“I’m getting flashbacks over here.”
Matt Diteljan takes a long pause before recounting the time he lived through an entrepreneur’s worst nightmare—that is, the time his education-marketing company, Glacier, experienced a staggering 100 per cent staff turnover a mere two years into operations. “We basically had a coup,” he says. “It was a really dark time.”
Founded in 2013, Glacier—which connects universities with prospective high school students using a combination of influencer networking and targeted ad campaigns—began as something of a millennial Cinderella story: nearing the end of their commerce studies at the University of Calgary, he and friend Patrick Straw faced down a volatile post-grad workforce and decided to make their own luck. They came up with the idea of advertising on the walls of local high schools to promote higher education and sought out post-secondary institutions as clients.
The twosome began by cold-calling principals in the Calgary area and were eventually able to finagle a few meetings. “We did what they taught us in business school,” Diteljan recalls. “We showed up in ridiculous three-piece thrift-store suits.” Still, their green demeanour didn’t deter clients: Glacier’s first, Calgary’s Bow Valley College, came aboard quickly, as did three area high schools. They also secured their first office, renting a space in a local hospital, of all places. Thanks to word of mouth among guidance counsellors in the region, new clients emerged in Lethbridge, Edmonton and, eventually, Vancouver and Toronto. By 2015, what started as a slapdash $1,500 investment by two undergrads had mushroomed into a multi-million-dollar cross-Canada business. And then the cracks started to show.
In the span of three weeks, the entirety of Diteljan and Straw’s seven-person workforce left the company—most quit, but a couple were fired. At month’s end, only the founders remained. So how did the scrappy marketing startup go from success to the HR disaster to end all HR disasters and back—enough to land them in the No. 42 position on this year’s Growth 500 ranking, with a five-year sales growth of 1,829%?
For starters, some honest self-assessment. The ill-fitting suits were a charming origin-story flourish, but they weren’t enough to offset the company’s problematic work environment—even if business was booming on paper. The execs struggled to delegate work, and employees who weren’t immediately successful were hastily dismissed.
“It was like there were two teams: Pat and I, and then the rest of the employees,” he says.“We were young—like 23 and 24—and we had no idea what we were doing. It’s like being a first-time parent. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes.”
No matter a business owner’s age, botched leadership isn’t an uncommon problem: a 2018 study conducted by LinkedIn showed that, at a rate of 16%, Canada ranks fourth globally in terms of employee turnover, with either “dissatisfaction with senior management” or “work environment or culture” listed as the driving forces for a whopping 77% of those departing workers.
Tasked with having to rebuild an entire staff—and quickly—Diteljan and Straw first enlisted the services of Jordan Wenzel, a childhood friend of Diteljan’s with a background in retail marketing, to assist with Glacier’s U.S. expansion. But having known Diteljan for more than a decade, Wenzel ended up offering more than international marketing expertise—he also acted as one of his most crucial advisers. After a closed-door, two-hour meeting filled with what Diteljan calls “brutal honesty only a friend could get away with,” Diteljan began to seriously re-examine his leadership strategy.
“It takes a lot of courage to go up to the CEO and say, ‘You’re not doing your job; do better,’” says Diteljan. “Luckily, I had enough awareness to take the criticism.” It’s hardly a novel concept, but ego is a common challenge for first-time entrepreneurs, says Dave Valliere, professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at Ryerson University.
“Either they realize the limits of their own knowledge—they don’t know what they don’t know—or a problem pops up and they [mistakenly] think they can solve it,” he says. “Lots of companies are founded by school buddies who share a very similar background, so they don’t have the necessary diversity of skills.”
Not every employee has the leeway to openly criticize a superior, but Diteljan insists it was the key to his executive transformation. Today, he realizes that he and Straw had been operating from a place of fear. Glacier’s business follows the academic cycle, and as contracts are typically renewed in July and August, there’s a period each summer where its client list is up in the air. “Every summer, we thought, ‘Wow, we’re going to have to shut the company down,’” he says. “When you have that [scarcity] mindset, of course you’re not going to invest as much in the company—or its people. “
In recent years, Glacier has worked to improve its prediction models so the ongoing contract worry has been mitigated. At that point, Valliere says, “hiring well and managing well becomes a much bigger issue.”
In order to cultivate a healthier working environment for new staffers, the execs first set out to refine Glacier’s mandate, one which reflected the highest ideals of its leadership: have fun, do the right thing, and always grow. Using models Diteljan adopted from the Entrepreneur’s Organization—a global networking platform—he and Straw brainstormed ideas for the ideal workplace in which to achieve that vision.
“Culture fit” became an integral criterion for prospective employees. The retooled hiring process now includes a screening process, followed by an in-person interview and then an assigned case study. In some cases, potential hires are asked to submit a freestyle rap, but more often than not, they’re invited for a Friday afternoon office visit—just in time for the weekly Ping-Pong tournament—to simply hang out. Finally, the existing team is asked for their input.
“That’s where Glacier really stood out,” says Lauren Oswald, a former public health worker who joined the company a little over a year ago. “They really did seem to care about hiring good people who personify their core values,” she says. And surely, the post-exodus Ping-Pong tables, beer keg and cottage retreats don’t hurt.
Today, Glacier’s staff has risen to 25, expanding product lines and acquiring clients like Texas A&M University, growth that Diteljan “absolutely” attributes to his more collaborative approach to leading. Still, there have been a few staffing shuffles: last year, Diteljan bought Straw out of the company and promoted Wenzel to CEO. “As an entrepreneur, it can be really tough to realize you’re in the way,” Diteljan says. “Look in the mirror before you blame something on the outside.” He calls this his greatest lesson. In the years since he learned it, not a single employee has quit.