[Podcast] Industry Spotlight | Curtis Hite – CEO at Improving: The Power of Culture: Approach to Business and Talent Management

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Show notes

In this weeks episode, Kortney Harmon and Curtis Hite – CEO at Improving journey take a deep dive in the industry, explore how Improving has scaled its operations, and discuss the company’s approach to maintaining a cohesive culture across its numerous offices in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

In this insightful conversation, Curtis shares his perspective on navigating economic uncertainties, the impact of artificial intelligence on the tech industry, and best practices for maintaining a strong workforce. Whether you’re a staffing and recruiting leader or someone interested in the future of software consulting, this episode is packed with valuable insights that you won’t want to miss. So, join us as we uncover strategies for success and growth with Curtis Hite on this episode of The Full Desk Experience!


Follow Curtis Hite on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/curtis-hite-a7b228/
Follow Crelate on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/crelate/


Kortney Harmon [00:00:00]:
Data analytics. It is going to be huge in the shift of how we feel.

Curtis Hite [00:00:06]:
It’s disruptive in a good way. I’m not one of those fear mongers that the world no, I wrote the stuff.

Kortney Harmon [00:00:13]:
That’s amazing.

Kortney Harmon [00:00:15]:
Hi, I’m Kortney Harmon, director of industry relations at Crelate. Over the past decade, I’ve trained thousands of frontline recruiters and I’ve worked with hundreds of business owners and executives to help their firms and agencies grow. This is the full desk experience, a crelate original platform where we will be talking about growth blockers across your people, processes and technologies. Welcome to another episode of the full Desk Experience.

Kortney Harmon [00:00:51]:
Thank you so much for joining me in person today. This is new. This is a full desk experience podcast where we talk to staffing, recruiting operations, people in recruiting and staffing in general, whether it’s CEO, founder led operations leaders that are trying to improve their business. So you joining me today are the founder CEO of improving and you’re a leading software consulting company with focuses on conscious capitalism. I’m super excited I have the chance to work for your organization so I know what you guys stand for. I love it. And just you really bring the aspect of scaling and growing talent operations and I’m excited to dive into the strategies that you’ve implemented here at improving. And I’m actually in the Dallas office with you today.

Kortney Harmon [00:01:35]:
So thank you for letting me come here and joining me in this today.

Curtis Hite [00:01:39]:
Well, thank you. I’m excited to be here as well.

Kortney Harmon [00:01:42]:
I love it. So tell me a little bit more about you, how you got into the industry, how improving has grown. Kind of give me the backstory of how you got to where you are today.

Curtis Hite [00:01:51]:
This is really my third job. At first I went into the intelligence industry through a large system integrator, worked there for about four and a half years. I came out of there, which is a long story, but ended up starting my own business with five other partners, a company at the time called Expede. We later this was during the.com. we later sold about a year after starting it to a company called Valtech. Shortly after that, I became the CEO of their north american operations until 2006 and we parted ways at that point, their decision, not mine, and started a company called Blue Ocean which quickly merged with improving. And here we are today.

Kortney Harmon [00:02:35]:
So tell me a little bit more about how big improving is. I believe you can tell me if these numbers are wrong. 250 million in revenue, 1500 employees. You’ve experienced remarkable growth since the blue ocean merger to improving.

Curtis Hite [00:02:51]:
Am I correct that is correct. So 17 years of growth, either organic or through mergers and acquisitions. Last year was actually one of our tougher years, but we still were able to grow by a small amount, which is sometimes those years are more rewarding, maybe not as fun as the high growth years, but certainly more rewarding.

Kortney Harmon [00:03:14]:
I love that. What do you think could contribute or any attributes to the driving success behind the organization? Yes, mergers, I understand that. But how have you navigated scaling this as you’ve looked holistically and continued to grow?

Curtis Hite [00:03:29]:
Your operation culture continues to be a very central point of our organization. I know a lot of organizations claim that, but we’ve continued to try to adapt the culture, try to be creative with the culture, but always putting it at the forefront of things that we are looking at and considering it’s not just web service. We have programs about building trust. I was just on what we call trust fund before this call, but we have a large program called come together where all of our offices come together once a month on a certain topic and we discuss it. We have education, we have events around that topic and that becomes central to helping your organization grow. And I think everybody knows this, but I think that improving, while not perfect, we have plenty of things to improve upon. Does a considerably better job than most organizations.

Kortney Harmon [00:04:23]:
I can say that with testament from working here. Talk to me a little bit more whenever we talk software consulting company. That can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I know as we’re speaking to staffing and recruiting leaders, you guys do in house solutions as well as find additional talent. Talk me through what that model looks like for you.

Curtis Hite [00:04:43]:
So for us, I use three words. Modern digital services. We’re modern, we’re focused. We’re centered on more leading edge technologies, not necessarily leading edge. So the leading edge right now is less say artificial intelligence, but we always have to work with systems. Sometimes they’re more legacy just given the nature of our work. But we’re centered in the digital, we’re software and then finally services. We’re a services company.

Curtis Hite [00:05:10]:
And unless the product is directly related like our training products or things like that to the services we provide, we don’t do it. We’re not a product company. So that’s the type of organization that we are. We are about 1400 consultants, 15, a little over 1500 total employees today.

Kortney Harmon [00:05:29]:
That’s amazing. I know from being here and all of the panels that you’re on that I see all over the place. Conscious capitalism is really a core principle here at improving. Can you share how this philosophy has really shaped your approach to the market, whether it’s talent acquisition, development, retention in today’s competitive market.

Curtis Hite [00:05:49]:
Sure, conscious capitalism sometimes can be confused with stakeholder capitalism. You see some things such as ESG out there or CSRs. And while a lot of those things are rooted in really good values, with conscious capitalism implemented a little differently, the model is one of more of inspire versus require. So we want to inspire people to do these things, not require people to do some of these things. Another big aspect of that is a longer term, really a longer term perspective. Not looking what we can do in the next six months only, not the next twelve months, but being realistic about what we can do in the short term while having long term vision and improving. We’ve always had long term vision. We have a ten year written vision at the company which helps people understand who we are and where we’re going.

Curtis Hite [00:06:41]:
From a talent perspective, this allows employees to say, okay, I want to stay here. This is a vision that I can be on board with or maybe leave if it’s not a vision that be part of and the same thing with recruits. So this becomes very central. This long term vision of where we’re going improving, has the aspirations of being a challenger brand. What that means is we have no aspiration to sell to a cognizant or to an IBM right now or other large organization like that. Most of our employees, if they wanted to work at these companies, would already work there. So this is the type of thing where that vision plays into the bigger picture. They know where we’re going.

Curtis Hite [00:07:24]:
The other thing about conscious capitalism, and I just want to say this, is, I fundamentally believe I’m a free market capitalist myself. I believe in the good that capitalism has done in this world. It does not mean that there are things that have gone, everything’s gone right, there are things that have gone wrong. But the foundation that most of the affluence in the world is built upon is capitalism. And then out of that foundation, a lot of good things coming, whether social or environmental, as we learn from our mistakes and then continue to try to evolve. And this is what I believe conscious capitalism is about. It’s about recognizing the great that capitalism has done for humanity without forgetting that it still has a long way to go. So you won’t find us attacking capitalism here.

Curtis Hite [00:08:17]:
We will be proponents of capitalism, but recognizing the things we need to make better about it.

Kortney Harmon [00:08:23]:
And not only do you lead that board, right, you’re one of the leaders of cash. And then there are many people within all of the improving brands that are a part of this as well, correct?

Curtis Hite [00:08:34]:
Right. Almost all the offices, if there’s a local chapter, we have it’s thing, one of the things that we give time with our values. And again, it’s not just lip service. We get work done and employees get credit for participating in these local chapter events or going to a conference. We’re speaking on this subject as well.

Kortney Harmon [00:08:56]:
I love it. I think that’s great. And it’s built in. Right. Not lip service. You’re showing in actions how important that is to the organization. Let’s talk about the economic landscape in today’s world. Many companies are facing uncertain times, budget constraints.

Kortney Harmon [00:09:13]:
I’ve talked to organizations and staffing and recruiting that are down 15% to 30% year over year. Talked to an economist two weeks ago and he’s like, well, it’s been an over correction in the market and there’s just so many opinions on it. Talk to me how improving has adapted its, whether it’s talent strategy, sales strategy, to really face the challenges while maintaining a strong workforce and really client services.

Curtis Hite [00:09:38]:
From your end, it has been a challenging time. And what I can say is that 2021 2022 was very similar to 1999 and 2000. Okay, it’s the. I had run a business during that time was running one, and I see many of the same things. For towards the end of 2022, at least the middle, it was extremely difficult to recruit, extremely difficult, and to the point where employees and improving were being made offers that our business models they couldn’t afford. And you don’t blame the employee for potentially taking one of these offers. That’s 30% more, 40% more on a few occasions. But one thing that we didn’t do in our own model, which really helped us, is we also didn’t subscribe to those 30 and 40% increases.

Curtis Hite [00:10:36]:
We didn’t try to or we’re not going to counter those rates. It didn’t fit into our business model. And I think in the long run, this played out in our favor because while we did have to do some restructuring, it was de minimis and from a overall perspective, and it was true restructuring. What we have found today in today’s market is we can recruit at prices, at salaries that were pre pandemic, not pre this period, but pre pandemic, and that we can do it in about half the time period that we were previously with fewer personnel. So the market has shifted significantly, still hard, because we have to find the right talent that has the right culture, fit the right commitment to excellence, which is very important to us, but we find ourselves in a very different market. Even with employees returning to improving that, we treated them with respect as they chose to potentially choose a different path. And as they come back, we treat them with respect as well.

Kortney Harmon [00:11:44]:
Did you guys internally have to make a shift? One of the common themes was, you know, sales wasn’t knocking down our door. You know, we had to learn to get on the streets again because people were reaching out to us for needs. Did you feel that same adjustment in the aspect of sales?

Curtis Hite [00:11:59]:
Yes, and I’m very careful not necessarily to blame the sales organization. I think that’s more on the executive leadership or management. Back in the 2021 timeframe, early 2022, the sales were coming in so quickly that if we were to have won every one of them, and we often did, with the difficult recruiting environment, we couldn’t fill them, so they were left unfulfilled. So you have a sales team, then that may understandably go, why am I trying to close these deals? Why am I even working hard? And at that point, it became a lot more order taking, making sure that the alignment is there for the customer, choosing a customer over one customer over the other at a time like this. And now this is reversed. Right. More broadly, especially in the tech space, we’ve heard of these record tech layoffs that we find ourselves in a different scenario, and our sales professionals that for about 18 months they had honed their skills on optimizing around client qualification versus, let’s say, lead generation, true business development, we’re finding ourselves back to the basics. And that’s an executive challenge, not necessarily one that is entirely the sales professionals responsibility.

Kortney Harmon [00:13:24]:
I completely get that, and I think it’s. This market never truly goes away or away from its original. It ebbs and flows and it’s just getting back to the thing that you need to make most important. Is it necessarily new logos for new clients? But no, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s getting back in touch with those people that we’ve done business with in the past that we haven’t gave the attention that they’ve deserved.

Curtis Hite [00:13:46]:
Well, and you mentioned use the term new logos. In 2023, we had a record churn on many. We saw more top ten clients enter the top ten, and more top ten clients leave the top ten than ever we have in our 17 year history. So that was a big change. The other big change that we saw was we had more new logos than ever, more new ones by a considerable amount, about 30%. So we’re seeing the shifting market dynamics that’s occurring. And these things tend to, based on my experience, stable out. You’re seeing our own revenue stabilize, becoming more consistent.

Curtis Hite [00:14:34]:
We’re in a very slow growth mode right now, but these things that kind of tells you where you’re at. You’re getting a new foundation to where we will probably, and I think just overall our sector probably start to broadly start growing again late in Q four or in Q one of next year.

Kortney Harmon [00:14:56]:
So you’re seeing stabilization and slightly we actually, I had a discussion with someone else and talking PE firms and VC firms that they’re starting to hand out money again. Like it’s like, okay, this is, it’s nice to see things move in a direction that they haven’t been moving in the last.

Curtis Hite [00:15:12]:
It is. And a lot of businesses are having to adjust to new capital structures. There’s a, I would say the common person doesn’t really understand some of the impacts of these rate hikes on businesses. We have tens of millions of dollars going out the door in interest that we didn’t have to pay on the same amount of debt a year and a half ago. So significant increase, that’s jobs, that’s money that can be spent on capital projects and things like that. That instead is going to pay interest. I don’t say this begrudgingly. It’s just the new environment.

Curtis Hite [00:15:51]:
And maybe the new environment isn’t going to see the rates come down. Maybe not. But what will happen is effective businesses will adjust to whatever business climate exists there, not try to go back to the old ways, but adapt in whatever the new ways is. And I feel improving is one of those well positioned and stabilized. But I’m not going to say it’s rock solid foundation, but it’s definitely different than second Moscow.

Kortney Harmon [00:16:20]:
It’s a good feeling.

Curtis Hite [00:16:21]:

Kortney Harmon [00:16:21]:
Obviously with your organization, how many different offices do you have?

Curtis Hite [00:16:25]:
We have 15.

Kortney Harmon [00:16:27]:
Okay. And then. But you also have offices in Canada and Mexico.

Curtis Hite [00:16:31]:

Kortney Harmon [00:16:31]:
How do you ensure consistent talent management practices, maintaining cohesive company culture across different regions and markets? That’s a lot to try to keep consistent, to keep the improving way of doing things. Talk to me about that.

Curtis Hite [00:16:46]:
There was more inconsistency at year and a half ago as we’ll try to mature the business and operationalize, getting the leaders from the different organizations together. And it’s something we’ve really focused on in 2024 is the leaders of the recruiting the leaders in our business development teams, both of those in particular getting down together, coming to a common agreement. So as they go out to their own enterprises or regions, that there is a common language, a common approach, common understanding. In addition, in the last 18 months we’ve actually added positions which create a senior executive role in the corporate that’s in charge of recruiting across the organization, one for sales across the organization. And making sure that we’re consistent. Consistent is one of the main charges of those roles and positions when it comes to consulting culture. We’ve had a lot of programs and we have more of our attention focus there because it’s more than 90% of our employees and we have tremendous programs, everything from trust hubbles that I mentioned to the come together monthly programs to our company retreat. We’ve added something new called the improving 100.

Curtis Hite [00:18:00]:
And it’s not just a president’s club for sales professionals. It’s sales consulting, recruiting, administrative roles. So we’ve done traditionally better there. And these are broad company programs. So even though we’re 1500, it’s one program across all 1500 in all those cultural programs. And I think that’s very important to get in consistency.

Kortney Harmon [00:18:24]:
Yeah. Now with your business development and your recruiting, you said you have one person that hires all of those people internally, right. Did I understand what you said?

Curtis Hite [00:18:33]:
No, they don’t necessarily hire, but they do help hire. They’re serving consistent. So for now, our senior vice president of sales will interview. Okay, but if it’s in a local market, let’s say Dallas. Yeah, it’s a. Both of the senior vice president of sales and the local market president must say yes. Either says no. So it’s a shared responsibility.

Curtis Hite [00:18:58]:
But the common thing is that senior vp in both recruiting and in sales, you might have a different market president, but you always have that same person level set. And I think that’s important. Again, didn’t really think of it that way. But having one person, while they may not have 100% of the higher decision, they do ensure the consistency across all the organizations.

Kortney Harmon [00:19:25]:
And you do consulting within each of your offices. You have recruiting hubs within each of your offices and business development within each of your offices. There’s a lot of people, whenever they get these larger organizations, they may have like one recruiting hub. I know you, I know based on being one of your recruiters that they’re very well connected across offices. So I’m just explaining that for our.

Curtis Hite [00:19:46]:
Listeners, that is true. Each of our local offices, if they reach a certain size, a small shift, now if they reach a certain size and generating revenue, there’s a dedicated recruiting executive in that office. And if they haven’t reached that size now they’re supported by our central recruiting organization.

Kortney Harmon [00:20:07]:
Amazing. I love it. Talk to me as a leader in software consulting and training industry, what emerging trends or disruptive technologies do you anticipate will shape the future of our industry with talent management, staffing and recruiting space?

Curtis Hite [00:20:23]:
Without doubt, it’s artificial intelligence. You probably report that several times now, but I want to speak with an anecdote here. Back in the late nineties, there was a shift from functional programming widely to object oriented type programming. And at that time there was an insatiable demand of getting people presenting, getting this information. It really shifted things significantly. We are seeing the same thing for the first time with artificial intelligence in our industry. I’ve seen it since that big of a paradigm shift. The closest might be cloud and, but again, I’m going to say this is an entirely different way of thinking and approaching where the cloud was a different way of doing.

Curtis Hite [00:21:11]:
Yeah, not necessarily thinking. And so we’re seeing this. We have an executive artificial intelligence center that we make open to the public. And one person, one of our executives, ran that more than 30 times alone. We have never seen that much demand in our 17 year history of this organization. I go back to the previous one, like I said, to see that big of a demand.

Kortney Harmon [00:21:37]:
How do you think it’s going to change the technology industry and the space you play in today?

Curtis Hite [00:21:42]:
I want to answer that more broadly. I think it’s going to change things, including the technology.

Kortney Harmon [00:21:48]:
I love it.

Curtis Hite [00:21:48]:
Every organization, every single one will need to know how it is using AI or they’re going to fall behind as an organization. Every group or team will need to know how it will be using artificial intelligence. And every individual like myself, like a recruiter, like a sales professional, will need to know how it’s using AI tools. There are more than 4000 engines out there. Something that are productivity enhancers. And from a networking perspective, one of the neater ones I’ve seen hear about it in this artificial intelligence seminar is your sales or your recruiting professionals. There’s this tool that looks at all your contacts in your contacts in LinkedIn, and it goes out and it will suggest based on its research, these are the ten people that you should reach out to. And it’s because it’s this person’s birthday, it’s this person’s related to this.

Curtis Hite [00:22:47]:
And here’s what’s happening, right? This industry was, and it’s amazing what it tells you to go. Now that would take me eight to 10 hours to do myself. And this can happen in a matter of minutes. And then it becomes more productive. More targeting, more genuine and authentic. It’s just that you have your personal AI assistant behind you reminding you, which we can’t keep all this information in our head. Why these people are important today. That’s just one.

Curtis Hite [00:23:17]:
So if you’re not doing something. Yeah, I’ll give another one. In the service industry, and you would be like your case studies and things like that. We have something called Echo that we built inside the company. So this is our organization, and our sales professionals can just. Okay, what have we done in a certain technology, in a certain industry, in a certain geography? And the AI will come back the closest answers with three or four sentences of what we did for a client and what technologies. And this is at the fingertips of our sales professionals now. Yeah, it wasn’t a year ago.

Kortney Harmon [00:23:54]:
Data analytics. It is going to be huge in the shift of how we.

Curtis Hite [00:23:59]:
So I feel it’s disruptive in a good way. I’m not one of those fear mongers that’s taken.

Kortney Harmon [00:24:06]:
No, I roblox stuff. That’s amazing. It has its place. I look at it from a recruiter and sales perspective that I am waking up to more spam in my inbox. But how do you cut through the spam? How do you differentiate yourself? How do you continue to get to the human touch faster with the assistance of it?

Curtis Hite [00:24:23]:

Kortney Harmon [00:24:24]:
I have one more question for you.

Curtis Hite [00:24:26]:
All right.

Kortney Harmon [00:24:26]:
As we and all the speaking that you do as a recognized thought leader, and really for your focus on culture, what advice would you offer to other leaders in our space in the talent industry or staffing professionals looking to navigate what’s to come, whether it’s the rest of 2024 or into 2025, how are they going to position their organizations for long term success and growth? Things you might be doing or things you’re thinking of for the next three, 6912 months?

Curtis Hite [00:24:57]:
On an individual basis, I’d recommend a few things. Try to think long term, and then try to suspend objectively some of your own self orientation when it comes to choosing practices. Let’s talk about for those companies that have an option to work in the office. Okay, let’s say ours is one. We don’t have an official policy around this, but we have offices throughout. Some people may want to work from home for the flexibility all the time and claim that they’re more productive all of the time. But the reality is, if you objectively look at this, that the blended model is really starting to. You get the mixture of working with people, the productivity, sometimes of home, if you can manage your own distraction, but the benefits of coming together in community actually makes you work and be more productive.

Curtis Hite [00:25:50]:
So how do we take these longer term perspectives that maybe isn’t exactly what we ourselves would choose for ourselves all the time and align ourselves with them? In today’s market, you can differentiate by simply showing up, which is kind of an interesting concept, that if you show up in person, you’re different than a significant number of people. And there are other ways you might differentiate. So think about that. I would say whether it’s as a business or as an individual, it makes a difference.

Kortney Harmon [00:26:23]:
We used your office today for people from my office to fly in to come here and just those days cultivate inspiration and camaraderie, and they build so.

Curtis Hite [00:26:36]:
Much more work together in person.

Kortney Harmon [00:26:39]:
Well, I don’t count because I was with one of my teammates last week.

Curtis Hite [00:26:42]:
No, you do. But let’s say, yeah, but even if you’re doing it one time with these colleagues, one time a month or one time every two weeks. Weeks, you would be surprised how more connected you are to them, how better you work with them in general, things like that. If you find way now, everybody can’t do that because everybody doesn’t have an office.

Kortney Harmon [00:27:04]:
Absolutely right.

Curtis Hite [00:27:05]:
But if you find ways to do that, it can be great.

Kortney Harmon [00:27:08]:
It could be amazing for your organization. Curtis, thank you so much for sitting down to talk to me. I love talking to you, obviously, but your perspective on the industry and what’s to come. Thank you so much for your time today.

Curtis Hite [00:27:21]:
Appreciate it.

Kortney Harmon [00:27:25]:
I’m Kortney Harmon with Crelate. Thanks for joining the full desk experience. Please feel free to submit any questions for next session to fulldeskrilate.com or ask us live next session if you enjoyed our show. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you listen, and sign up to attend future events that happen once a month.

Curtis Hite [00:27:51]:
Appreciate it.

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