Embracing Innovation, Empathy, and Community

A Conversation with Dustin Haugland, Executive at Bosonic

Have you ever encountered a challenge so stubborn it seemed impossible to overcome? What if the secret to success lies not in confronting the obstacle but in rethinking the approach altogether? In this fascinating interview with Dustin Haugland, we delve into a series of captivating stories that reveal just that. How can a piece of asphalt in Costa Rica teach us about problem-solving in business? What can a traditional Tico house tell us about the value of community and the hidden advantages of simplicity? Dustin brings his unique perspective to these questions, sharing anecdotes that are as enlightening as they are engaging. Join us as we explore the art of creative thinking and the power of perspective in transforming our approach to life's roadblocks.


Rob: Could you introduce yourself, outlining your work experience and its relevance to project management?

Dustin: My name is Dustin Haugland, from Mill Valley, California. At Bosonic, I started by learning about market infrastructure when I met the founder four years ago. Two years ago, I began advising on business strategy, leveraging my strengths as a connector and strategist. Recently, I joined full time to help launch our product to market, focusing on building the company's operational structure.

Rob: Describe your previous role at Rocketpower and how it relates to expansion and culture.

Dustin: As Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Rocketpower, my focus was on expanding the team while maintaining our culture and innovativeness in the challenging recruiting industry. I was involved in every aspect of the company to ensure adherence to our core principles, which was crucial for guiding a rapidly growing organization.

Principles and Environment

Rob: What principles guide you in building a team and fostering a successful company culture?

Dustin: Building a team effectively requires a balanced approach. On one hand, avoiding micromanagement, and on the other, steering clear of a laissez-faire attitude where everyone feels entitled to rewards regardless of their contribution. It's about striking a balance, defining what's important, and clearly communicating that to the team. Today's workforce is dynamic; people don't stay in jobs for decades just for a symbolic reward at the end. Although loyalty is valuable, it shouldn't lead to a restrictive management style where progress is measured by outdated standards. Everyone grows at their own pace, and recognizing this is crucial for a manager. However, a culture where people quit on a whim without communication, expecting better opportunities instantly, is unhealthy. For instance, software engineers expecting senior positions with just over a year of experience, hopping from one job to another and demanding unrealistic salaries and titles, disrupts the growth and stability of a company. That's not the environment I aim to cultivate.

Rob: You've highlighted two key aspects: selecting the right people for the culture and then creating an environment for them to prosper. Could we delve into each of these?

Dustin: When it comes to choosing the right people, I look for those who are actively seeking opportunities, not just needing one. They should resonate with what we're doing and be ready to embrace the challenges of a startup. I advocate for a flat organizational structure where ideas matter more than tenure or experience, though those factors are still considered. Everyone's voice should be heard. We call this ‘ownership mentality’.

It's also important to find content individuals who have drive but won't jump ship for the next exciting thing. I prefer individuals who take initiative and learn from mistakes over those who need constant guidance.

Rob: Now, regarding the environment, how do you establish a flat organization that encourages contribution and open communication?

Dustin: Creating such an environment starts with open access to management. In Bosonic, for instance, everyone can directly reach out to the CEO, which is essential. As I step into my role, I provide structure and direction, offering leadership that was lacking.

Initially, I was the go-to for everyone, which works in a small setup. However, it's vital to evolve from this, avoiding becoming a bottleneck for decisions. My approach is to encourage reaching out, delegation, and team dynamics, ensuring my reports know that creating barriers is against our culture. If barriers arise, they're addressed promptly, maintaining our culture of openness and teamwork.

Rob: Why does the flat organizational structure appeal to you in growing a company and its culture?

Dustin: My aim in all aspects, except family, is to make myself obsolete. I derive no value from maintaining control just for the sake of it. Instead of instructing people on what to do, which fosters dependence on heavy management, teaching them how to think scales better organizationally. It's about instilling principles rather than setting rules.

Principles guide behavior in a lasting and consistent way, while rules can be situational and change over time. An example is the difference between a stop sign and a traffic light: the rule changes from stopping at a sign to following the light, but the underlying principle — keeping people safe — remains the same.

In management, if you create an environment where people can think for themselves and understand their role in the bigger picture, that's adhering to a principle. How you implement that may vary as the company grows, but if the team understands the principle, they'll adapt without needing explicit rules for every situation.

Rob: Where does the idea of a flat organization and making yourself obsolete come from in your life experience?

Dustin: My inclination to worry and overthink every scenario – options from A to Z – causes me a lot of anxiety. Early in my career, this led me to micromanage as a way of trying to ensure that nothing went wrong, which wasn't about not trusting people but about my own fears.

As I progressed, especially during a time when I was working with my wife’smy time working with the Jens brothers, I realized that my approach of trying to control everything wasn't sustainable. I couldn't manage every detail, and I had to learn to rely on others.

A story that really influenced my thinking was one my father-in-law told me. When he was young, his dentist asked if he wanted to be a roofer like his dad. Embarrassed, he said he wanted to be a dentist. The dentist then asked, "How many hands do I have?" and "How many does your dad have working for him?" The point being his dad could get much more done because he had more people working for him.

That lesson hit home for me. It's about using the talents you have and empowering others to do what they're good at. You can only do so much on your own, and recognizing that has shaped my belief in the value of a flat organization where everyone's skills are utilized, and where I aim to make my role redundant, enabling others to excel in their areas of expertise.

It's about using the talents you have and empowering others to do what they're good at.

Rob: So your management style, is it fair to say it's a coping mechanism for your anxiety?

Dustin: Absolutely, I don’t want to be the CEO where everything depends on me. Some might thrive on that, but for me, that's a nightmare. I'm driven to make what I'm working on successful, more so than my personal acclaim. Sure, everyone enjoys recognition, but I'd much rather see the whole venture succeed rather than seeking personal glory.

Rob: It seems making yourself obsolete is central to your approach. Where does that stem from?

A History of Volunteering

dustin stands on an abandoned car in the wilderness

Dustin: It originated from my time volunteering in third world countries. That lifestyle was about helping where there was a need until there wasn't one anymore, aiming for self-sufficiency in those areas. After eight years, it's become second nature. I'm not one to settle; I'm always looking for the next move

Rob: Okay, it seems your management philosophy really comes from your time volunteering.

Dustin: Definitely, it taught me to concentrate on the objectives rather than on my own role.

Rob: Can you share about your experiences in Nicaragua, how you approached volunteering?

Dustin: The aim was to go to underserved areas in Central and South America to deliver various forms of humanitarian aid, not to take charge but to help them become self-reliant.

Rob: You started this when you were about 20?

Dustin: Yeah, from when I was 21 until about 29. The whole idea was to provide aid that wasn't just a temporary fix but to empower locals to maintain and improve their own lives.

Rob: That's a really powerful perspective, which also seems to influence your management style.

Dustin: It gave me a sense of purpose. Growing up, I didn't think I'd be able to leave my circumstances, let alone realize I wasn't content. Volunteering showed me a whole new world and made me see that I could make a positive impact.

Rob: You've embedded yourself in a new culture for eight years. That's quite a shift, especially coming from Chicago, right?

Dustin: Absolutely, it is a better education than a university can give... It's such an education.

Rob: What an amazing experience. Thanks for sharing that.

Dustin: And there's this other side of living in another country. It changes your perspective so much. Just what an education.

You can't get that education unless you're an immigrant yourself.

Rob: Give me the top three things you learned while there.

Dustin: You learn to think outside the box, realize there's many different ways to do the same thing, and that no one has it all figured out.

Rob: How does thinking outside the box come into play?

Dustin: When you're in another country, you're not bound by the same rules. It can turn you into a jerk or it can open your mind to what's possible, not just what's established. Take Costa Rica and their road construction as an example.

There was this one time when the road was blocked by a piece of asphalt. By law, only the road department could remove it, but they couldn't get through because the road was blocked. It was a catch-22. People waited obediently because that's the rule.

Another example is how they repair roads based on an outdated manual. They overfill potholes, which was fine for dirt roads but not for asphalt, leading to bumpy rides.

So with the blocked road, instead of waiting, I drove through a field and bypassed the obstruction. The police saw but didn't object. It was a moment where not adhering to local customs of waiting allowed me to think differently and solve the problem efficiently.

That's the kind of mindset shift you don't get if you stay in the same place all your life.

Dustin at a market abroad from the time he spent volunteering

Rob: I do kind of love this analogy too, just for our service brand, right? The visual metaphor we've been trying to paint is sort of that, like, we will come and clear your path, right? So in this story, it's literally like, we'll move the piece of asphalt. But what you're saying is, sometimes you don't have to move the obstacle, you just have to go around it. You just change your path, right?

Dustin: Right. You can't change the whole situation sometimes, like convincing everyone at the roadblock to move the piece of asphalt was not feasible. You find an alternative that achieves the goal with a minimal amount of effort.

Here's the counterbalance, though. When I moved to Quepos, which was really hot and humid, there was this original Tico house across from my apartment. They always had a fire going inside, despite the scorching weather, and the whole family lived there – it seemed like squalor. But as time went by, I understood that the fire helped to burn off the humidity, making the house comfortable with the aid of fans. And regarding the family, what I initially thought was poverty, I later realized was something else.

The grandpa would play with the great-grandkid every day, teaching him small life lessons. The grandma would work with her son's wife, teaching her housekeeping skills. They had this education system, this strong family unit that was superior in many ways to the isolated living in bigger houses where each family member is in their own world with headphones and smartphones. They weren't just poor; they were doing life differently, and it seemed to work pretty well for them.

They weren't just poor; they were doing life differently, and it seemed to work pretty well for them.

Rob: Man, I love that. I love that perspective.

So it's not just about bringing a new mentality, it's about finding a new mentality.

Dustin: Yeah. It's not about conquering; it's about learning—learning about yourself and understanding that nobody's got it all figured out.

Rob: This brings us back to the work thing, right? Your whole mentality is wrapped up in that. Which is really cool.

Dustin: Remember in Rocket Power we had that core value, "seek to understand"? I think that's probably the most important core value, not just in a company, but in life. Imagine how much less stress and fewer problems there would be if every time there was an issue, we tried to understand where the other person was coming from, and they did the same.

Think about those difficult situations we've been through. If we could just sit down and have an honest conversation, and both sides were open, those issues could be resolved immediately. Even if the situation itself didn't change, the mentalities would, and that's the real issue.

Rob: The work is internal, right?

Dustin: Exactly, mentalities would shift, and that’s where the real work is.


From our in-depth discussion with Dustin, here are three key takeaways that encapsulate the essence of our conversation:

  1. Embrace Alternative Solutions: Much like finding a way around a piece of asphalt blocking the road, sometimes the best route to success is the one less traveled. Thinking outside the box can lead to innovative solutions that bypass traditional roadblocks in business and life.

  2. Value of Understanding: By seeking to understand the reasons behind the challenges we face, whether in the workplace or in personal interactions, we can reduce conflict and find common ground. This approach fosters a culture of empathy and collaboration, which is crucial for resolving issues effectively.

  3. The Strength of Community: Dustin's observations of the TECO house demonstrate the profound benefits of close-knit communities. In an age where individualism is prevalent, there's much to learn from environments where shared responsibilities, resources, and learning enrich the lives of all members.

Each of these insights offers a lens through which we can re-examine our daily encounters and the hurdles we think are in our way. Through Dustin's narratives, we are reminded that sometimes the obstacle itself is not the issue; it's how we choose to view and respond to it that truly matters.

More from Dustin Haugland

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