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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Don Charlton, Founder and CEO, Jazz Systems
Episode: 131
Air Date: November 20, 2015

Don Charlton is the founder and CEO of Jazz, a venture-backed performance recruiting platform that helps more than 3,000 employers optimize how and who they hire. Don blended his love of fine art with software engineering by earning a BFA in Design from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1999. Over a decade, he established himself as an award-winning interactive designer, software engineer and motivational public speaker. In 2009, Don launched Jazz as its sole founder, eventually growing the company into a multi-millon dollar venture and one of the region’s fastest growing businesses. Included in Entrepreneur Magazine’s list of “100 Brilliant Companies,” Jazz has been widely heralded as an innovative, essential product for businesses that need to hire. Every day, thousands of employers trust Jazz’s innovative approach to hiring, including some of the worlds fastest-growing companies and both 2012 presidential campaigns. Don is dedicated to inspiring young minds from all communities to not just work for great companies, but rather each to build their own great company. Most recently, he was a Regional Finalist for the 2012 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Competition, and Business Insider named him as one of the 25 most influential African-Americans in Technology.



Audio MP3



Begin transcript

John Sumser:                        Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser. We’re coming to you today live from beautiful downtown Occidental, California, where in my mind Luther Burbank and Leland Stanford once met to smell the roses on the railroad car. Today we’re going to be talking with Don Charlton, who’s the founder and CEO of Jazz. Don, how are you?

Don Charlton:                      Great John. How are you doing?

John Sumser:                        All right. Do you like to be introduced as the founder and CEO of Jazz? That’s awesome. Here’s the guy who invented Jazz.

Don Charlton:                      I like to earn the founder stripe. The CEO part, that’s a … You kind of just inherit that by starting a company, but the founder stripe, actually building something from scratch, no one can take it away from you so it’s always awesome to have that.

John Sumser:                        That’s great. Why don’t you introduce yourself to the audience?

Don Charlton:                      I’m Don Charlton. As you mentioned, I’m the founder of a talent management platform called Jazz. Previously we were in the market under the name Resonator. Resonator at the time in 2009 was really a pioneer in a lot of modern recruiting tools, a lot of new features. I feel like Resonator was a company that really kind of pushed the market forward in terms of bringing really modern recruiting tools. I think we brought online recruiting to a larger audience, especially small businesses.

Through the years we’ve evolved to basically start with just the core, basic challenges that small businesses face, which is posting the job online and then managing candidates in one place, to really starting to look at how we can help companies build high performing work forces. We think that means you going to have to really connect recruiting and performance, so who you recruit and how they perform so that you can reinforce and reinform the way your company recruits.

Under the name Resonator it didn’t make sense, so in June of this year actually we rebranded to Jazz, which is just a quiet metaphor for the modern work force in our eyes. Our mission at this point is to really kind of prove that there’s a transformative connection between recruiting and performance and under one platform where you’re combining talent acquisition tools, which we’ve all heard of, recruiting software, and a new category which we’re really trying to prove deserves to exist, which is talent acceleration. We think that the combination of those two features under one platform is going to be the future. Our goal is to get people like you and the audience to believe in that.

John Sumser:                        Let me just step back and make sure that I got it. The two components of Jazz are a performance recruiting platform and its complement is something you’re calling talent acceleration? What’s talent acceleration? Talent acceleration means what?

Don Charlton:                      Talent acceleration is a new set of features that we’re basically building and trying to see if our customers derive value from them, which are features specifically designed to accelerate an employee’s peak position and peak performance within a company. Talent acceleration includes features such as what we call role models. It’s the ideal candidate profile, the ideal employee profile. It’s ultimately the definition of high performance for any particular position.

Using that role model, we help managers work directly with their employees to coach them to peak performance in every dimension of performance for a job. We believe that there’s ten different dimensions of performance, at least our definition of performance, ten different dimensions. We provide you with tools to help you define performance for any job. We then provide you with tools to have dialogue through our system with employees, coaching them in each one of those dimensions to peak performance.

We also give you engagement tools so that you can continually check in with employees … Not necessarily surveys, but just really a Q&A session where you’re constantly connecting and having a dialogue with your employees. We think that combination of features, it helps managers have a very close connection with their employees. Performance is defined so it’s actually achievable. We believe that layering on top of these different performance dimensions and tying it back to the way you define what you’re looking for during the recruiting process, it helps you solve situations like I’ve hired ten salespeople but four of them haven’t worked out. Using the performance dimensions and the coaching underneath those dimensions, you can start to recognize that judgment is an issue that you are not effectively screening for during your recruiting process.

We think of that as really bridging the gap between recruiting and performance. Talent acceleration is basically acknowledging that companies need to jump in and have hands on tools and engagements that gets people thinking about how do I achieve peak performance sooner than later, which ultimately also means how they would achieve career ascension inside of a company.

John Sumser:                        Do you think Jazz is a niche offering or do you think this is something that applies everywhere equally?

Don Charlton:                      I think it applies everywhere, but I think there definitely is a company that has to get to a certain evolutionary stage. I like to think of … I don’t know if I coined this, but I’ve heard it before. HR is the hierarchy of needs. Obviously at the bottom is just payroll and benefits and so forth.

There are companies that evolve from we just need candidates to we just need process to ultimately we just need what we call performers. These are companies that have gotten to a stage where they recognize that effective talent acquisition and the acceleration of people’s performance in the company can lead to a high performing company period. Companies that start to map people’s performance to company performance much more directly are the companies that we’re targeting.

If there’s a million businesses out there that in theory could use that solution, we’re looking for thirty or fifty thousand that have the same mindset. By connecting these two, ultimately we’ll help you recruit and accelerate people to peak performance.

John Sumser:                        There’s a bunch of interesting questions here and I’m just going to kind of plow through them. If you want to pass on one, pass. The first question that comes to mind is when I think about organizational performance, I don’t think one plus one equals two. I think if you’re looking for high performing organizations, one plus one equals five or something like that. That means that individual performance doesn’t add up to organizational performance. In your model of the world, do you have a way of accounting for the delta?

Don Charlton:                      I think that our goal is to … I think of Jazz at its core as really an organization that builds products but at its core is really a research organization. I like to think about people as talent scientists. We have a hypothesis that we are providing tools to help us gather more data and then ultimately really try to figure out that formula that you described. I agree it’s not one plus one equals two, but I think that there is a natural understanding that people who under-perform in their role ultimately do add up to reduced performance.

We’re not talking about if everybody gets grades for being a high performer the company ultimately performs. You could have a horrible product that fundamentally everybody is a great salesperson but you’re not going to be able to sell a blank piece of paper. The goal is to really take the best tool that we have right now, which is basically the human brain and their ability to interact with each other, and then on top of those interactions be able to try to find patterns and be able to try to find things that we can measure that help companies get better at this.

We don’t believe that we’re a tool where in a minute you’re going to be able to just suddenly have a high performance company. If there are low hanging fruit or mistakes when it comes to your recruiting process, we’re going to help you reveal those. If there are other things that are a little more complicated, we’re hoping that over time as we learn more about the way our customers are using this we’ll get better and better and better at helping people solve these problems. It’s definitely not that correlation. There are some correlations that can improve recruiting and performance [inaudible 00:09:22].

John Sumser:                        Amazing answer that’s earned you another hardball question. That is there are I think it may be many roles, but certainly some roles in organizations where the job doesn’t feel so good. These are roles … The most obviously one would be the person in charge of testing for a software company, because they are the bottleneck at the end of the deadline process and if you don’t pass their test all hell breaks loose, so they are under constant pressure to compromise, and if they compromise they’re not doing their job.

The sort of three hundred and sixty degree feedback view of these people is often quite negative and management will be divided about them. At the very senior level maybe they’ll be appreciated, but the people who have to deliver don’t appreciate being held up, so there’s this negative quality to the work. Many times they’re hated. These are the people who [inaudible 00:10:42] resources. In all of my look and talk and thinking about high performing employees and high performing organizations, I never see anybody talk about these people. They are the essential element of high performance, but you don’t coach them in anything like the same way that you would coach somebody that you’re trying to juice another little bit of juice out. Do you have [crosstalk 00:11:17].

Don Charlton:                      I’m sorry. Go ahead.

John Sumser:                        Do you have a view of that?

Don Charlton:                      Yeah. I think the first thing is let’s just talk about the three hundred and sixty degree reviews. There’s no such thing as three hundred and sixty degree reviews that are effective. You can’t look three hundred and sixty degrees at any one time. You can only focus on what? I think it’s twenty some degrees at any given point in time of your focus. If you’re really hyper-focused like really what? An inch wide in your view?

The whole idea of Jazz and our talent acceleration is we do believe that the onus is on a manager. If you are a manager, you are responsible for understanding what performance looks like for any given role. Performance also includes cultural fit. It includes understanding the nuances of the role, its negative role that that person is constantly under pressure to have to be the governor for things inside the company. The manager’s job is to kind of acknowledge that and formulate that as part of what an ideal performer is.

Then let’s say if that’s across ten different dimensions of performance that’s twenty different items. You can’t at the end of a quarter give somebody feedback on all twenty items. That’s why performance reviews don’t make any sense. We have what we call focus areas where you can pick … Let’s say you just got a lot of negative feedback on a person about their ability to collaborate and work with people because the person is constantly saying no or constantly pushing back on things and there’s a lot of negative feedback.

Communication might be one of the performance areas that you want to focus on with them. You might want to help them understand how to better collaborate with people when they have to be the office of no for certain things. By hyper-focusing on one particular aspect of performance for a few weeks and only requesting dialogue and feedback and check-ins on that particular dimension, you are being more effective in terms of helping someone become a better performer.

The way I look at it is Jazz does not replace performance reviews. If you want to do standard performance reviews, by all means do so. We don’t think they’re that effective. If Jazz is doing its job, your performance reviews will be better because by coaching somebody at a more micro level with different criteria for performance, we think that ultimately that leads to better performance reviews, even if we think that performance reviews are not necessarily the most effective way. You can’t look at anything at three hundred and sixty degrees, so why would you look at a person that way?

John Sumser:                        Great. Great. Great. So Jazz is a view of people that says just getting them doesn’t get you anything? When you get them, you have to attend to them and maintain them and improve them as part of the business of managing your company. How are you being heard in the marketplace?

Don Charlton:                      I think so far the feedback has been fantastic. Obviously since June we’ve been working really hard to kind of re-educate internally how to really evangelize this concept of connecting recruiting and performance. The feedback has been great. The way we start the conversation is we really talk about the idea of hiring performers; they’re in high demand, they’re harder to recruit and they’re definitely harder to retain. Whenever you find yourself being able to recruit one of those people, you invest in them, you coach them, you help them become better performers, you want to keep them.

The idea of being able to attract people that definitely have … We’re mapping career success to company success. I think people get that. The part that we’re showing them now is there’s actually software that could help you actually do that. So far the feedback has been really great. We’re broadening the features based on customer feedback and so forth, but I think it’s still early. We don’t have people like you and other folks really kind of looking at this as a category.

If we’re successful, talent acceleration becomes a buzzword in our market, not because we hyped it up when social recruiting was hyped up, but because there are customers who are saying Jazz is doing something completely different. I only way that I would really define how we’re doing in the marketplace is if I could say to you at some point in the near future, “This is what our customers are telling the world about Jazz.” We’re not there yet, but the initial feedback has been fantastic. We’re on to something different. It’s a different platform.

John Sumser:                        Here’s another one. Let me see if I can formulate this well enough to make it answerable. I went to a conference recently for a company that is what contemporary rewards and recognition companies look like. It is an automated tool for allowing employees to say positive things to each other. They have extraordinary uptake because they create an environment that feels really good.

What I’ve noticed about environments where people say thank you to each other a lot is that there is a level of … It’s like when I learned chemistry, the orbiting electrons gained energy to jump to a new state. It’s like the organizations jumping to a new state with this heavy layer of reciprocal gratitude being installed. But it’s also kind of saccharine, right? It’s kind of without substance.

If you got a lot of engineers over at Elon Musk’s space company to be really happy, that doesn’t mean that the rocket ship isn’t going to blow up. There’s not an inherent correlation between manic enthusiasm and technical performance, although that matters less in pure service operations than it does in hard technical operations. The question is, is the kind of performance that you’re talking about related to that sort of jacking up the corporate culture with feel good or are you talking about some other kind of performance?

Don Charlton:                      Jazz is not a platform that is meant to just be a feel good platform for people to say nice things about each other. In fact, it’s actually meant to help you also say negative things in a format that’s productive. Let’s describe one of our features for example. Again, in Jazz you can create a role model for let’s say a sales associate. Each one of the different performance criteria for that particular role model has a rating. That rating is given to you by your manager. The rating is basically from a double thumbs down to a star for peak performance.

Typically, you only get feedback on that in a form where it’s almost tied to your employment and your compensation. Instead, by creating it in the context of coaching, I’m able to in that format be able to tell you you’re not good at forecasting so I’m going to give you a thumbs down on this. It’s red and it’s thumbs down, but let’s talk about how you can improve on that. That’s a negative experience for someone, but it’s in a form that is about helping you turn that into a star or a thumbs up and then a double thumbs up and then a star. It almost kind of gamifies it a little bit for you, where you’re getting negative feedback but your goal is to become a peak performer in that area.

We don’t have anything inside of our software where you can just come in and say a nice thing about somebody. You’re going to have to also calibrate or communicate what level of performance someone has achieved.

Ultimately we know there could be a situation where there’s going to be managers who don’t want to give people negative marks, but that’s human interaction. We can’t control that. We’re giving the people who recognize that negative feedback is actually more useful for people than positive feedback, especially whenever it’s a goal oriented system such as I’m trying to become the very best whatever.

Think about it. When you play a sport, there’s no athlete out there who’s a great athlete because somebody just kept telling them, “You’re the greatest.” No. You’re a great athlete because somebody keeps telling you, “You are horrible at holding the bat. You’re horrible holding the baseball bat.” “You’re running too slow around the bases.” That kind of coaching and feedback and so forth is what makes people a performer because the bar for peak performance is being communicated and it’s in a form where the person knows that coach wants me to basically be the best athlete. They want me to be the best performer.

That’s I think really what makes Jazz different, is that this is not a reward system where people pass it along to those. It’s all based on … On our front door is Performers Only. The idea is it’s not just about pointing fingers. It’s about giving people feedback that’s actionable. Even if that feedback is negative, it’s still helping somebody understand how to move in the right direction.

John Sumser:                        That’s interesting. That doesn’t sound like it’s suited to every organization to me. It sounds like there are environments where performance matters in dramatic ways, so people are willing to be as clear with each other, as you’re saying, but there are a lot of places where if you do that the whole thing blows up. It would be interesting to understand how you figure out who’s going to work as a customer and who’s not going to work as a customer as we move over time.

My next question is really about transparency. Can you imagine a circumstance in which everybody gets to see everything about the performance acceleration component, or is this in your mind a relatively private conversation between the manager and the employee?

Don Charlton:                      We’re starting with it being private because we want to make sure that we’re fostering open dialogue. I think that setting too many permissions on communication too early, I think it makes too many assumptions. If the reality is most coaching is private between a manager and their direct report, it’s better for us to start there. Let our customers tell us what levels of granularity or transparency or sharing they want, but for now we basically just … What I would love to see is the conversation where somebody has gone from a negative rating in one performance criteria to a positive rating. That dialogue, we want that to be open, transparent, direct, and not shaped by the level of publicity that the conversation is having. We’re just working with private for now.

John Sumser:                        Okay. Great. I heard this great story the other day. The story is about the cobra plague in Bombay in the mid-nineteenth century. Bombay was drowning in cobras in like 1850 or 1860. What the city government did is they started to offer a bounty for … Each dead cobra you brought in, you got five bucks. The program was a huge success. They got lots and lots of cobras. In fact, they got more cobras than they imagined were in the city, so they started a process of going and looking to see what made the thing so successful.

What they found was that they had created a market for cobra farms. There were a ton of small businesses in the city of Bombay that grew cobras because you could take a dead cobra and get the bounty. So they had a meeting and they decided that was a really bad idea. They shut down the bounty. When they shut down the bounty, all of the cobra farmers went broke and let their cobras go and the net result of the project to decrease the cobra population was an exponential growth in the cobra population.

The point of that story is that unintended consequences are a part of what’s wrong with goal setting. Quantification of goal setting inevitably leads to a cobra problem. When you amp up performance, how do you manage around stuff like that so that the motivational incentives in the performance kind of thing match up with the organizational outcomes that you’re actually trying to achieve?

Don Charlton:                      Got you. Another lesson from that is you can never underestimate humans’ ingenuity. That’s actually brilliant. It costs me ten cents to raise a cobra and I sell it for five. Brilliant. Anyway, I think it’s different in our platform. That’s one thing I didn’t mention. I never used the word goals. At some point in the future we may look at goals as being part of the platform, but goals are easy to fudge. Goals are often things that people do nefarious things in order to achieve. Like you have a certain number of calls you need to make so you end up just kind of … I had an employee once who every single day would call up a number that she knew would basically let you stay on hold and would use that to basically log a long call time. That’s just the way people are in some cases.

Jazz is different in that the measurements that we’re asking you to do are not the types of things where it’s a numerical number. Can you do fifty calls a day? Then you’ll find a way to fudge that to get to that goal. It’s if you want to be a tiptop sales associate or sales manager or a marketer or software engineer here’s how we define that. It’s tech based. It’s not based on the quota goals. It’s based on life goals, quite frankly, if you want to be a top performer.

Our hypothesis is that conversation is going to be much different than somebody sitting across the table from you saying, “Did you make your fifty calls per day?” I think any time numbers are at the core of a goal, numbers can be fudged. I think if you work under somebody and that person is saying part of your job as a software engineer is to be able to complete all of your points in any given scrum, that dialogue around you achieving that is going to be much more valuable than somebody just simply sliding a slider saying I’ve given you ten points here, ten points there or whatever else. It’s about communication. It’s not about goal tracking, because goals are the things that are being fudged.

Conversations I think about performance are often much more honest and much more direct, because our idea of performance is not performance achieving goals. That’s just one aspect of performance. Ours is more holistic. We envision in the future the ability for a sales associate to request from their manager, “I want to be coached on how to become a sales manager,” so I’m going to add that role model to your profile. I’m going to pick a few areas to coach you on. Then as you start to go from no experience to thumbs up in different areas of being a sales manager, actually I have data that shows you probably could be a sales manager. That’s completely different than the typical goals that people fudge, which are the quarter goals and your day-to-day, your quarter-to-quarter goals. They’re just different.

John Sumser:                        What a great conversation. Thank you so much. Instead of our intended direction, I hogged your mind today. What should I have asked you that I didn’t get to?

Don Charlton:                      I’m trying to think. Actually I think we were able to get a lot of … I think maybe what I would say is maybe a question would be so you have this hypothesis that connecting recruiting and performance can be transformative to a company. How will you know if you’re successful or not doing that?

John Sumser:                        Great question. Great question. I should have asked that. You’re right. We’ll do that the next time. If there were two things that you could have the audience take away about Jazz, what would they be?

Don Charlton:                      I think the first thing would be that Jazz is unique in that it is the only talent management platform that combines recruiting and performance in an interesting way that is worth you taking a look at. Go to our website,, and request a demo.

I think the second thing I’d want then to do is to take a look at our website and go look at our cloud initiative, which we believe is one of the industries first big data initiative that are really looking at trying to figure out what we call per-formulas for recruiting and retaining high performing employees.

It’s really one message. Visit our website, and you tell us are we doing something innovative and interesting. We’d love to hear your feedback.

John Sumser:                        To wrap this up, would you re-introduce yourself and let people know how they might get a hold of you?

Don Charlton:                      Got you. I’m Don Charlton. I’m the founder and chief executive officer of the talent management platform company, Jazz, J-A-Z-Z. You can reach me on Twitter at [Donpreteneur 00:30:35], which is entrepreneur except with D-O-N at the beginning. You can also reach me on Of course therefore you could visit our website,

John Sumser:                        Great. Thanks. That’s probably worth saying again. is a venture backed performance recruiting platform and they currently have three thousand employer in the fold, so this is not a small deal that we’re talking about. It’s been great to have you. Thank you so much for taking the time Don.

Don Charlton:                      Great to be talking with you.

John Sumser:                        Thanks for tuning in. It’s always great talking with you too. Thanks everybody for tuning in, and we will see you same time next week. Have a great day. Bye-bye.


End transcript

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