Episode 106:

Gerald Sexton is Director of Employee Enablement at Goodway Group.

Gerald joined Goodway in early 2016 and brings significant experience in leveraging human resources to improve business performance and employee experience. Throughout his career, he has worked in the consulting, medical, aerospace and defense, and satellite-entertainment industries. His most recent position as Senior Human Resources (HR) Manager for DIRECTV’s premier customer-retention center in Boise, Idaho, allowed him to demonstrate just how much impact a strong HR partnership can have. Using an integrated approach with site leadership, Gerald helped the site reduce attrition by 7 percent, creating three million in cost savings.

He holds a BS in psychology and an MA in organizational psychology. His fascination with solving complex problems in organizations led him to a career in HR with a strong emphasis on talent and organizational development.

Gerald has a passion for cooking and enjoys traveling (and eating food from) all over the world. He lives in Boise with his wife, Robyn, and daughter, Rowan.

 

“Leaders of virtual teams need to be great at giving feedback and being transparent.” - Gerald Sexton
 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • The history of Goodway Group
  • How Goodway succeeds with a virtual company with employees in 41 states
  • The best tools for managing a virtual company
  • What Gerald looks for in the hiring process to figure out if someone is suited for the hiring process or not
  • Why Goodway looks at their team members results — not their hours working
  • How to build and maintain a strong company culture when running a virtual team
  • Goodway’s twice-yearly all company meet-up
  • The costs involved in a virtual team
  • The benefits of working from home — both on personal and business life
  • Giving your team the freedom to plan out their day in a way that works best for them
  • Why leaders of virtual teams need to be great at giving feedback and being transparent
  • Why — if you’re not comfortable going all virtual — you should start small — but not too small — and build from there
  • Benefits Goodway offers their employees that they couldn’t offer if they had a physical location
  • How to get started trying going virtual

The Golden Nugget:

“Leaders of virtual teams need to be great at giving feedback and being transparent.” – Gerald Sexton Click To Tweet

 

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Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build A Better Agency podcast, presented by HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25-plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Before I even tell you about today’s episode, I need you to know that A, I live on a body of water, and B, the geese are everywhere today. So if my editors cannot cut out all of the honking, I apologize, but it’s all of us just being one with nature.

One of the things we’re going to talk about today is, a lot of you are wrestling with finding talent in the town in which your agency lives and you’re struggling with trying to pair up the best talent available with a geography issue. So many of you have gone to either work from home environment or a lot of you have hybrid agencies where some of your staff is in common shared office space and others are scattered around the country and some of you have even gone all virtual. And that is what we’re going to talk about today.

We’re going to talk about how to do that well, what that looks like, the pros and cons of it. Let me tell you a little bit about our guest and why he is the man to chat with about this. Gerald Sexton is the head of HR at a company called Goodway Group, which many of you may be familiar with. They are an agency that specializes in programmatic media. And they are, many of you may not know this, but they are completely dispersed teams scattered all over the country.

Gerald can tell us a little bit more about that, but let me give you a little bit of his background first. He has been working in HR for a long time. He has a lot of global and Fortune 100 experience. Some of the companies that he has served before he went over to Goodway, include DirecTV, Ratheon and Boeing, and so he has worked in environments big and small and has been responsible for up to 1000 employees in over 60 countries, so clearly a man who knows HR trends and what’s happening and has a really interesting position at Goodway that we’re going to talk about.

So Gerald, welcome to the podcast.

Gerald Sexton:

Thanks, Drew and thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

Drew McLellan:

You bet. Give everybody a little bit of understanding of how Goodway is structured in terms of the employees and how that all came to be before we dig into how it works and why it works.

Gerald Sexton:

Yeah, absolutely. Goodway, obviously we’re the largest independent provider for programmatic in the world, but we’re also almost paradoxically a family-owned 88-year-old company, and programmatic hasn’t been around that long. So really, the past 10 years has been the incredible growth, along with the advertising industry itself, around programmatic. We are set up, essentially, at a 10 to one support ratio, about 10% of the company is in sales, about 75% is direct client support, and then we have about 15% administrative. Those numbers sound pretty simple, and they get complex when you think about the fact that we’re 100% virtual in about 41 different states, I think it’s 41 as of today.

So we’re pretty spread out and the path that we took that might be different for other companies, and I’m sure we’ll get into it later in the podcast, is that, I haven’t been at Goodway that long, but 10 years ago, the decision was made to start and hire people virtually. It wasn’t hire 40 people to work in a giant office and then suddenly go virtual after that, it was built from the ground up as we focused on programmatic as a virtual model for better or worse. But I’m glad to share the pros and cons on the things that we do well and the things that we’re challenged with these days.

Drew McLellan:

For the listeners who aren’t familiar, Goodway actually started out as a printing company.

Gerald Sexton:

That’s true.

Drew McLellan:

The current owner, was it his dad or his granddad?

Gerald Sexton:

Granddad, I believe, for the printing company, so third generation. Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

His grandfather started the company. It was a traditional print shop, and then they did some agency services on the side. And as the company got handed down to generations, the current owner of the company saw the writing on the wall for printing companies, and started looking around to see how he could pivot his business and really in a fascinating story, which we won’t really get into too much today. But in a fascinating story, saw that programmatic media was coming down the barrel in a big way, and so they really went all in and absolutely shifted their business.

So they were a brick and mortar, very traditional company, when they were the print shop and when the current generation of ownership took over, it still was a print shop but then he very quickly started to pivot it into what it is today. Let’s talk a little bit about, when you say 41 countries, how many bodies are we talking about?

Gerald Sexton:

In 41 states. If I said countries-

Drew McLellan:

No, you said states, I just said… I made you global.

Gerald Sexton:

I’ll take it. I think I’d like to go work in Thailand for a while, that sounds perfect. 41 different states, very complex, but the simple part of it is that we really put a lot of rigor around the hiring, and that doesn’t really depend on what state anyone is in. In order for us to succeed in this virtual environment that we have, we really have to select the right people, the right culture fit and not just company culture, but working virtual. A lot of people that are in some of the support roles, so client services type roles or media roles, I don’t believe many of them have worked virtually before. Tech, you see that a lot, and sales folks, outside sales is almost virtual by default most of the time because they travel so much.

So there definitely have been some challenges, at least initially, to really focus on how to bring in the right people so that we don’t have issues down the road with the way we’re set up.

Drew McLellan:

And about how many people are in the company today?

Gerald Sexton:

Right now, we’ve got about 397 full time and about 23 or so part time.

Drew McLellan:

It seems to me that, even before you get to hiring virtual people, you’ve got to have systems and processes set up that allow them to function together as a team, because what you guys are doing is no different than any other agency, it’s very collaborative work. What systems and processes need to be in place to allow a team to be virtual and be successful?

Gerald Sexton:

Sure. The funny thing that I get when I tell people that I work for a company where I work from home, the first thing they assume is that we must be on Skype and on video all the time in order to collaborate and get to know what’s happening in each other’s worlds. And we definitely use Skype for business as our sort of online IM and phone call, if you will, software, but really, we don’t do much video at all. In fact, it’s very out of our cultural norm. If someone wanted to talk to me on video, I would think something’s a little bit wrong unless I knew ahead of time what we going to have a video meeting.

So systems-wise, it’s pretty simple. I would say process-wise, there’s a little bit more rigor behind that. The process, it starts, like I said, with hiring, but also with training. We actually do all the orientation, on-boarding, all of that, a five-week curriculum, give or take depending on the job role, that’s all done virtually. Before someone even gets onto the job team, they are steeped in the idea that, whatever we need to get done, we can do from our homes, for the most part.

And then once they’re on job teams, so the teams that are supporting a certain client or account or region, each one might be slightly different depending on how they’re supporting a given customer, but really, there’s a lot of rigor around ensuring that handoffs are done properly, there are checklists, there’s a lot of feedback back and forth and even at a company level, we sometimes get complaints about asking too often for feedback or wanting to hear too much from the employees.

You can’t please everybody, but we definitely err on the side of making sure that we’re gathering feedback in a bunch of different ways. We can go deeper into that if you’d like, but that’s probably the biggest process, because the thing we don’t have is the ability to walk down to the water cooler or the cafeteria or just poke our head in someone else’s office like you would on a day-to-day basis if you were in a brick and mortar office.

Drew McLellan:

Other than Skype, are there specific tools that you use to manage work flow? A lot of people talk about project management systems and things like that.

Gerald Sexton:

The single biggest thing, and it’s a blessing and a curse because it is such a large place to house all of our information, but we have an internal wiki. From the top down, from the department head meeting where we set strategy and we talk goals and strategy once a month or what’s happening in the company, the notes from every single one of those meetings going back three years are public and available on the wiki. So some random person that’s on a job team can go to that page and see what the COO was talking about every Monday.

And that’s just one small way, but every job team has their own space, every department has their own space, so there’s a lot of thoughtfulness and rigor put into how we document, how we share information, how we can find it. I say blessing and curse because there’s so much stuff on there that we’re constantly spending effort to make sure that it’s kept up properly and that we’re doing things in a way that makes sense as the company’s grown so much. But the wiki would be a huge thing.

I know that different departments have different software that they use, and we’re trying out different ones to make sure that we know which project management software might come out ahead or be the winner, if you will, but we haven’t settled on one for the company. Tech department, they will use Slack. The whole company hasn’t adopted it yet, but there’s some departments that have adapted things for the work that they do. But the biggest differentiator that I’ve seen is our wiki, which coming from other companies and especially being in HR, where it’s hard to find information or the one that HR built was pretty boring and not useful. It’s very useful and relevant it gets updated very quickly.

Drew McLellan:

I have to think, you’ve alluded to it a couple of times, but the hiring, obviously, is critical. When you are hiring, regardless of the role, when you are hiring someone that you know is going to be working virtually, what are either some questions or some traits, what are some things you’re looking for and what are red flags for you, in terms of their ability to function in that kind of an environment?

Gerald Sexton:

That’s a good question. The first one that I would look for is, have they done it before, are they currently working virtual? That’s an easy one to pick up on. I also will ask, in their current job role, how do they interact with their supervisor, their other teams. If their answers revolve around, “Well, I just walk over and talk to them,” or, “We all sit in the same room,” and that’s the only experience they’ve ever had, that might be a little bit of a red flag, if everything has to get done by consensus, sitting around a table at the same time. And again, it depends on the role.

That’s something I look for. Also, how long have they been in the workforce that they had situations where maybe they worked at home a couple days a week, and how did they feel about it. I will say, that’s not always a red flag. I’ve worked at home here and there before in other HR roles, and I didn’t really love it, honestly. I had some reservations about working virtually when I started this role here at Goodway, and it turned out to be the best thing ever. I would say probably it might be 4% or 5% don’t really love it, even if we’ve selected the best people that we can possibly do.

There’s always some that just don’t love it once they get into it, even though we all had the best intentions. But in general, asking about prior virtual experience, asking about how they deal with project management and decision making, if it all has to be in-person, those are some things that I look for.

Drew McLellan:

Are there any sort of personality traits or communication styles that work better or worse in a virtual environment?

Gerald Sexton:

That’s a fantastic question, and I can’t give you the definitive answer. We definitely give out a personality assessment prior to hiring. We don’t use it for selection, but it’s good for us to know how people like to be communicated with. We do a couple other assessments. Honestly, the interview process, even for a coordinator-type position is probably six hours, multiple assessments, multiple interviews. But having been here almost a year and a half now, I can’t tell you that there’s only one type of personality that will work virtual. I will say how they get what they need for that personality type is going to be very different, and that’s the part where we try to educate our supervisors, our managers, our people leaders, if you will, on how to manage those folks.

Introverts sometimes will like working virtually, because you don’t, there’s not a giant meeting room where you have to sit there and people are staring at you. On the other hand people have to make sure to gather information. And then conversely, an extrovert, they’re not going to hesitate to speak up on a call, but if you’re running a meeting where you need to gather input to make a decision, the manager or the person running it is going to have to take a different approach to include all those styles, and they’ll have to remember to do it without looking around the room to see everybody’s face, and that’s probably the tricky part.

Drew McLellan:

I also think in a lot of cases, many agency owners, prior to the recession, there was, “You know what? Everybody’s going to be in my building, everybody’s going to be here from 8:00 to 5:00. We’re collaborative, we need to all be together.” Then, as the recession hit and agencies needed to downsize and manage their fixed costs, and in most agencies, their biggest fixed costs are people, then they sort of found this hybrid of either using some contract labor or maybe letting people work from home a couple of days, or part-timers. I still know a lot of agency owners who really believe that they have to all be in one place to do good work, which often translates to, “If I can’t see them, I don’t know what they’re doing.”

I’m wondering how you handle that with managers, of them being reassured that the team is doing what they need to do, even though they can’t walk in their office or look over their shoulder or know that they are hypothetically at their desk.

Gerald Sexton:

Right. That’s the mentality that I encountered a lot in some of my previous roles with larger companies, where the idea of working virtual was almost an Atta boy given out and they assume you won’t be doing much, but here’s your day to work from home. It wasn’t really a valid model. For us, it’s definitely part of the DNA. I think the biggest thing to make sure, if you’re going to have somebody work from home, is some really clear expectations, and people approach that in different ways. Some companies have very bullet-by-bullet expectations and a telecommuting document that employees will sign that’s very specific, like you will be at your desk at these times.

That’s not part of our culture. We have just a high-level agreement that says it’s not a substitution for daycare, but we don’t spell out what somebody has to do every minute of every day. We are very much a result-based environment and honestly, if someone is doing an amazing job and they’re meeting their obligations, if they’re at their desk for eight straight hours or two and then one and then three and whatever, it doesn’t really bother us as long as all those expectations are being met. In fact, really, it’s more of a very clear expectation up front and it’s only going to get reinforced if something’s wrong, if someone can’t get ahold of you or a client needs something and they didn’t get it.

That sounds really simple, but there’s a lot of work that’s going to go into that. If anyone’s listening and they think, “Okay, I’m just going to make an agreement,” it really has to line up with your culture, and some cultures are very process-oriented and the checklist helps them, and others, they want to make sure that it’s lined up to values and trust and really broad, and for some cultures, that would seem a little too weird.

Drew McLellan:

Actually, culture is the thing I want to talk about next. For many agencies, a big part of their recruitment and their retention strategy is that they have this great culture and that the people that work together really enjoy each other and that it’s a lively environment, work environment. I am sure some of the listeners are going, “If I, all of a sudden, sent all of my employees home or I started hiring people all over the land how would they stay knitted to the culture and all of that?” I want to get into that, but let’s take a quick break and then we’ll come back and dig into that.

If you’ve been enjoying the podcast and you find that you’re nodding your head and taking some notes and maybe even taking some action based on some of the things we talk about, you might be interested in doing a deeper dive. One of the options you have is the AMI remote coaching. That’s a monthly phone call with a homework in between. We start off by setting some goals and prioritizing those goals, and we just work together to get through them. It’s a little bit of coaching, it’s a little bit of best practice teaching and sharing, it’s a little bit of cheerleading sometimes. On occasion, you’re going to feel our boot on your rear end, whatever it takes to help you make sure that you hit the goals that you set. If you would like more information about that, check out agencymanagementinstitute.com/coaching. Okay, let’s get back to the show.

I am back with Gerald Sexton from the Goodway Group, and we are talking about virtual work environments and virtual teams. Before the break, I was saying that I know for many of you, one of the things for you is a great retention and recruitment tool in terms of staff is the culture that you’ve created inside your office. I suspect some of you are wondering, how do you do that in a virtual environment? Well first of all, talk to us about the retention rate of Goodway. Is it a revolving door? Do people stay for years and years and years? Then let’s talk about the culture that creates that.

Gerald Sexton:

Perfect. It is not a revolving door. I’m going to brag on us a little bit. We are single-digit attrition if I look at last year overall, which is very low for almost any industry and certainly for ours, so we have a great-

Drew McLellan:

Especially right now. Right now, agencies are running about 30% attrition, so you guys are clearly doing something right.

Gerald Sexton:

We’re less than a third of that, for sure. And it’s not to say that we don’t lose people occasionally, but I would say most of the folks that leave us are either aren’t a great fit and maybe we should have done a better job at selecting, or they genuinely joined us and it wasn’t for them or there’s a better opportunity that we couldn’t provide. There’s a little bit of attrition. We certainly use our culture as a tool to attract people, and we’ve gotten a couple of awards this year, which we’re pretty proud of. We got One of the Best Places to Work awards on Glassdoor and then we got a Best Places to Work from SHRM on their Winwork Works format, or their platform.

Sp, from a numbers perspective, we’re doing great, but in practice, I think what you’re getting at is what are things that we do that maintain that even though we’re spread out all over the place, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Gerald Sexton:

It’s not going to sound like anything earth-shattering, but we really focus a lot on the routine, daily, weekly, monthly, what happens in our meetings, how are people reaching out. It might take a little bit more effort or seem a little bit silly to have, for example, a lot of teams have an icebreaker at the beginning of every meeting or some sort of informational question. That seems a little silly because after you’ve worked together a little while, you don’t really need an icebreaker to get to know each other.  You’ve been working together but, what you might find out is the get-to-know-you question each time at a meeting is really the same thing that you would do naturally if you were walking around an office.

You’d run into somebody in the lunchroom and you know, “Hey, how was your weekend? Oh, you play football or your kids play soccer?” That kind of stuff. We try to build that into different team meetings and different parts of our culture. Another thing that is probably one of the bigger points that we like to tell folks that are joining us, is that we have two all-company meetings every year. Every six months, in the summer it’s in Deer Valley, Utah and in the winter, it’s in Las Vegas, the entire company gets together to get some work done in-person, to see each other face-to-face, to have a company party for an evening or a company dinner, to hear from Jay and Dave, our president, about what’s happening, what’s the state of the union.

So there is a little bit of in-person for about five days every six months. That’s enough that when you get to know someone and you spend a bunch of focused time with them, it’s really fun and then you’re not together long enough that their everyday bad habits will annoy you, like the office worker that pops the popcorn and sets off the smoke alarm, or decides to microwave salmon for lunch or something. We’re not around each other long enough to be annoyed by those sort of mundane routine habits, so it’s a family reunion every six months, combined with freshman orientation for the new folks that have never experienced it before.

Drew McLellan:

So when you bring everybody together, that’s a four or five-day event?

Gerald Sexton:

Yes.

Drew McLellan:

Okay, but that entire time is orchestrated, right?

Gerald Sexton:

Absolutely, yes.

Drew McLellan:

So I’ve got a schedule and I’m going to be here at 8:00 and I’m going to be there at 10:30?

Gerald Sexton:

Yeah, it’s a minute-by-minute, if you will, schedule and it’s focused mostly on getting people together that need to have some face time. If the job teams that all support each other to support a certain client or a certain region, they will have team meetings on a certain day, and then one day is reserved for leadership to get together. Usually, that’s at the beginning. Another day is reserved for the all-company presentation, all-company dinner. It’s pretty scripted, but there’s a lot of time for fun and of course, there’s evenings out. You get to have dinner with your team and your friends.

It’s probably one of the biggest things that we hear on surveys that help us keep our culture alive, even though the other 50 weeks out of the year, we don’t really see each other face-to-face.

Drew McLellan:

In terms of that, I know a lot of companies, a lot of agencies, do company outings or whatever, but in that case, they’re not bringing spouses or anything, that’s like a work week, right?

Gerald Sexton:

Correct. And in fact, spouses are explicitly not invited, except for like the last day, if you’re going to stay a few days later in Vegas or Deer Valley, then of course, they’re welcome to come say hi. No, it’s a work meeting, absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

I have to think at some point, somebody was like, “Oh, my God, that’s 400 people that you’re flying to Utah or Vegas.” But I also have to think that somehow that offsets in that you don’t have a building for 400 people, so talk a little bit about the cost of maintaining a virtual staff and some of the pros and cons of that.

Gerald Sexton:

Yes, if you’re going to have all-company meetings, there’s a significant cost to fly people around the country and get them there. The other side of that is that we don’t have offices. We have one original office in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania that I think six people choose to go into occasionally. They don’t go in all the time, but that’s where Dave says that’s the original office. But really, that’s the cost benefit you have to weigh if you’re thinking about doing it, would be that.

The other sort of cost to think of is when someone starts, they probably haven’t worked from home before, so we have a small budget, it’s like $500 or $600 that they can use to get an extra monitor or two, if they need a microphone. We provide laptops and that sort of thing, but we give people a little bit of money to use how they need to get themselves set up, and it looks differently for everyone. Again, that’s consistent with our culture.

We outlay what they need to have, but we also just give them the money and say buy what else you need. If you need a fancy pen to be productive, great. That comes out of that budget, or a certain mouse or whatever. It’s pretty customizable and up to them. We just put a guardrail around the amount. That’s sort of the equipment cost, if you will. The other cost is really the time spending in training. I mentioned earlier, it’s about a five-week curriculum, give or take, depending on the role. That’s a lot of live, instructor-led online stuff, some self-paced, but that’s a cost, if you will.

Upfront is we spend a lot of time training. We hear very often from people that they’ve never had the amount or the focus of training at other places that they’ve worked. I believe it pays dividends. I couldn’t give you an exact amount that I’m getting back on my ROI for that, but we hear overwhelmingly positive stuff about the training, so much so that we did away with the in-person training on the all-company trips.

Drew McLellan:

But really, part of that training is just the work that you guys do, programmatic is complicated.

Gerald Sexton:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

So you’d have a lot of training whether you were an intact team or not, right?

Gerald Sexton:

There would be a lot of training, that I think we need to spend more time on it from a virtual environment perspective, because you can’t just… You can screen-share and that sort of thing, but you’re not going to poke your head up over a cubicle in a big open room and just ask someone a question. There’s a few more barriers to that, you have to bug them on Skype, see if they’re free. We spend enough time up front that they feel, I would say, 90% of them, feel very well-prepared for at least the basic level work that they have to do.

Drew McLellan:

When you think about the costs, are there ongoing costs of if I was a Goodway employee, do I get any sort of a stipend for my home office expenses, like internet and all of that? Or is that all just part-

Gerald Sexton:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Okay.

Gerald Sexton:

We give a flat $125 a month for your internet and phone.

Drew McLellan:

It’s still quite a bit cheaper than rent for a building for 400 people.

Gerald Sexton:

Oh, my gosh, yeah, absolutely. And it encourages people not to skimp. If you’re early in your career, you’re trying to save every penny and you think maybe a cheaper internet connection is going to save a few dollars, that wouldn’t work for us, so we make sure we help out with that.

Drew McLellan:

As you look out over the landscape, you’ve been there a year and a half, what were some things that you expected to find that you either … what has surprised you as you’ve gone into this virtual environment? Because you’ve been there long enough now that I’m sure you’ve been surprised a couple of times.

Gerald Sexton:

Sure, yeah. Working in HR, we call it employee enablement, but I always get surprised by interesting stuff. From a personal perspective, the biggest thing, and just genuinely, it sounds squishy, from the bottom of my heart, but I absolutely I’m in love with working from home and I’m actually surprised by that. I thought that I was going to be that person that maybe I work in my home office, but then I’m going to camp out at Starbucks for a little bit or go to a place I could do a hot desk and hang out and work with other people, because I wanted to be around people. I’m a hardcore extrovert. I need to bounce ideas off of folks.

I actually don’t do any of that. In fact, I get annoyed when I go to the coffee shop because it’s too loud and I can’t hop on a Skype call. The people that I want to be extroverted with, I need my quiet home office. So for me, it was a huge surprise even though I knew I could do it, but I actually love it. I’ll walk downstairs and get another cup of coffee in mid-morning and my daughter, who’s almost four, will come wheeling around the corner and give me a big hug, and my wife’s around, or the dog is asleep at my foot. That kind of stuff, I didn’t really anticipate the impact that would have in a meaningful way when I started.

And I hear that echoed with a lot of people. That’s one thing, just as a personal story. Some other things that are surprising, like I said earlier, I thought for sure everyone would be on video, that we would have these elaborate, really nice high-def cameras and it would be back and forth video calls all the time, because that’s some of what I experienced, at least in my previous role with DirecTV. They’re a satellite television company, when we did virtual meetings from one building to another in a different part of the country, we had these fancy studios, so I was wondering how it would work, and it’s much simpler than I had thought.

From the HR element, the only thing that is surprising to me as far as how we do employee relations and that sort of thing, is just that it takes a little bit more effort to build that connection, to have the rapport when you’re having those performance conversations or the more serious conversations that happen occasionally. In my mind, I’d always love to have those in person, but that doesn’t work with a virtual setup. So it takes a little bit more training, practice. I’d say we’re getting really good at it, but that’s one thing that I encountered, kind of needed a little bit of revamp in how we approached it when I started.

Drew McLellan:

Where do you think you guys sit in terms of productivity? Again, you know your story of, well, mid-morning and I go down and I grab a cup of coffee and hug my daughter and chat with my wife for a minute and I got to take the dog out for a walk at some point in time. I hear agency owners in their heads going, “Time away from your computer, time away from your computer.” But the reality is, we all do that, even in a physical environment, we all get up, we go to the bathroom, we grab some coffee, and then we bump into somebody in the hall, and 25 minutes later, we’ve covered the last movie we saw and our kid’s soccer game.

We all do that, whether we do it virtually or not, but I am assuming that you guys are testing and tracking productivity.

Gerald Sexton:

We track outcomes. There’s no way that I can tell you that we don’t have any special software that can say, “Well, Drew’s been at his computer for half an hour today.” I can look at Skype and see your status, that’s green on your phone as well. Before I talk about that, I will just say, we’ve got about a 96% client retention rate and we’ve had about 2,000% growth in the past 10 years.

Drew McLellan:

That’s pretty good productivity numbers.

Gerald Sexton:

That speaks to, if we had a lot of growth and the client retention was terrible, I’d say we have a bigger problem. For me, the thing is, it’s really managing anything, anything out of the norm gets addressed quickly. We’re encouraged to let people have the freedom to do what they need to with their day as long as they’re getting everything done, but not every job is going to allow that to happen. If you’re fast and furious on a campaign or you’re a media trader and you’re dealing with all the stuff behind the scenes, it may not be that you can get away for an hour workout at lunch. That’s just the reality of the job.

There are a lot of times when people, like kid’s events come up or you talked about soccer or something, it’s just a quick heads-up, “Hey, I’m out of here.” “Great, you go do it.” And that’s part of the culture. Now, it wouldn’t be part of the culture if we weren’t getting things done. There’d be conversations around it, but truthfully, there’s not a secret sauce other than hiring the right people and trusting them. And when the trust doesn’t work out, you address it quickly and honestly and transparently and get everything back on track. Because we would be sunk if we had to micromanage or minute-to-minute manage our workforce, we would be terrible.

Drew McLellan:

You came into the environment, it was already virtual, and so as you have looked at it for the last year, if you were setting it up from scratch, is there something that you guys do or don’t do that you would do differently that you can’t unwrap now, but looking back on it, you go, “Well, if I was doing this from scratch, I would do this or I would definitely not do that?”

Gerald Sexton:

I am walking in a little bit after the fact. I think if I could wave a magic wand and we had unlimited resources and time, I would spend a lot of time training and upscaling and making sure that the people that lead other people had all the right tools that they needed and the right skills that they needed to address the intricacies of our virtual world. A lot of it is that interpersonal stuff that you can see and feel when you have a team that’s in the same room or in the same building, you don’t see it as much here. And we’re pretty hands-off. We really let people be accountable for their own work.

Maybe I’m biased because I’m the HR guy, but I would love to see little bit more focus on leadership development at the outset. And that’s not because we’re doing a bad job, it’s more because there are different challenges, giving feedback is a little bit different over the phone. You have to give people time to understand it, you’re not going to see their non-verbal cues, if you will. It’s just the little things like that, I think. We did a great job with the Wiki and documenting our process and how things are supposed to get done. That was a definite “do” that we did, and the other one might be just a little bit more on the leadership development in a virtual environment.

Drew McLellan:

We’ve talked a little bit about what kind of people make great virtual employees. If I’m agency owner and I’m thinking about, again, whether it’s a hybrid, I’m going to have some people in the office and some people out in the field, or I’m going to go all virtual, what do I need to be able to bring to the table as a leader? What do I need to be more mindful of? As I’m listening to you talk about the leadership things, what specifically, what are either the skills or the habits that you think make a great leader in that kind of an environment?

Gerald Sexton:

That’s a good question. I think the biggest thing is around feedback and transparency, and that’s one thing that we’ve worked on over the past year. Very specifically, we developed a course to help our leaders give and receive feedback more effectively. And that is one thing… I think that’s good for any leader, but again, if you don’t have the ability to simply just poke your head into your boss’s office and say, “Are we good?” You have to build that in both in the skills in the leader and then also in the process.

Every one-on-one that I have with my direct reports, and this is fairly company-wide, on the Wiki, the agenda is written up and what we’re going to talk about and there’s always a spot that says, what do I need to stop doing to support you better or start doing, or continue doing? There’s sort of a stop, start and continue section in there. And it’s not that my employees put something in there every single week, but they know that no matter what, if there’s something, they need some more time from me, they need me to do something different or stop an approach that I’m taking on a particular project or whatever, there’s always a place, no matter what.

Even if we don’t want to talk about it face-to-face right now or on Skype, they will put it there. And I think that’s an easy trick. The overall advice, though if I could give to anybody else who’s considering this, is to go all-in on whatever level you’re comfortable with. Maybe not everybody’s going to take their whole company and go virtual, that’s understandable, but to take a whole team or a business unit or some discreet entity, where it’s not just one person off of a team, but try a whole test unit, whatever that looks like in your company, and if possible, have the leader of the that group also be virtual.

Because that’s one thing that I really appreciate. I report to Jay Friedman, who’s our COO, and we’ll do Skype chats and I’m in my upstairs office and he’s in his upstairs office. And so very now and then I’ll hear him say, “Hey, hang on, I’m going to say goodbye to my daughter.” It’s not like the boss sitting in the corporate headquarters and I’m way off somewhere else, we’re all in the same world with the same flexibility, same responsibilities and accountability, and I think that’s important if you’re going to try it out.

Drew McLellan:

I think for a lot of agencies, they have sort of this hybrid going, and I always think that’s probably a little tougher, where one or two people are virtual and it’s hard not to feel like an outsider when 10, or 12, or 50 people are all in a building together and they’re kibitzing over break time or somebody brought bagels in or whatever, and you sort of would feel like an outsider in all of that, I think.

Gerald Sexton:

I would and I have in other companies. I think I’ve mentioned earlier that I had the ability to work a few days from home here and there and it’s always really odd to call into a group meeting and there’s 10 people around the triangle-shaped telephone in the middle of the conference table and they’re all chatting and there’s noise and no one’s even listening to you, anyway, they can’t hear you. That is very awkward even though it’s common, but it’s awkward.

And it doesn’t work as well, I think, is if you take the whole team, that eight or 10 people and you said, “All right, for two months, we’re going to work from home and try it out,” and then learn quickly what didn’t work and what worked and then do version two, version three. My guess is that it will look a little bit different in every company, depending on your culture and the type of work and how it’s set up.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Absolutely. In terms of compensation and benefits and all of that, are there any things about having a virtual workforce that are different, or does that look exactly the same? We talked about the internet and phone allowance. A lot of agencies do that whether their people are virtual or not, so is there anything else in terms of how you compensate people or reward people that’s different?

Gerald Sexton:

I would say compensation looks similar other than we don’t have a pay to a particular market strategy because we’re in 41 or more different markets. So it’s not so much that it’s you live in Wyoming, so we’re going to pay this amount. Our focus is more paying what’s good nationally. Good or bad, that’s an approach that we take. I think if someone’s trying to pay the market in every single state, it’s going to be pretty rough. As far as the benefit side, we offer very, very good benefits. That’s one thing that people have mentioned over and over, as far as the flex spending, the quality, benefits themselves, the extras, if you will.

We offer an above and beyond maternity leave, above what’s required by law, certainly. And given that our population is about 75% female, 70% millennial, that was something that our employees told us that they really wanted, we heard them and we upped the benefits for maternity leave. Some of the smaller or less well-known benefits for those that want to go into an office every now and then, we partnered with WeWork, so if someone wants a subscription to go in once a week, especially in the hubs where we have a lot more people, so Atlanta, Dallas, Austin, Seattle, Philadelphia, Denver.

Those are places where there’s 10, 20, some of them, there’s 50 employees in that greater metro area, a subscription to WeWork lets them go in a couple days here and there and they can all sit at a desk and hang out together even if they’re doing different stuff. The last benefit that I think is the coolest that I can’t take advantage of myself, because I don’t think my wife and daughter want to drive around the country in a trailer, but we actually have a group of folks that we call our digital nomads, some of them don’t even own a house.

They’re able to work from the road or they have great internet connection where they’re staying during the day each day, and they travel around the country. They’re doing a great job for us. I have not had a single issue with performance or haven’t heard a single thing about anything that isn’t positive about how that setup has worked for them.

Drew McLellan:

I was going to ask you, do you care if somebody wants to move from one market to another?

Gerald Sexton:

No.

Drew McLellan:

Does that matter? If I’m a salesperson and I’m assigned to a region, does it still matter or not matter?

Gerald Sexton:

Yeah. I think the salesperson is going to be a separate issue because typically, you’re regional-based and I don’t know… Certainly, we would try to be as flexible as we could, but if you’re supporting the East Coast and you want to move to LA, that’s going to be problematic. I would say the vast majority of the jobs that we have are very flexible to work from just about anywhere. Just the other day, I got a letter forwarded to me by our president someone sent in, and she works for Goodway.

Her husband had had some medical issues and she was just thanking us for the flexibility to go and deal with all these things that she needed to deal with. We’ve had multiple examples of wives that are supporting husbands that are in the military and they move quite a bit. They’re able to keep their job and move around. It lends itself well to a spouse that moves a lot and the other spouse works and they can stay with Goodway and still grow their career even though they’ve lived in three states in 10 years.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think that has to speak partially to the attrition rate you have too. The loyalty must be staggering.

Gerald Sexton:

It’s great loyalty, and also for the recruiting side of it, I think about a lot of people that are very technical. I’m thinking about our tech side, the engineers, that sort of thing. A lot of folks, if you’re very technical, if you want a great-paying job, you’re going to move to a bigger city. You’re going to move to the Chicagos of the world, New York, LA, in order to get the salary that you’re not going to get in the middle of Oklahoma. Well, our tech people can work from anywhere. There’s I would say-

Drew McLellan:

And salary goes a lot further in Oklahoma than it’s going to in LA.

Gerald Sexton:

It certainly does, yeah, because I live in Idaho, so I’m familiar with that concept. It’s great.

Drew McLellan:

My brain is stuck on your nomads. I’m picturing all these millennials in tiny homes that they’re dragging around behind a pickup truck, living in different parks throughout the country.

Gerald Sexton:

That sounds about right.

Drew McLellan:

But they’re productive and they’re able to do that and have the life that they want to have.

Gerald Sexton:

It’s great, and I’m jealous. If I were younger and didn’t have the family, or at least have a kid, that would be attractive to me, for sure.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Any last words of wisdom or insight if somebody’s thinking about, especially if someone is like, “You know, I am having a heck of a time finding people in fill-in-the-blank, USA. I’ve got to find a better solution”? Are there resources or places that you go to or went to when you were starting to support a virtual team? Are there places that people can go to learn more about how to do this well? Or is there a community of people who do this?

Gerald Sexton:

A couple of resources that you could look at as far as where to post jobs, FlexJobs is a great one that deals with just flexible work arrangements. It’s not always necessarily virtual, but that’s a starting point. People have to actually pay to subscribe to it, job seekers do.

Drew McLellan:

They have to be serious.

Gerald Sexton:

Yeah. It’s not much, but it’s enough to weed out a lot of the folks that don’t want any barrier to entry. There’s not any secret playbook that I can share as far as a place to go. I would say focusing on the hiring is going to the biggest, and/or, like I said earlier, pick a team or a discrete unit of folks, maybe it’s a job team or a small department, and try it. Honestly, that’s going to give you what you need to know as far as, do we need a more robust agreement. Can our supervisors address any issues that come up virtually as well as they can in person?

Doing that for a month or two is going to teach you more about how to do the virtual thing in your company than any sort of checklist will, outside of the normal compliance stuff, if someone’s in a certain state, they have to pay that state’s taxes. There’s a lot of logistical things you have to worry about when you’re in that many different states.

Drew McLellan:

I hadn’t even thought about that, but I’m sure the legal issues get a little complicated.

Gerald Sexton:

That’s an understatement. We haven’t had any legal issues, so to speak, but the number of things to consider-

Drew McLellan:

Just payroll taxes and all that sort of stuff.

Gerald Sexton:

Yeah, that’s definitely a lot of stuff, for sure.

Drew McLellan:

But really, I think what you’re saying is, at a certain point in time, you’ve just got to get into the water and splash around and give it a try.

Gerald Sexton:

Absolutely. I would say, the smaller you try it out, the better, and make sure that whoever’s leading that team, that’s the biggest thing. We all know that people follow leaders, so if your leader is setting a good example and they’re the one heading that whole idea up, I think that it would be more successful.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome. This has been a great conversation and fascinating. I think for a lot of agencies, this is the direction that their reality is going, whether they’re ready for it or not. As the generational workforce continues to express to us what they want and how they want their life and their work to balance out, I think this is, for many companies, going to have to be something that they explore.

Gerald Sexton:

I agree.

Drew McLellan:

This has been awesome. Thanks for your time. Thanks for sharing your insight. I really appreciate it.

Gerald Sexton:

You’re welcome, Drew. It was wonderful talking with you. I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.

Drew McLellan:

You bet. All right. That wraps up another episode of Build A Better Agency. Can’t tell you how much I love spending this time with you. Thanks so much for listening. Hey, speaking of thanks, another way we want to give thanks is we’ve built a new tool that I would love you to check out. We’re calling it the Agency Health Assessment. And basically, you’re going to answer a series of questions, and based on those answers, the tool is going to tell you in which aspect of your business maybe you need to spend a little extra time and attention to sort of take your agency to the next level.

We’ve identified five key areas that really indicate an agency’s health, and we’re going to help you figure out where you need to spend a little more time. To get that free assessment, all you have to do is text the word, ASSESSMENT to 38470. Again, text the word, ASSESSMENT to 38470, and we will send you a link so you can do that at your leisure, and hopefully, that will give you some new insights and some direction in terms of your time and attention in the agency.

In the meantime, as always, I’m around. If I can be helpful, [email protected] And I will be back next week with another great guest and more things for you to ponder. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 1:

That’s all for this episode of AMI’s Build A Better Agency, brought to you by HubSpot. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops, online courses and other ways we serve small to mid-size agencies. Don’t miss an episode, as we help you build the agency you’ve always dreamed of owning.