“The wellbeing of humans drives successful work.” Kari Sulenes, the Co-Founder of Pilea, talks about how to build an organization without burnout.
During the conversation, Kari shares the five elements which she believes are essential to wellbeing in the workplace, and how she is working to transform the hustle culture that is so pervasive in today’s society.
Welcome back to Consolidate That! Ivan, I am very, very excited for the guest that we have today. I think I’m going to let you introduce her but I’m going to just say on my end, I heard about Kari’s company from another podcast and she’s actually someone that, sort of as we envisioned doing this different show and the ideas that we’re talking about, someone like Kari was a guest that I’ve been really excited to talk to and branch out some different industries. With that, I will let you kick off and introduce Kari.
Excellent, well, good to see you Ryan too. I’m excited to introduce Kari Sulenes. She’s an executive director of Atlas, which Project Atlas is an expression of curious passion and doctoral work in holistic wellness and authentic leadership. She contributes 10 years of experience working with organizations and program development and organizational behavior.
The topic that we’ll have for this podcast is founder’s experience of burnout and how Atlas helps and Kari, thank you for joining us, thank you for finding the time, it’s a real pleasure to have you here.
Thank you so much for having me.
Ryan introduced me to your company when he said, “Look, we’re always talking about burnout and there’s actually a company that is building companies that fight the burnout.” What is this sort of purpose behind Atlas? It really looks like a purpose driven company, which is amazing. Can you tell us a little about that?
Yeah, I’d like to answer your question with a little bit of a story if that’s okay? All right, because I think that there’s a couple of threads that kind of run through all of this and how we arrived at burnout as a thing that we’d like to focus on and it starts, as it probably does for all of you and we’ve had this conversation, Ivan, it starts with us, the people who start the companies about burnout. In my doctoral research, we would call it research not research and so I did my doctoral dissertation on the organizational factors of self-care and it’s no surprise that the reason that I was focusing on self-care is because that’s something that I was not able to do for myself as a clinician.
I’ll just, I want to just back up a little bit and kind of weave the story of myself into how we also started to focus on burnout in entrepreneurs. Right out of university, I was working with domestic violence survivors and I was loving the work and found over and over again that I just didn’t have the right tools to support people and I looked around at my colleagues and people were not frustrated in the same way that I was. I was 21, I am a very idealistic and optimistic person by nature and I found that every time I couldn’t get someone a job or every time I couldn’t create safety for a woman I was working with, I kind of walked around with this sort of dispair and heaviness for a while and then I would kind of re-energize myself and go back into the work.
As I looked at my colleagues, there was kind of this just like flat apathy, learned helplessness occurring around me and not only that but I was also seeing that my colleagues were almost suffering more in their personal lives than our clients were.
I started to become sort of curious about what is going on in these helping professions, where the professionals themselves are experiencing so much suffering? And so I became almost obsessed with, how is the organization supporting or creating this picture for people? How is the work itself creating this picture for people? And then I became more interested in working with my colleagues than I did actually even with my clients.
When I decided to go to graduate school to relieve myself of this frustration of not being able to do anything, I studied both clinical psychology and organizational behavior because it became so clear to me that not only that this sort of burnout experience or the sort of apathy or learned helplessness that I saw was not a personal thing, it was systemic, and that it was being actually, maybe created, and then of course reinforced by the organizations and the structures that are around us.
That’s kind of like my foundation and so then I told you about my research. I found myself in a clinical psychology profession, which like folks in veterinary sciences, we’re high achievers who really want to help and really care about our work and as it will turn out, that’s the perfect storm to create burnout.
It’s like, we’re just predestined to face a lot of – based on who we are as people and then we throw ourselves into these professions that are really hard and really stressful and we have vicarious trauma and we care about people and we care about animals with so much of our hearts that we start to get that dazed look that my colleagues had, that sort of learned helplessness, almost like as a survival mechanism.
My dissertation was on, how do we create organizational structures that reduce the likelihood of that happening, right? Or kind of create resilience within the people who are doing that work? As I moved on at graduate school, I was studying a holistic psychology and working in integrative ways with medical providers and thinking about how could we really create sort of this holistic picture of thriving?
I was also on the side, kind of doing a side hustle and working with leaders and organizations, trying to figure out how we could tweak the organizational structure to get to the same goal and right about then, I met a couple of venture capitalists and they came to me and they said, “We’re really interested in exploring the thesis that if we invest in the wellbeing of humans, that will drive returns.”
They wanted to totally flip the script, “Let’s not invest in companies, let’s invest in people and bet on their companies,” and I didn’t know anything about anything at that point so I said, “Cool, let me go interview some founders and see what it is that they need.” As I interviewed these founders, what I heard was burnout story after burnout story after burnout story and just like veterinarians like psychologists, entrepreneurs are these high-achieving passion-driven people with the perfect storm for burnout.
As I heard these burnout journeys, I became pretty convinced that burnout is one of the existential threats that exist within early-stage companies. And then you all also know that it exists at several other stages of transition as companies grow and change and are acquired and so, that became the center of our work was looking at creating structures, processes, cultures and people who can be resilient to burnout as a way to drive returns in business.
Wow, there’s a lot. I have so many questions. When you were talking about this, it’s just so interesting because I think our last three webinars and 15 articles came out talking about why veterinarians are unhappy, how to create an environment at work and how to build consolidation, which is our specialty, with the burnout prevention in mind. That sort of – that was the thesis for our existence and it was followed, as I mentioned before, after my thesis and dissertation in MBA school on finding methodology and I applied lean on how to manage organizations with preventing burnouts.
That’s so close to what I try to achieve from a little bit different angle but I wanted to go back to your sort of feeling of this sort of when you felt like the burnout is actually in your profession and then when you were working with these cases of domestic violence and when you can do something about this. Did you feel then, do you actually define as two different things, compassion fatigue versus burnout? Because you know, it sounded, it’s more like a care provider kind of symptoms what you’re describing, is that different? Do you define those differently because we have different sort of frameworks online. So how do you feel about those two terms?
I’ll answer this question not scientifically, because I think that there are definitions that distinguish compassion fatigue and vicarious traumatization and personal burnout and work burnout, right? We have now definitions for all of these things. I’m not going to answer this question in that way because I kind of think that this whole thing, and now we have COVID burnout. Yeah, that’s a real thing.
I think all of this is actually around some sort of integration failure within humans and we can call it a lot of different things and the cause can be a lot of different things but the outcome kind of looks the same.
I’m thinking about helping professionals experience burnout in a specific way and the road where the ideology of that is probably compassion fatigue or vicarious traumatization or retriggering of their own trauma in some way. We had this in work, which is really around, for many of us, like this feeling of helplessness or the inability of us to move forward on something that feels so core to who we are or maybe an overinvestment or overinvolvement of our ego.
It happens in things like COVID, right? Where just general life apathy because of a lack of integration of what’s important to us so yes, they are different things and I kind of see them all as in the same bucket with just same outcome, different ideologies.
If I understand you right, it doesn’t matter, they hurt people and we need to do something about it and not name things and then put them in the, probably text book on psychology. I agree. Another, probably question that kind of – you mentioned that you were working with the organizations and trying to sort of implement certain strategies and consult them.
What we found when we were – I love that you arrived to the point as, “Why don’t we build organizations with this in mind?” And what we arrived at for the lot of consolidators, we were trying to prove that there is a business need to take care of people, therefore, they will be a positive outcome and more and more, the problem in our industry, that there is extreme scarcity of veterinarians. If you acquire these hospitals and you don’t take care of people along the way in that transition then they will leave you and that’s a much bigger dent in your revenue than any other operational improvements you can do post acquisition.
We sort of keep banging our head, a lot of our methodologies are business oriented, they’re effective, the operational efficiencies, the structures, the solutions that we build. But when it gets down to a particular thing of burnout and the sort of soft thing as they call, there is sort of a blank glaze and they don’t really – you can’t get involved as the consultant. They don’t care. Did you find that as well when you were engaging with executive teams and that’s why you switched to let’s build these, not try to change them?
Yeah, I had the experience and actually, this happened in a moment I was consulting with a firehouse, so a bunch of firefighters, and they were having some interpersonal conflict. They were having trouble with firehouse culture and it was starting to show up in their orientation to detail, right? They were missing things in the checks before they were going out on jobs. It became relevant to their business, right? At some point, which is real.
Great, I love it. I guess we all hope, those of us sitting in this room who really are bought into this idea that the wellbeing of humans drives successful work, we would love to be able to show everybody that you can see around this corner and invest in your people before bad things happen but usually, we see people coming to us after bad things happen and they’re like, “We pulled all the other levers and it seems to be some weird people thing that we don’t understand. Could you fix it?”
The exit route.
“You know things about people, can you make this better?” and so I was sitting in this firehouse and I was the youngest person in the room at that point, probably by maybe 10 years, maybe 20 from the average. I was also the only woman in the room and –
That mustn’t feel good in a fire–firefighter house, at least you are trying to help them to solve their problems, I don’t know how that was the main one.
It was really a profound feeling. Then, I was standing there and the thing that I had to say to all of these men was, “And now, we have to talk about your feelings.”
How did that go?
I remember this so distinctly, I brought like a pile of chocolates and oranges and juice for everybody and I kid you not, they started throwing the snacks at each other during our meeting and I’m sitting here thinking like, “How am I going to get this group of people to see that them not being able to express their feelings to one another is causing them to miss details on the fire truck.”
I guess Ivan, the way that I was thinking about this story is that I really struggled in that moment to articulate why this is so important, and what’s interesting is that, as soon as I start telling that story now to entrepreneurs, they have an experience like this. They might not exist in a firehouse and their culture might not be so in the toilet that people are throwing oranges at each other but they understand that if we’re not expressing our feelings, and I’ll tell you why feelings are important to burnout in a second, but if we’re not expressing our feelings and we’re not moving through the sort of cycle of experience that exists in feelings, then all that gets kind of caught up and stuck and then the relationships get broken and the communication gets broken and then the work is broken.
If I say it like that, I see leaders that are like, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” In fact, just before this, I wrote a proposal for a leader and the chief of staff of this company said, “Will you just write something because the CEO is not sure that it’s worth investing in culture, it’s not worth investing in the wellbeing of people, could you just write why it’s important?”
I said, “Cool, yeah, I can do that.” At a seed stage company, the existential threat is around product market fit and having a company that does something in the world that people want to buy, right? That’s it. Just hustle as hard as you can and get your business out in the world. At a series A, we might be looking at 40, 50 people, we’re starting to move to a hundred people in the organization.
The existential threat moves from product market fit and being a business in the world, to being a culture where people want to come work for you and want to stay for a long time, just as you’ve said, Ivan, right? So the existential threat starts to shift and if I can articulate it that way, “Hey, the thing that’s going to cause your company to crush it or to fail now is your people.” When you say those kinds of words to people, I find that they listen and so, I’m not having as hard a time articulating this to people as I thought I might based on those two framings.
Kari, you mentioned the terms hustle and hustle culture and sort of that and I was at a startup before where the founder put the word frugality in really huge letters on the wall because that was one of our core things, which is sort of a, frugality to a certain level can definitely I think lead to burnout because the expectation was if you travel for work that you would sleep on the couch in the office to save money from hotels, which fits into some of that startup hustle culture, “Well, you never need to leave the office if you can just sleep on the couch here when you are visiting because it is a work trip,” so that did not work for me. I like to sleep in a bed.
But the idea that sort of that hustle culture and sort of the Silicon Valley feel of like, “We live to work, this is our whole passion. This is what we dream of, this is what we do, you can sleep when you’re dead,” how do you think that has transitioned and how do you think maybe even COVID-related or the work that you guys are doing has made it so that founders are able to see past that early 2000s, early 2010s feeling of startup culture?
I wish I could say, Ryan, that it’s transformed completely but I think that hustle culture is alive and well. In fact, sometimes I hear it coming out of my own mouth with my team. My team was wanting to take – so we have a very small team, we’re just an operating team of five at my company and everyone wanted to formalize holidays this year and take days off and have a vacation and I had this immediate reaction, which is like, “We don’t have time for vacation. What are people doing here?” One of my colleagues said, “We run a wellbeing company, what is wrong with you?”
You’re the one with the dream.
I don’t think the hustle culture is gone or transformed but I will say is that about five years ago when we started having these conversations, I was looking high and low for investors who were committed to this idea that taking care of people especially in their portfolio companies was an important picture for building sustainable companies and we now have a community of what we call Investors Who Care, we’re over 300 now and I am sure there are others in the world that we don’t know about but we have a group of 300 people who said, “Yes, I care about people and I want to invest in their wellbeing and I think that that’s an important part of business building,” but there is still a culture that exists outside of that, right?
But no vacations.
Well, I think you can hustle and I don’t think that – I think that is important, probably one of the things you guys are talking a lot about though is that just because you’re high achieving and you’re hustling and you’re putting in long hours or putting in extra work, you know, our team has been having meetings on Sunday because that makes a lot of sense for the different schedules that we have and things like that but the understanding is, “Hey, do this,” and “Okay, maybe you need to step away for a few minutes. You have things going on in life and okay, if you need to go to a doctor’s appointment, don’t feel like that’s your health and your wellbeing needs to go down the drain just because we are trying to build something to take care of yourself and still do those things but a balance of life.”
Yeah, exactly. Well, you know, the reason why we have this is because I have burned out and seek professional help but Kari, you mentioned something very interesting. This is something that we’ve done in VIS and our current company because you said if you don’t express your feelings, so we put a lot of emphasis internally and went through training, an extra three-week training all together on feedback and basically on how to provide feedback.
Is that a big part of it, expressing feelings? And is that something and I do want to sort of set it up in the way that you can provide maybe sort of three to five high-level things that you’re suggesting to these startups to focus on from the organizational behavior point of view, not to kind of forget the more or kind of weave it into their core values, so including this sort of feedback culture.
Yeah. All right, so let me see if I can answer your question. It feels complicated in my head, there’s a lot of pieces here.
Five best tips from Kari on how to build organization with no burnout, let’s coin it that way.
I’ll start with what I put in the proposal that I was just telling you about this morning. The first one is, have the discussion. So talk about it. Point out that there is this thing about burnout and wellbeing and people that’s happening in your business. If we don’t talk about it, we don’t create spaces for it then all of the other stuff doesn’t matter at all and so that’s the first thing. It’s just, have the conversation.
The second thing is around the understanding of what it takes to be a fully functioning human and I actually think that learning this, like you all did a course together on feedback, I think everyone should do a course on, “What is burnout?” How do we recognize it in ourselves? How do we recognize it in each other and what do I look like when I’m a fully-functioning person? Sometimes I say this, I say it this way to organizations, “Create a point on view on how you want people to thrive in your business.”
How do we know if people are thriving at our company? And create a list of principles or a list of wellness targets just like we do company values that we’re all striving to achieve together and I have a specific point of view on that, on what that looks like, and I happen to think that it’s about an integrative view of human wellbeing. We at Atlas have an assessment where we actually look through 12 different domains of wellbeing and that’s an expression of my perspective on this.
It starts with physical health, right? We need to have bodies that are functioning and well. Then we have energetic or emotional health, which is, you need to also have a nervous system that functions and an emotional picture that functions well, which means I have access to the full-range of my emotions, I can handle them, deal with them and in the book Burnout, which maybe I’ll send you if you have show notes or something, I’ll send you a link for that.
Finish your feelings, which is coming to the end of your emotional cycle. Then the third is around mental practices, which is, “How do I talk to myself, how do I talk to other people, what are the beliefs that I have in the world?” There is some work here around challenge versus threat. I don’t know if that’s a familiar framework to you all but the way you hold stress, it actually expresses itself differently in your body.
If you see things as a threat, stress is one of the most damaging things that can occur in your body, more than smoking, and if you hold something as a challenge, it actually acts almost as a performance enhancing drug and is quite healthy for your body, so mindset is a super important part of that picture. And then the two things that I think people typically miss, one is about subtle awareness. This is around trusting a gut feeling or kind of like being, I like to call it being in line with the flow of life, like being sort of intuitively connected to what is going on around you.
And then the last thing that’s important is being in community, in relationship, and committed to something larger than yourself and that to me is the picture or the spectrum of wellbeing in a company. Now, every company can have their own picture and my recommendation is just that they document it and have a perspective even if it’s not my perspective.
Do you add that to sort of core values discussion when they’re designing their organization so that’s a sort of filter that they go through in all their actions and whether they’re sort of complying with their own belief and writing on the wall instead of just having it on the wall?
Yeah and the piece of startup culture that we’re really trying to rewrite, and this is something that I coach all the founders that I work with on, is there’s this idea that winning at all costs is kind of a positive thing and what I like to say is, “Let’s zoom in, let’s double click on at what all costs means. At the cost of what?” And where do we put our stake in the ground and say, “We will not win at the cost of this,” and that is realistic on all those principles, right?
We will not sacrifice the lives or the health, the wellbeing of the people in our company in order to win and by the way, I think that that’s a false dichotomy, right? We think that if people are thriving, then companies will thrive. Sort of that belief is a little bit backwards but that’s what we usually zoom in on is what are the things we’re not willing to give up in order to build this company? I think that was two tips, should I keep going or no?
No, no, no you went through five things and it was perfectly – yeah, I was taking notes, that’s why I still kind of –
Yeah, Ivan is stunned. Well, you know I think you actually had Ivan stunned the first time that I introduced Atlas and what you guys do to Ivan, I sent him a screenshot of your website and the headline on there is “build without burnout” and he was just sort of, “That’s what I say, like what’s going on over there?” I know we had a good amount of things that we talked about. I know we could probably pick your brain for days on end but I wanted to make sure that I ask you two questions that we always ask everyone.
First off, I want to make sure that people know where to go to find more about you guys, which is atlasq.com, which is a really great resource. Lots of good information about what you guys are doing and then we always ask people two questions. The first one is, if you could recommend a book for people to read to be able to dive deeper into some of the knowledge that you have, I know you mentioned Burnout, but is there another one or is that one you’d recommend that people check out?
Can I recommend three?
I’m sorry, no we’ve actually, we only allow one recommendation. No, let’s hear we have.
Okay, so I already recommended Burnout so that doesn’t count but people have to absolutely read it. It is sort of centered around the experience of women but it’s universal stuff on what is burnout and especially in our current culture. The other one that I really enjoy from an organizational perspective is Conscious Business by Fred Kofman and he offers some perspectives that I think would feed into some of my other recommendations for companies, especially around this concept of life integration, which is like, “Hey, work and life are actually kind of the same thing.”
This idea that when we go to work, when we say, like work-life balance is like work and life are not the same thing, so do I just stop living when I go to work? It doesn’t seem to be true and I think that that concept or that idea of integration is kind of completely world changing and is the compelling reason for why we should focus on culture when we’re building businesses, so definitely that one.
And then the last one is kind of like a – it is more of a psychology minded book and so I’m pretty nerdy about it. The basis of all of this actually is also something that’s going on within each individual and doing our own work and so the book, How to Do the Work, and I can send you links to all of this so that will be in the show notes. How to Do the Work is a fantastic individual path or individual plan for how to get yourself right, and so we want to look at the organizations and conscious business but we also want to look at the individual and equip each of us with the tools to build without burnout.
Yeah, those are great. Then the last question we always ask is, if you could recommend someone else to join us on the show, an interesting guest or somebody that can elaborate more into some of these things, who would you recommend to join us?
Yeah, so I had a couple of – when I was thinking about this before, there are a couple of folks that I thought of and then I just thought of another one as we were talking.
Kari, I mean I gave you very clear guidelines here and you just blow them out of the water. You can have as many recommendations as you want. I’ll give a special exception but all future guests will have to stay in the guidelines or else they’re off.
All right, I’ll just pick one. I’ll just pick one because –
No, no give me all of them. Give me all of them, I want them all.
The first one that came up in my mind as we were talking through all of this, his name is Joe. He runs a company called HIFI Labs and we just started working with them. It’s basically a music accelerator, so musical artists who are also looking to build their creative careers without burning out and after we chatted, I started thinking about who else needs this sort of structure that we’re thinking about and Joe just kind of crossed my path and he said, “We’re looking to do what you’re doing with entrepreneurs with musical artists.”
Then just last week, I had another person reach out and say, “Can we do this with Olympic coaches?” And I said, “Yeah, of course.” Anyway, I think Joe would be a fantastic person to talk to, to get another perspective from another place.
And then two other people who I’d mentioned before. One is named Jeff Gish and he does research on entrepreneur psychology and burnout and is looking at doing an empirical study on what are the sort of interventions we can do that actually make a difference and trying to get really clear on the people side of the structures and process that we all talk about.
Then Michelle Duval is another person I thought of. She is the founder of Fingerprint for Success, which is an assessment that looks at people’s tendencies and I think that she would have a fantastic perspective on what are the personality structures that feed into this kind of picture that we’ve all observed. Those are my three recommendations.
Those are awesome, they were all worth it. I’m glad that we came to the full gamut. Well, this was fantastic. I mean, as I said at the beginning, I knew that there were a lot of really unique things and ideas that you have that we’re trying to help bring to that very medicine that you guys are really doing a great job across all sorts of different verticals and industry. I really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and chat with us Kari. It’s been an absolute pleasure, so thank you so much.
Thank you Kari. I know how busy you are, so thanks for your time.
Yeah, thanks for having me. This was fun and now I have so many more things to say.
We can do an episode number two.
Sounds great. All right, thank you all.
Okay, thank you.