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Sam Reeve: Your people are the key

Michael Hunter

Hello, and welcome to the Uncommon Leadership interview series!

Each episode I chat with a leader in the software just like you about their journey to seeing people as people.

Today I have Sam, CompTeam founder and managing consultant. Sam is a pay and talent performance expert and a certified global compensation professional. His extensive experience with pay programs and competitive compensation analysis, career architecture, and talent management allows him to help clients of rapidly growing firms see real, measurable results, including increased productivity and significant pay savings, year over year.

An innovative thinker with practical application, Sam strongly believes that everyone needs to be healthy and happy in their own lives in order to strive as a high-performing contributor.

Welcome again, Sam.

Sam Reeve 1:13

I’m Michael so thanks for that great introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Michael 1:19

I’m happy to have you here. We always have great conversations and I’m looking forward to seeing where this one goes today.

As you reflect back over your journey to seeing people as people and leveraging their gifts, what first led you to realize that leveraging their unique gifts might be valuable?

Sam 1:45

When I started out my career, I started out in, of course, compensation, thinking about how to put together pay plans and putting those plans together for performance. You’ll have those variable plans to kind of incent people to do better. But what I quickly found after years of doing that is that they weren’t really taking hold all the time. There was something else that was missing.

Of course, any HR practitioner out there nowadays, they know that other pieces need to be in place before a pay program can take hold, such as the ability to have a good work environment, that employee value proposition needs to be in place.

But most important was, do we select the right person for the role, a person that is happy doing that job? That has the passion for doing that role. And that was the true piece that drives work performance, ensuring that a person has that passion.

And so really, working with companies in recruiting teams and so forth to help them select people that are really passionate for that role. We’re looking for that innate drive and start asking questions that more that are more personal in nature, as far as what they want to achieve and so forth.

That’s what really was the first thing that got me to that place.

Michael 03:28

Was there a particular experience or situation that really triggered that for you?

Sam 03:34

I think it was in talking to a couple of people and most importantly, my children, I guess you could say.

When my kids started to work, they would go out and get jobs at fast food or dishwasher, those entry-level work. They’d say, “I don’t like this” and then they would just hate to go to work and they would come home and would be completely drained. And I can tell that that was not the place for them.

And so now, of course, this is the true nature as well. If we put people in roles that they are not happy doing or perhaps they have to bend or do certain tasks in that role that they just typically don’t like doing, then it just drains them of energy.

Those are things that our clients can see and customers can see. It’s really difficult on that employee when they just, at the end of the day, they’re just sapped of strength.

Michael 4:50

The jobs that I’ve most enjoyed, when people asked me what I do, I would say I play. And the jobs I hated were definitely work and were not quite right. Sometimes I think we play at work, when work really should be play.

Sam 5:13

That’s a very important point.

One mentor I had when I was young was Adrian Kistler. He was a ropes course engineer. He built ropes courses for teams and team building in Grass Valley and Nevada City, California. And that was one of his core beliefs, that through play, we come together.

We see our children and that’s the first thing that they do when they meet another child in the field. They get together and they begin to play and they develop a relationship.

Well, that’s something that we can leverage at our organizations as well to bring people together, to make them feel more comfortable in environments.

I think that he was very profound and understanding that, you know, I think that was 25 years ago now.

Michael 6:18

Sometimes I wish we could have a little play meter, we can plug in to everyone on our teams, so we continue to monitor that. Because as long as it’s at like 80% or higher, everything’s great. If it starts dipping, then things are going wrong.

Sam 6:37

I think that the future of work is going to find out how to add that element in.

Already there’s pieces of what we just find that were very creative through play as well. And so, I think that is a great piece to ensure that we’re it’s in the workplace. It makes it fun.

If we can still get work done through play and through challenge and some of those events and so I think that’s a very good strategy.

Michael 7:12

Speaking of challenge, where have you found most challenging in helping businesses transform the way they think about their employees and how they match employees where the work needs to get done?

Sam 7:33

The biggest challenge that I see with a lot of organizations and leaders is the old mindset of not understanding putting people first.

When I’m talking about that, it’s not just the employees but our customers. Often, they’re so customer focused that they fail to realize that there’s an ecosystem here. There’s the customer, the company and how it supports the customer, and their employees.

Those three things, I call it the three-legged stool. It’s super important for companies to understand that their own internal talent is critical in driving the success of their overall firm and customer happiness.

The most difficult thing I have is going into those companies that they have an old mindset of, they’re not talent centric. I have to coach them, saying, “Your people are the key to ensuring that you’re improving high performance, across your organization and also increasing the amount of satisfaction that your customers get.”

Michael 8:45

How do you prove that? How do you show them the tangible value that comes out of this really squishy, touchy-feely stuff?

Sam 8:54

You can use other high-performing companies as a model for that. But the true test is to start putting it into action.

So, the first thing that I find is that organizations are very poor at communication internally. Manager-employee communication is awkward. Managers often are not trained well enough to have effective communication.

When that barrier is removed, through training and development of those managers, immediate satisfaction comes into play of those employees feeling that they’ve been heard. They know what to do next. They understand where they are as far as their performance, and you’ll start seeing immediate changes in those teams.

As that expands across the organization, then you see more cohesion and people working together and see more seamless operations. So it’s very powerful.

Michael 10:04

One of the tools I often introduce, when I start working with teams, I call All The Feels. Everyone has a couple minutes to talk about whatever’s on their mind. Work stuff, personal stuff, the game last night, whatever they want to talk about.

The rest of us, we don’t get to react. And yeah, commiserating groans and chuckles at funny stories are inevitable, but we don’t get to talk back about, “Well, what really happened is …” or “No, that’s not what really happened,” or even “Actually, what you thought I was feeling isn’t what I was feeling.” That all can happen later. This is their time.

I’m always amazed at what a difference it makes just right away, even on teams that don’t trust each other. Having been told, “This is a safe place to talk about what’s going on,” and knowing that they aren’t going to get shut down, opens up the dynamics on a team in so many ways, in just that little bit of time. Even if it’s only every couple of weeks, and that’s the only thing like this that happens on the team. It has an instant impact on how well the team works together. And almost always, the team then starts building trust, and that just helps everything work better.

Sam 11:39

I think that’s such a great exercise. Michael. I think that’s a valuable thing that you’re bringing to organizations.

Because one of the things that a lot of team members experience is that they’re ending up on a team, and we’ve all been there, where we see “Oh, well, so and so is just not what something’s wrong or they’re upset.” They don’t know why.

In these simple exercises, like you just mentioned, is a way to understand what’s going on in everybody’s life at that particular moment that’s impacting their mindset. Whether it’s, “My beloved pet that I’ve had for 10 years died this morning.” Or, “My kid forgot their lunch today before they went to school.” There’s things that weigh on our mind.

I was just yesterday talking to one of my clients and they were distracted. They were on their phone, texting, texting, and I was going, “Oh, what’s wrong?” “My child just called me because they ran out of lunch money in their account.” So, sharing these stories makes it real, makes it human, and we all understand what’s going on.

Because a lot of times, we make false guesses. We judge people based on things that are just assumptions. And we don’t realize that there’s something else going on something that could be quite important or profound.

Michael 13:16

Oftentimes, we don’t understand what’s going on for the other person. We can’t read their minds. And so often in business, we’re told we’re supposed to leave ourselves at the door and just be our work personality, that we assume that we’re the only one having these things go on and everyone else has perfect lives. And then, of course, social media tells this too. And these kinds of exercises of enabling the sharing helps us realize that we all have just as messy lives as we have ourselves. And it helps gives us grace as much as it helps give the rest of our team grace.

Sam 14:03

Absolutely. And nothing is more powerful than showing that vulnerability, not even as a leader to be more relatable. We’ve all had that experience growing through our lives as we idolized our parents, thinking that they’re perfect. And as we get older, it’s, “Oh, well, that’s just like me. I have some of the same problems. They have some of the same problems that I experienced.” We can more relate to them as we share stories. That is just with anything, including leadership and companies.

Michael 14:47

I imagine you encounter resistance as you introduce these ideas to companies and teams, from the individuals on the teams. And as much or more, maybe, from the leaders, who maybe want this to change and haven’t quite comprehended that this means they need to change as well. What are your, sort of, go-to, your favorite ways to start converting that resistance into acceptance?

Sam 15:28

Well, a lot of it is taking a break. From the conversation, and going into a reflection or a storytelling.

Going back into time and then sharing a moment where I had that particular experience of a fear of taking that next step. And then also talking about that with that particular leader, the executive. “Have you been in a situation where there’s been risk or difficulty to take that step?” and bring that together and start to relate it to the current situation.

Well, this could be a very similar situation. We need to understand that there’s fear and are a part of this decision. If we have a thoughtful approach, if we take a look at a group and doing a beta test in certain areas, we can gain confidence as we go through this project together.

It’s a way to kind of ease their mind and walk them through it.

But nothing is more important than developing the confidence in yourself as that practitioner, bringing that leader through that journey, because the most important thing for anyone to understand is that, “Do I have confidence in that person to get me there?”

As practitioners, it’s important that we give our clients that comfort of confidence.

Michael 17:15

I know for myself, as I’m working with individuals and teams, sometimes that client that I need to give that consolation and assistance to, turns out to be myself. I’m the one resisting what I’m experiencing. So, I need to handle that before I can help other people I’m there to help. Have you found the same?

Sam 17:44

Yes, absolutely. In a lot of situations.

It’s important, as me to understand as a professional, that the things that I knew five years ago or ten years ago that worked well in organizations doesn’t necessarily work well today. I have to go through this constant learning and testing and validation of my ideas. The most important thing that I do to give myself confidence is to take time to do valid research, and then get a very thoughtful approach of how I would apply it to a situation step by step by step.

If I do that preparation before I go and see a client, then I can articulate those steps. I can talk about the rationale of each step and why we’re doing it. And through this process, it gives me confidence and also my client confidence at the same time, that it has been a well thought out process

We don’t have to be right all the time. But it’s good to have that. Saying okay, well, this was the hypothesis. When we started, we found out it was false. And that’s okay, we went through the journey in a very thoughtful way of doing that. And we agreed on that together at the beginning.

But that’s business overall. We start out on a premise, and then halfway through, if the market changes or the environment changes, or it doesn’t work in that particular company, we have to shift gears and go in a different direction. So, the comfort to fail is very important to find the right decision for any organization.

 One of the biggest things I see wrong in large consulting firms is that they take a fixed product that they’ve used in a lot of different organizations. And it’s like wearing a big set of pants, that, yeah, I can put them on. But when I take my hands off, they fall down or they don’t fit. I can’t walk with them. So over time, we need to really make those adjustments to make it bespoke to the organization for the right fit.

Michael 20:08

As you’re doing that customization surprises will always come up that blow your plan out of the water. How do you maintain your confidence in the face of these surprises, where now you don’t have a plan for where to go next?

Sam 20:28

Well, that happened to a lot of us, right? In the beginning of the pandemic a few years ago, we came up with something that was not tested in the marketplace. We had to do things that were different than what our regular reality was.

I think that’s the important part of testing any model that we put in place is that if a shock comes or challenges that model is very fortuitous. For us to say, “Is this model going to be resilient enough for the future?”

If it’s having problems with this particular shock, then perhaps we need to find other ways. Going through the typical processes of learning new ways to approach can be a breakthrough, not only for the company, but for the industry as a whole.

So, brainstorming potential solutions, testing new directions and so forth, can be a very powerful thing to create a strategic advantage for an organization.

Like I said, failure is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a test to drive the organization in a new direction.

Michael 21:49

One of the things I remind my clients—and myself—is that we can never actually fall backwards because everything we do, has taught us something new. So, we’re always moving forward. There’s no way to avoid that. And if we’re always moving forward, then that can remove a lot of the fear of falling back or failing because we can only ever fail forward and it’s not really failing. It’s just learning something we didn’t expect.

Sam 22:23

Yes. Right.

And one thing as a professional and doing this for almost 30 years now, is that, it’s true, there’s great lessons from the past in how to do things in the structure and that the testing of theory.

But as I became older and more experienced in this profession, we have to continually test things and adapt and learn together and moving forward. There’s just constant new factors that come into the market, especially now that the pace of change is just ever quicker. And so, we just need to adapt to these things, learn and move forward.

I don’t like the premise that a professional needs to know it all. We just need to know how to handle problems. We need to know how to be adaptable, and to create resilience and agility.

Michael 23:30

We about need to wrap up. My question I always ask at the end: what else should I ask you?

Sam 23:41

Well, we’ve had a great conversation. I love where we’ve talked.

You know, I think the most important thing, and a question for companies in this day and age, is really the power of humanity.

We’re in the age of understanding, like I just talked about the pandemic a few minutes ago, and now we’re coming out of that. But there’s been a change in society. People understand the vulnerability of life, and how things can be shortened. Some of us have lost loved ones during that time. And so, we know that life is short with those people that we love. And so, we’re in a period of humanity.

And it’s important for us to understand, take time to know our people, where they’re at and what they’re looking for in their future, to really retain that important talent, to really have a cohesive workforce, and to drive performance in the future. It’s critical.

Michael 24:51

You may have just answered my last question. I’ll ask anyway. What do you want to leave our listeners with today?

Sam 25:01

I think that is, we all have, and I’m included in this. I get so busy. What I do on a daily basis. Throughout the day, it’s important that we take time to stop and reflect and think how we’re presenting ourselves to others, and to take in consideration other people on our team and our clients and what’s going on in our daily lives. It’s sometimes when we get so rushed, we can just be a bull and mow things over to get them done. And it’s important for us to understand how that impacts others, and our clients, and the people that we love.

Michael 25:50

Absolutely. Thank you for that, Sam.

All you listeners, if you’ve enjoyed our conversation today and you want to follow up with Sam, you can contact him at That’s C O M P, like short for compensation, team T E A And, he’s Sam Reeve on LinkedIn. And there’s also the CompTeam People Strategy Forum on YouTube, which has great conversations like this with amazing guests every week.

If you’d like a weekly email for me with stories about the topics like we’ve heard from Sam today, you might sign up for my newsletter at the top of this page. And you can find me on my contact form there or

Thank you so much, Sam.

Sam 26:48

Thanks, Michael. It’s been a pleasure.

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