On Our Minds
On-Ramps was started on November 15, 2006. For our 15th anniversary, our founding partners sat down to reflect on the last decade and a half, what they’ve learned, and how it’s changed them.
Michelle Kedem: Happy anniversary, partners! Let’s start our chat by answering the first question we were given. “How has On-Ramps changed in the last 15 years?”
Sarah Grayson: Well, when we started, we were three people working out of my bedroom, and we are now 45 people. But that’s actually a really big question, because we are constantly evolving—still to this day. There's this interesting phenomenon that, at many points in our history, we’ve looked back at a strategy or process established five years before, and were like, "Wow. Okay, we're going to change this." Sometimes the changes are brought about by market dynamics; other times it’s our team members who are the catalysts for change.
Michelle: I think it’s really interesting that when we started, we had a seed of an idea that diversity would be at the core of our work. But wow, how that evolved. Back in 2006, it was focused on providing positions with flexibility to enable more people, and especially women, to stay in the workforce. That organically grew into really centering our entire organization around equity.
Harry Weiner: Yes, and in that sense we’ve changed both radically and not at all. When we started, we were about helping organizations access underrepresented talent. It’s what we’re still doing today, but the lens has changed drastically.
Michelle: Yeah, I remember in 2013, as we were reflecting on our own work, and what was happening nationally (the murder of Trayvon Martin, the national Black Lives Matter movement, the publishing of studies about workplace disparities), there was a planning moment where we formally integrated diversity, equity, and inclusion into our strategic planning. At that same time, we went from a start-up mentality where we were focused on just staying in business to a really intentional approach focused on excellence. Those two things really started us on the path we’re on today.
Harry: Agreed. Being really intentional has made all the difference. For almost 10 years, we’ve been totally focused and deliberate—as an organization, and as individuals—about building our muscles in these areas.
Sarah: I want to make it clear that we don’t think we’re done, by any stretch. There was a moment when equity became our north star, but that work is never done.
Harry: One-hundred percent agree. Not even close to done. Ok, next question: “What tenets, tips, or techniques have helped On-Ramps succeed?”
Michelle: We’ve always had each others’ backs. And, even better, our team is like that with each other, absent the three of us. It's a community. It’s a community where there are all of these voices, and they are all as important as our own. We started by listening to one another, and we've grown that into a community.
I also believe that organizations adopt the behavior of their leaders. And that’s why I’m glad we didn't think we knew everything when we started. (I still don’t feel like I know all that much, despite how much we’ve learned in the last 15 years.)
Harry: One helpful tactic that comes to mind is our early discipline around soliciting feedback. For several years in the beginning, we conducted annual surveys of our clients and used those results to identify areas where we needed to fortify and improve. Things around our process, things around our candidates, things around just about everything that we do. Having our clients as guiding lights has just made us so much better. Now we send out a survey at the end of each search, and the feedback we get is more targeted around specific elements of our searches —and it’s still really useful. Our clients deserve much credit for being so generous with their feedback, and I want to stress how much it has helped us improve—and continues to.
Sarah: Here’s another question: “What are the biggest business lessons you’ve learned in the last 15 years?
My answer would be this: To create a successful business, you of course want to be planful, but you also have to get lucky. We put a lot into this firm, but the universe also gave us a lot. For example, we had intentionally started our work in the nonprofit sector, and Teach for America was our first client. They were amazing, and that led to working with many other education organizations. Then in 2008 the market crashed. Many businesses were going out of business, and the only sectors actually growing were education and healthcare. We were so lucky and fortunate to be working with all of these education organizations at a time the economy was collapsing. I think about this often.
Michelle: My biggest lesson has been to never shy away from continuous improvement. I learned a lot about that from Sarah and Harry. Also, when it comes to figuring out tough situations, I have learned that I don't have to have all the answers. I just need to ask good questions and be ready to receive good ideas. I learned that from working with such an excellent team.
Harry: My lesson is the power of working with intention. We established organizational values early on—almost at the beginning. But once we made a very deliberate shift to better define, activate, and live our values as a firm, I noticed a real change in our ability to make decisions. Tough decisions became easier. It also got a lot easier to effectively and authentically present ourselves to the world.
Michelle: Ready for our next question? “What have been the hardest times in the last 15 years?”
Hands down, the pandemic. There were challenges before that, but nothing will ever compare for me. All of us had to adjust our work lives, and as we were adjusting the rest of our lives too. It was hard for our community in the beginning to figure out how to engage without informal touch points. We were working so hard to make sure everyone was taken care of job-wise but also emotionally. No one knew what was coming next.
Sarah: I agree, nothing compares to the pandemic. I have another. One of the harder moments I remember at On-Ramps is when our very first employee resigned. It was so emotional. As a founder, you take it so hard. And it continues to be hard to this day. You're not going to see them at work every day. However, it has shifted to, “wow, we hire people who go on to do amazing things out there in the world.” Including alumni in our holiday party every year makes me realize we are a bigger community than just the walls of On-Ramps. And so now I see it as, I'm so proud of my colleagues and I don't feel abandoned. I just feel sad that they're not going to be in the office. (I also want to acknowledge there’s some serious irony at work here. As a search firm that recruits people out of their jobs, how could we ever deign to take it personally, right? That is true irony.)
Harry: Ok, let’s close with, “What from the last 15 years of On-Ramps are you most proud of?
Sarah: I feel like there's something about this work, you have all of these small... Small isn't the right word. You have all of these individual interactions, thousands of them actually, with human beings about major decision points in their lives, the careers they're going to take, the jobs they're going to leave. That is a tremendous part of doing this work—those individual points at which somebody is entrusting you to help them make this really big decision.
Harry: Yeah, the thousand little interactions you have, but all marching toward or all cumulatively adding up to a coherent mission—to progress.
Sarah: Totally, totally. All leading towards impact, right? Just in the past month, I think about the number of amazing people that I've spoken to. Or in the past year, the folks that we've played with in different organizations doing amazing work and that's just eight months out of 15 years. It's pretty remarkable and I’m grateful to have been able to do this work all these years.