Episode 259

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Ongoing professional development is a challenge in most agencies. It’s tough to gather the right tools/resources, some agency owners aren’t sure about how to make it happen and for most the biggest challenge is making the time. And yet we know that one of the critical elements of our agency’s ongoing success is that our team has to keep getting better. I am a firm believer that professional development is a shared responsibility, which means your employees should do some of it on their own time and on their own dime. However, creating a culture of ongoing skills development and contextual learning is vital to stay ahead of the pack. And it’s not as hard as we might think.

My guest for this episode is a longtime veteran of the advertising industry. From print production and creative services to leading employee development within HR, Cecilia Gorman earned her stripes at agencies and brands large and small – most notably Y&R, Oakley, and Innocean. She currently consults on manager development, helping creative-minded companies strengthen the communication, leadership, and effectiveness of managers at all levels.

In this episode of Build a Better Agency, Cecilia joins me to talk about what it actually looks like to build a team of lifelong learners. She explains how agency owners can integrate professional development into their culture and create an active learning environment that impacts their clients and their team members alike. That not only serves your clients well but dramatically impacts retention and employee satisfaction. Everyone wins.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

Agency Owners | Creating a culture of active learning in your agency

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • The number one thing that gets in the way of professional development
  • Why agency owners need to make professional development a part of the culture
  • How some agencies are carving out time for professional development, and when is the best time to invest in employee growth and development
  • What managers can do to create an active learning environment
  • How we can use storytelling to get more buy-in to our culture
  • The importance of developing self-awareness on top of technical skills
  • Four key skills that agencies should never neglect
  • Cecilia’s background in the agency world, and how she transitioned into professional development coaching

The Golden Nuggets:

“The most expensive asset agency owners have is their people, but we don’t really know how to help them develop their skills over time.” @_ceciliagorman Share on X “The number one thing that gets in the way of professional development is time.” @_ceciliagorman Share on X “The professional development initiative has to be a part of the culture—it has to come from the top. Without that step, it will never have a powerful everlasting effect.” @_ceciliagorman Share on X “Professional development is not something that gets added to our plate, it is just how we exist and how we operate.” @_ceciliagorman Share on X “Today, employees are less tolerant of working in an environment where they are not being invested in.” @_ceciliagorman Share on X “The four key conversations that agency owners should never neglect are courage, resilience, curiosity, and initiative.” @_ceciliagorman Share on X

Ways to contact Cecilia Gorman:


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Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency, I am very grateful that you are hanging out with me today and that you are here ready to learn and think a little differently about your business. I know how crazy your world is, so I’m grateful that you made the time to spend this time with me, so thank you.

A couple quick comments before we get into today’s topic which you are going to love. The first one is the Build a Better Agency Summit. So people have been saying to me, “I know you had to move the summit from May to November. It’s not November 11th and 12th in Chicago. Are you really going to have it live?” And here’s what I will tell you. As best I know in mid June, yes our plan is to have it live. It’s a small event. It’s going to be under 250 people. We are working with the hotel to make sure that everybody feels safe and has plenty of space around them, all those sort of things.

But who the heck knows? If you would’ve said to me a year ago, “Hey Drew, do you think a pandemic’s going to get you to move your first ever conference?”, I would’ve said, “No, I don’t think so.” So what I’m saying to you today is yes, we plan on doing it live. We are working right now to make sure it’s safe and fun and amazing. But who knows, maybe we will have to move it to a virtual event.

But I will tell you this. We only have about 100 tickets left, and if you want to attend, now is the time to grab the ticket. So I would not dilly dally. Obviously if we don’t have the event, then we’ll give you your money back. But my plan is if for some reason, knock on wood, some unforeseeable reason we can’t do it live, then we’ve talked to all the presenters and we have the technology lined up. We will do it virtually. Is it ideal? No, absolutely not. There is nothing more magical than having a bunch of agency owners and leaders in a room connecting with each other, learning from each other, that’s just indescribable how amazing that is.

And so, I’m going to do everything in my power to make that happen. But, we are going to get you the information. We are going to give you all of the tools you need to walk into 2021 with a great plan, with a great vision, and that you’re going to have a great year. So one way or the other, Build a Better Agency Summit is going to happen, and we’re going to deliver that for you.

However, there’s still a limited number of tickets. So if you think you want to come and you believe that by November, if you haven’t already traveled, many of you have already got on planes and been on vacations and things like that, but if you think you’re going to be ready to travel by November, than by all means grab a ticket. Head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com. In the upper left part of the navigation, you’ll see BABA Summit, click on that and you can register right from there.

Remarkable speakers, great conversations I know are going to happen, and we’re going to have a blast, so I hope you join us.

All right, let me tell you a little bit about the topic today. So early in my career, one of the first agencies I worked at was Y&R. And one of the things that was amazing about Y&R when I was very young in my career was they had, as you could imagine they had the resources for it, they had this amazing training program. You could take courses in a plethora of ways and you were encouraged to take a minimum number of courses or professional development classes a year. But if you were a high performer and you were getting your work done, then you were able to do even more than the minimum that everybody was asked to do. And I was really fortunate that I got access to take as many classes as I wanted.

And what didn’t occur to me then but has occurred to me since is that none of the classes were about me getting better at my job in terms of what my skills, my hard skills like writing skills, they were really all about how I could be a better professional and how I could learn how to be a better team member, how I learned how to be a better communicator. And I think when we talk about professional development in agencies, first of all I think we have to acknowledge that as a general rule, we are really lousy at professional development. Most agencies don’t invest a ton of time and money into it, most agency owners aren’t sure exactly how to do it.

And the reality is from the day someone comes into our agency, so our onboarding is lousy if we have anything at all, and it just sort of goes from there. We just expect everybody to learn on their own. And while I am a firm believer that professional development is a shared responsibility, meaning that some of it should happen on the agency’s time and on the agency’s dime, and some of it should happen on the employees’ time and the employees’ dime.

But absolutely creating a culture where ongoing learning, professional development, self exploration, is not only encouraged, but that is rewarded, that you recognize when people have done it, I think is critical to us making sure that our team is staying ahead of the pack and that we can continue to deliver against client needs at a higher level than anybody else.

And so what I’m going to say to you is I think this is a topic that we don’t give it enough attention and time. As leaders, we all talk about we want to be lifelong learners, we want to employ people who are lifelong learners. But we don’t really talk about what that looks like, and we don’t necessarily offer a helping hand.

Now some of you absolutely do. I see your people in our AE boot camps. I see them in our online courses. I see them if you’re a member of one of our peer groups, you have access to the special interest groups where people who do the same kind of work from other agencies come together and learn from each other, and many of you take advantage of that.

So I’m not saying everybody doesn’t do this well. What I’m saying is no matter how good we are at it, I bet we can be better, which makes me think that our agencies can be even better.

So I met Cecilia Gorman a few weeks ago. Cecilia has an agency background, so she’s worked in agencies for a big part of her career. Found her way into the HR side of the business, discovered that she really loved mentoring and coaching and training people on how to be better at their job, and then set out on her own to really help particularly managers learn how to manage better. And so after talking to her and hearing her philosophy about agency professional development and growth and learning, I knew that she would have a lot for us to think about and give us a lot to chew on.

And so, I invited her on the show, and lovely for us she said yes. I don’t want to take up any more time in my commentary. I want to get right to it. So let me introduce you to Cecilia, and let’s get started.

All right, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Cecilia Gorman:

Oh, thanks for having me. I’m excited to have this conversation today.

Drew McLellan:

Me too. I’m excited to introduce you to my audience because you come from our world. And so, tell everybody a little bit about your background and how you have come to do the kind of work that you’re doing today.

Cecilia Gorman:

Yeah, very good. So Cecilia Gorman from Orange County, California. I’ve lived here my whole life. I kind of stumbled into advertising. My first job out of college was at a printing company, and so I learned a lot about ink on paper. And one of our clients was an ad agency, and the print producer left and my boss was like, “Hey, I think you could do that job,” and just fell in love with advertising, just the whole entire process of it.

I never would’ve called myself creative, but the second I was immersed in that environment, I was like this is my jam, this is where I want to be.

Eventually, I moved into creative services, so I was running resource management, a lot of financial management, performance management, and then recruiting obviously. So part of that was going out to colleges and speaking to students talking about, “Hey, get a career in advertising.”

I fell in love with two things at that point. The first thing was public speaking. I loved having a mic in my hand. And the second thing was that age and getting your start and helping people find their way because I felt like that was a clunky period for me. And so, entry level folks, new managers, people who were just trying to get their footing, became a group that I became focused on. So a lot of side mentoring, side coaching. Going to HR, “Hey, can I help with some trainings?”

So I did that for the bulk of the time I was in advertising, and towards the end of my full-time career I was blessed to go brand side to work at Oakley for a couple of years. And Oakley had a pretty big training and development team, and so I was like, “Hey, what are you guys up to? Can I hang around with you?” And so they fortunately gave me more opportunities there to do official training and development.

So then I got certified as a trainer. I went back to an ad agency, worked in HR in organizational leadership, and I was just hooked. And so, I went out on my own five years ago, and mostly work with ad agencies or brands in working with their creative teams or their marketing teams. So I still have my foot in the creative world, but now I focus exclusively on manager development.

Drew McLellan:

If there is an industry that woefully under-prepares their people to be successful, I cannot think of one more than agencies. I mean our onboarding typically is, “Hey, it’s great to have you. Here’s your desk. Here’s your computer password. By the way, you have a client meeting at 10:00. Go.” Right?

Cecilia Gorman:


Drew McLellan:

That’s sort of how it is. We offer AE boot camps, and a lot of times even though somebody may have a decade of experience in the business, it’s the first professional development they’ve been offered. And so one of the things I worry about, in most agencies without a doubt the most expensive asset they have are their people. And yet, we don’t really know as an industry, there are certainly exceptions to that rule, we don’t really know how to make them better at their work. We don’t really know how to help them develop their skills over time. So why do you think we suck at that so badly?

Cecilia Gorman:

Well, I think the answer is, and this is one of the questions I ask in one of my presentations, I say, “Hey, what’s the number one thing that gets in your way of employee development?” I can ask employees that question and I can ask agency owners or HR that question. Number one reason is always going to be time.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely, yeah.

Cecilia Gorman:

Don’t have time, don’t prioritize the time. Time holds hands with budget. Time holds hands with priorities. We just don’t make the time. And so at the end of the day, if I have a client asking me for something or I want to go work on myself and take some training, the client’s going to win every time.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right.

Cecilia Gorman:

And so, that’s the conundrum is trying to figure that out, and that’s where I’m trying to be focused on, “Listen, if we say success is important for us, if we just started at the top. We say success is important for the agency. Success is important for the client’s business.” And everybody nods and agrees and all the executives say, “Yes, yes, yes.” And then we also say, “Well, we need great employees to help us get to that success.” Everybody’s nodding, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”

And then you go down another tier and we say, “We make time to equip people to help us lead to that success.” We’re like, “Yeah, until we’re busy.” And so those things can never align, and so that’s what I’m trying to focus on is what can we do that’s low cost/no cost, and we just engrain it into the things that we do as an agency that ancillary is equipping the folks that we need to rise up through the ranks and to be ready and to grow with us. So if we always say it’s time, time is never going to go away.

Drew McLellan:

Right, and we’re never going to have … Well, and if we have so much time that we have plenty of time for training, what that means is we don’t have enough work to keep people busy and we’re going to go out of business. So even hoping that that would happen is actually not a hope that many agency owners hold in their heart, right?

Cecilia Gorman:


Drew McLellan:

So when you look at agencies that have made the time and have carved out the time, that have made the commitment, what’s different? What do they do that’s different than the average agency who sort of seat-of-their-pants on the fly might train as a teachable moment, but really doesn’t have a formal policy or program for their team?

Cecilia Gorman:

My inclination is to say something that I think sounds cliché, but honestly this is where I land every time. It has to be part of the culture. It has to be that the person at the top says, “Learning is part of what we do.” And I think without that step, I just don’t know if it’s going to be a permanent, everlasting, powerful change. But until we say, “Our culture is about learning,” and it’s ingrained in what we do, then once you say that you can umbrella down the things that lead into that. You can say, “Listen, we have coaching moments and then we talk to our senior leaders.” “Well, what’s a coaching moment?”

“Well, you just came back from a big client meeting, didn’t go so well. You were the only account person in the room. You come back, and you coach the other account people about what went awry, what could’ve been better. Get them to throw in how might you have prepped this differently, what might you have said if the client said this?” And so, there’s different ways that we can make it just be this is who we are, this is what we do. So it’s not a thing that we do that gets added to our plate, it’s just how we exist and how we operate. I feel like there’s just a slight but important differentiation between those two things.

Drew McLellan:

And I think most agency owners would say, “We love lifelong learners. The business is changing so fast that we have to keep learning,” which I think is true. I mean when I think about what agencies did five years ago versus what they do today, it doesn’t look very much the same. So we had to learn all that in the last five years. So what do you believe, beyond saying we are an organization that has a commitment to learning, what does an owner have to put in place? Because here’s I think part of it too is I think a lot of employees want to learn more, but they think they’ll get in trouble.

Cecilia Gorman:


Drew McLellan:

Right? So how do I as an agency owner not just give lip service to we’re lifelong learners blah blah blah, but how do I actually convince my employees that I want them to keep learning?

Cecilia Gorman:

Well, I think that there’s strategies and then there’s reality. So the reality is going to always go through the filter of what’s the agency, what’s the culture, what are the other senior leaders, are they buying into it, that sort of thing. But the strategies I feel like are the same, and that’s honestly I think there’s key junctures where we can’t skimp on training. There’s just key junctures.

If you’re talking about a mid size to a smaller size agency, the very first juncture is onboarding. And so it’ll always go like, “What does it look like when you onboard an employee?” And it’s anything from, “I show them the desk and I give them the login to the server,” to, “Hey, they’re asked to take this online course. They read this book. They go to lunch with so and so. They do this,” an extensive and thorough thing. There’s a huge range. So that’s the first juncture, that’s a serious juncture. If we could just take that a little bit more seriously, I think that that sets the tone for, “Here’s what we expect from you as a member of our agency.”

Because we get back to we have all these unspoken expectations of people. I talk about initiative, right? You’re breathing, you’re an adult, you have a job. I assume that you have initiative. And yet, how do I know you have it? Have you learned it? Have you been tested in it? But if I set the expectation in our onboarding, “Here’s what initiative looks like Junior AE. Here’s what initiative looks like as you [inaudible 00:17:58].” And I’m able to say it in a place where I know all my employees have heard it. You set up that process once, that’s gold.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. One of the best onboarding I’ve seen is an agency, and they’re small, they’re 10 people or less, the owner put together a series of some of it’s email and some of it’s video. But when you onboard at their agency, for about 60 days every two or three days you get a new email. And it’s telling everything from the origin of the company … And the point of it is we hope that we actually talk to you about all of this stuff, but in case we don’t here’s the backup system, right?

And so it’s like everything from here’s how we do certain things to like you say, “Here are our values, let me talk to you about one of our values today and why it matters to us and blah blah blah blah blah.” But the time that it took to do that … But what I love about it is everybody hears the exact same thing because we have all this tribal knowledge bouncing around in our agency, and depending on who tells the story about any aspect of the how we work with clients or whatever, the story is slightly different. But if there’s a common shared library of these stories, then everybody hears the same thing.

Cecilia Gorman:

Right, and it keeps people accountable. I know you heard it, you know I heard it, and if one of us goes awry we’ve kind of got that, I don’t want to say pressure, but there’s just this built-in accountability to it. So that onboarding is a key juncture.

And then obviously for me, my next juncture was then you become a manager, and I give you a business card. I give you a pat on the back. I give you a team. And then I’m like, “See you later.” You never hear from me again.

Drew McLellan:

Right, yeah. “Best of luck with the team,” right, right.

Cecilia Gorman:

And we know struggling new managers turn into struggling mid level and senior leaders, and so if we’re having problems … And there’s what’s interesting. So when I first started my business, I made my New Manager Boot Camp. It was an online course. New managers, 20 lessons. And what I found after about three years was that the people that were buying it from me were not enrolling their new managers. They were enrolling their mid and their senior level managers, or even having their leadership team go through it.

So I was like, “Wait, this is telling me something.” So we ended up rerecording everything, taking the word new out of everything. There’s just fundamentals, like you said. Maybe the same thing with your AE boot camp, just things that never change and you need to [inaudible 00:20:31].

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So we’re recording this mid June, it’ll probably air a month or so later. Agencies have been in panic mode because of COVID and all of that. But it seems as we’re coming out of COVID, and maybe the agency has shrunk by a couple people, maybe people are wearing multiple hats, or in some cases the agencies are busier than they’ve ever been before depending on who their client base is. But is there a perfect time to invest in employee education and talent development, and is this it? Or is it just one of those things where the perfect time was you start yesterday, so start today?

Cecilia Gorman:

Yeah, yeah. Well that’s my favorite saying is, “The future is now.”

Drew McLellan:


Cecilia Gorman:

So we say we want the agency to be successful, want the client’s business. We say that. That’s the future that we want. That’s the state that we want. And yet today, we’re de-prioritizing it because all these other things that are coming in the way. And so, it’s like if you want to lose weight. If I say I want to lose five pounds and I say, “That’s the future I want, I want to fit in these great jeans. I want to lose five pounds,” and I’m saying that while I’m eating a plate of nachos, what I’m doing right now is the future I’m going to have. We have to connect those two things.

And so now is that time. We have to have a plan for now on talent development if we say, “We want to be more equipped in the future.” And we can’t speak out of both sides of our mouths. So either it’s a priority now, or you might not be as