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March 2024 Member Spotlight – Audrey Hebson – VP, Client Delivery – DX Learning

Scaling better leadership – and delight – with DX’s Audrey Hebson

A member-to-member conversation with Shannon Minifie, Box of Crayons

SM: Audrey! I saw on your LinkedIn profile that you played the Cello in university. How cool! I’ve had a pretty circuitous route to L&D myself (I studied English literature for, well, too long according to my financial planner). How’d you come to be the VP of Operations at DX?

AH: Ha! Well, yes: it’s been a very twisty turny road. I majored in music (as you noticed), and after college I got into luxury hospitality, and worked at a luxury hotel in Chicago. This was sort of a pivotal moment in terms of my career trajectory because the work there was all about effective customer service and delight, and this has become a real passion of mine throughout my career. Even if I’m not very customer facing, I nevertheless want to create client delight in any role I’m in.

Anyway, I met Alex [Draper, DX’s Founder and CEO] when I was working for an Institute evaluating the impact of having leaders with higher emotional intelligence—and that was my foray into DX and really into this industry. I came on as a project manager, and eventually moved into running logistics, and am now leading all operations for DX.

SM: Tell our readers a bit about DX, in case they’re not familiar.

AH: We are learning providers in the leadership space. Before COVID, our core offering was delivering in-person simulations to leaders to foster better self-awareness, expose biases—to surface insights that make leaders more inclusive and so make the work lives of their people better.

In the post-COVID era, most of our deliveries have shifted to being virtual, and we’ve really doubled down on a model that’s almost like a formula for more inclusive leaders. The model is “CARE”: provide Clarity, which creates Autonomy, and fosters Relationships, and – for your people, that’ll result in Equity. If you provide CARE, then you all win as a collective.

SM: That’s such important work, Audrey. I mean, everything you read about why people join and stay in organizations—if people can’t find that kind of environment, they just won’t stay. Or they’ll stay, but they won’t be engaged.

AH: It is important. The thing is that even though the stakes are sort of serious in that way, doing the work with us is actually really fun. The simulations are so fascinating and energizing. We take a group of leaders and put them in a situation where they need to produce a product of some kind—and they’re in teams, they’re competing (need to gamify!). And so the members of these teams each have different information, and they need to work together to produce a product at the end of each round.

Success relies on the ability to communicate and collaborate, and so you learn if you’ve been ignoring someone with important information, or maybe privileging your own information, or perhaps playing favourites by only seeking someone else’s information.

SM: So the scenario or simulated environment is totally unrelated to these leaders’ typical work content/subject areas, but the relational habits persist. That’s very cool.

AH: Exactly, yes.

SM: Earlier you mentioned being really committed to customer delight. I recently got to see Will Guidara speak, and tell the story of how he used the strategy of what he calls “unreasonable hospitality” to make Eleven Madison Park the #1 restaurant in the world. The way he tells the story, all previous top 10 contenders for this prize were chef-owned places, and so when Guidara set out to make his restaurant number one, he knew they couldn’t compete on product (he’s not a chef; like you, he has a hospitality background)—and so he decided they’d instead compete on customer experience. They wouldn’t just be hospitable, they’d be so unreasonably hospitable, surprising and delighting in ways people couldn’t even imagine.

What kinds of things do you do to surprise and delight your clients?

AH: So, one side project around this is client gifting. Historically we’ve just done historically what all the other companies do: holiday gifting [Shannon shifts nervously in her seat]. This year, I wanted to make our gifting more special, more delightful—so I created a custom gift, very specific to what I thought that client would like, and all DX branded. We’re a niche business, and very boutique, and so it’s important for us to acknowledge our best clients this way. And we got incredible feedback on this from the top group of clients we did this for.

SM: You know, I love doing these interviews because I’m always like, “Shit, that’s good. We should be doing that.”

So, I’ve also seen this Gartner research that customer delight can have its pitfalls. For one, it’s not very scalable. Actually, Guidara and his team learned this quickly and had to find ways to predict and process-ize what was at heart meant to seem and feel like totally spontaneous and individualized surprises. They started to say, Okay: people propose a lot in our restaurant. Let’s have a bunch of engagement champagne on hand. And people pretty routinely spend a lot of money here—that’s predictable. Let’s start giving everyone a digestif with their bill if they spend over X dollars. That’s delightful. They found they had to slow down the real customization of delight because it just got too untenable. I mean, they were having to hire runners whose sole job for the night was to go and source something that would make some diner’s night.

So, the Gartner data showed that providing a frictionless experience is a better long-term strategy than trying to scale the experience of customer delight. What do you think? Is delight scalable?

AH: Well, time will tell if this is scalable, but I have to say that I love matching delight and operational efficiency. I think there’s a balance between getting too far into the delight/gifting and making sure you have the operational capacity to make something happen.

Plus, the core product is the thing you really want to be able to scale.

SM: Yes, exactly. And to have that core offering be the thing that scales delight on the heels of it, as an outcome.

Speaking of scaling the product, I think I’ve heard Alex say you all are on a good growth trajectory these days (congrats!).  What’s been the biggest challenge in terms of scaling operations?

AH: So, we are growing and we do want to scale further—but also Alex just wants to have a life. He doesn’t want to be the entrepreneur working 18 hours a day and on vacation. He wants the work life balance he’s created for the team.

And so that’s meant finally hiring people to replace the MANY roles Alex has been playing: VP Delivery (facilitator recruiting and training), VP Sales. And, of course, my change in remit to be the VP of Ops, and lead not just delivery operations and logistics, but org-wide ops as well. We’ve found that the importance of hiring great people is HUGE—

SM: I think Roger Martin calls this “practising people luck”—

AH: —Yes. We’ve shaped our luck by hiring great people we’ve carefully selected. And now the more recent scaling challenge now has been sharing the tribal knowledge. How to get out all of the things in mine and Alex’s head, and ensure we’re getting it all out so that new team members can do their role effectively?

SM: I have to say that this challenge resonates deeply with my own experience of taking over the leadership of Box of Crayons. I remember actually sitting down with our Founder, Michael, and just asking him to speak about things like client history and recording him, and then transcribing that and putting the notes into our CRM—so that I had a record of it that’s scalable. I imagine there’s now probably an easier way to do that, given AI and all.

AH: Ha! Yes, I’d think so. You might have noticed that my notetaker is also on this Zoom call. It’s like a shadow following me wherever I go.

SM: Are you using AI a lot at DX?

AH: Ah, we’re using it pretty minimally at the moment. For little efficiency things like note-taking. We’re not using it in our simulations right now. The simulations themselves are pretty low-tech: we use LEGOs and humans.

SM: Sure, it’s low-tech. But as if HUMANS are low-tech, you know? As if we’re simple and easy to use or operate, just old, unsophisticated technology.

AH: Ha, exactly. I think our simulations help leaders see just how complex and adaptable they are—and how capable of upgrades that make organizations better for everyone.