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Front & Center: Symbio founder Jason Swain ‘putting human nature to work’ in organizational development

UPDATED: Tue., April 6, 2021

Symbio founder and president Jason Swain has more than two decades of executive leadership training and coaching experience. He founded Symbio, formerly Jason Swain & Associates, in 2009.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Symbio founder and president Jason Swain has more than two decades of executive leadership training and coaching experience. He founded Symbio, formerly Jason Swain & Associates, in 2009. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Symbio founder and President Jason Swain seeks to help companies strengthen their leadership and foster a collaborative workplace that gives employees a sense of connection and purpose to accomplish shared goals.

Swain has more than two decades of organizational training and coaching experience. He founded Liberty Lake-based Symbio – formerly Jason Swain & Associates – in 2009.

Since then, Swain has provided leadership training, workshops and coaching for companies such as Northern Quest Resort & Casino, Cerium Networks and the Community Colleges of Spokane Foundation.

Swain also works part time as manager of leadership and organizational development at Numerica Credit Union and previously taught courses for the master of business administration program at Gonzaga University.

“What I do is go around helping companies create their own tribe and community,” Swain said. “Symbio’s mission is ‘putting human nature to work.’ Human beings are biologically wired to form groups. It’s how we survived and thrived as a species … we have this innate ability to trust one another and put others needs before our own, and communicate and collaborate to accomplish amazing things.

“If you can create the right kind of environment and culture, peoples’ biology sort of kicks in and they can do the most amazing things together.”

Learning to lead

Swain, an Indiana native, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies from Indiana University in 1993.

After college, Swain pursued a career as a family therapist, but realized it wasn’t the right fit for him, although he still wanted to help people have better lives and relationships.

“But at that point, I just had no idea how to do that,” he said.

Swain moved to Japan and got a job teaching English.

“I went to do that and it was there that I discovered this real love of teaching,” he said. “As soon as the bell rang and I was up kind of in front of the class, something took over and I was just sort of more comfortable in my own skin. I could really connect with the students.”

After Swain came back to the U.S., he worked as a supervisor in Delphi Automotive’s factory in Dayton, Ohio.

“I sort of approached leading and managing the way that I had approached teaching,” Swain said of his role at the factory. “I was really focused on really getting to know the people that work with me and connecting with them rather than just the sort of top-down management. I really wanted to help them discover their potential and bring out their best selves.”

Swain’s ability to connect with employees led to a promotion at the factory where he taught people his approach to leading and managing.

“I didn’t know that that kind of work existed. I’d never heard of organization development or training or executive coaching,” he said. “So that gave me a taste of it. That was 22 years ago and I’ve never looked back.”

Connecting to business

After leaving Delphi Automotive, Swain was a consultant for Venture Out! in Cincinnati, where he worked with large national companies such as Proctor & Gamble Co., American Express, Ford Motor Co., Samuel Adams and LensCrafters on team building and leadership development.

Swain and wife, Katie, a Spokane native, made the decision to relocate to the Lilac City to start a family in 2003.

“All I wanted to do is keep doing what I’ve been doing,” he said. “So I started a business that was originally called Jason Swain and Associates. But unlike Cincinnati, no one had a clue who I was. I couldn’t get any clients and couldn’t get anything going.”

That changed after Swain took a job at Gonzaga University in 2004, where he trained faculty and staff on organizational development, while also growing his consulting business.

“The thing that really, I think, put me on the map in Spokane was I immediately scheduled coffee with the executive director of Leadership Spokane. At that time, it was Linda Finney,” Swain said. “I had worked with leadership programs like that back East and I would do sort of their kickoff retreats, where they’re first coming together, getting to know each other and kind of building a foundation for the year.”

Swain told Finney he would love to work with Leadership Spokane’s classes for free.

“That really helped me get connected with the business community and leaders and has led to probably more downstream business than anything else,” he said, adding he continues to work with the organization.

In addition to working with Leadership Spokane, Swain began teaching classes at Gonzaga University.

“I taught a class on creating and sustaining high performing teams for managers and that would also lead to business, because students would be like, ‘Oh, can you come work with my company?’ So that was so great that Gonzaga let me to do that,” Swain said.

It took nearly three years for Swain’s consulting business to get off the ground, he said.

“Once it did, it kind of stayed at a really comfortable level or has increased slightly,” Swain added.

In 2016, the same year Swain received Greater Spokane Incorporated’s AGORA Award for small business, his consulting company was at its peak and he made what he says was a tough decision to leave Gonzaga University to focus on his clients.

Shortly thereafter, he received a call from Numerica Credit Union, which was one of his clients. Numerica asked Swain if he would be interested in a part-time position as an internal consultant for leadership and organizational development.

“And it was just perfect,” Swain said. “So since 2015, in addition to my business, I’m the manager of leadership and organizational development at Numerica, and I’m part of this amazing team of internal consultants.”

Discovering values

Swain said one of his memorable career moments was working with Northern Quest.

He said he had a theory that organizations could become places where people feel a sense of belonging and community, rooted in shared values and purpose. But he had yet to figure out how to discover an organization’s value.

Swain met with Northern Quest’s leadership team, which named 10 employees who they believed exemplified its culture.

Swain interviewed the 10, who were in various departments, and found a common theme: They all cared so much about their work at the property.

He took the information back to Northern Quest’s leadership team and they narrowed down the property’s values to: Everyone is always welcome here, we choose excellence everyday and we take pride in everything we do.

“I created this process to really look inside and just gather what an organization’s true values already are and once you discover that, you don’t have to try to be anything else, you just are yourself,” Swain said. “That’s sort of the foundation of a community … I sort of intuitively figured out how to do that, and it works.”

Swain said that revelation “was my most memorable moment … I was like, I’ve got to go for it and I did. Fortunately, it paid off.”

Pivoting in pandemic

Swain’s greatest challenge occurred last year when he had to figure out how to shift his in-person meetings and workshops online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“At first, I didn’t think it would translate. But thanks to technology, like Zoom, and Microsoft Teams, I’ve actually done everything I’ve ever done – virtually,” he said. “It has worked amazingly well.”

Swain faced another hurdle during the pandemic’s early stages, when workplaces were temporarily closed.

“There was like six, seven, eight months of just radio silence. I think nobody knew what to do, and my business just fell off a cliff,” he said. “Thankfully, I qualified for the Paycheck Protection Program. That really helped me stay in business. I’m really grateful for that.”

In recent months, business has picked up for Symbio, Swain said.

“It’s like someone flipped a switch somewhere and I’m getting just as many – if not more – inquiries than I’ve ever had,” he said. “I really think what COVID has done is help people realize how important connections are in relationships and working with each other, communicating and having that trust.”

Mentoring the mentor

When Swain was teaching a leadership program at Gonzaga, he began mentoring Chris Wheatley, who at the time had just graduated from college and was in his first management job.

“When he would speak in front of the rest of the leadership class that I was teaching, I just noticed that everyone would pay attention to what he had to say. I just saw he had the aptitude to do what I do,” Swain said. “I asked him after it was over, ‘Are you interested in what I do?’ He said, ‘Yes,’ so I started mentoring him and training him to do what I did.”

Wheatley began working alongside Swain as a co-facilitator in the Gonzaga leadership program and with his clients at Symbio.

“Then when I left Gonzaga and went to Numerica, I called him up and said, ‘You need to come join my team here at Numerica,’ ” Swain said.

Numerica hired Wheatley and he’s since been promoted to assistant vice president of organizational development.

“I learn from him every day, and he learns from me every day,” Swain said.

Symbio’s future

Swain splits his week between Numerica Credit Union and Symbio, conducting retreats, workshops, meetings and executive coaching sessions.

“In a month, I’ll probably work with three or four different companies in completely different industries,” Swain said.

Swain plans to continue growing Symbio and working with companies in the region.

“I really want to give back to this community and work with companies here,” Swain said. “That’s sort of a geographic footprint that I want to focus on … I just sort of feel like I’m in kind of a sweet spot here, and I’m happy with it.”

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