CEO’s Goal: Build the Happiest, Healthiest Company in Philly

When Dan Calista founded Vynamic, he put work/life balance at the top of his agenda.

Dan Calista at a meeting on his "walking track."

Dan Calista at a meeting on his “walking track.” (Photo by Nell Hoving)

We call it our “rocky moment.” In 2008, six years after I started Vynamic, the economic crisis hit. We lost 50 percent of our revenue within 60 days. We’re in the health-care industry management consulting business, and some of our long-standing clients decided not to renew projects in order to weather their own storms. Things were unsettled. I could only wonder if this experiment I had started was going to work.

I decided I wasn’t going to panic, would have faith in our company mission, and would run the business as usual. At Vynamic, that means the team — I don’t use the word “employee” unless required to by HR/legal — always comes first. So our monthly group outings became more important than ever.

At one of those gatherings, an impromptu conversation broke out. Without my having to ask or make a big “We can do this” speech, the team began to formulate a plan for finding new revenue streams and new clients. The next day, they got to work. Everyone believed that we were capable of doing amazing things together and that if we remained focused we could figure this out. By the end of 2009, we had added the most new clients in the history of our company, and business — in the middle of a financial crisis — grew by 35 percent. Our “rocky moment” became our “Rocky Moment,” because we came out stronger, like the Italian Stallion himself.

That experience made my role as company leader clear: The best way I can serve the business is to serve the team. If all their needs are met, if they can truly work in the happiest and healthiest place in the world, they’ll build a great company.

Thinking like this didn’t always come naturally. But I’d had my big “aha moment” years before. In 2002, I was working for a consulting firm in Manhattan, a newlywed who was, by some standards, living the dream. There were so many parts of my job that I loved. Consulting is a phenomenal industry with meaningful work that attracts tremendously talented people. I was amazed at the caliber of the big-name clients we worked with on a daily basis.

But the environment never matched all that positive energy. It was unhealthy, with long hours and meals that could range from a late steak dinner one night to lunch out of a vending machine the next day. There was a lot of sitting at a desk. You went where the person in charge told you to go and worked on the projects he or she told you to work on. It was very hierarchical, so the best ideas weren’t always the ones that were voiced or heard. I never considered going to a different firm, because I knew it would just be more of the same.

So I left.

With a laptop in a studio apartment, a new wife and not much savings, I made calls until I got my first client. And right there, Vynamic was born.

In those first few weeks, I thought a lot about the type of business I wanted to run. The one thing I knew for sure: While the world didn’t need another management consulting firm, it did need more companies focused on healthy and happy people who could be empowered to achieve success. I was going to build Vynamic on values, vitality and change. I had faith that if I did that, (maybe? hopefully?) the clients would come. There it was: the world’s shortest business plan.

As founder and CEO, I spend most of my time focused on the Vynamic team. I take pride in the fact that our success is powered through the engine of a healthy workplace culture. I was committed to starting Vynamic without third-party investment, so in the beginning, any programs I wanted to implement would have to be financially doable.

I started simple and landed on the importance of communication. Our “feedback loop” became an initial priority. I set up forums to create open communications where everyone (and I do mean everyone) would have an opportunity to express any idea or opinion on decisions that were as big as the type of technology we used to as small as the color of the lobby couch.

Today, our feedback loop has become the basis for our core values. We have multi-platform channels that range from “open mic” meetings to internal social media sites to anonymous third-party engagement surveys to focus groups.

This creates an authentically positive environment in which everyone can safely share ideas and feelings. We make decisions together — ones that are best for the group. These conversations are always ongoing. We also encourage team members to make decisions that support their unique circumstances. Vynamic team members take regular happiness surveys, have access to our full-time well-being coach, have “healthy hour” on Friday to promote better living, and have access to treadmill desks, unlimited healthy snacks, and a wellness room with a heated massage chair.

As Vynamic continued steady growth, instead of moving into a corner office, I decided to become a “movable CEO.” I don’t have my own office or desk. If I’m collaborating with others, I might choose a conference room or maybe sit at a small desk or walk around our “track” for a one-on-one meeting-on-the-move. I believe an open desk environment allows people and ideas to flow freely, promoting a collaborative and inspiring work environment.

In the same vein, Vynamic consultants are in control of where they work and what they do. This means the consultants select their own projects and aren’t required to travel. The idea is simple, yet the impact is invigorating, and our clients benefit because our team is personally invested in the work and their success.

The practice we get the most feedback on is our email — or, rather, zzzMail, as we call it — policy, which is no email at all on weekends and between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. during the week. As a father of two, I’m personally thankful for all the moments I’m fully present to enjoy the crazy bliss of family instead of checking email. I don’t think I would have had the willpower to self-assert this policy if it weren’t something everyone in the company is challenged to stick to. Knowing that we’re not expected to reply to email gives each of us a true break.

The goal of zzzMail was never to discourage working when an employee wants to or to squash creativity. We say: Write that email; just don’t hit send. If something is urgent, pick up the phone and call or text.
Most likely, it can wait. Save it in your drafts folder until Monday morning. I like to use Jerry Maguire as a Vynamic folk hero. Even when he was up all night writing his life-altering manifesto, he waited until the next morning to distribute it.

I’m happy to report that we currently have more than 90 team members and a plan in place to employ 200 people by the end of 2020. While I want to add to our team, it’s important to me that Vynamic always grow for its people, not at the expense of its people.

Since I started the company, before every decision I make, I ask myself: “Will this decision be the best for the team?” I’d be remiss if I said I always get it right, but I can say with 100 percent certainty that I’m not afraid to fail forward and correct any unintended consequences. I might be in the consulting industry, but corporate culture is my actual business.

Originally published as “Actually Finding Work/Life Balance” in the November 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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