Putting Impact Before Profits with a Mission-driven Company with Tyson Smith at Reading Horizons

Today’s guest is Tyson Smith, CEO at Reading Horizons. Inc Magazine ranked its company #4161 on the 2019 Inc 5000 list. Reading Horizons provides a dynamic, successful way for people to reach beyond their limitations and discover new horizons by learning to read. Accordingly, Reading Horizons is dedicated specifically to helping people learn to read so they can be better prepared to accomplish real-life tasks that face them every day and so they can create opportunities to expand their horizons in the future.

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Tyson Smith: The Transcript

About: Tyson Smith is the President at Reading Horizons. Reading Horizons is more than just a reading curriculum—it’s an entire ideology about reading instruction that is supported by the tools and training needed for effective implementation. Reading Horizons offers training and curriculum tools that prepare teachers to deliver the principles of reading science in both classroom and virtual settings.


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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.


Tyson Smith: [00:00:00] At Reading Horizons what we’re teaching, what we’re preaching, what we do has such a profound influence and impact on people. And so I think that’s, it makes it easy. Can we share some success stories, with staff that makes you cry? I cry at staff meetings routinely because it’s the impact that literacy has on individuals is so profound. And so I don’t think it’s not a difficult sell at reading horizons because what we’re, what we’re selling, we’re publishing this. So it’s so important.

[00:00:27] Intro: [00:00:27] Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I help leaders and their teams defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

[00:00:45] Gene Hammett: [00:00:45] Today we talk about the impact before product. Now your employees definitely want to get paid consistently. Sometimes they want to get paid a lot, but you want to make sure that you’re creating a space. Where ne you’re making an impact in the world because of that mission-driven company really helps you connect people and for you to overcome challenges. Is a powerful force. I love to talk about mission-driven companies. Today’s focus is impacted before profit. We’re here with CEO, Tyson Smith, reading horizons, the same company that you probably grew up with as a child, as I did in different doctor’s offices, these reading horizons are still around and really. Want you to understand that they believe in impact before profit. And that is the core of today’s conversation about what does it take to lead a company that has that kind of approach it, that perspective, it may be very different than what you’re used to, but I would ask you to lean in, see what you can learn from a company that has been driven behind this. We talk a little bit about why employee first is such an important driver inside of the business. And we talk about all of the aspects to create an impact before profit. What that means to the bottom line of your business. Please join me as I welcome you to this conversation with Tyson.

[00:02:02] Tyson, how are you?

[00:02:04] Tyson Smith: [00:02:04] Doing fantastic, Gene, how are you doing?

[00:02:06] Gene Hammett: [00:02:06] I am fantastic. I’m excited to talk to you about growth and all things leadership. Before we get started, I’ve already let our audience know a little bit about you as a leader in the company, but tell us about Reading Horizons.

[00:02:20] Tyson Smith: [00:02:20] What to reading horizons is an education publishing entity. They publish products that teach people to read whether they are children who are first learning, how to read or who may be struggling with reading or teenagers and adults who may be struggling to learn, to read that’s our focus. We have published software. We published manuals for teachers, books, for students training for teachers. And that’s our universe, teaching people how to read.

[00:02:44] Gene Hammett: [00:02:44] Well, this company has been around for ages. I think I remember this from my kid. How long has have you been around?

[00:02:49] Tyson Smith: [00:02:49] In since 1994, 35 years.

[00:02:53] Gene Hammett: [00:02:53] I had learned to raid before that. But I do remember this product and, I’m glad to have you here today. You’re the CEO of a fast-growth company. You run the inquest and, you know, 10,000,085 employees give or take What are the core principles you have seen important to the growth of your company?

[00:03:12] Tyson Smith: [00:03:12] You know, I’ll tell ya for, as, as a company, like many, we clean to values. We have some fantastic values that guide the decisions that we make as leaders in our company outside of some of the traditional values, we also think to what we call its impact. We talk a lot about purpose and its impact on profit and reading horizons. And so I mean, I went through business school, Jean Mandarin, I did an MBA and everything is, it’s always about maximizing shareholder return and our reading horizons. We are a little unique that way. And that we, I can honestly say I don’t have a profit goal for the year. We have revenue targets because they’re, they’re a major of our impact, but, but that principle of focusing on people and purpose and meaning horizons, I think it’s something that has defined us and, and it’s, it’s propelled our success, not allowing some of the traditional. A traditional mindset, of profit, first to cloud our thinking into, into cloud our judgment and to impair our ability to help people learn how to read.

[00:04:11] Commercial: [00:04:11] Hold on for a second, Tyson just talked about purpose. Do you have a purpose in your business? Do you have something that you can hang your hat on and that when you invite people into that, you select them as new hires, you onboard them with a clear purpose of how what they do is beyond just them. Well, if you don’t have that purpose, you don’t have a mission that binds everyone together. You’re missing an opportunity. I’ve done a lot of interviews here on the show with companies that are in areas where their mission is not as clear as our guests today, Tyson, but in my opinion, you owe it to yourself to find that mission so that you can invite people with you on that journey. And you as a leader, have to really be clear about what that is, and it’s not just to make money. Back to the interview.

[00:04:58] Gene Hammett: [00:04:58] Did you accept this as you took over as CEO? Or is this a shift that was, that you have done in your journey?

[00:05:05] Tyson Smith: [00:05:05] No. I started with the company, as the executive vice president is a small company, tiny company, and was then offered the opportunity to lead the company. In 2001, as I’ve been here for a couple of years in various functions and roles, and then was offered the opportunity to leave 19 years ago.

[00:05:22] Gene Hammett: [00:05:22] I want to make sure that I’m not making assumptions, this whole concept of focusing on impact. I know a lot of people go, well, you know, how do you create profitability? Cause they’ve got to create profit for their stakeholders. I know that when you have the right impact, it drives profit. How do you wrestle with that relationship?

[00:05:39] Tyson Smith: [00:05:39] Well, I’ll say, first of all, we’re very fortunate. We’re very fortunate because of impact when reading horizons, when we talk about impact, it’s not it’s people’s lives, we’re talking about, right? Th the inability to read is it’s such a, for those of us that know have never experienced that we really don’t have any idea what a black, especially being an adult who can’t read and to have the opportunity to impact individuals like that. It’s so it’s such a profound impact that, so I don’t know that for every company, this discussion about impact would have the same. Sway Jane cause reading horizons, we, what we’re teaching, what we’re preaching, what we do has such a profound influence and impact on people. And so I think that’s, it makes it easy. We share some success stories with staff that, that make you cry. I cry at staff meetings routinely G nee because it’s the impact that literacy has on individuals is so profound. And so I don’t think it’s, it’s not, it’s not a difficult sell at reading horizons because what we’re, what we’re selling or publishing is, so is so important.

[00:06:34] Gene Hammett: [00:06:34] That makes sense. Cause when we were talking earlier, Tyson, I asked you about, you know, where you were on one of my 10 point matrices. For mission. And you had said you were a nine, I think you were probably being generous there cause you, you know, the mission of, of teaching people to read is really big. We all take it for granted, for the most part, I think. But could, when you think about this, this purpose of the business What does it do for your employees and the culture?

[00:06:59] Tyson Smith: [00:06:59] I believe that most of us, when we enter the workforce, maybe we start with the intent of providing for ourselves and our family. But I think for most of us, if we don’t find something with real purpose, ideally early on something that, aligns with our, with passion, something that really churns inside of us. We can find something with purpose. It really, changes our motive work doesn’t feel like work when you’re doing something that you feel is making a real difference. And so I do believe that that having a purpose and I, and all sorts of contributing horizons over the year, you know, we have Al we have individuals who absolutely just jump on the mission from day one and they’re just, then they’re just pushing it. And others that, that, that over time and evolves and they and they grow and the mission goes on them. And then others maybe even ask them after five or 10 years are behind this, whether or not the mission really matters to them. I say, yeah, it’s important. But I also just love to write good code, write great code.

[00:07:51] And and so, you know, everyone’s at a different place. It’s a spectrum, but I do believe that when people get behind the purpose of something work goes from feeling like, again, my, my motives change it doesn’t, it changes. How I feel about the work every day, you know, the metrics, as you were saying, Jean what’s required of me. I see that there’s the real value that I’m bringing to other people. And I think that there’s a higher level of performance that comes when we’re working in a cause that’s bigger than what we feel. We are right. The sum is greater than the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

[00:08:22] Gene Hammett: [00:08:22] My wife is Amanda and she works on the team and she works with a lot of our bigger companies. And one of the challenges they have is, is the younger generation coming in. I would imagine you guys have embraced hiring the millennials and the generations after that they’re coming into the workforce. There there’s a real need to have focus there, right? To have a purpose with the work. Have you seen that with your younger generations?

[00:08:45] Tyson Smith: [00:08:45] Without question, they have, you know, we’ve had more options right now than we than ever in history. Right. There, there are so many options for anyone coming into the workforce and they are more purpose. They recognize that you know, I don’t want my 40 years in the workforce to be solely income, right. Or resume building. It. I want to feel like it’s making a difference and more than any generation before I agree with that. And they’re tremendously gifted in many ways. They’re tremendously gifted. So tapping that talent is critical to our mission.

[00:09:14] Gene Hammett: [00:09:14] I love the, that you say they’re gifted. Cause there are just as many people out there that will say they’re entitled, they don’t want to work lazy. But I think that they’re probably just don’t have the right screening kind of things and they don’t, maybe they don’t have a mission for them to step into. What have you learned along your journey of hiring people that are really impact-driven over, over this, this other metric?

[00:09:36] Tyson Smith: [00:09:36] You know, and I wouldn’t, I would not disagree that it, but it’s not just the millennials. Like it can be entitled. I think there is more of that because of the the the years, these, these, this last few decades of growth and fluency and. There’s just been a lot of opportunities. And so I’m not going to disagree with that, but it’s not just the millennials, but it’s anyone. And I do believe though, if you take, if you’re trying to put together a recipe for success and, and again, I don’t typically suggest we don’t do the higher on, on just qualifications, right. Education and experience. We try and hire on character. You know what, you know, how, how does this person rank when it comes to the character? And that’s hard to ascertain at times, right? You can ask some questions and call references, but that really is how we try to hire. We thought we’ve got someone who really exhibits some strong character, regardless of their education, their experience we’ll hire them.

[00:10:26] We try and hire people who fit our culture that is kind and people who can be. Because we’ll teach them, I mean, routinely we teach them what they need to know to flourish reading horizons. But if they’ll bring just a few, you know, the characteristics that, you know, you know, honest and kind and willing to get behind something and work those are characteristics we can work with. And then when you put them into an environment where impact is key and purpose is really driven home, and it doesn’t matter if they’re, if they’re 18 or they’re 28 or they’re 48, you know, the right, those individuals characteristics, you find those individuals. And they’re going to get behind the purpose and drive the mission of the company.

[00:10:59] Yeah. And we have people, I have people in my leadership team directors who started in the early days, the twenties and, and with limited education and have just risen the ladder because they’re just so much strong character, right. They’ve really exhibited these. These characteristics and they’re, they’re, they’re oriented to our mission and, and they, and, and, and the result is they drive, they drive us, you know, our purpose and our mission.

[00:11:22] Gene Hammett: [00:11:22] I want to go back to this whole impact because I think it might twist a lot of people up. What, where do you think companies get it wrong when you tell them that you focus on impact over profit?

[00:11:33] Tyson Smith: [00:11:33] Well, first of all, it’s what we’re taught in. What are we taught and cool? Anyone who’s been to business school knows that it’s supposed to all just be about. You know, building shareholder value and return, which is generally categorized or characterized by profit. And so it, that is different, I’ve had conversations. I’ve had some you know, arguments with other individuals in the past that, you know, successful businessmen who do think I’m crazy. And I can’t speak for their individual businesses. Gene, I can’t speak to that. I can just say from my experience if you allow. The impact. And again, it starts internally, right? The impact and making sure that our internal stakeholders, our team players, call them reading horizons that they feel like they are a priority to us. Right. They’re whole people.

[00:12:17] We embrace them as whole people. They feel like they’re a priority to us. They then reflect that outside. And you do that. I don’t know that the product matters. If you’re focused on whatever it is you’re doing. But the impact and the purpose of what you’re doing is to instill that in the hearts of the people who are taking it to your customers then I, and I think everyone doesn’t make it regardless of product impact should, you know, is impact and whatever your goals are if you get the right people in the right seats and you give them that, that attention and that we paint love, trust, and respect and reading horizon, everyone should feel loved and trusted and respect. And that as they do, they reflect it to the customers. And again, I think it’s a formula for everyone to win. I was on the phone just two weeks ago. I called 20 of our best customers, 20 of our, our best districts around the country who use reading horizons and who are struggling with this pandemic.

[00:13:04] Their teachers are teaching at home now. There are just all sorts of confusion and, and, and upheaval. And I called and I spoke with one of the districts and she said, you know, Tyson, our teachers are overwhelmed. Publishers are reaching out and offering help, but they’re so overwhelmed and more of a burden than a blessing. To have that outreach. She said, except for you. She said, if your team wants to call my teachers, I would welcome it because I’ve been to your office. I felt the love of your staff and the caring. And I think my teachers could actually use that right now. So I would encourage you to call our teachers. And so I, when I preached that, you know, again, you get the right people when you put them in an environment where they feel it they’ll project it to the customers reflected and projected. And, and then I think again, impact major impact as it is. It just. Is it just grows exponentially?

[00:13:51] Gene Hammett: [00:13:51] I, you brought it up. So I’ll go ahead and ask you the question. And I know your answer on this because I was talking to you before we cut on the recorder. My impossible question as, as a leader, what’s more, important customers or employees.

[00:14:03] Tyson Smith: [00:14:03] Yes. I’ll say what I said before we turned the recording.

[00:14:05] Gene Hammett: [00:14:05] Just a different take on it. You tell me a little something different, but why is it important?

[00:14:10] Tyson Smith: [00:14:10] You know, again, we call them team players, but it’s the team it’s they, you know, as I just said, if, if they if we get it right with them, If they genuinely feel like they are part of something and that they matter to us they’re going to reflect that to the customer. Life is too short to work with people that you don’t love and, and work and doing work that you don’t love. And I’ve challenged people. Who’s come to reading horizons over the years. I’ve said, if you don’t, you know, if you don’t love it here, then you really shouldn’t be here. You need to, I want, I love you enough and believe in you enough, but you need to find something that’s gonna work for you. And cause I genuinely do. I believe that we’d bring great people. I’ll challenge them. I’ll say you have come to realize that this time in your life for a reason I, and let’s explore that. What are you doing here? And how can you bring value to our mission? You know, we have great leadership in the company that really does help our folks feel loved and trusted and respected.

[00:15:02] And when they do they reflecting out of the customer and that’s why we get comments like that school district, right. Saying. You know, we’d love to have you reach out. Our people are genuinely interested in our customers because we’re genuinely interested in them. We, it reflects from, from the, from that what we do internally.

[00:15:18] Gene Hammett: [00:15:18] I love this unique brand of leadership. And the reason I say it’s unique is that I think too many organizations are focused on the profit, the metrics, which to me is really a symptom to a well-run organization. And what you’re talking about is we focus on running the company, developing the people. And, and really making an impact, with our customers. That’s our number one, the cause and effect of it. The effect is the money comes in that it’s profitable, but the cause is where we focus our attention. I want to, I want to turn the moment on you for a second. And I ask this, you know, occasionally tell us a defining moment in your own leadership where you had to let go of something about the way you thought about leadership or the way you thought about it and really challenge your own thinking that allows you to grow to a new level.

[00:16:02] Tyson Smith: [00:16:02] You know, I think maybe. I might, I might begin by suggesting that I think all sorts can lead. I think one of the main, one of the main characteristics of someone willing to step out and lead, well, one, I think maybe the most important thing is you find something that just you’re passionate about, right? The most introverted subdued personality can step up and lead. If you. You find what she or he really is passionate about and you challenged them a little bit and they can eat. I mean, it’s amazing what can happen and, and in my own leadership and the opportunities that I’ve had to lead that’s where, where I have been most at it, you know, just bold in my leadership. It’s where I felt something inside of me. That just, it just something. A fire, right. That just lights in you. And as I think about that, my time reading horizons back in maybe 2000, 2001, I got to go and visit. I was called up to do a presentation for some, some district administrators, and some legislators at a jail, a juvenile detention facility in Skagit County, Washington.

[00:17:09] And they led me through the jail to this little classroom and would meet me and maybe six or eight or 10 you know, folks from districts and legislators and so forth. And I did my little, my little dog and pony show. And at the end of mine. In my presentation, three of these juvenile offenders stood up to take questions, from the visitors. And as I sat and listened to their response to learning how to read while they were locked up in juvenile detention it changed me, it changed how I felt about my life, my career, what was important to me, and to hear them say things like, you know what? You don’t want to go back to myself. I can read. Chapter books, not just picture books. And my cellmate knows I can read chapter books. No, these, these ask questions like from these legislators, like what are you going to do when you get out? And what’s going to be different. I feel like I have to go through a job application or take a girl on a date and read the menu, right?

[00:17:59] Read a street sign to get myself to the job. No interview. And so I sat there and listened to this and thought, you know what? There is, there’s a need here. Individuals who fall under our radar because they just, they can’t, they can’t read. They don’t w you know, we, we don’t know their story. All we see is this, this rough-looking kid who’s put himself, you know, and made some bad decisions. He’s now locked up and what’s his life going to be. And what prospects does he have? If he can’t read. And so in my leadership, Gene I’ve had a lot of opportunities over the years to do different things, but when you find something that strikes a chord, and that was defining for me, that experience struck a chord for me. I came away feeling like somebody has to care about those kids. And as we do. You know, I mean, the impact on our society, our communities, you know, we all want to be happy, right? We’re all seeking happiness. Well, if you can teach people how to read, you know, what does that do for them and their kids and their family and for our community at large, right? That the happiness that we feel as a community at large. So that was for me.

[00:19:00] Gene Hammett: [00:19:00] I can see it. I mean, I get a little teary-eyed were you just telling this story because I can just imagine. You being able to see that being a catalyst to the growth of someone and hopefully knowing that they’re not going to be back into some adult version of this jail because they’ve learned to step forward and, and make better decisions because they can read. Now I can see the power of that, carrying it back into the organization. And you share the stories that have like this, and it’s not just your stories. I would bet a good percentage of your employees could tell similar stories about where they have been really touched by what you’re doing as an organization. I know there’s an argument out there, Tyson that some companies don’t have this mission the way you do. A lot of people ask me about my own mission and what I’m doing, but I think it’s there for most people. If they, if they really look for it. Would you agree to that? I mean, you’re teaching people to read, but there are other companies out there that are like, you know, we’re lending monies to businesses. There’s, still a mission behind that. Would you not agree with that question?

[00:19:59] Tyson Smith: [00:19:59] Without question. I think there’s a w whatever. I see our banker gene, he hears the stories. He hears the stories partially because they just ooze out of me. But also because you know, it’s true. I need him, right. We need him. And in a very real sense. He helps to contribute to what we’re doing at reading horizons and no you’re right. I think there’s, you can work with purpose and mission and passion regardless of what you’re doing. If it’s when you find that, right. When you find something that helps to drive you then regardless of the industry, I think everyone, you know, we all have purpose and meaning and yeah, I think that’s when you find it, you cling to it.

[00:20:35] There’s no question that you claim to it because it does give it just, it gives it your, your, your work and your every day a whole different, a whole different taste.

[00:20:44] Gene Hammett: [00:20:44] Tyson. I appreciate you sharing your wisdom and that perspective of mission and impact over profit really does mean a lot to me, hopefully to the audience as well. And thanks for being here.

[00:20:53] Tyson Smith: [00:20:53] You’re welcome, Gene. Thanks for having me.

[00:20:55] Gene Hammett: [00:20:55] I love interviews like this, that kind of gets me a little bit emotionally connected to this. Hopefully, you were listening to Tyson’s story about going into the juvenile penitentiary and sharing, reading, and hearing the stories of those that are actually been impacted. That’s the reason why he puts an impact on profits. That’s the reason why the company is where it is growing fast, has a connected group of people that are really moving alignment together. And that’s the key. They are connected to one common mission purpose. When you think about your own growth as a leader, do you think about how you’re going to evolve? Are you intentional about that? Do you know what book you’re going to read next? It’s fantastic if you do, but if you don’t, I really want you to think about your own defining moments. Look back, see how you’ve grown, and now think about where your next step is. How can you grow? Faster and beyond where you are today, it may not be about more money.

[00:21:57] Maybe it’s about more competence and courage or clarity in who you are. As you show up. I work with leaders in the defining moments of their own growth to actually grow their team. Build cultures that allow the company to grow, make an impact in the world. And yes, have a bottom-line profit. That’s healthy too. So if you have any questions about that, make sure you reach out to me, [email protected]. That’s my email. I’d love to connect with you as always lead the courage. We’ll see you next time.


Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.




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