Episode: Jon Thomson


Atmosera CEO Jon Thomson joins the podcast today. Atmosera is a Microsoft Azure solutions provider, and was voted one of Oregon’s most admired companies by Oregon Business Journal. Jon shares his story of turning around an unhealthy work culture into one of the best places to work.


How did you guys get started?

  • Atmosera is a global managed azure service provider. We architect, deploy, and manage public and private microsoft azure computing environments all over the world.
  • Started in 95 as an ISP, and in the early 2000s moved into datacenters, and in 2010 added managed cloud.
  • The company was acquired in 2013 by a NY based equity firm, and then I joined a little later.
  • What I found was a company of about 48 employees with a happy client base. But internally I found a company that had a lot of improvement to do from a cultural perspective.
  • The business was not run efficiently and the employees were not as engaged as they needed to be to capture the market.
  • What I found was a lot of learned helplessness. The A players had learned helplessness because there was no performance management. The executive team was not setting a strong example from the top.
  • They needed to go through a transition and there was a lot of work to do.

Can you unpack the learned helplessness a bit?

  • You have to come in and gain the respect of everybody in order to have influence.
  • The biggest component of what we’ve done has been about organizational behavior above any technical additions.
  • When I got here the A players’ mindset was “why do I put in the extra time?” They had the eagerness, but not the faith in the management team.
  • We had team members coming in late, not resolving issues, no performance management, no holding people responsible.
  • The C and D players just sort of existing…not show up…leave midday. That had been tolerated before. So an A player sees that type of behavior, and just says what’s going on?
  • Once we took care of a number of things, the A players started to blossom.

So how does an organization get there?

  • You have great leaders who can start companies and do great sub 30 employees, but once you get above that it takes a different mindset and skillset to lead a larger organization. 500-1000 is even more different.
  • Each one of those phases is not for everybody.
  • My belief is that everything originates from the top. How is the CEO showing up everyday? Is there a good strategic plan? Is communication correct? Is the organization focused? Is performance management in place? Etc.
  • There’s a culture no matter what, so it’s better to be intentional about it and support the vision.
  • So how do you build an intentional culture that aligns with the strategies to reach the vision?
  • Adding more people in theory means the business is becoming more complex. Maybe you start to slip on your communication. That creates silos. Then you have departments not working together. Good cultures can break down.
  • What’s the vision? What’s the strategy? How do you introduce meaning and fun?

Does throwing in fun to make up for holes in other areas set you up to fail?

  • Fun stuff is good for people for a moment, but the minute you leave the keg and go to work and people have other issues with the culture, the resentment is going to be there. If you’re not addressing all of the important things, all the fun stuff doesn’t get used. People don’t show up.
  • The first thing I did when I got here was help create a vision…a vision beyond a financial definition. I call it creating a religion. Something where people are inspired and can get behind it. It becomes a driver for the organization.
  • Our vision here was to become a historically relevant business — that business being focused on managed azure on a global basis. But wanted to define the category.
  • From that you can get people excited. Solid commitment and true to your word.
  • Then you start creating the atmosphere experience. That dictates how we recruit in the market and how we’re perceived by people. How we onboard people. Everyone gets both a guide and a mentor who fulfill different purposes.
  • Activities are broken down into a variety of areas. Compensation and benefits, rewards and recognitions, meaning, education, etc.
  • You also have a cohort who you team up with in work events and activities.
  • It’s creating that curated, high performance, meaningful culture. Rewarding, fun, and performance driven.
  • It took about a year, year and a half, to get the majority onboard.
  • We replaced 60% of the employees and the entire executive team, which had not been my intention.
  • We had given plenty of opportunity for everyone to succeed, along with playbooks, but ultimately in the first year we had to replace a lot of people.
  • Once we started letting the people go who had not been putting in the work, the A players started excelling.
  • For the executive team I brought in people who had worked at larger companies. These people had a) an understanding of what it meant to operate at a higher level, and b) a lack of ego.  

How did you formulate this plan?

  • I went to business school at Northwestern, and I studied organizational behavior and finances.
  • Through my career as I gained leadership responsibilities, I applied those things I learned about organizational behavior and started building on that foundation.
  • I went through several industries and learned a lot. You learn what works and what doesn’t.
  • My previous business to here was in the energy space with a company about 40 people. I joined as the second in command. The first in command was a woman who had trouble with managing teams over the 40 people mark (which is why I was brought in), but she had a very strong belief that everything flows from the top down, and people will be held accountable. It was great.
  • We grew that business nationwide to a couple hundred employees, then sold it and grew to 1400 employees. All that time we used her approaches to leadership.
  • Organizational behavior is the number one discipline applied in my career.



Learned helplessness



Performance management

Organizational behavior

Relevant links