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Cathryn Buchanan

“I’ve worked in a lot of great companies like National Geographic and Microsoft but, by far, Altrec.com is the most enjoyable company to work with.”

Title: Altrec.com’s senior content producer
Previously: Senior Web producer for National Geographic
The Impact: “Before the trip, I wasn’t really sure where I stood in the leadership team. I was hesitant about asking for money and for staff resources. But I felt that I got a vote of confidence on the river. Basically, the message from the rest of the team was, ‘We value your work and your vision.’

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“Since the trip, I’ve been a lot more assertive in our weekly strategy meetings. For example, we have a big project we’re trying to pull off, and at our last meeting I just said, ‘I need our design team to make this project a top priority next month.’ I never would have pushed that hard before.”

Did the extreme off-site meet your expectations?

I expected that I would get to know my team members better and understand their issues and concerns as well as the dynamics between people outside the office. And I definitely learned a lot about all of those things. There was a lot of time during the sessions to sit and talk and listen to what people were saying about themselves and the issue they were struggling with at work. It definitely helped me to understand people better and to relate to them better. But the very most important thing we carried away was this list of norms and values that I have posted by my desk and really do try to follow and appreciate. I’ve worked in a lot of bigger organizations where these kind of norms often got over looked, and I really appreciate the fact that we are starting to build a company based on these very good issues and very good foundations.

How have you see those norms and values come to life inside Altrec.com?

Many people follow the norms and values because they came from companies that were screwed up in one way or another, and they really want this company to be good, to be right. I see results in people who resist the temptation to go behind someone’s back. Now, people more and more go directly to the person and offer them the comment. There’s a lot more directness, a lot more openness, and an attempt to do the right thing at all points.

Did the off-site help you become better oriented to your position and better acquainted with your colleagues?

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I am the only content person on a site that is very strongly e-commerce-oriented. When I came on to Altrec.com, I wasn’t sure how much support I would get in terms of money and projects. How much leeway? How much money? How many resources? I was being assertive, but I wasn’t getting the kinds of projects that I wanted.

The off-site made me feel like people really do appreciate the content I produce and that they really do value it as part of this Web site. On the Salmon River, I was told by a number of people that I should be more assertive in getting money and help for my projects. And that was a real vote of confidence for me. I realized they weren’t just paying lip service to the ideas. It really is important to the team that I move forward and do a major piece like “Crown of Africa.”

Tell me about the making of “Crown of Africa.”

That package took a lot of work and a lot of resources. People were really good about giving me both. That helped me tremendously to move forward with the whole content section and to really feel like I could speak up about my plans. I have a lot of ideas, but I was holding back at first because I just didn’t know what role content would play in this new Web site.

Another one of our features, “Route 360,” was written up in The New York Times and received a Communication Arts Award. “Crown of Africa” has already gotten several awards and was site of the day for Christian Science Monitor. We’ve gotten outside publicity for both pieces, and that’s given the team the idea that we’re producing content that is first-class.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned on the Salmon River?

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The most important thing that I took away from the river trip was a commitment to my co-workers. I verbalized something that I realized was very important to me and that was part of our norms. As the oldest member of the strategy team and as someone who’s had a fair amount of experience in the world of communications, I really wanted to offer to the design team and my other colleagues the opportunity to grow their portfolios, grow their work, and advance their careers. Here, people are highly engaged at work. We listen to other people’s ideas and empower other people to take on new challenges. So far, I have created opportunities for members of the design team to network with other designers that I happen to know of. I’m very conscious of listening to their ideas, incorporating their ideas, and letting them run with a lot of their ideas.

It’s been really important for me to be part of the strategic team that is creating an environment that will allow people to grow. I think Altrec.com is really allowing people to grow out of their box and take on more responsibility at a fairly young age. I would have been lucky to work here when I was in my twenties.

How are other members of the management team working to bring the off-site learning to life?

I definitely see it in Mike (Morford, CEO) and the way he addresses the team meetings every Monday morning. He’s very conscious of the norms and of being fair and informative. As a strategy team, we are trying to communicate better to the rest of the team, and I think that Mike really makes a conscious effort by asking people for questions and saying, ‘If you need to talk to me about this, come and knock on my door.’ He has definitely has taken the norms and really put them into action in the team meetings.

Shannon (Stowell, Alliance Director) and I do a lot of work together, and I remember one of Shannon’s comments during the off-site was that he wanted to be more open and honest. And I’ve really seen that a lot with him. It’s been very helpful because we work very closely together. I see a big change in him and I see a change in just about everybody on the strategy team in terms of how they deliver criticism or comments. If there’s a problem, they’re more likely to address the person face-to-face in a way that we were taught to do in the session: ‘Can I offer you some feedback?’ The methods that we were taught during the river trip about approaching conflict and difficult situations are certainly coming in handy.

What would you identify as Altrec.com’s biggest challenges and opportunities for the future?

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The biggest challenge to us is going to be growth — how to manage that growth, how to manage the decision-making process, and how to manage the new people coming into the company. I think we have a lot of good plans in place about how to delegate and manage growth. In fact, Don (Pickering) has been very instrumental in working up a new structure for the company that will alleviate a lot of communication problems. We are on the road to planning for that growth, but I think the biggest issue is how we get decisions made – How do we all get the information we need to make decisions? How do we make sure that we’re not all just operating in our own little separate worlds?

Any lasting impressions of the off-site?

We all look back very fondly on that trip. It was an incredible bonding experience for a lot of us, and it set the tone for what kind of company we are. We’re the kind of company that will get out there and do a river trip. And I appreciate that. I’m 43 and I’ve worked in a lot of great companies like National Geographic and Microsoft but, by far, Altrec.com is the most enjoyable company to work with. People here are very open in terms of accepting comments on a project. People don’t look at it like a power struggle. They just take the comments with openness. You don’t have to fear anything when you write up your comments on a project. And that because there are no bad feelings. We get the work done.

What Did Happen on the Salmon River?

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