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17 min watch with captions and full transcript

Serial entrepreneur Sean Kelly hasn’t always led with his heart. But as CEO of SnackNation, and proud founder of its Crush It employee recognition program, he now sees the value in creating a culture of connection. Debra Corey got the scoop on the lessons Sean has learned along his career journey.

In this interview, Sean Kelly, CEO of SnackNation, shares his tips for:

  • How to create a culture your employees feel they belong to
  • How to use gratitude to get the best out of your people
  • How to iterate employee programs to fit all levels of an organization
In this video, Sean shares his rebel insights to:
  • Knowing the right things will stick
  • Solving people first, problems second
  • Helping employees feel a sense of belongingCrushing it
  • Creating opportunities for employees to be their best selves 
Our favorite quotes:

I’ve found that the biggest difference between successful companies with phenomenal cultures and those that are just mediocre is that underlying empathy, compassion and kindness.

Anything that's core to who you are, you should never give up.

Sean's interview

DEBRA COREY: Hi everyone. I am DEBRA COREY and I'm here with SEAN KELLY, who is the founder and CEO of SnackNation.

SEAN KELLY: That is accurate. It's good to be here with you.

DEBRA COREY: Great. Thank you. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your company for those who do not know your company? It's a U.S. company, yes?

SEAN KELLY: It is a U.S. company based in the city of angels, Los Angeles. We deliver what we believe to be the most phenomenal snacking experiences to the most innovative companies across America. We like to say we help companies create awesome offices.

DEBRA COREY: That sounds great. I'm trying to convince Sean to come over to Europe, so hopefully, you know? You never know.

SEAN KELLY: Twist my arm.

DEBRA COREY: Some day.

SEAN KELLY: Twist my arm a little bit. Again, there. We're good.

DEBRA COREY: All right. Good. [inaudible 00:00:39] there. Fantastic. And Sean was speaking at a conference that we're at here today, HCI Conference in San Francisco.

SEAN KELLY: Yes. Had fun.

DEBRA COREY: It was really good. You did a fantastic presentation.

SEAN KELLY: Thank you. I appreciate the kind words.

DEBRA COREY: And we'll have you explain the shirt at the end because it sort of goes with the theme of your presentation.

SEAN KELLY: Made with love. Yes, it was a conversation about love in the workplace. A little bit weird, but weird can sometimes be good as long as you don't go too weird.


SEAN KELLY: Was it too weird?

DEBRA COREY: No, because the conference was about engagement and it related into that. So why do you think love, engagement, connection, all of those types of things are important as a CEO? People like myself in HR love CEOs who are actually interested in that. So why is it important to you as a business leader?

SEAN KELLY: I think it's most important to just being human. I think if you look at the drivers and what motivates us to change and what motivates us to become better, I don't think there's that many of them. There's only a few, and I think connection, love and empathy and establishing deeper relationships with those people around you, deep relationships with people in your life, I think that's the best pathway to not only experience greater fulfillment as an individual but also to get the most out of yourself. I think as a CEO, as somebody who's really people focused and understanding that a company is nothing more than a fictional entity of people coming together to unite around a common goal, it's all about getting people to become the best versions of themselves. That's why I care so much about connection because I've gone through a long journey of just realizing that it's what matters the most in getting people to be their best.

DEBRA COREY: Have you seen that personally? You said you've been through a journey, so have you seen it not work in some companies and then hopefully you see it work in your current organization?

SEAN KELLY: I think it's been a long journey for me just initially caring more about other things than I did about connection. I cared more about growth and achievement and just getting better. That's still very important to me, but now I found that the biggest difference between successful companies with phenomenal cultures and those that are just mediocre is that underlying empathy, compassion and kindness. If you can combine great performance with great growth, great company purpose, and you can interlink the connection with all those things, you have something that's really special that can create a lot of scale and a lot of magic.

I've unfortunately only worked for myself. I've been an entrepreneur since I was 19 years old, so I've primarily seen the progression within my own companies and within my own leadership style. So I can't comment as much about what's happened kind of outside of us.

DEBRA COREY: So it's interesting because you haven't worked in other companies, so where ... We're going to talk a little bit about some of the great innovative things that you're doing in regards to employee engagement. I'm pointing at this because it's in the book. We've got a play in the book about what you're doing. Where do you get your ideas? Where do you get your inspiration?

SEAN KELLY: That's the best thing. As opposed to just being like a speaker or a consultant or an author, the best thing about having a company is that you have testing grounds. You have fertile testing grounds where you can try things out, and I think the key is being able to try things out and understanding that sometimes you'll fall flat on your face. Sometimes your people will be like that was terrible. It was an awful idea. Let's never do that again. It was awkward and just not good, but sometimes-

DEBRA COREY: It's never happened to me in my life.


DEBRA COREY: Every idea's always been perfect the first time. No.

SEAN KELLY: Yeah. You and me both. No. Not at all. So I think that's it. I think it's just, it's testing it out. The ideas come from everywhere. I have ideas all the time just because I'm obsessed with this sort of thing and again I'm most focused on the people of our organization, but we get ideas from everyone. We get ideas from people that say hey, we should be meditating. Hey, we should have a dance party in the morning. Hey, we should bring in celebrities and athletes to teach our group once a week on something that's interesting to make the workplace more fun. So the ideas come from all sorts of places. I think the key is to not be scared of failure and to not be scared of things not sticking because the right things will stick. They will stick.

DEBRA COREY: I think that's really important and that's sort of a theme I've heard from other rebels in the book. Two things about don't be afraid of failure. You can't innovate without failure. The thing is the business world does it all the time. I don't know why we don't try the same thing in the human resources and people side. People are probably more forgiving than our customers, so we might as well innovate and try things new.

SEAN KELLY: You just spoke about that forgiving. I think people in general are very forgiving if you give them a chance to be. I think millennials are especially forgiving. If you figure out something a little bit wacky or a little bit new and you present it to your team and say hey, guys. We're not saying that this is the perfect policy. Okay, we're just going to try this and it may not work out, but we want to work with you to determine how to make this effective. That's completely different than going to your team and saying hey, we've worked on this strategy for three or four months. We read a bunch of books, and this is the way that we're going to do it, and this is how it's going to be done, and this is the structure, and let's check back in in six months. That doesn't work so well. Like, make it all part of the process of bringing everybody together and yeah. It's not rocket science.

DEBRA COREY: Definitely. And that's the second part that you said that really resonates with me about including people in the decision making and the new ideas. A lot of times, I've been in HR for a very long time. We used to sit in our office and come up with all the great ideas ourselves. There's so many great ideas around us. It sounds like you do that a lot at your company.

SEAN KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I think we could always do a better job, but it's something I talked about today is that we so often as leaders or if we have the honor to be in leadership positions, we think about solving problems. But we got to solve people first. We so often think about like here's the problem. This is what we're going to do. We're going to do our best. We're going to do the design around it. We're going to put it all to work. Well, how do you even know that you're solving the right problem?


SEAN KELLY: When you solve the people and you bring them in and think about what they need and how they want to be involved, they'll present the problems themselves and they'll many times come up with the answers. It actually just means a lot less work for the leaders and it becomes a lot easier. So certainly something we can consistently get better at, but that integration's essential for creating a unifying front and actually creating a culture that's cohesive and works.

DEBRA COREY: Yes, and listening and working together and connecting. Going back to the whole connecting.

SEAN KELLY: Yup. Yeah. Looking at ... I think we heard it in several talks today and I brought it up a little bit in mine is that what people want more than anything is a sense of belonging. In order for people to feel like they have a sense of belonging, they need to be able to show up authentically as themselves, surround themselves with people who actually care about them, and then they also need to feel like their work matters, like they can actually make a difference. Well, guess what? When you create rules and you just tell people what they are and hey, these are the rules or this is what we're going to do now or here's the activity, they feel like pawns. They feel like lemmings. They don't feel like they're part of the process.

So I think if we design our culture around how can we make people feel a sense of belonging, how can we make people feel like they matter, there's so many people in life they don't feel like they matter. They feel like if they were evaporated from this planet, nothing would change. That's especially the case in most big companies. I think if we counteract that, I think a lot of answers lie there.

DEBRA COREY: Yeah. You also talked about bringing your whole self and if you don't give them that voice and give them that connection, it's like leaving half of yourself at home, which doesn't feel right when you do that.

SEAN KELLY: Well, it's terrible, right? I mean that's the old school, right? The old school way of doing things is I'm going to leave half of myself at home, and I'm going to take the other half to work. Well, what's the terrible thing about that? First of all, you can't live without integrity. Integrity is wholeness, it's oneness. You need 100% of everyone in every moment, so that's the biggest thing, is like none of us can live two split lives and just leave half of us over here. The result is terrible. It's inauthentic. It's bad performance. It's just no bueno.

The other problem is that when people leave half of themselves at home and bring the other half, well where's the good part? They're usually leaving the good part at home, and they're bringing the crap to work. So it's like no, I want all of you to show up.

DEBRA COREY: Or you leave the crap at home and you ruin your whole family life, so yeah. Might as well bring it all with you [crosstalk 00:08:56]

SEAN KELLY: Absolutely, absolutely. You're absolutely right. It goes both ways.

DEBRA COREY: Yes. Well why don't we talk for a moment about some of the great things that you're doing. There's one particular thing that we'll start with, which is in the book, but then by all means share some of the other things. The reason that we included in this book is I read an article about it, so that's where I heard about it first. The crush it program. I just wanted to learn more about it. There's about that much of a blurb about it. So I contacted your company and said please tell me more, so why don't you explain about the crush it program.

SEAN KELLY: Yeah. So we believe in crushing it. That's basically recognizing others for awesome accomplishments. We all work so hard, and it's important to call people out for doing something awesome because there's awesome occurrences around us every single day if we really think about it. We have something called the crush it call that's part of the crush it program, and that's for-

DEBRA COREY: I just love the name too.

SEAN KELLY: Oh, the crush it call. Who doesn't want to be crushed? People are like, crushed, is that like Donkey Kong? Like hitting people over the head? I'm like no. To be crushed is-

DEBRA COREY: It's not painful.

SEAN KELLY: It's not painful. It's actually feels really good. Every Friday, and this has happened now for eight years, every Friday at 4:30 P.M., the entire company gets together. There's some nice music. There's beers cracked, some chardonnay or wine.

DEBRA COREY: We saw you dance on stage today. Is there dancing involved?

SEAN KELLY: That, there is dancing but it's usually not near as bad as that because it's usually other people dancing, but like I mentioned to you, I'm always a fan of making a fool of myself as long as it's for the benefit of the party, and I certainly did that today.

But yeah. 4:30 P.M. People come to it. We're sharing beers. It's kind of the end of the week even if a lot of people have a couple more hours of work left to do. We go around a circle and people volunteer, and it's usually about half the company. It depends on the energy, but about half the company steps forward and crushes somebody else. That is, they recognize somebody else for an awesome accomplishment that they saw that person do that embodied a core value of the organization. So they say, Debra. You know, it was so cool how you took 20 minutes out of your day to assist me in figuring this out and this allowed this to occur, and you really embody the value of serve and inspire, or seek perpetual growth, or whatever it may be. Then after crushing that person, and it's just again, it feels so good. I get the tingles now just feeling these people get crushed. It's like wow, I'm noticed. Wow, people saw me.

Then they specify a gratitude. They say, and by the way, the thing that I'm most grateful for in this moment is X. And it's real and it's authentic. It's not BS. You can't say the weather, by the way. You can't say you're grateful for the weather. It's like-

DEBRA COREY: Okay. So there's certain rules.

SEAN KELLY: Well, there's like little rules. It's like we live in Southern California. You can't say the weather. That's a BS gratitude. It's like dig, you know what? I'll them out. I'm like dig deep, like dig deeper. You have more to be grateful for. I don't even care if it's the smell of the person next to you, which is weird, but it's like at least that's better. Many times we find out that what people are most grateful for are the people in that room. So we wrap up around 5:00, 5:10, and actually it depends. I actually think right now we're at 4:00 P.M., but regardless, after 30, 40 minutes, the feeling is just fantastic and it sends people into the weekends on a high note where they then go and share that story with their friends and family and they bring gratitudes and recognition into their home life, and it's this virtuous cycle that just keeps getting better.

DEBRA COREY: What I like about it is you get the tingles when you give and you receive, so it's nice that it's a combination of both of those.


DEBRA COREY: Definitely, and Friday afternoon. What a great way to start a Friday, or a weekend when you do that.

SEAN KELLY: It is, and you know, and over eight years, I mean there was times when we've had to figure out with the crush it call and have it adapt as our company's gotten bigger and we've changed locations and things have altered. We've at times asked ourselves, man, is this really worth 45 minutes or an hour or whatever it may be of this time? I mean there's a lot of people, over 100 people coming together for it. Every time when we analyze it, we say eff yeah. Yes, it's worth it. Like it absolutely is worth it. We're not losing an hour to like ... Even if people have an extra hour of work to do, they come for the crush it call, and then they finish their work. I think too often we get too caught up in the time, in the cost of things, and we need to think a little bit more about the benefit that we provide, not the benefit in terms of what we provide to professionals, but the benefit we provide to the human beings that we work with.

DEBRA COREY: Well, everybody wants to feel like they're thanked. They want to feel like people appreciate them, so it's a great way to do it. I wrote a blog once and I said that. I said, talked about the importance of it. I said now go out and thank someone. My mum messaged me and said I just thanked Dad for doing the gardening and it made his day, so-


DEBRA COREY: Yes. I think it was after I had finished talking to you guys about what you did with your program, so my father appreciates that.

SEAN KELLY: It's unbelievable. You know, we come to these conferences and we read a lot of books and a lot of studies and articles. So many of the theories put forth are complex or after years of accumulating data and then building business intelligence on top of it. That's all great. You know, I love that stuff. My background's in biomedical engineering. I'm certainly at least a half if not three-quarters geek, but it's usually the simple stuff-


SEAN KELLY: ... that our world needs the most. I mean, how many people are in San Francisco now, how many people if you walk the streets and you pass, if we pass 100 people in an hour or two while walking over to the Wharf and looking at Alcatraz, how many people have been thanked today? How many people have been told that they're appreciated? Probably not that many.

DEBRA COREY: Wow. I have to say when I was walking up that hill today, which was very, very steep, I had some man stop me and tell me how nice I looked. I have to admit, it helped me get to the top of the hill because I was at the point where I thought I'm never going to get to the top.


DEBRA COREY: So, same idea. Little things can make a big difference.

SEAN KELLY: You know, and I'm a bit of a sap with these things, but it's like you know what? Just be a good human. Look at others as great souls, as people who can add a lot of value to your life and you to them and things just become easier.

DEBRA COREY: Well the nice thing about what you did is, and you sort of mentioned this before, is as you grew. When you first started out, you could go around the circle and everybody could do a crush, and you could have given up but you didn't. You've evolved your program, so that, I mean you can't go around the whole crush it circle anymore, but it still works for you. I do think it shows companies as you grow, it doesn't mean you have to give up some of the lovely things that you do at the beginning.

SEAN KELLY: Anything that's core to who you are, you should never give up. Now, it doesn't mean it won't take a lot of effort. In all honesty, the new form of the crush it call, which is very similar to the last, but the new form took us three months, almost four months to figure out. We went through a lot of testing. Sometimes it felt inauthentic. Sometimes it felt forced. Sometimes it felt too long. Sometimes the energy wasn't there. But it just took constant effort and eventually we got there, and by the way, the reason it wasn't working initially is because I was trying to exert, influence and force, our leaders were and they were saying this is where it came from. This is what it is. This is what we need to do. We started asking people questions, and then taking those answers that they were giving us, and then formulating them into a mold and iterating on that. Now we're at a place where it's back to being the awesomeness that it originally was.

DEBRA COREY: Oh, that's great. And it goes back to your point about it doesn't have to come from the leaders. It can come from others in the organization.

SEAN KELLY: 100%. I think you need a culture where everyone's equally committed and you're pulling things from across all levels.

DEBRA COREY: Great. Well, thank you so much for talking about that.

SEAN KELLY: Absolutely.

DEBRA COREY: I think we've got one challenge for everybody. Go out and thank at least one person and the other part of the crush it call, the gratefulness? Yes?

SEAN KELLY: And to just recognize all the things that you're grateful for. I believe that a culture that has a ... It's impossible to have a culture of fantastic recognition and phenomenal gratitude and not also have a culture of at least mediocre or above mediocre connection. So I think that's what we're talking about. We're talking about recognition, we're talking about gratitude, creating a culture of connection and where people can become the best versions of themselves.

DEBRA COREY: It's a lovely way to end. So thank you again. I really appreciate it. If people would like to learn more about the play that we've listed, go out and grab a copy of the book, Build It, Rebel Playbook. If you'd like to watch more of these types of videos, we've got some podcasts and some resources. You can go to rebelplaybook.com. I wish you all the luck in building engagement at your company. And last but not least, don't forget to be a bit of a rebel, just like Sean.

SEAN KELLY: I agree. I'm a rebel. I'm made with-

DEBRA COREY: Oh, the t-shirt. Yes.

SEAN KELLY: Made with love. Rebel.

DEBRA COREY: Made with love. Yes. Be a rebel.

SEAN KELLY: Yes rebel. Love in the workplace.

DEBRA COREY: Yes. Great. Thank you.

SEAN KELLY: Thank you.