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The Power of Transparency and Vulnerability: An Interview with Jon Berbaum

Jon Berbaum has been working for Highland Solutions for the past twelve years, and was recently named Highland’s President. In this executive interview with G2 Crowd, Jon shares his thoughts on what makes Highland team members and the work we do unique.

Job titles can be confusing. What does your role entail?

My core responsibilities revolve around our culture — do we foster the environment and team members that lead to highly effective teams? — and strategy — are we aligned to what our clients need most today and will need tomorrow?

I also spend time having coffee, meeting smart and interesting leaders and firms in search of compelling new engagements and partnerships. I always enjoy connecting with people who are trying out good risky ideas, and talking to folks doing work that’s oriented towards social impact.

What is the philosophy behind your company and how does that approach differentiate your products or services in the marketplace?

Highland helps organizations innovate using a mix of design thinking, lean startup, and web/mobile software development. We’re anchored in a strong belief that organizations have increasingly less control of their marketing message and need to shift focus, energy, and investment into customer experience and innovation.

I believe the confluence of these strengths — human-centered design, business model savvy, lean startup skills, and custom software — makes us rare as a services partner.

In the end, every great services firm is differentiated by the people who do the work. Our people embody our two main values “People First” and “Give a Damn” like crazy. We care about what our clients care about, and it shows.

When your team brags about their jobs, what is the story, or stories, they are sharing?

Two things stand out.

First, people tend to brag about the actual difference their work made, not just the project itself. “We helped wish kids have a more impactful experience,” or “We’re helping attack issues of student debt,” or “We made an alternative to lines at the DMV.”

Second, our team loves to talk about learnings and pivots. “The client came to us wanting to create a program that does X, and we helped them learn that people actually cared about something else a lot more.”

We brag about the actual things we build, of course, but not nearly as much as impact and smart pivots.

Does your company engage with philanthropic opportunities? If so, why and which ones?

We give time and expertise more than the typical routes of dollars and volunteer hours. We’re involved with several high-profile not-for-profit organizations in giving strategic services, as well as in broader innovation and capabilities building for not-for-profits and social impact businesses in Chicago. We care deeply about social impact, and believe rolling up our sleeves and adding our core competencies is the most valuable way we can engage.

How do you describe your company’s internal culture? What are some examples of what makes your workplace special?

There’s a large poster of the Japanese concept of “ikigai” in our lunch and social area. “Ikigai” describes a state of being when your work is something you are good at, something you can get paid for, something you love, and something the world needs.

This is what we strive for. We strongly gravitate to work we believe makes a difference, and immerse ourselves in it fully.

People are people, not cogs in a machine. Our team members often say they feel human here, compared to other places they’ve worked.

What leader, outside of your company, do you look up to or try to emulate and why?

Wendell Berry. The business world wouldn’t normally call him a leader, I suppose, but his prophetic voice reminds me that as humans we are necessarily connected to the world around us and the communities we are a part of. Berry stresses how the pursuit of wealth and success disconnects us from the deeper riches of place and people, and how this trade can have painful consequences. For Highland, our team members, and our clients, I want us to pursue our work in ways that lets us always be real people in real places and real communities.

What is it about that individual that you believe sets them apart as a leader?

His ability to clearly see and communicate what is really important. Berry knows that real “success” as people is much broader and deeper than it is normally defined in the world of business. I see a lot of leaders that are quite “successful” in a narrow business definition, but miss out on being more deeply human. I don’t want that for myself or for those around me.

If you could change one thing in the business world, what would it be and why?

I would wave some magic wand and make business jargon and posturing go away. A job candidate recently told me he was skilled at “impression management” with clients. I almost keeled over. I believe in the power of transparency and vulnerability instead.

If you could review your team on G2 Crowd, what would the headline be?

This team gives a damn: smart, curious, passionate, and polymathic.

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