How Balloon drove results and fortified great leadership at Dartmouth

Kristen Campbell Esty, a training and applications specialist within the Advancement Systems and Services department at Dartmouth College, used to have no trouble speaking up at work. As an employee who has been with the institution for more than five years, Esty feels comfortable voicing her opinions, sharing her ideas, and pushing back on issues that were important to her in the office—or she did, that is, until the Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S., her team went remote, and everything suddenly seemed opaque.

“Moving from the office to working from home really changed things in those early months,” Esty recalls. “When you're sitting at home, you're constantly thinking to yourself, ‘Am I missing out? Do I not know something? Should I ask? Am I supposed to know? Do I look silly for asking this?’ I was always wondering if I was out of the loop.”

That diminished sense of confidence and belonging at work was exacerbated, too, by widespread misalignment as the cross-functional Advancement department scrambled to transition its workflows to live entirely online. In order to assuage both those individual and team-wide burdens, Esty’s division leader and the associate vice president of the department, Judy Doherty, doubled down on the team’s use of Balloon.

Doherty had first introduced her department to the platform in 2019, mostly, Esty explained, for brainstorming sessions within specific teams. However, once everyone distributed, things became more urgent, and Doherty’s flights became more poignant than ever: Esty noted one flight in particular, during which 30 people across teams within the department helped Doherty set the agenda for an upcoming all-hands by answering the questions, “What do you want to talk about at the meeting? What do you want to know?”

“I remember thinking what a relief it was to see that all the things I didn't know, nobody else knew either,” Esty said. “When we did that flight, not only did I see questions I hadn’t even thought of, but I also saw people asking things, like about layoffs and the future of our jobs, that I was also really worried about but didn’t even know we were allowed to ask!”

"What a relief it was to see that all the things I didn't know, nobody else knew either. When we did that flight, not only did I see questions I hadn’t even thought of, but I also saw people asking things that I was also really worried about but didn’t even know we were allowed to ask!”
– Kristen Campbell Esty, training and applications specialist, Dartmouth College

Esty said that the introverts and newer additions to the team loved the flow—as it allowed them time to think about their contributions and to speak up without the nerve-wracking public-speaking aspect of a traditional meeting—and so did she. Although Esty is part of what she calls “the group of ‘speak-up people’ on the team,” she noticed several, immediate results of the flight, before they even met to address the topics she and her colleagues had submitted. 

“In the past, we’d been asked to do a lot of surveys as staff, and I never know what happens with those surveys. They just kind of go into a black hole, and I don't know what other people think,” Esty said. “ So with Balloon, I felt like, ‘Well, even if the person leading this flight doesn't do anything with it, I can do something with it because I can also see the information.’ That was really helpful, because it gave me a sense of what my colleagues were sensitive to.”

Luckily for Esty and the rest of the Advancement department, Doherty acted on the flight results with gusto. That agenda-setting flight, as well as a previous flight in which Doherty asked her teams to brainstorm how they could collaborate more effectively, drove her to create two cross-functional task forces, each focused on an area where collaboration could be improved: The way in which the teams communicated, and the platforms the teams used to track workflows.

“Those flights really helped both capture the themes of what we needed to improve on and surface several specific ways that we could improve within those teams,” Esty said. “Those two task forces kind of took all of that, refined the strategies, and addressed them head-on.”

But the flights did more than drive action: Balloon’s presence helped shape the post-2020 culture within the Advancement department that continues to flourish today. Specifically, Esty explained, it illuminated Doherty’s commitment to the well-being of her team members and her readiness to keep them updated on what to expect as the year progressed, even when she did not have all the answers herself. While not as tangible as the task forces, the culture of safety and togetherness that Doherty fostered with Balloon was just as impactful.

“Already, Judy creates that safety and that transparency that makes you feel like she’s not going to judge you, and I think the use of a tool like Balloon reinforces that environment,” Esty said. “I know it's important to her to get everybody's voice, not just the loudest voices, and to say, ‘Send me your questions and I’ll tell you what I know’ to a team of 30 people during a crisis takes a lot of guts. It’s not a tangible thing, but we had great conversations that got everybody to work together better, and that’s a very real work improvement."