Building the human transformation company: The principles that shape our future

October 8, 2021 - 16 min read

betterup

The past few months have been an exciting time for us at BetterUp. 

We recently crossed the milestone of over 1 million coaching sessions completed. Beyond the impact and breakthroughs that resulted from those individual sessions, we’re seeing an awakening to the power of having a trusted, expert partner to support personal and professional growth. 

More accessible, impactful, and innovative solutions that build the behaviors, skills, and mindsets that unlock our potential are needed, more than ever. 

And today, we became the largest mental health and coaching company, following our Series E raise that resulted in a valuation of $4.7 billion.

Building products that help people live with greater clarity, purpose, and passion would not have been possible without our customers, members, coaches, employees, investors, and our broader community. Thank you for believing in our mission, supporting us in spreading the word, and giving us feedback to create tools that address the changing world of work and shape its future. Thank you for recognizing the possibilities within yourself, doing the work, and trusting us as a partner in your growth journey. 

When Eddie and I started BetterUp, we had big dreams. In addition to wanting to build a once-in-a-generation company, we also wanted to prove that there was a better way to build successful startups. We wanted to craft and create a conscious, inclusive culture that honored our shared humanity and reimagined work as something ennobling, instead of depleting.

We also wanted to prove that elite performance and sustainable well-being were not two opposite pursuits. They are one integrated journey. We need proactive practices for strengthening our mental fitness, personalized for every person, if we want to realize more of the untapped human potential in our organizations and in each of us. 

We’ve come a long way. We still have a long way to go in making these dreams come true. 

Our coaches have taught us that reflection is key to cementing learning, gaining self-awareness, and re-energizing our motivation and sense of purpose. Before we move forward, we want to pause to reflect: on the principles that got us to where we are today and continue to inform our future in building the human transformation company.

Transformational experiences are for everyone.

Eddie and I originally connected through Youth Leadership America (YLA), a non-profit dedicated to building young leaders that I helped to start while in high school. We had both benefited from coaching and mentorship and saw the direct impact of it for students. But the founding idea for BetterUp wasn’t just about coaching. It was about helping people pursue what Abraham Maslow called “self-actualization.”

We all have the desire to be more, to reach more of our potential and live more fulfilling lives. Self-actualization is this life-long pursuit to achieve more meaning and purpose, experience the world with a positive and accepting mindset, and develop positive and authentic relationships. 

The above slide was used in early pitch decks to investors and showcases how we used Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to position BetterUp.

Only in the last few decades has the workplace become both where we seek to meet our basic and psychological needs, as well as where we expect to realize our full potential. Work is no longer just a means to an end, a place to clock in and clock out. Our identities are deeply interwoven with what we do and who we work for. Many now rely on our jobs to build communities that aren’t solely defined by geography or based in organized groups, gaps filled by civic organizations and, for some, even religious communities in the past. Today, for better or worse, many people look to their organizations for this meaning, belonging, and relevance, not just compensation. 

The ongoing shifts in both the meaning and reality of work have forced a new conversation: to retain their best talent and build a high-performing culture, companies need to provide more than competitive compensation or a path to promotion. They need a path for people to realize more of their own potential. 

Ultimately, the path to human growth and transformation has to include a wide range of transformative experiences that encompass the personal as well as the professional, not just across a role or career but across a lifetime. For us, this has included expanding in areas that support the whole person. We now offer eight different types of specialist coaching, including parenting, nutrition, and sleep, as well as coaching that focuses on building presentation skills, communication, navigating uncertainty, and more. 

Beyond this, we’re looking to the future of how people will learn, grow, and experience self-actualization. Through BetterUp Studios, we’re combining entertainment, games, technology, and research to create cutting-edge interactive experiences. By developing VR/AR solutions, playful mobile experiences, and immersive storytelling adventures, we’re building tools that allow people to explore new situations, learn by doing, and make a deeper connection between what the body does and how the mind responds. 

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

As a society, we’ve long thought of mental health only in the context of illness, as something to be fixed. It has been defined by the absence of health, rather than something we can work at to improve for ourselves. 

While it’s now accepted that good practices related to our nutrition and diet, physical activity, and sleep are foundational for our long-term physical health, many people have yet to apply this same proactive approach when it comes to our mental health. 

We can’t afford to wait until we are in crisis to engage with our mental health. Even when there’s not a clinical concern, a suboptimal mental state of being can have far-reaching and disruptive effects on all aspects of our lives. Through extensive research, we discovered that 55% of the workforce is in a state of languishing. They’re not ill. They’re not well. But they’re also not flourishing. And in this state of languishing, they are both less able to perform and build relationships in their professional and personal lives and more vulnerable to sliding into serious mental health conditions. 

languishing-curve

From the beginning, we believed that by combining technology, science, and care, we could help connect the dots between developing the behavioral skills of mental fitness and long-term mental health and thriving. We could not only help people develop the mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors that lead them to thrive across all aspects of their lives, but make mental fitness resources and tools more accessible and impactful.

BetterUp Care™ is the “gym” for mental fitness — an enterprise-wide solution where people can develop healthy practices that build up their mind and mental resources to create the foundation for peak performance. 

Making clinical services more accessible to those who need them is important and admirable. But the vast majority of our workers do not need clinical care. They need mental health support. They are not experiencing mental illness. They are having normal reactions to extraordinary stressors. They need help developing the skills and mindsets that can preserve — and even strengthen — their well-being in these unusual times. Pathologizing their reasonable reactions to unreasonable conditions, sending them for clinical help even though they lack a clinical condition, isn’t the answer.  

What most people really need is the support and space to stretch themselves and discover their own potential, engage in their own mental health, and build the daily practices and emotional resources that will buffer them from the most negative effects of the challenges, setbacks, and struggles we all experience in our lives. 

Real growth requires real humans.

During our early days, many investors were skeptical that we could build a successful tech product if we didn’t remove the “human” element from our product. While we’ve invested heavily in artificial intelligence and machine learning to create innovative products that facilitate better interactions between humans, we can’t replace the change that happens when people feel seen, heard, and valued by another person, especially when that person is an expert coach. As Steve Jobs said, "Technology alone is not enough." It's the human-to-human relationship, care, and coaching that energizes us to lean into our aspirations. 

That doesn’t mean that 1:1 interactions are the only path to realizing your full potential. There’s power in shared experiences that build stronger communities and connections, allowing us access to the perspectives and life experiences of others. Recognizing the challenges and successes of others gives us renewed energy, and insight, in our own pursuits.

We launched Coaching Circles™ to bring people together in facilitated experiences where they could create new networks and engage with diverse and differing points of view. We also introduced studio workshops — short, immersive classes that allow employees to learn new skills they can immediately apply in their daily lives. 

The future is scaling these moments of human connection through new modalities that bring together more diverse experts, peers, mentors, and communities.

Our recent acquisitions of Motive and Impraise are accelerating our ability to weave together human connection and technology that improve both people’s work and lives. By combining the largest dataset on how ​​human emotion impacts performance, well-being, and self-actualization with intuitive tools that create the processes and structures for teams to do their best work, we’re creating new ways for people to interact, inspire, and actuate the potential in one another. 

Upskilling is not the answer.

Organizations have invested heavily in training and upskilling to solve for talent gaps and mismatches due to advances in technology. But solving for a specific technology isn’t the solution. It’s not any one technology, but the accelerating pace of change fueled by technology, that is the catalyst for organizational transformation. In a world of work that is increasingly complex, ambiguous, and unpredictable, only people can reinvent rapidly enough to address the next opportunity.

Upskilling is a superficial solution that misses the root cause of the problem. In a whitewater world, there is no endpoint — organizations are not making a transition from point A to point B, but from point A to point B to point ad infinitum. New technical and job skills become obsolete by the time the person masters them.  

In this environment, we need to help people become more agile and confident learners, people who embrace a growth mindset and are energized by change. What employees need now are what BetterUp Science Board member John Seely Brown defined as “human capabilities.” Capabilities such as curiosity, hope, resilience, critical thinking, and more, allow people to fully contribute, to face new changes and challenges and lean into continuous learning — no matter the situation. 

This is why we developed the Whole Person Model (WPM). The WPM reframes development to include the mindsets, behaviors, and outcomes that link personal growth and well-being to performance and professional success. 

whole-person-model

Growth is a continuous and personal pursuit, constantly changing based on the context and relationships in which we operate. The WPM provides a framework for our member journey to enact real change within an individual and reframes the goal of learning and development. We’re not asking people to learn a new, narrowly defined skill to produce a predictable result that’s only applicable in a predictable setting; we’re empowering people to achieve more in their current situation and prepare themselves for the next evolution. 

The truth will set workers free (eventually).

The way we think about mental health as a society has not caught up to what we now know to be true. The way we invest as businesses in the growth and transformation of our people has also not caught up to what we know to be true. Our own experiences and decades of scientific research corroborate that there are better ways to invest in our mental health and human transformation both at the individual and organizational level. 

When building BetterUp, we made a choice not to focus narrowly on designing point solutions. Instead, we designed around a future where organizations understood that promoting the growth and development of their people includes their mental health, and that well-being provides the foundation for sustainable individual and organizational performance. 

Through millions of data points from our 1:1 coaching, we have clear evidence of what people need to inspire others as leaders, build fulfilling careers, and unlock their potential. And what happens when they feel they have the support of their organization. 

When it comes to developing the leaders of the future, it’s clear that to excel as a leader, you must first thrive as an individual. Based on data that reveals what people discuss during their coaching sessions, we can see that when people are focused on improving their own well-being, the topic of “leading others” is deprioritized. Many of today’s leaders struggle with their own well-being, and as a result, their team’s performance suffers. 

coaching-topics-wellbeing-leadership

When the topic of well-being goes up, the topic of leading others goes down — languishing leaves little bandwidth for leadership development.

We also know that well-being is tightly linked to productivity. Even when people are languishing and not feeling their best, if they feel supported, we see a 14% improvement in productivity. Not only can organizations and managers help people who are suffering, they can buffer some of the impact of that suffering.

Research from our member base on how people respond to and grow through a support intervention, coupled with existing scientific research, is leading the way for us to create products that address the future of human transformation. In the context of the workplace, there has been little evidence on the effectiveness of interventions for mental health and well-being. But that’s changing. Now we have research that shows not only the impact of coaching, but what progress looks like and the time it takes to see improvement. This deeper understanding of human development is leading to new advances that address the unique needs of people, but it’s also changing how companies think about responding to the growing demand from employees for support. 

Organizations have begun to embrace the advances in behavioral and organizational science that prove our mental health has far-reaching consequences for how we show up and perform at work. What’s needed is whole person care that allows people to adapt to changing contexts and develop new skills rapidly, without burning out or fading out. 

Human resources, learning and development, and benefits teams are also recognizing that the legacy divisions between their departments are creating gaps in the employee experience. Holding on to narrowly-focused tools and point solutions are inadequate to meet the pressing needs and pressures people face today. 

We have an opportunity to reframe how organizations support the growth of their people so they can perform at their highest levels, live with more clarity and purpose, and build skills that empower them both in the workplace and at home. 

Accomplishing this means taking our whole person development approach and applying it across the whole enterprise to deliver precision human development at scale. This is how human transformation creates organizational growth. A company — whether 5,000 or 500,000 employees — can benefit from BetterUp’s ability to determine the type of growth each person needs, when exactly they need it, and what format of learning would lead to the best outcomes. A turning point will happen: companies can stop investing resources on blanket approaches that leave most dissatisfied, and they can start addressing the very unique and individual needs of their people. For the first time, organizations can connect leadership performance with proactive mental health and diversity and inclusion to holistically transform the employee experience and drive improvements in key business outcomes.

That’s a game-changer. For employees. And for employers. 

At BetterUp, this is the future we’re building — one where human transformation is possible for everyone, and everyone has a partner in their journey of growth. 

Published October 8, 2021

Read Next

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.