21 min watch with captions and full transcript

A Silicon Valley veteran, OpenTable’s Scott Day sits down with Debra Corey to explain the challenges he’s faced in the start-up space, and how he uses focus and storytelling to lead by example.

In this episode, Scott Day, SVP of People and Culture at OpenTable, shares his tips for:

  • Knowing the key to success on every mission
  • How to use storytelling to revive a culture
  • How Silicon Valley gets it right about people and culture


Learn from Scott’s rebel insights, like:
  • Step into your power as a leader
  • Have a clear sense of what you want to accomplish
  • Define your role in the employee experience
  • Let your people fail to learn
  • “Yes, and”
  • Data only tells you where to start
  • Stay close to the passion and purpose
Our favourite quotes:
“What really differentiates one company from the other is their mission orientation.


“Despite what your job description is, or the tactical piece of the puzzle that you’re responsible for, you’re in a leadership role to bring about something that people are craving for.”

Scott's interview

DEBRA COREY: I'm Debra Corey, co-author of the book, Build it, The Rebel Playbook from Play Engagement. And I'm really excited to be here with Scott Day, from Open Table.

SCOTT DAY: Thank you.

DEBRA COREY: Thank you for joining us today for this chat.

SCOTT DAY: Of course, yeah. It's my pleasure.

DEBRA COREY: Do you want to tell us a little bit about Open Table and even yourself, also? What do you do? What have you done in your HR career?

SCOTT DAY: Sure, yeah. Open Table is a company that not many people realize will be 20 years old next year, which in the internet industry, is a very old company. It's a first generation internet company. But it's the largest service of its kind that connects diners with restaurants and enables diners to both discover places that they might want to eat, as well as, reserve a table at those places.

DEBRA COREY: I've used it myself. Yes, very helpful.

SCOTT DAY: Good, good.


SCOTT DAY: And you know, I'm very proud to work there. I've yet to meet somebody, a consumer, who's had a terrible experience with it. Most people rave about their experiences and I think it's because what Open Table does is it enables a really important life experience. It's a technology, but it brings about a real world experience that people really love and enjoy. And they use to celebrate big moments or the likes.

Most people have great things, most consumers have great things to say about their experience on Open Table.

DEBRA COREY: Fine. And what do you do at Open Table?

SCOTT DAY: I'm the head of HR. We call it people and culture. I really do think that there's important meaning in that title, and the differentiation between HR. We've seen in the last decade or so, lots of different ways that HR is being referred as its become seen more as a strategic enabler to business.

And for me, people and culture, the clarity of that gives me a mini-mission inside the company to stay focused on what really matters. Less of the administrative pieces, not to say that those aren't important, but really about ensuring that we get the best people and have a culture that solves our mission.

DEBRA COREY: It's a great job title, I agree. I love that companies are moving away from HR. First we were personnel, now HR and now we're moving to what we really should be, which is people.

SCOTT DAY: Yes. I agree.

DEBRA COREY: And you've worked at other organizations in Silicon Valley?

SCOTT DAY: I have, yeah. I first moved to Silicon Valley in 2009 to take on an HR leadership role for StubHub, which at the time, had recently been acquired by eBay. And so I stayed with the eBay companies for 4 years. I worked at StubHub for 2, and PayPal for 2.

PayPal, of course, has now spun out and become its own independent organization. But I've also worked for Yahoo, Airbnb and now, Open Table.

DEBRA COREY: Great. We'll come back later to Silicon Valley.


DEBRA COREY: Okay. Talking about Open Table, you just spoke at the conference yesterday. Did a brilliant job. Thank you for that.

SCOTT DAY: Thank you.

DEBRA COREY: It was really inspirational, your talk about leadership.


DEBRA COREY: I think one of the phrases you said is, "Step into your power as a leader."


DEBRA COREY: Makes you all want to leave the room with your head held high talking as a leader. What do you see as the role of a leader, both at your company and just in general?

SCOTT DAY: Well, at it's most fundamental level, a leader is someone who inspires followers that motivates people to want to follow her or him. And the point that I really wanted to make yesterday, after sort of, in advance reviewing who was going to be in attendance at this conference. And seeing that so many of the job titles were Program Manager, Engagement Specialist, Director of Talent Management, these kinds of things. They're very functionalized, focused aspects of a bigger thing, which is engagement in the workforce, which itself is about allowing people to have these amazing human experiences where they can feel this sense of emotional commitment to something bigger than themselves.

And it's important for me, and this is why I wanted to focus my talk yesterday around this, that all of those people, despite what their job description is, or the tactical piece of the puzzle that they're responsible for, that really, they're in a leadership role to bring about something that people are craving for.

And so that's how I decided to focus the talk less on the tips and tricks about how to get people engaged, and more about who are you in the process of doing it? And see yourself as a leader.

So yeah, I talked about a few of the fundamental things, starting with my own leadership journey, and encountering these big questions. Am I a leader?

DEBRA COREY: I loved how you pulled in your experience as a Marine, because I had never looked at leadership in that way.


DEBRA COREY: Very much the way you explained it, we think of leaders in the Marines as a certain way but it really, again, made me think differently as a leader.

SCOTT DAY: Absolutely, yeah, the stereotypical military commander is a very directive and tops down and follow my orders.

DEBRA COREY: That's what they show us in the movies.

SCOTT DAY: That's what people see, oftentimes, in the movies. And it portrays a real stereotype, I think. And this is why to this day it fascinates me that organizations like the U.S. Marines, actually, place tremendous emphasis on creativity and improvisation and adaptation and dealing with the chaos that is inherent in battle, and oh by the way, in business.

DEBRA COREY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

SCOTT DAY: And that's where people start to make the connection. I have to disarm them and say I'm going to use examples from the military, but these are examples that are applicable to all of us because we all work in chaotic, uncertain, ambiguous environments where we're trying to get to a specific endpoint in accomplishing our missions. And the skills that are most necessary there, are presence of mind and staying focused. And bringing people along with you in an adaptive way.

DEBRA COREY: And just the whole empowerment aspect also, because in those moments of chaos you do have to rely on the rest of your team or your army or whatever you call it.


DEBRA COREY: So I think in HR and business we need to do that empowerment even more to arm them for the battles.

SCOTT DAY: If there's been any secret to my success, if I were to refer to it that way, in my time here in Silicon Valley, this would be it. It's having a clear sense of what you're trying to accomplish. Describing as clearly as you can imagine it, what the conditions of success look like on that mission. And then enabling people, empowering people to try whatever it takes to get there.

Now whatever it takes means they're going to break some things. It means they're going to fail. They're going to go off track. They're going to potentially miss the mark substantially with that amount of freedom. However, every time they do, if they understand what those conditions of success look like, they're actually learning.

DEBRA COREY: Right. It's a great way to learn.

SCOTT DAY: There's no better way in my experience. You can send people to a training class and say, "Here's all the things that you need to do." They'll take copious notes, come back and go right back to doing things the same way. But if they get burned, in some way.

DEBRA COREY: You're not going to that again.

SCOTT DAY: They will not do that again. Or, conversely if they have a tremendous success, that euphoria is something they want to build on. And so I think experience and trying is the greatest teacher there is.

DEBRA COREY: Definitely. Really, really good advice. One of the other things that you talked about was your "yes, and" moment at your organization.


DEBRA COREY: Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

SCOTT DAY: Sure, yeah. In describing just a handy way of looking at how do I become more improvisational, more adaptive. Yesterday, I spoke about this concept of "yes, and", which I actually learned when I was going through a coaching certification program.

And it's a great coaching tool for reframing, in particular when you have a client who is very stuck in a perspective.

DEBRA COREY: Or a business partner.

SCOTT DAY: Or a business partner. And the idea comes from improvisational acting, where when you're on a stage and things are live, you can not reject what's been given to you by someone else on the stage. You have to take it and build from there.

And the theory is, yes, of course, what you just said, and I'm going to take it and move the story forward. And so the example I gave yesterday was about a time when I was at StubHub, and had been hired to help them supercharge their culture.

The quick backstory on this was, they had been acquired by eBay about a year before I got there. That had been a bit of a demoralizing event.

DEBRA COREY: I can imagine.

SCOTT DAY: This was a company that was a startup. Had grown tremendously, successfully building a niche industry. And their high water mark, the thing that they wanted to pass on their success journey, their conditions of success were beat eBay in the marketplace, in terms of gross ticket sales.


SCOTT DAY: They did that and then promptly thereafter, were acquired by their chief competitor.

DEBRA COREY: They lost their whole mission.

SCOTT DAY: They lost their whole mission. And so by the time I joined there, there was a bit of identity crisis, who are we now in this new context? And what about all those things that got us here? And where do we go from here?

And so anyhow, that had a lot to do with why I was hired. And so the leadership team and the president of the company had a commitment to wanting to understand their culture and really supercharge it, take it back to the place that it once was in terms of mission orientation.

And with that in mind, I had some ideas about what was going to be necessary to get them there. But I wanted to hear their thoughts about what were they willing to do? And in asking them, the response I got was, "Well, we need analytics. This is a very analytical place and in order to make an investment of the kind that we're thinking, you're going to make, you need to prove it to us with numbers," basically.


SCOTT DAY: In understanding that, I already done some groundwork to find an analytical tool that would help in doing that, but this is where I "yes and-ed" them. I said, "Okay, I will bring analytics, and I want you to feel what the culture is like." You have to understand, if we're going to make an improvement on something, you have to understand from the out echelons of our employee base, what it actually feels like right now. What is it we're going to change away from? What do we want to steer toward? And you can't do that unless you have a deep-

DEBRA COREY: Numbers don't do that.

SCOTT DAY: Numbers tell you where to start. Numbers show you if you're making progress. Numbers can orient you, but that sense of movement into action, I thought would only come in the way that we needed it to with a more feeling-oriented experience.

And so I asked them to lend me from their teams one or two people who were very influential in the culture and I asked them to not stack the deck with people who are positively influential, necessarily.

DEBRA COREY: That's very important, though.

SCOTT DAY: I think it was important to get all of the voices.


SCOTT DAY: And so, influential comes in different ways. And so we got a group of people. We actually, not so creatively called them the Team of Influencers. I told them, you've been nominated because people see you as being influential in the culture. And I gave them some basic parameters in terms of what I wanted them to do.

But I started with, what do the conditions of success look like? I want to create a visceral, emotional experience for the leadership team to go along with some analytics to move them into action. But it has to be something they feel, and something that's visceral.

So with that in mind, no PowerPoint presentations, no spread sheets, no charts. Beyond that, it's up to you. And I would have been happy if they came back with a sculpture, frankly, if that would have done the trick.

What they did was they enlisted the support of a copywriter from our marketing team, and they set about creating a mock diary called, A Week in the Life of Joe Stubber. And we called employees at StubHub, Stubbers. And so this was just sort of the everyman who was having a very StubHub experience.

And without going into the details of what the story told, when I read it I thought, "Man, they nailed it. This is it. And I can't wait to see how this goes." So we had a meeting with the leadership team to kick off the initiative to look into our culture. And before we unveiled the data, which I knew the story the data was going to tell. And I knew it was going to back this up, we first read this, Week in the Life of Joe Stubber, to the executive team, and it was visceral. You could feel it in the room.

DEBRA COREY: Wow. Powerful.

SCOTT DAY: Their attention was rapt. I saw tears in the eyes of the leaders. And they were moved. They were moved to a place that said, "This isn't the culture that I think we need." And therefore, they were emotionally committed to want to change it.

Wheel in the data, here's where we can start, and from there we had some really great successes.

DEBRA COREY: What I love about that story is, first of all, is that you realized that data wouldn't do it.

SCOTT DAY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

DEBRA COREY: And that you brought people in to tell the story instead of you telling the story. I think it's sometimes in HR, we think we have to do it ourselves, but I don't know if you would have gotten that same emotion if it had come from you going out and doing it, or your team going out and doing it.

SCOTT DAY: I think you're really onto something there, DEBRA COREY. There was a grassroots, organic feeling about it, A. And B, I was only a couple of months on the job. How could I tell this story?


SCOTT DAY: I'm an observer still at this point. And these folks were the ones who lived and breathed it for years. They lived it through that experience that I talked about, in being acquired by eBay.

And so what was amazing was where we ended up through a lot of hard work and some creative work, was at a place where StubHub had a very, very solid identity. And it nested nicely inside the eBay family of companies. And no longer were folks as focused on those differences between the parent and their brand.


SCOTT DAY: They just felt empowered to make their brand the best that they could be.

DEBRA COREY: Right. And I think the approach that you just talked about would work, not just in that situation, but in so many other areas of HR when we're trying to build engagement in different sections of the bridge.

I'll definitely remember that.

I've got one more question for you.


DEBRA COREY: Just because I feel privileged to be around somebody who's worked in so many different companies in Silicon Valley. For someone like myself, who has not, and it's all a bit of a mystery to all of us looking in to Silicon Valley. Like you have this secret club or something and you all go play ping pong together or something.

SCOTT DAY: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

DEBRA COREY: Can you explain more of the substance? What is it really like in Silicon Valley?

SCOTT DAY: Yeah. You know, I'd be happy too. There's nothing against ping pong. I'm sure there's a lot of great ping players.

DEBRA COREY: I'm just not very good at it.

SCOTT DAY: This is not an anti-ping pong rant. But you're onto something. I think that, that is a lot times, maybe through the HBO show, Silicon Valley, which has made-

DEBRA COREY: It doesn't help.

SCOTT DAY: A bit of satire out of it. And the funny thing is, so much of what goes on in that show is dead on accurate, too. And I've actually had a lot of colleagues who have a hard time watching it because it can be so real to an experience that they've had along the way.


SCOTT DAY: But you're right. I think that there is a misrepresentation or misunderstanding. A lot of folks from the outside looking in see, oh, these are these companies that grow really fast. And therefore, they're making lots of money. They're raising lots of capital from venture capitalists. And they're spending that money on all of these perks, like ping pong tables, and pool tables and free food, and dog babysitting expenditures, and so on. And it's not to say that those things aren't there.

But I think what a lot of folks miss, those are on the surface. And in fact, the danger ... I think that most, at least most of my HR colleagues in Silicon Valley understand this, that the danger in defining your culture by your perks is it really sets up an entitlement mindset that you need more perks, better perks to get the same level of engagement.

When you start to enter that race, it becomes very, very difficult. So for better or for worse, in some cases a lot of that stuff has become just sort of the table stakes in the background. But what really differentiates one company from the other is their mission orientation.

And I think that the companies in Silicon Valley have an advantage in this regard. First of all, most of them are based on technologies and software that allow them to scale really quickly, to touch lots of people, consumers, in a way that doesn't require a lot of people to do it.


SCOTT DAY: And so you can keep these focused, smaller, intact teams where that mission orientation is still very palpable and front and center, and you can keep that feeling of being a startup. And every startup starts with a passion,


SCOTT DAY: ... before it starts with a chance to get rich or anything. I mean, I think people have those dreams, but it really starts with a passion. And you can stay a lot closer to that passion for a longer period of time when you're dealing with these technologies that allow that to come about.

And that, that's the real secret about what these companies have that creates such a highly engaged employee base.

DEBRA COREY: It's that passion and that commitment to the product. And you're right, it difficult as the company gets bigger, but a lot of them have grown and been able to do that.

SCOTT DAY: They have. They've been able to, because they prolonged that experience of what it means to be in that early phase and struggle. And they retell the stories. They can take that and replicate it. I think there's companies that I admire greatly. I'll mention Google as an example. To this day, now that they're tens of thousands of employees, it still means something to be Googly.

To be Googly is a very definitive thing. And I've never worked for Google, but I've been there.

DEBRA COREY: I wonder if it's in the dictionary yet?

SCOTT DAY: I don't know, I don't know, but it's a ... and the other thing that they've done is they've become exporters of talent. And so they bring their Googly-ness to a new place. And whatever Googly was in that context, takes and morphs into the mission of the company that they are next working at.

But I would agree. I would say that it gets harder the bigger you get. And people who worked at Google when it was 40 people would say it's probably very different now that they're in the tens of thousands of employees, but they've done a great job of preserving what it means to be Googly and scaling that.

Facebook is on that same sort of path. And lots of other companies are doing the same sorts of things.

DEBRA COREY: Yeah. And I've spoken to a couple of them for research in the book, and again, we think that they have these huge pockets that they can spend all this money. But they have the same type of budgets as other type of companies. They need to manage it. They might just do it in a different way, maybe a bit more creative.


DEBRA COREY: Just because the type of the people that they work with, also probably.

SCOTT DAY: I think that's true. I mean, for a couple of these super success stories like the Googles and the Facebooks of the world, they do have advantages. I will say, they have the ability to prioritize talent from a compensation standpoint. And make it really difficult for smaller players. I will say that. However, to them it's not an either or. It's a yes and. We have to have the most amazing sticky place to work, because we are so clear about what our mission is. And when we bring people in, yes, we will reward them well for their efforts here, and we don't want them to go on to another place as long as they align with what it is that we're here to do.

DEBRA COREY: I like your use of the word sticky. Maybe we need to put that in the book. Sticky. That can be the title of the next book.

SCOTT DAY: The next book, yes.

DEBRA COREY: How to make your workplace sticky.


DEBRA COREY: There you go. Well you've given us some really good practical advice that people can go back and use in their organization. So I really, really appreciate it.

SCOTT DAY: My pleasure.

DEBRA COREY: Thank you for that. So thank you all for joining us. I hope you picked up some helpful tips. Again, I know that I have.


DEBRA COREY: If you would like to hear more about what Scott said, go grab a copy of the book. If you would like to see more of these videos, we've got lots of resources on our book website. It's rebelplaybook.com. Lots of free information for you. And I wish you all the luck for everyone out there, on your employee engagement journey.

And last but not least, go out there and be a rebel. Thank you.