Episode 106

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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 Share on X

 

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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