Larry English is president and cofounder of Centric Consulting, a management consulting firm that guides you in the search for answers to complex digital, business, and technology problems. Before Centric Consulting, Larry worked for a large international consulting firm out of college until he got burned out at 25. He and his newlywed wife backpacked around the world as he tried to find his path in life—and he did.
Shortly after returning home, he and his like-minded pals founded Centric with a focus on changing how consulting was done by building a remote company with a mission to create a culture of employee and client happiness.
About this episode
Long before most other companies had even heard of remote work, Larry English was building a remote-first organization with a mission to create a better work-life balance. Here’s how he and his co-founders created a successful business out of a culture of employee and client happiness, and the valuable lessons they learned — and continue to learn — along the way.
What you’ll learn
- Creating a remote-first company
- Maintaining a company culture in a remote-first company
- Hiring with culture in mind
- The future of business traveling
- Unlocking disadvantaged talent across the world
- Being a socially and corporately responsible company
Intro [00:00:00] What’s interesting is where I see the corporations that are really fighting it, they’re losing out on talent. And we have a lot of them call us where the CEO is like, you absolutely must come back into the office. We can’t do culture; we can’t do innovation when we’re remote. And then they will lose entire technology teams the next week when they make a mandate like that and they’ll call us up and they’re like, hey, can you talk to us again about being hybrid? So, I think and if you look at all the startups that are out there, they don’t have office space, they’re hiring the best talent all over the world. Everything’s in the cloud. They’re highly nimble. And so, if you’re a legacy organization and you want to compete against that, you’re going to have to come their way.
Frank Cottle [00:00:52] Welcome to the Future of Work Podcast. Today, my guest is Larry English, and Larry has an amazing background that’s very much aligned with what the world is doing these days. He’s built a company called Centric Consulting. Before Larry built this company, he worked for a large international consulting group, and he got burned out by age 25, which is pretty fast burnout, actually. So, a very high energy fellow, and he decided to take off with his newlywed wife, and backpack around the world to find the path in life. And he did. After returning home, he, with some like-minded friends he founded Centric with a focus on changing how consulting is done by building a remote company with a mission to create a culture of employee and client happiness.
Frank Cottle [00:01:45] Today, Centric has over a thousand team members and offices throughout the United States and internationally in India. Welcome, Larry.
Larry English [00:01:55] Oh, thank you for having me.
Frank Cottle [00:01:58] You know, one of the things that I know that you’ve done, you’ve done many, many things. One of the things I know that you’ve done is you’ve really created a company that’s very much in line with where we are today in the world. So, I’d like us today to focus on remote; building a remote company; digital first, I think, is an important element, certainly within remote; culture, terribly critically important and difficult to manage with a remote, digitally first company. And lastly, I’d like to talk about corporate responsibility, charitable giving. I think this was an important element that a lot of companies, they talk about culture, they talk about this and that, but they don’t really reach out to the communities they work in, as you have done. So, I’m going to lead that off into you. Let’s start with remote, digital first, then from that to culture, and then corporate responsibility. So over to you, my friend. Tell us about how you built a remote company and why you felt it was important to do so and how that relates to the world today.
Larry English [00:03:17] Sure. So, a little over 20 years ago, as you mentioned, we thought we could change how consulting was done. And so, we said, what would happen if we kept all the good stuff that we love about consulting and got rid of all the bad stuff? And how could we center everything on employee happiness and client happiness? And one of the ideas that we came up with was if our employees could be remote when they didn’t have to be at a client site, they could have a better life work-life balance.
Larry English [00:03:51] And so we came up with that premise and we’re like, let’s try it. We think this is one of the ideas that might work. And this was when obviously the technology was not as good. There was skepticism. Clients were reluctant to do it. Employees were reluctant to hire on when they couldn’t physically go to an office. But we stuck with it because we could see that our employees really valued this, and they had a better lifestyle that a better work-life balance. And so, we figured out 20 years ago this secret that everybody figured out during the pandemic, which was employees could be happier and live, you know, a better life, and they now want to do that. And so, we saw that 20 years ago. And so we saw it, and then we just started to work through all of the issues that come with trying to figure out how to do that. And there wasn’t anything to go on. Nobody was doing it. So, you couldn’t go look for resources on how to do it. So, we just had to slog through it ourselves, and it’s been really fascinating to me to watch. The last two years I watched lots of people post, oh hey, I figured this out in remote work and we’re like, yeah, we did that. You know, we figured that out 15 years ago. But you’re right. Yes, this is great. And so now it’s super cool for me because there’s just been this huge investment in technology and research. And, you know, everybody is trying to make remote even better. And I knew this was coming I just didn’t think it would come this fast.
Frank Cottle [00:05:17] Well, you know, it’s interesting you say it’s funny that people are going, oh, I just discovered this thing. We’ve been saying for years that every new generation thinks they discovered peace and sex, and they forget that they stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. Like yourself, we’ve been a remote company for more than three decades, and we find that it’s critically valuable to the lifestyle of the company and we started with the premise that we said we want to find the best. We don’t care where they are. We don’t care what’s necessary. We only want to find the very best people. And then we don’t want to disrupt their lives. People have families, people have their own cultures, they have their own things, and it’s very expensive to move people around. There’s a big cost to that. That’s not productive to anybody. It’s very disruptive to families. It’s very disruptive to a company to bring people in sometimes from far away that don’t know what’s going on. And we found that remote process, just finding the best, worked brilliantly, and so our C-team, our C-level team as an example, only two people are even in the same state. Half the people aren’t in the same country. And we’ve been running that way like yourself for multiple decades, and it’s so easy. People don’t realize how easy it is. We just talked to a new team member yesterday that will be all the way across the country about as far away as you can get from me. We both decided because we know each other, and we’ve known each other for years, we both decided, thank God, we’re not going to be in the same office. This will work so much better by focusing on work than focusing on the little chit chat and stuff that goes on inside of the office.
Frank Cottle [00:07:24] So, you know, I couldn’t agree more with you that there are tremendous benefits in building a company like this, but you’ve built one of huge scale. Most, most people never get to your scale, no matter what they do. But you’ve built one of huge scale. And how did you find that doing it? All the layers within a company? Because it’s one thing to do it at the executive level. It’s another thing to do it throughout the entire company.
Larry English [00:07:50] Yeah, great. Great question. So, we were off and running and we had, you know, a good business model and we had a great culture. We loved everybody that we worked with. But we knew to keep them, they were, you know, great, great talent, they needed the growth opportunities. So, we knew we needed to grow as a company. And so, we were really worried that as we grew, especially when you were remote, that we were going to compromise our culture. So, kind of went out on a research quest to see which companies had scaled and had been able to keep their great culture. And we tried to figure out what were the secrets to that. And then we applied those ourselves. And so, what we figured out was if you have leaders that match your value system and are leading with your culture in each of the different areas throughout your organization, you can scale to a big size. And so that’s what we set out to do is be really careful and not compromise and make sure we hired all leaders that matched our culture and our value system. So, we were able to scale. Another example of something that we did was, as we got bigger at the senior leadership team, we found that we could not obviously spend time with all the new hires.
Larry English [00:09:07] And we were really worried about trying to convey to them what our culture was, so they understood it. So, we actually developed culture training that all of our employees take when they join the company. And pre-pandemic, we would fly them into a location and spend a day and a half, and it’s a big investment on our leadership team. And it’s not just reading from an employee handbook. This is really fun, high energy, and it’s sharing our value system and passing on all the stories of how we’ve lived that culture. So, by doing, you know, as an example, a couple of those things, we’ve been able to scale a remote company and keep our culture strong.
Frank Cottle [00:09:42] Well, you know, quite candidly, we haven’t been as organized with that as you have. We do operate in 54 countries, though, so it makes that organization a little more challenging. But one of the things that we started off with that I think is important is two core philosophies. One was members first, and members in our jargon is our client, our clients. So when we make a decision, the first thing we ask ourselves is, is this what’s best for the members? If it’s best for the members, let’s continue to look into this. If it’s not best for the member, we’re not doing it, period. So we make all of our decisions based around that simple philosophy, on the one hand, externally we’ll say, and then internally we came with family first. And family has two layers for us, it’s our corporate responsibility to the individual team members and their personal families. We take that very seriously to make sure that we’re supporting them in every way we can, and then internally, the corporate family of everybody helping one another sort of I’ve got your back.
Frank Cottle [00:11:02] You know, you need help today. I’m going to help you today. I know I’m busy, but I know you’ve got a deadline, so I’m going to jump in and help you so that makes a huge difference. And those are the two simple philosophies around which we build our remote workplace structure, and they seem to work.
Larry English I love it. Share the same value system.
Frank Cottle It works. We’ve got, I will say, maybe one percent or certainly less than two percent turnover out of hundreds of people. So, you know, there’s something to be said for that in terms of people, either that or we overpay, I’m not sure which, but this thing around culture is it’s bandied about, but it’s something you actually have to live. You can’t just talk about it. You can’t just have some cute little posters around that everybody ignores. And it’s basically bad art. You have to live these cultural issues or it’s meaningless. And how do you push that through? How do you have people live the culture?
Larry English [00:12:20] Great question. So, you’re exactly right. You have to treat your culture, we do, the same way we treat our business strategy. So, it is something that you actively think about, and you design, and you manage. And when you do that, it is integrated throughout your entire business. And so, as an example, we translate our value system into actually attributes of what we look for when we hire. So, we are being really conscious about who we hire, and we don’t compromise on that because the second you do, you start, your culture starts to slide. And so, it might mean that we grow slower, but if somebody is not, you know, doesn’t match those culture attributes, we don’t hire, and we’ve kind of even broken it down into the things that you can teach and the things that you can’t teach.
Larry English [00:13:12] And so there’s things that you can’t teach. If the person doesn’t have them, we won’t, you know, we won’t hire them and they wouldn’t be, you know, quite frankly, happy in the organization. And so.
Frank Cottle [00:13:24] I’m going to interrupt something there. How do you determine that in advance of hiring? I know we try and do the same thing, and it’s very difficult. And you’re right, it does take longer. You go through five times as many candidates, sometimes as other companies do it. How do you understand that innate capacity to blend with your culture in advance? Your trick of the trade. What is it?
Larry English [00:13:59] Yeah. So, we’ve experimented a lot over the years. Early on when we were less sophisticated, it was just blunt force. And what I mean by that is we have the person; the candidate meets with a lot of people, and we would share our stories and we would ask them certain situations that they were in. How would you handle that? And we’re looking for, is that person, do they have the attributes? And so, an example is because we were a remote company and we were a consulting company and because of what we valued as a company, we look for people that are highly, naturally, highly collaborative. That is their bias, is that they will, not because it’s going to help themselves in any way, they are going to go help — they’re kind of like what you mentioned, they’re going to help each other out. So, we look for that and we’ve gotten better about how we screen from that. You can do things around critical behavior, interviewing and stuff like that. But that’s it. It’s quantifying those things and then building it into your recruiting process.
Frank Cottle [00:14:59] You know, because I think that is if you’re going to have a culture, bringing people in that are not disruptive to it and then trying to change them is a critical element in the secret sauce, if you will, to building a good culture, especially when it’s remote. So that, I think many of the points that you have made, that that’s a very important one overall. As you move on to culture and such, how does that relate to your corporate responsibility and how did that work with scale for you?
Larry English [00:15:40] Sure. So, a couple of things that are really interesting about what’s happened with the pandemic in remote is, what I’ve seen is, people have said, wow, my life is fuller and better and, almost an, appreciation for living life to the fullest and what people value. And I think we’re also seeing that translate into corporate responsibility, which is interesting. What I mean by that is employee wellbeing and being a part of the community. Employees are now saying, I want to work for companies that, because we can do this, I want to work for companies that actively think about that and do their part for that. And so, we’ve been doing it from the very beginning because it’s been one of our core values around, you know, making meaningful change in the communities that we serve. And so, we’ve built that into and we’re even trying to take it to the next level of that. And I’ll give you a few examples. So, we certainly participate in all the communities, and we figure out for that, that leadership team in that, that office, what, what is most meaningful to them and how they want to give back in that particular community.
Larry English [00:16:59] And then we’re trying to figure out how to do it on a national level. And so, as an example, all the proceeds from the book that I wrote were going to help to improve the digital divide. And we’re trying to figure out a way to do that across all of our offices. There’s an organization called Launch Code, which helps train people to become knowledge workers and takes them from disadvantaged backgrounds. And we’re looking to do that. So, I think it’s awesome. I think you’re going to see if you want to win the war on talent, which we’re in right now; you want to support hybrid, you want employee flexibility and people want to work for companies that care about social responsibility, corporate responsibility. And so, I think you’re going to see companies — I hope it comes from the right way, but every company is going to have to do that if they want to have great workers.
Frank Cottle [00:17:49] Well, you know, again, you and I are very, very aligned in parallel in this regard. We have established back in 2016, the All Good Workspace Foundation. And you’ve heard a lot about food waste, we hear a lot about that in the charitable world and we think in terms of space waste. So, we take all of the vacancy factor in commercial office spaces, business and coworking centers, and then we redeploy that space and all of the services that are provided throughout our industry back to charitable organizations on a national basis. So, you know, we should talk one day about setting up a platform for free for you guys because we, you know, space and the use of space is the second highest cost of all charitable organizations.
Frank Cottle [00:18:47] And so we set out to solve that problem and create more capacity in the nonprofit world overall, and agree with you that having a company who has values that they don’t just talk about, but that they live, matters. When you look at that and you look at what’s necessary, though, to operate, using your digital first or using digital first as an element in all this — how did that work out for you and how do you define that digital first approach to accomplish what you’re accomplishing?
Larry English [00:19:30] Sure. It’s been really interesting. So, we’ve been designing our company to be virtual and digital first, you know, from the beginning, but even more so in the last, let’s say, five years as we’ve added capability in India. What we realized was we could deliver all of our services virtually to every client, and it actually helps because you don’t have to physically have the best person living in your city to do that. And so, we have been actively thinking about, OK, how do we, everything that we provide, every service we provide, how can we deliver this virtually and build all the systems and infrastructure and processes to support that? So, we’ve been doing that for a long time, and it is very possible to do. And I think it is a better value proposition for our clients. So, I think it’s more cost effective and they get the best talent from wherever it is and you get it delivered. But there’s a lot of things that you have to figure out along the way. And what’s been interesting is because we’re a consulting company, we’ve been helping a lot of organizations and it is just so hard for them, you know, to break the mindset of, I’ve been on premise, everybody’s here.
Larry English [00:20:42] All my, you know, my apps are on premise. They’re not in the cloud and we’re not, you know, so technology’s not there, processes, their H.R. policies aren’t there. And then all the things that you need to do to lead and keep a team cohesive when they’re virtual, those things aren’t in place. And it is, it’s a huge learning curve and it’s a huge amount of work for organizations to get to be digital first. But they’re going to have to, to stay in business, is my opinion.
Frank Cottle [00:21:09] Yeah, I agree. I completely agree. I know the first video system I had in our original company was in 1982. So, you know, we have been digital first since, people were using telex and we were using video. So, I get it. And I think, though, that I think it’s not as hard, certainly not as hard today, but I think it’s not as hard as a lot of people realize and your comment on value to the customer, particularly in your business, I know I did a guest stint with Deloitte for about three years as a partner during the break up period of the, breaking up the consulting side from the deputy auditing and accounting side. And I remember we used to charge the client our hourly rate at 50 or 75 percent for travel time. OK, so I’m getting paid $450 an hour to sit on an airplane. Right? What kind of value does that bring to the client versus, hey, let’s jump on a Zoom? Let’s do this. Let’s do that. So, the contribution in value to digital first all up and down the food chain, I don’t think it’s just an operating philosophy, but to your point of the customer, particularly in your business, the value contribution you can make to the customer says we can spend 30 percent more hours on your project for the same price, and that is a huge, massive contribution in value.
Frank Cottle [00:22:49] And so the digital first is not just internal, but it’s external as well. And today we’re all migrating to that, and I can hardly wait till we’re dealing in virtual reality offices and holograph, and I’m very excited about the next layer because I think it will add a lot of benefit to all, all the different layers in the food chain.
Larry English [00:23:17] It’ll be really interesting. You know, I think the days of flying across the country for a 15-minute meeting are over. But it’ll be interesting to see how much business travel comes back and how much. I think it’ll just be much more optimized face to face; smaller for the exact right situations that it makes sense. But I think we’re going to see a lot less and, corporations, they were always nervous, they’re like, I can’t see you, so I’m not sure you’re doing the work. But now they’ve learned that I can trust and it’s much more to their advantage cost effectively. So, I think you’re going to see a big movement towards that and we’re not going to go back to the way things were.
Frank Cottle [00:23:55] Well, and like, we’ll call a meeting sometimes and we’ll have somebody in from the U.K. and someone in from the Netherlands, someone in from the Middle East and someone in from L.A. So, we can bring that talent from all over the world into a single meeting without anybody getting on an airplane. And that makes a huge contribution to the company, to our clients, and I know to yours. I think the day of the traveling salesperson is over. I think that business travel is functionally done. You might have a big deal, you might have to sit down to work through contract issues and things like that.
Frank Cottle [00:24:35] But the, Hi, I’m here to call on you, schmooze you to take you to lunch, give you a demo, that’s all done. I think that’s right. I was a massive amount of business travel for decades and decades and decades, and that was probably one of the worst jobs anybody could have. You know, it was a terrible job to have to be on the road all the time away from your family and that sort of thing. So, I think that part of business travel is over. I think that the part of bringing a full team together of a meaningful part, if you will, to really work on high level projects, will exist. And certainly, I know we have a whole bunch of old sayings in our company and one of them is, you know, contracts don’t keep things together, relationships do. Because if you got a 10-year contract with somebody, I promise you you’re going to have a problem somewhere in the life cycle, that project is going to be a problem. So, it does require relationships and relationships on a personal level are much more important in different parts of the world, as you know, than they are here and are contract driven U.S. philosophy of business. So, I think that will certainly be important.
Larry English [00:26:01] So I would say two things. One is learning to build relationships when you are virtual. There’s a skill to that, and we actually train people on that. And I do want to mention to your audience that what we figured out over those 20 years is that we still needed a gathering strategy. It was still important to us, even in a remote model, to get together in person.
Larry English [00:26:23] And so as an example, we get everybody together in the U.S. together three times a year when there’s not a pandemic going on. And we are, you know, we’ll be in Cabo next week to get everybody together as kind of our holiday party. And I’m hopeful that we’ll return to normalcy in 2022. But I just want to mention, it reinforces those virtual relationships that were made, and I can’t put an ROI on it. But it is hugely important to a culture, even a remote culture, to get together face-to-face.
Frank Cottle [00:26:55] Well, you know, it’s like, you like to see and meet people that are like minded. And that’s part of your cultural thing, is the actual physical identity of it, which kind of takes us to a final point, I guess, is unlocking hidden talent around the world through this process. You mentioned that you’re in the battle for talent. I think in today’s world we all are. But in particular, in your business, in your industry, there’s an extreme battle for talent that goes on, always has, and you’ll never escape it. How do you think your structured, digital first, remote, corporate responsibility — how do you think that helps you to win the battle for talent?
Larry English [00:27:50] Sure. So, a couple of areas. One is people want that flexibility now. They want to work for a company that allows them flexibility. So, we have a number of digital nomads that are just traveling around and, you know, they’re working remotely. You want to accommodate those because you’re going to get the best talent when you do that. So, I think what we’re seeing is people have caught up to us. A lot of people have because we used to, whenever it came down to that, they’re like, oh, you guys are remote.
Larry English [00:28:25] You let me work remote and you have a great culture. You know, ding, ding, ding, that wins. But now companies have figured out, well, I can get a lot of great talent and they don’t have to be in a 30-mile radius of my organization. I’m going to allow that too. And so, we’re trying to figure out what are those next things to keep us ahead. Now that the whole world is going to remote and what’s interesting is where I see the corporations that are really fighting it, they’re losing out on talent. And we have a lot of them call us where the CEO is like, you absolutely must come back into the office. We can’t do culture; we can’t do innovation when we’re remote. And then they will lose entire technology teams the next week when they make a mandate like that and they’ll call us up and they’re like, hey, can you talk to us again about being hybrid? So, I think and if you look at all the startups that are out there, they don’t have office space, they’re hiring the best talent all over the world. Everything’s in the cloud. They’re highly nimble. And so, if you’re a legacy organization and you want to compete against that, you’re going to have to come their way.
Frank Cottle [00:29:25] Yeah, no, I completely agree. We say that every company is an international company. Now, you have an international client, you have an international teammate. So, everybody’s an international company. There’s no question of that when you’re talking about digital nomads, I’ll throw a little definition in. You know, we are in the remote working business, virtual offices, for decades, and we look at digital nomads at three layers. There is the classic image of the digital nomad.
Frank Cottle [00:29:54] I’m going to grab my laptop, my surfboard, and I’m going to Bali. You know, I got my backpack and I’m ready to go. But I think there’s another couple of layers is what we call the slomad, the digital slomad. And this is a person that for three months or six months at a time, maybe they live in Amsterdam for three months and then they during the wintertime, they move down to Barcelona for three months. They’ve got a permanent job, though. They’re not a gig type person. They’ve got a permanent job and they just choose to work a little bit in a different lifestyle. And then there is what we call the lomads. And lomads, when you look at the way we really work, you’re a digital nomad. OK, I’m a digital lomad. I have three or four places I work from locally. OK. But it doesn’t really matter, and so the work from home, work near home, work in the office, work — heaven help us — from a Starbucks occasionally, but the work from home and near home combo of hybrid working is very important and we think today people say, well, where’s the best place to build a business center or an office or whatever? We say you’re much better to build on a bike path than a metro path. Because people do want to be five minutes from their home and 30 minutes from their client, if you will, rather than 30 minutes from their home and five minutes from their client. And this is an important thing for people to recognize. We did a marketing study back in the late 70s and the study identified that, in terms of where people want to live versus where they want to work versus their client, et cetera.
Frank Cottle [00:31:57] And so the work near home is critically important to blend into the remote working process, not just work from home, because not all homes are suitable. You know, you’ve got a nice office library. I’ve got a nice office library, but not everybody has that. And so, working from your kitchen table sucks. And we have to provide in the remote work structure, we have to provide that work near home environment as part of the offering, I think, to get the right people or certainly to keep them.
Larry English [00:32:35] I couldn’t agree more. And that’s what we see playing out is that work ecosystem where people have different places from different situations that they want to work. And even within the offices, they’re reconfiguring offices to have different, I can’t remember the words the designers used, but it’s different spaces. So, it might be the phone booth or the coffee bar…
Frank Cottle It ends with spheres, whatever it is.
Larry English [00:32:58] Yeah, exactly, exactly. So, I think you’re right. And isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it a better way to live and work?
Frank Cottle [00:33:05] Yeah, no, it absolutely is. Well, you’ve mastered it, my friend. You’ve built a fabulous company and we should all be looking at your leadership and the lessons you’ve learned as a great way to launch, particularly for new companies. I think your comment about new companies starting off, you have to start this way. If you don’t, you will not be competitive either to get the best people or in the marketplace overall. And in all likelihood, you won’t be really good at attracting capital. And that’s key to growth as much as anything else. So, your concept of building a remote work company, that’s technology first but has a strong culture, really is a perfect model and you should be very proud of it.
Larry English [00:33:58] Same to you. Thank you.
Frank Cottle [00:34:01] Larry. If someone wants to reach you. How would they be able to do so?
Larry English [00:34:06] Sure, the easiest way is larryenglish.net, and you can get to all of my social from there.
Frank Cottle [00:34:12] Oh, perfect, perfect. That’s great. Well, we thank you very much for your time today. You’re done a fabulous job. And if you do want to talk about the national network from the charitable point of view, give us a call. We’d be happy to see if we can help out somehow.
Larry English [00:34:28] I love it. Thank you.
Frank Cottle [00:34:29] Take care.