HRExaminer Radio

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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade
Episode: 99
Air Date: June 12, 2015


Audio MP3

Henry founded Limeade in 2006, and has led the company from an idea in his basement to a high-growth, industry-leading SaaS health, well-being & performance improvement company serving some of the greatest health systems and companies in the word. Henry focuses on making Limeade a model employer by delivering results for its customers and shareholders via an engaged, high-energy, high-performance workforce.

Henry is an irreverent writer and speaker at leading national conferences on topics like healthcare reform, behavioral science, well-being engagement and cultural alignment. Before founding Limeade, Henry was a VP of Product Management at an enterprise software company and a product and marketing leader at Intuit, where he launched a number of successful new multi-million dollar businesses under the QuickBooks brand.

Before earning his MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management with an emphasis in technology marketing, Henry toiled in the econometrics and professional basketball trades. He graduated cum laude in Literature and Economics from Claremont-McKenna College, where he was two-time basketball captain, proud winner of the Hustle Award, and a Phi Beta Kappa inductee.

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Begin transcript

John Sumser:            Good morning, and welcome to the HRExaminer Radio show. I’m your host, John Sumser. We’re coming to you today from beautiful downtown Occidental, California where the roses are in bloom, the sun is out, and almost nobody remembers that this is where Leland Stanford launched innovation in the state of California. Today we have Henry Albrecht from Limeade on the radio with us. How you doing, Henry?

Henry Albrecht:         I’m doing well. Good morning.

John Sumser:            Good morning. It’s bright and early here. Henry, why don’t you introduce yourself to the audience?

Henry Albrecht:         Good morning everyone. My name’s Henry Albrecht. I’m the founder and CEO of Limeade. We’re based in Seattle, Washington, although today I’m, like John in northern California, enjoying an early wake up call and some beautiful weather in northern California. What else should I tell you, John?

John Sumser:            What else should you tell me? How did you get to where you are? You’re the CEO of an interesting tech company in Seattle. That’s lots of people’s dream. How did you get to do that?

Henry Albrecht:         First of all, I do pinch myself and am grateful every day because we’re having so much fun. Actually, I’ll do the Cliff Notes version. I was an economic consultant and a marketing and product management person in a technology company that helped people improve their financial well-being, Intuit, in the Bay area. I had this idea that what if you could help people measurably and in an evidence based way improve their overall well-being, not just their financial well-being. That idea stuck in the back of my head, and it seems a little bit audacious, and big, and not solvable in a short amount of time.

It just settled there for about two years. Then I was working at another company, as many of us are a little overly stressed, maybe arguing with my lovely wife more than I should, and feeling a little bit out of alignment with the rest of the company, and the mission, and the purpose. Then the idea just came from the back of my brain right to the front again that all of this physical and emotional strain and stress was really connected to work, and that idea of measurably improving well-being in the world was really important and interesting, and that it had to include physical health, and emotional health, and work.

That’s really the germination or the stem cell that started Limeade in 2006. We set out on this mission to measurably improve well-being in the world, and as you might imagine, that’s a somewhat audacious and lofty goal. It’s taken us nine years to build the company we’ve built, but now we serve well over 100 companies, well over a million end users, and we think we’re helping them improve. It’s been a great journey.

John Sumser:            Wellness is at the core of all of this. What is wellness?

Henry Albrecht:         Yeah, I think the way we define wellness is we have a concept called well-being, and well-being probably due to the cofounding team, which all have statistical backgrounds. We didn’t want to have it be something that was qualitative. We looked at every factor that statistically predicts the statement, “I have well-being in my life.” We found that there’s just a broad array of things. It’s not one thing. It’s stress, it’s depression, it’s exercise, it’s fitness, it’s heart health, it’s also things like belief in what you do for work or belief in your company or job satisfaction or just social things like positive relationships with other people and sense of purpose in your life.

We came up with a model that actually has 35 dimensions of well-being that are all statistically predictive of well-being. Then around that we have to just improve it. We’re not just assessing it. We want to help people improve. Then we apply things like game principles, and behavioral economics, and behavioral science to get people to take on one or two goals, track them every day, get push notifications and emails about how to improve. We have our own strong point of view, and it’s really rooted above all in well-being and in culture, because we think that these programs at their core, wellness programs, the wellness industry, you can’t take a great technology or a great program and put it into a toxic culture and expect it to work.

We have some pretty strong opinions about that. The corporate wellness industry overall I think frankly has struggled because it’s come out of the gait a little bit antagonistic towards people. Antagonism is a way to get compliance, but it’s not necessarily a way to get engagement and active support. That’s our world view.

John Sumser:            There are two things that I want to follow up on there. First thing is I assume that in your model I more or less probably measurably have well-being. If I have well-being, am I happy? Does it feel good or is that just another statistical piece of the puzzle? Could I feel bad and have well-being?

Henry Albrecht:         Actually, that’s a great question. The science of well-being is very interesting. We define well-being as more of a long term state than a short term state. We don’t use the word happiness intentionally. Happiness has a very fleeting sense to it. You can be extremely happy one day but not have lasting well-being. Lasting well-being is tied more to longer term things like purpose, as I mentioned before, and the habits and behaviors that allow for resilience and for optimism through the hard times. Maybe you’re having a really bad day today. Maybe you got in a car crash. Maybe someone you care about is suffering. You might not be happy that day, but if you have resilience and you have a world view that has supportive peers and meaning and purpose in it, you absolutely can have high well-being even on your worst days.

John Sumser:            OK, the second follow up is you said … I’m interested by your notion that the wellness industry came out of the shoot antagonistic. Why don’t you just give me a paragraph about what do you mean by that?

Henry Albrecht:         I mean it started I think with the way that America fell into their health insurance design or strategy where employers buy insurance for people. Inside every big self-insured company there’s essentially a health plan. Our experience with health plans is that they tend to be very focused on cost reduction and really not much else. I think that manifests itself in large self-insured employers with saying, “OK, we’ve got all these people walking around costing us a ton of money.” It’s not getting less money. It’s only getting more.

There’s some other screwed up things about the U.S. healthcare industry we can get into if you like, but these benefits departments were thinking about these people and how do we reduce their costs, and doing some simple math they said, “Wow, 5% of the people cost us 50% of the money. Let’s reach out to these people and fix them.” People would be getting calls at dinnertime, say, “Put down the pork chop. You’re overweight. You’ve got some chronic health conditions you need to deal with, and we’ll even pay you a couple hundred dollars to deal with them.”

Those programs have turned out just really not to work very well. One of the reasons is in behavioral science they don’t actually get at people’s core motivations. They don’t help people identify those motivations and improve, and paying people to fix behaviors is not an evidence based approach. Those things, although they’re extremely well intentioned to save costs but also to help those people with their chronic conditions and other things like that, fundamentally were flawed. That’s really what I mean by the wellness industry getting off on the wrong foot, even though it had fantastic intentions and those are the … We’re walking in the shadow of some great ambitions in that industry.

John Sumser:            OK, thanks, thanks. The premise, I believe your premise is that there’s some relationship between wellness and productivity. What’s that about?

Henry Albrecht:         Yeah, what we’ve found, we have these three overlapping circles. I know radio’s great for these visuals, but think about well-being [crosstalk 00:09:20] … Yeah. Yeah, it’s a Venn diagram. It’s well-being, health, and performance and work, and they’re really overlapping very heavily. What we find is that there are some behaviors that are upstream of all three. For example, if you want to fix someone who’s pre-diabetic so they don’t get diabetes, which as we know is really not fun, it’s expensive, it’s horrible on the family, et cetera, if you want someone to avoid that, you can’t just say, “Hey, let’s have a long discussion about your triglycerides or your blood sugar.”

You have to go from the symptom back upstream to, “Let’s talk about the behaviors,” and then even beyond that, “Let’s talk about the skills or traits you have that affect you building strength in those behaviors.” It might be something like stress management or resilience or optimism or relationships. We would call those well-being factors. I’m not sure those would be called traditional health risks. How strong is your relationship with a peer group that is OK with you exercising and eating well?

We just view that these well-being factors, not only are they upstream of health, but to your question, they’re actually also upstream of job performance and productivity. How much you believe in yourself, and how much you believe in the mission of a company, and you’ve aligned yourself with a sense of purpose at work, that’s going to help you be healthier, but it’s also going to help you serve your customers better, get promoted faster, miss fewer days of work, et cetera. Those measures of performance, we’ve seen that those factors predict both health costs and those productivity and performance factors.

John Sumser:            That’s interesting. I take it that means that you think wellness is part of the talent management scheme. Is that right?

Henry Albrecht:         Absolutely. That example I gave earlier about, “Let’s manage all these people as if they’re health costs only. They’re just bundles of risk and cost.” It’s an extremely short sighted approach because let’s say you do that but you antagonize let’s say the top 2% of your workforce in terms of productivity. If you’ve antagonized them and let’s say they leave your company, the impact to your business of that happening is way bigger than the impact of improving your health costs 5%. For us, wellness industry and wellness as a whole is absolutely part of talent management, and it’s connected to other core elements of talent management.

If you think about things like rewards and recognition, a lot of the leading wellness approaches, including ours, have rewards as a critical component of it, not just financial rewards but social rewards and other things like that. Think about learning and development. People are learning and growing all the time, and we happen to focus on learning about health and well-being, but other core elements of talent management are part of parcel of what wellness should be about.

John Sumser:            I’m getting this picture that says, in your right hand you’ve got performance management, and in the left hand you’ve got wellness management, and those two factors are yin and yang to each other as you grow the effectiveness of your workforce. Is that what you said?

Henry Albrecht:         That’s a great way to put it. I would also say that sometimes HR departments, and you’ve seen a lot more than I have, sometimes HR departments stop putting the employee at the center of what they designed. Limeade is really trying to redefine the way that employers and employees interact in some ways and being more user centric in our design, a little more employee centric. Sometimes that means breaking down some of the silos that exist. Instead of wellness being alongside EAP and some other things at the very long tail of the benefits purchasing chain, we view it more as upfront and that the well-being of the workforce is something that you can actually focus all of the design of the other initiatives around.

John Sumser:            This is off our trajectory a little bit, but I think the CEOs that I’ve known, and the CEOs that I’ve been, and how I or the people I’m thinking about would make a decision where you have … [How about 00:13:59] somebody like I’ve been in my life, a raging workaholic working 20 hours a day, consuming 15 cups of coffee and smoking, who produces enormous results? You’ve got this person, and then you’ve got these more relaxed, well tuned character. I think my instinct and my training is to always go with the totally driven maniac. I think that you’re arguing that there’s a decision there that says there’s an alternate way to get longer performance and that some [inaudible 00:14:43], ought to [rest 00:14:47] in wellness rather than in sheer performance [inaudible 00:14:50].

Henry Albrecht:         I actually view them as very closely related. I think there are a lot of extremely successful and extremely driven people but who want to be driven in a sustainable way. I’ve seen this in my own life, in the life of my family, and other people I’ve known where they drive, and drive, and drive the investment bankers earlier in their career, the physicians who are going through their residency and sleeping three hours a night in a cot in the back room. There might be a time when you can do that where you have that just incredible energy and sustainability, but a company can’t be built on an expectation that everyone can do that.

When you start promoting only the people who sacrifice their physical health and sacrifice their family and relationships to grind it out and really just put their body at risk, you’re sending a message that’s just not sustainable across an entire workforce nor is it sustainable through someone’s life. My dad had a heart attack when he was 52, probably an extremely high stress job, high cholesterol job, work travel, and he survived, and that was great, but that was a really eye opening experience to me, to see someone who is a very senior leader in a very large company, who really cost the company a lot by not having something sustainable, and cost himself and his family a lot by that event happening.

I think to me, it’s not about ignoring performance and ignoring super talented high energy people who want to work long hours from time to time. It’s about saying, “How can we do this both sustainably over time and scalably across our entire workforce?” That’s where I think the concept of well-being and sustainable well-being is a better guiding star than the concept of hours worked and widgets produced.

John Sumser:            Yeah, that’s great, that’s great. What exactly, functionally what does Limeade do?

Henry Albrecht:         Functionally, Limeade, the first thing we do is we actually understand the company and its business strategy and culture. The next thing we do is we create and launch a program where a user is invited in. They’re invited to go through an assessment of their well-being and all the factors I described. They’re given a personal plan and a set of things that they have to do because their company tells them they have to, things they should do, maybe because they have some health issues or because they have some resilience or job satisfaction issues.

Then they have … They’re allowed to join things that they want to do. Those tend to be fun social challenges, interactive experiences, things that they can track wearing devices and applications that feed into social challenges with their peers. At the end of the day, they get rewarded in various ways and in ways that companies decide for all of these activities. That’s really in a nutshell what we do. Then for the employers on the back end, we provide reporting and insights into their workforce, and how they’re engaging, and how they’re improving over time.

John Sumser:            You’ve got this base in place, and you’re a software company, so that means that you have some picture of the future. Where does this all go?

Henry Albrecht:         First of all, I just got some water down my wrong pipe. We’re just really excited about the future of this industry. I think it’s just, it’s really just getting started. I think that even though the wellness industry has been around for 20 years, it’s headed in a really interesting direction right now. First of all, you have to check the box of health improvement. You have to show that people are actually improving in their health because the way that wellness is purchased right now is related to health and health costs. That’s a fun and interesting challenge. We have some great clinical and behavior change expertise that we get to apply in interesting ways.

The quantified self movement helps us give people insights that they didn’t have before, not just into how they’re exercising but into how their biometric values are changing, and how they’re sleeping, and how they’re mindfulness is evolving, so that’s a fun part. In the future though, we’re really also looking at how we can help companies be great companies, how we can align their workforce around their culture, around their strategies, and figure out how well-being fits into that. We’re doing some really interesting work with employers where they view us as eyes and ears of the CEO to the workforce.

I can see some convergence happening in the future between, as you mentioned before, all of the talent management activities and then all of these traditionally clinical and health focused activities really converging into one thing and not having a separate … It goes back to how we started the company, not having a separate silo for health versus well-being versus job performance, but having those things all merge and blend a little bit more. That’s a really exciting time in history. The only thing I’ll add to that too is the technology now for just for monitoring yourself, for measuring yourself, but for connecting people across distances with apps and mobile devices and all that is enabling a lot of this collaboration and improvement across really broad, disparate, even global work forces.

John Sumser:            That’s interesting. There’s an explosion of … As sensors continue to decrease in size and cost, they are emerging everywhere, so everybody, organizations, individuals, are being hit by this just tidal way of data about themselves, about what they’re doing, about their organizations, about their environment. How does Limeade keep up with that flow and make it relevant and not get lost in the noise of all of the data that’s headed towards us?

Henry Albrecht:         I think we’ve seen this happen in every industry really, in financial services, in anything where there’s just way more data than there’s ever been before. There’s social media data, there’s data from just every device and source possible. I think what we can learn from those other industries and from marketing in general is that all that data is only useful if it can be put in a really simple human context. For the individual, what that means is I could have streams of data flowing out of all of my organs to me at all times in real time, but if I don’t get a simple, clean, crisp representation about where my well-being is and what one to two steps I can do to improve it at any point in time, the lack of context just kills the whole experience.

Likewise for the employer. You have to have context for all of this business insight about job performance, and health, and work and put it into something that’s a real simple executable strategy. I would say data is great. We have PhD data scientists on staff, and we have people thinking about big data problems, machine learning all the time, but at the end of the day, you have to take that and turn it into actionable insights, both for people and for their companies. I think it’s also, data is seductive.

You can think that data is the be all/end all and that data insights and data driven things are the end solution, but there’s also power in things like community, and culture, and story that maybe data can help you see a little bit better, but at the end of the day, those are emotional things. I think if you look at great CEOs and company leaders, they really are a good blend of data and storytelling in a right brain and left brain, so context and using data but not over-using data I think would be my advice.

John Sumser:            Last [immediate 00:23:23] question is about this pile of data about me going into the organization runs right up against privacy concerns and some regulatory things like HIPAA. How do you think about that line and making sure that my privacy is protected in an arena where knowing more about me is the name of the game?

Henry Albrecht:         Yeah, I view this as one of those things that is extremely dangerous and needs to be watched, but in general the pros way outweigh the cons. To me, it would be a really bad thing if companies started finding out that you had health issues and that they started firing you because they’re expensive. Obviously, our job is to take immaculate care of data and to keep ridiculously, perhaps over-engineered privacy constraints just because of that. It’s a real fear, and I think even in the world of perfect data protection, the perceived fear is real that some bad things could happen if that information gets shared.

That’s the job of the industry to protect that data and really the job of the government to regulate what companies can and can’t do with data. I think there is a role for the government there, but I would say the good side, the upside, is companies can have more candor and transparency about things when they can have discussions about topics that were formally viewed as not their business. When I talked about well-being and health, a company does have an opinion on your health and well-being. Maybe it’s for health cost reasons, which is reasonable because they’re buying insurance in most cases, but maybe it’s just because they know that if you’re excited, and healthy, and have high energy, you’re going to do a better job, you’re going to make more money, you’re going to have a better career.

I feel like the transparency and candor of saying, “We care about your health and well-being and, yes, we’re going to look at some aggregate data about that and try to make improvements across our whole culture, our whole company,” those statements I think can be incredibly powerful on the positive side as long as you do a very transparent job of telling people exactly how their data is going to be used. That’s both from the CEO and from the wellness companies in the world. Limeade I hope is at the forefront of protecting private data but enabling those transparent conversations.

John Sumser:            You’re sitting in … You’re in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, which means you’re sitting in a sea of opportunity. When you think about where you’re going and the continuing evolution of the vision of the company, how do you pick between all of the possible things that you could do going forward?

Henry Albrecht:         That’s where data helps us actually. We have a very user centric approach. We research people and how they improve, and we sit in companies and watch how their cultures impact their improvement or not. We get tons of data and feedback on what’s working and not working in the software. The first thing is we have to listen, listen not just to the market and the buyer but listen to the actual employee who’s trying to improve. That’s really our North Star. The second thing is we have to be ourselves. We have to not be the company that’s always chasing the latest fad or hoping for the next big regulatory change in how things happen.

We’ve been on the same mission for nine years, to improve well-being in the world and to show that there’s a better way to build great companies. We’re just staying on our mission. We’re looking at the data, we’re listening to our customers, we’re being guided by some of the best companies in the world who are our customers, and we can hear exactly what they say they want, but it’s also our job to find out what actually works and be guided not just by data but by our mission.

John Sumser:            That’s great [crosstalk 00:27:56] …

Henry Albrecht:         I would say we’re less likely to sway in the wind than many firms are, I hope.

John Sumser:            Fantastic. We have blown through our allocated time here. What do you want the audience to take away?

Henry Albrecht:         I want you to take away that improving the well-being of your workforce is absolutely doable. It’s doable if you focus not just on reducing the cost and treating people, like health and risk, but by thinking about the whole employee, and their stress, and their family, and everything that motivates them to do a great job. If you give them that respect, and if you create the environment and the culture for that, and you reward people for the behaviors you want, you will have great business outcomes, not just health outcomes but health and business outcomes, and you should have a heck of a lot of fun doing it as well.

John Sumser:            That’s fantastic. Henry, would you reintroduce yourself and tell people how to get a hold of you?

Henry Albrecht:         Absolute. My name is Henry Albrecht. I’m the CEO of Limeade, L-I-M-E-A-D-E. You can find more about us at, and we’d love to hear from you.

John Sumser:            Thanks so much for taking the time to do this, Henry. It’s been a privilege to have you on today. Everybody in the audience, thanks for tuning in. I hope your day is as sunny and wonderful as it is out here in northern California. We will see you the same time next week. Have a great weekend. [Thanks again 00:29:30].

Henry Albrecht:         Get outside today. It’s beautiful.

End transcript

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