Brad Shaw knows a thing or two about nonprofits. He spent decades working with them during his career at Home Depot and liked what he saw so much, he decided to start one of his own upon retirement. Shaw is now on his second season as host of Crazy Good Turns, a podcast that celebrates the work of nonprofits (and is a nonprofit itself.)
Each episode tells the story of a different organization, with subjects ranging from veteran placement programs to playground construction. Shaw and his partner, Frank Blake, who is also the former CEO of Home Depot, came up with the idea to try audio storytelling over coffee. They quickly set up shop under funding through Blake's family foundation and haven't looked back since.
Shaw spoke with Crain's about his time in the corporate world and what led him to fall in love with nonprofits of all kinds.
Q: How did you go from working a C-level corporate job to running a nonprofit podcast?
Shaw: The job I had at at Home Depot was head of corporate communications and external affairs, which I had for just over 11 years. That included everything you would expect in that traditional job title, including all of our proactive marketing, public relations and media placement. But I also had our foundation and corporate giving and philanthropy and all of our corporate volunteers. Through that experience I got pretty familiar with the nonprofit world and sat on several boards and oversaw tens of millions of dollars of funding to nonprofits across the country. So I got very familiar with how nonprofits work and what their stories are.
I was very fortunate to have been [at Home Depot], working alongside Frank Blake, who was the CEO for most of my tenure there. As I told a lot of folks, the difficult thing about being the head of communications for an $80 billion public company is that it’s like being a doctor on call, except you’re never not on call. It is a very grueling, draining, high-stress job. And frankly, the minute I could say “I don’t have to do this,” I didn’t. That’s why I was able to retire.
It happened to be around the same time that Frank retired, and the two of us kept in close touch. We knew we wanted to continue to work in some fashion together. Over coffee one day, he said, “Look, when you think about it, all we did on the business front and on the finance and leadership front, in the end our core strength was being able to tell really great stories.” It motivated people, and he was right. We had to tell stories to motivate half a million employees—stories to entice the media to cover our turnaround and investors to invest in us. So he said, "Let’s use our storytelling capabilities and talents, but for the greater good." And it was actually Frank’s idea to launch a podcast that focused on the compelling backstories of nonprofits.
Q: Did you have any radio or podcast experience before starting CGT?
Shaw: In college I was a radio DJ and station manager. So I did have a little bit of experience, but it was way before I was an adult.
Frankly, it was totally new. Over the course of one of those earlier coffees with Frank, he told me that he had really gotten into a number of podcasts and he emailed me a list. The first place I started was the most obvious, which was Serial. That was such a hot podcast at the time. And I loved the notion ... of using an audio medium to tell a story.
So I did a little bit of homework and basically came up with a concept, cobbled together a loose group of contract employees to help us figure out exactly what we needed to do from a technical standpoint, put a plan together, shared it with Frank and he gave it the green light and we were off and running. The interesting thing is, actually, pretty much no one on the original team had any podcast experience. It was one of those things where you can just figure it out if you marshal the right people, and that’s exactly what we did.
Q: How long were you planning on leaving Home Depot and did you have career goals for after that job?
Shaw: It was a planned transition. I was just ready to go do something different, but I didn’t know what exactly I was going to do next. ... I was still looking around for something to do about six to seven months after retiring, and that’s when Frank and I came up with the idea.
Q: What was the biggest reason for you wanting to leave the corporate world?
Shaw: It really was the grind. There are many other C-level jobs that obviously have the same amount of stress tied to them. But when it comes to communications, what I tell people is, every day of every year for the past 15 years I’ve had to read every single email I’ve received. You just can’t turn off because any event, any email that crosses your desk can be a brand killer. You have to stay connected and that’s an exhausting thing to do over that length of time. I think the shelf life for corporate communications heads is probably pretty short, just given the stress and tensions associated with the job. I loved Home Depot, I loved the people that I worked with. It was just time for me to go apply my skills to something else that, frankly, I find more fulfilling and fun.
Q: Looking back, were there any mistakes you made in starting the podcast?
Shaw: We just made it up as we went along, but were very intentional about what we wanted to create. In hindsight, I don’t know that we would have done anything differently. We’re happy with where the product is in terms of the quality and the overall benefits that the nonprofits derive from it.
The one thing that we’re still trying to crack the code on is distribution. Meaning, how can we get more people to listen to the podcast, share it and help us grow? The one long-term vision that we have is, if and when we get to a point where we can sell advertising, we’ll just take the profit from that and put it back into the nonprofits that we’re covering, which creates this virtuous circle of good for everyone involved.
Q: What is something significant you learned from running a podcast?
Shaw: The one thing I’ve learned, and I learned it directly from Frank, is the power of simplicity. Too often corporate people in general tend to mistake success with complexity. Frank was always great at stripping complexity away from the decisions we had to make and the plans we were creating. And that applies to a story, too. If you can tell a story in a simple, succinct and powerful way, it usually has a more lasting impact. It’s one of the reasons why our podcasts are never longer than just over 20 minutes. We feel like if we can’t tell that story in 20 minutes, then it’s probably not a good story to begin with, and we have to layer too many other things to bring it to life.
Q: What did you learn after transitioning from a corporate role to being your own boss?
Shaw: To slow down. When I retired, I made a list of goals. One at the top of the list was just to slow down. When you’re running at a senior level for more than a decade, things move so fast that you’re often left mentally breathless. It’s just been really nice to not have the pressure of deadlines. The other thing is just the control that I have over my own life now. ... I’ve never had the level of freedom and control that I have now. It recharges you.
Follow Crazy Good Turns on Twitter at @CrazyGoodTurns.