Valerie left active duty after 15 years of service, and has gone on to found a company designed to help people thrive at work. In addition to discussing her own journey, we talk about how to find out if a culture is right for you, how to shift your mindset to be happier at work, how to make sure you are living a life of alignment, and more.
Valerie Rivera is the Founder & CEO of Take Back Work, whose mission is to partner with organizations of all stripes to create workplace cultures where people thrive. She served for over fifteen years in the AIr Force, most recently as Team Leader for Tradecraft Development and Capability Integration. She earned her MBA at Stanford Business School.
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Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me today from Omaha, Nebraska is Valerie Rivera. Valerie Rivera is the Founder & CEO of Take Back Work, whose mission is to partner with organizations of all stripes to create workplace cultures where people thrive. She served for over six years in the AIr Force, most recently as Team Leader for Tradecraft Development and Capability Integration. She earned her MBA at Stanford Business School.
What was your transition out of the Air Force like?
It took me many years in the Air Force to discover what I was good at. I enlisted as a linguist but that wasn’t necessarily a passion for me. What I was more motivated by helping people adapt to new policy or culture changes. I realized that what I really wanted to do was create positive workplace cultures.
I had 15 years of active duty service in the Air Force when I left. It was a difficult decision because I was five years away from retirement. But I felt like I had done all I wanted to do in the Air Force and was ready to take the leap out of the military.
You ended up going to Stanford Business School after you left. What caused you to make that decision?
I had come across a lot of people that had been motivated to go to business school because they were eager to make a dent in the universe. As I talked to these people, I realized there might be a place for me at business school as well.
Business school served many purposes for me. I knew I eventually wanted to start my own company so I wanted to get a business foundation. I also wanted to build a network that could serve me as I moved forward in the business world. My MBA from Stanford also gave me a degree of credibility that I didn’t necessarily have as an enlisted service person.
How did the beginnings of your company Take Back Work come about?
It came about when I discovered design thinking and I wanted to introduce my Air Force airman as well. I ended up getting a cease and desist order from my Commander. I realized it was difficult for people to share their ideas and feel safe in the workplace. I ended up working with the next Commander to build a culture that was more innovative. We made sure people knew what their purpose was at work and were provided with the tools to continue getting better at their job. When we did this, amazing things started to happen. The experience gave me the idea that I should be doing that with companies on the outside the military as well.
How did your idea continue to grow through your business school experience?
It didn’t change that much during business school. For me, it really came down to being able to speak the lingo of the clients and customers I wanted to serve. Today, I really listen to my clients and individualize our offerings depending on what’s really going to move the needle for them.
How do you describe what you do for a living?
I create workplace cultures where people can thrive. I create workplace cultures where people can thrive. I want people to love what they do every day. We bring our stress from work home to our families. But if we’re happy at work, we have more to give to our families and communities. That’s how Take Back Work is trying to change the world in a positive way.
Building culture is hard and made up of many different pieces. Many companies will do offsite meetings or retreats. Those events are good opportunities for someone like me to come in and help bring business strategy and social psychology together to move that company forward in a positive direction.
What is that like walking into a company and finding ways you can help them?
If I’m doing an offsite engagement, I will talk to people from the company long before that engagement. That gives me an idea of what people want to achieve during the offsite engagement. This allows me to shape our offsite engagement in a way that will be most beneficial to the participants.
Have you noticed any trends about common things many companies struggle with?
I’ve worked for both government and corporate clients. The number one thing organizations struggle with is effective communication amongst members.
The ideal scenario for me is that I don’t just have one-off engagements with a client but rather that we build a relationship over time. In doing that, I can help the company put strategies for culture improvement in place and help develop them over time.
What resources do you recommend to listeners?
I love the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s all about how different things catch fire or others don’t. I also like the book Drive by Daniel Pink. It talks a lot about intrinsic motivation. Another book that I really enjoyed is Teaming by Amy Edmonson. She talks about the importance of bringing people together to achieve various goals.
How can someone evaluate a company to decide if it is the right organization for them?
The first thing you need to do is really look at yourself. Think about your day to day. What tasks do you really enjoy doing and what things do you hate? Those patterns will allow you to articulate where and with who you do your best work. It’s important to do that first because without those answers it’s really difficult to think about the organizations and roles that would be a good fit for you.
During an interview, I encourage people to ask the interviewer to describe the culture at that organization. That answer should give you a good idea of whether or not that company would be a good place for you.
What advice would you give someone that wants to start their own company?
For me, I’m constantly trying new things and making lots of mistakes. And I’m not beating myself up too much over those mistakes. This is the strategy that works for me but a different strategy might be right for you.
Before starting your own company, I also recommend first working for an organization that does similar work to the company you eventually want to start. That will give you experience in exactly what you want to do while getting paid.
It’s tough to juggle everything at times. But the thing that keeps me going is the alignment through all of these organizations.
Justine Evirs, the founder of Paradigm Switch, wanted to set the right culture from the very beginning. As a board member, I’m able to help the organization shape and drive their culture.
By being the city lead for Bunker Labs in Omaha, I’m able to help make sure veterans know that entrepreneurship can be the right choice for them and that the support they need is available.
If someone is interested in working in organizational change and setting company culture, what advice would you give?
I believe that all people have the power to be culture catalysts. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at in an organization, you have the power to arm yourself with the tools and knowledge needed to make a positive cultural impact on the people around you.
I recommend reading books on social science, research, and business strategy. Try to put into practice at your organization the concepts that are discussed in these books.
What has your overall journey as an entrepreneur looked like?
I was listening to an interview on NPR this morning. They were interviewing an author that just wrote a book about late bloomers. Sometimes we get the idea that if we don’t know exactly where we’re going in our 20s, there’s something wrong with us. But I was pushing 30 before I figured out what my real passion was.
When I was in the Air Force, I felt that I had certain skills that weren’t being captured or put to use. That lead me to get out and eventually start Take Back Work.
Do you think having an MBA has benefited you during your career?
Yes. It has really helped me to think bigger and exposed me to so many different people that had taken unique life paths.
But it really depends. Think about what you will take out of a particular degree program and what you will need to get to your dream role. Maybe that will take an advanced degree but maybe not.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?
If you’re interested in being a culture catalyst, please send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s keep in touch.