: When somebody disagrees with me or convinces me to change, I’ll post it on our corporate bulletin board, which is running on Appian; we use our own software for this. I’ll post it, I’ll mention it in my quarterly speech.
I love stories like that because they encourage everybody to talk. I don’t want them to think that I’m not listening to anybody. I would love them to think that their voice matters, that I welcome their comment.
There are just no shutdowns in this company; no negative responses to an idea. The idea could win — it could help us all — but there’s never a sense that it’s an imposition to say what you think.
Q: How do you make sure good work is rewarded?
Wuest: My dad used to tell me, “If you want a promotion, you’ve got to replace yourself in your job first.” I remembered that, and I thought, “What’s occupying all my time in my job right now, and how do I find somebody to do all that?”
To those that can’t understand that concept, they’re going to become impediments in our business. So I’ve spent a lot of time coaching people on just that thing, and trying to develop them to think differently about it. You’re not relinquishing job security by teaching somebody to do what you do; what you’re doing is liberating yourself.
If people are in our organization and they’re guarding what they do so closely that they’re not willing to train and share, they’re probably not a match for our values.
Calkins: We invented a feature in our software a few years ago called Kudos, in which you can give a public compliment, and it’s published to everybody. One person gives a compliment to another and everyone else sees it. And then this kudos is stored under each person’s personal record.
So in the future I can see every kudos that a person has received. Or I can read all of the ones that I’ve received, to just feel good that people appreciate what I’ve done. Or I can read the ones that someone has given, because often it says a lot about a person the things they appreciate, and not just the things for which they are appreciated.
Q: What's your first priority as a manager?
Wuest: We’ve got to make sure that the person we’re sending into [a customer’s] house has our values of integrity and accountability.
In a lot of organizations, you think of salespeople as these independent Vikings that just go out and bring stuff back to the village . . . but that doesn’t work in our type of business. They’re not just bringing in orders. Because we need to manufacture and install, and we’ve got to understand the needs of a home and the needs of a homeowner, we’ve got to take that order and get it all the way through to installation day. And that installation day is where we’re truly evaluated: Success or failure? Did we meet the customer’s expectation?
Having people out there in [sales] that don’t understand they need to set it up right and really manage the customer’s expectations is not going to work. . . . Just getting someone to sign a contract isn’t going to help us achieve our mission. So there’s a lot of teamwork that has to happen, they’ve got to set the expectations right, and there are a lot of people in sales that don’t have those qualities, so it’s important for us to be cognizant of these things.
Rishi: I’ve had kids on “World of Dance” [a dance competition on NBC], I’ve had kids on Broadway, on “So You Think You Can Dance” [a dance competition on Fox], on “The Ellen [DeGeneres] Show.” I’ve had kids join professional tap companies. We have the largest boys [dance] program in the country here; the boys were just on Harry Connick Jr.
But the most important thing to me is . . . what we stand for . . . what our actions should be. I think it’s special to be able to help kids in today’s environment. I really feel like we’re helping shape them as men and women. I feel like we can be a home away from home. We can be a safe place where they can be confident, set goals and really achieve those goals.
What’s great for me is I get to merge my dance background and love for the arts with my love for training and corporate development. Now I get to give back to kids and teach them things other than dance. I get to teach them leadership skills, communication skills, stress management skills, how to be proactive and be a part of a team, and how to problem-solve. I get to use everything I’ve learned up to this point.
I have teachers back in Pennsylvania that taught me when I was 4 years old, and I still keep in touch with them. There are teachers that have been here since they were 2 or 4 years old, and now they’re in their 30s. We have a teacher here that I taught myself when she was 5 years old, and now she has a child. I have teachers where the kids that they taught are now teaching [the teacher’s] children.