Episode 438

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In a sharp contrast to the earlier pandemic years, many agency owners said that in 2023, they have the best teams they’ve ever had and want to find ways to keep them around. This is great news, and we want to help keep your agency dream team alive and thriving.

To help in that journey, HR expert Barbara Mason joins me to share what agency owners and leaders can do to help make their employees feel like valued team members while staying true to the agency’s mission and values.

She is a fountain of knowledge — from interviewing best practices and why HR experts need to be a part of your business to how to create the agency culture you want while caring for your agency employees as whole people. She’ll even share her top 3 secret interview questions she uses to get potential hires thinking about how they fit into the agency’s mission and values.

This episode is full of practical and common-sense tips that will hopefully get the gears going and help you keep your agency dream team alive and thriving in 2024 and beyond.

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 dream team

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Two simple things that will help you keep your agency dream team happy
  • Transparency goes a long way with agency employees, but know the limits
  • What makes a healthy agency culture?
  • How more introverted business owners can engage and connect with their employees
  • How benefits packages have changed post-Covid
  • Creating agency culture in a hybrid or fully remote environment
  • The importance of knowing what you’re hiring for and interviewing accordingly
  • Motivating agency employees to be more engaged in the work
  • HR’s role in having a succession plan for the business
  • Interview best practices for agency leadership
  • Exercising radical candor in agency communications
  • Employment trends to keep an eye on in 2024
  • The biggest mistake agency owners make with their people

“When you think about how to keep your people, culture is a big part of it, and a lot of people think it's compensation.” - Barbara Mason Click To Tweet
“Transparency goes a long way. You can tell too much too soon, obviously. So I think you must know your employee base and how to temper that. And if you've been doing it all along, it won’t seem foreign.” - Barbara Mason Click To Tweet
“Many times, the interview questions and the interview process are very disconnected from the ideal. Meaning we're asking questions that are not relevant, or they're one-sided.” - Barbara Mason Click To Tweet
“That's where HR comes in as your strategic partner. They're doing the research, finding where those skills are and giving you a pathway of how to either get your internal workforce there or bring in some new talent.” - Barbara Mason Click To Tweet
“Be true to who you are, but then get employees that align with that mission and that vision.” - Barbara Mason Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Barbara:


Hey, everybody. Drew here. You know, we are always looking for more ways to be helpful and meet you wherever you’re at to help you grow your agency. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve produced this podcast for so long, and I’m super grateful that you listen as often as you do. However, there are some topics that are better suited for quick hyper-focused answers in under 10 minutes. That’s where our YouTube channel really comes in. For quick doses of inspiration, best practices, tips and tricks, head over to youtube.com/the at sign Agency Management institute. Again, that’s youtube.com/the at sign or symbol.

And then Agency Management Institute, all one word. Subscribe and search the existing video database for all sorts of actionable topics that you can implement in your shop today. Alright, let’s get to the show.

Running an agency can be a lonely proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. We can learn how to be better faster if we learn together. Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build, a Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ. Tune in every week for insights on how small to mid-size agencies are surviving and thriving in today’s market with 25 plus years of experience. As both an agency owner and agency consultant. Please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Hey everybody. Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute. Thanks for coming back for another episode of Build a Better Agency. Today’s topic is HR and we’re gonna talk about how to keep the good people you have, how to find more good people, and how to create a culture that is super sticky in terms of really locking in your rock stars and superstars. Before I introduce our guest, I just wanna remind you we’ve got a couple great live workshops happening in March. So we have Money Matters in Denver on March 12th and 13th, and then we have the Advanced Aid Bootcamp for your more senior ae. So I’d say four or five years of experience and beyond, and that is March 21st and 22nd also in Denver.

To learn more about them, to register for them, head over to the Agency Management Institute website and under the How We Help tab, scroll down to workshops and you will see both Money Matters and Advanced AE Work AE Bootcamp there. Okay. Alright. So Barbara Mason has had decades of experience in the HR field, and then recently in the last handful of years, she decided to step out on her own to create an HR consultancy that works specifically with small businesses to help them with all of their HR issues, whether it’s hiring or retention, growth plans, all of that. And I think you’re gonna find her a delightful guest packed with knowledge and information, and my job is to get as much out of that from her as I can in an hour.

So let’s get to it. Barbara, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us. Thanks

Drew. I’m glad to be here.

So give everybody a little bit about your background and how you came to have this expertise.

Yeah, absolutely. So I spent 20 years in corporate in the world of HR, and that’s what I went to school for. And so I worked for a lot of Fortune 500 companies leading HR teams, and then I decided to start my own business in 2017. So I did both parallel for a while doing my own business and building it as well as working in corporate. And then in 2019, I decided to leave corporate and do my business full time. So it’s a, it’s a great segue because it’s what I’ve been doing all along. It’s not anything new now I just get to do it on my own and help small businesses instead of large corporations.

So right before Covid, you just decided to start your own business?

I did, yeah. Not knowing that Covid was around the corner.

Nope, that’s right. So, you know, you and I were talking a little bit before I hit the record button, but many agencies in 23, regardless of the other challenges they were having, were telling us that they felt like they had the best team ever. You know, during Covid, a lot of agencies were actually super busy and had to hire fast and had to hire without a lot of the normal ways of interviewing, right. ’cause of the restrictions. And so that was a kind of an ugly period for us as employers. We ended up with a lot of employees that weren’t great fits, that didn’t know how to work remote lots, lots of challenges, right? But I think over the last few years, most of the listeners have kind of cleaned out the closet, if you will.

Yeah. And those, those less than ideal employees have moved on and they’ve been much better about recruiting really high quality people, both skill-wise and sort of just in alignment with values and things like that. So where I wanna start with you is, when we have great employees, how do we keep ’em, I I I, I will also tell you agencies are never gonna be the big payers, right? Right. So corporations, universities are always trying to poach our people. So how do we create an environment where people are like, Nope, I wanna stay right where I’m at.

Yeah, that’s a, that’s a great question and I’m, I’m so pleased to hear you say that they, you know, have great teams, because I’m telling you that’s few and far between, especially when it comes to small businesses. So when you think about how to keep your people, culture is a big part, and a lot of people think it’s compensation. So I’m glad that you brought the part up about, hey, we may not be the biggest payers. So when you think about a culture, I always say, you know, you wanna make it feel comfortable for your employees and feel like home. And so how do you do that? I think it starts with foundationally is knowing what the mission of the company is. Today’s workforce is all about what matters to them, you know, from a social perspective, from a personal perspective.

So they wanna be with a company that they understand the mission and they align with the mission, and they know exactly where they’re headed. People really care about that. And so I think that’s number one is you gotta have a vision and a mission and let the employees know where you’re headed,


I think number two is now letting them see where they play in that mission, right? So, how does what I do for you play into the bigger part of the company’s goals? And all of that comes with communication, letting them know where are we towards the goal? What do I see on the horizon? How do we need to pivot? And so it’s almost like bringing the employees along with you on the journey. And I think where a lot of small businesses fail is that they try to be at the top and carry this whole weight of the company mission, vision, and, and all the things that’s going on, and they don’t communicate downward to the employees and bring them along the journey.

So those are two things I, I got plenty more, but those are two things that I would start with foundationally in terms of helping to build that culture where employees wanna stay and be a part.

One thing I hear a lot of agency owners worry about is, how transparent should I be? Especially if things are challenging right now, because I don’t wanna scare off my employees. I don’t want them starting to look for another job. What, what is your response to that concern?

Yeah, I always believe that Transparency is best. And I think that you can temper that however you need to for your employee base and, and depending on what situation you’re in. But when I say take the employees along with you, I think you should be talking to your team about, Hey, this is where, this is how we compare in our industry. Here are the industry trends. You know, what things are fault are going this way? We need to pivot in order to stay competitive. Right? I think language like that gives the employees a sense of, okay, we’re not where we should be, here’s where we’re headed and here’s why we’re headed that way. Yeah. So I think Transparency goes a long way. I think you can tell too much too soon, obviously.

So I think you have to know your employee base and know kind of how to temper that. And if you’ve been, if you’ve been doing it all along, it’s not gonna seem foreign.

Yeah. If

You’ve been quiet and now all of a sudden you’re said, you know what? We’re hitting financial troubles, then they don’t have a basis basis to know, right? Oh my goodness, do I need to update my resume?

Right. You know, I, my response to when they worry about it, I’m like, you know what, if you don’t tell them what’s going on, they make something up in their head. Absolutely. And a lot of times what they make up in their head is worse than the situation, or they don’t have the context to sort of temper their fear or their concern. Absolutely. So far better to just say, Hey, let’s look at the trend over the last year. And you can see this quarter, this last quarter was tough for us, but you could also see that that’s the way the business works, is we ebb and flow or whatever, whatever the truth is. Absolutely. But giving them some context so they don’t freak out.


If compensation isn’t at the core, and, and I think our people are paid fairly, but they certainly, especially as we’ve seen over, you know, right before Covid and then during Covid when people were paying crazy signing bonuses, it was like, it was like we were hiring for the NFL.


You know, for a while we got knocked out of the competition and, and now things are getting back to sort of, not pre covid normal, but more normal. Right. But if compensation isn’t the end all and be all for culture, assuming that we are, that we have defined, first of all, ’cause a lot of agencies have not defined their mission, vision, and values, but assuming we have defined that, what else contributes to a healthy culture that makes that employee feel like they’re a part of something that they don’t wanna leave?

Yeah, I think one is knowing your employees, and when I say knowing your employees, you have to know what motivates them, what inspires them, know about their family, their family situation, and what’s important to them. So at the basis that you gotta have a relationship, whether it’s virtual or whether you have a physical office, you can do it either way. Right. So I think knowing them, and then once you know them, you know what their career goals are, you should know where they want to be. Like, are there some other skills that they want to use that they’re not able to use right now? Is there another job that they have their site set on? So knowing what their goals are and helping them find a pathway to get there within your company, people wanna be seen and they want to be, they don’t wanna just be a number.

And that’s the beauty of working for a small agency or a small business, is that the hope is is that you’re not treated like a number, but many people still do. So I think that’s one thing. I think another thing is employee engagement. So talking to your people, communicating, you can do that through round tables, newsletters, zoom calls, like whatever it is, there has to be a constant flow of communication when you have that, then you as the owner know when something is not right. You know, when somebody’s performance has slacked off, and then you can address and just say, Hey, Drew, what’s going on? Right. You typically do this, you know, and that relationship engenders loyalty and people feel like, this is my family, this is, I, I belong here.

Yeah. You know, we did, every year we do research where we go out into the field and normally we talk to business leaders who hire agencies, but right after Covid, we talked to employees of agencies, almost a thousand employees. And we heard the exact same thing, which was, I want you to know what my life is. I want you to know me as a whole person, not just what I do at work, but I want you to know that my mom’s in a nursing home, or my kid Absolutely. My kid’s about to, to get kicked outta kindergarten because she won’t stop talking or whatever. Like, I need you to see all of it because my work intersects with the rest of my life. Absolutely. And I need you to understand how and why I’m showing up.


So how do you recommend, so for, I think for some of the listeners, they’re naturally sort of extroverted or gregarious or they’re good relationship builders. And I also find that they’re the ones who are sharing a little bit about what’s going on with their life, which opens up the door for employees to share what’s going on in theirs. Right? Right. If somebody’s more private or sort of wants to keep more of a wall between their personal life and their professional life, or just doesn’t know how to engage in those conversations, what are some ways that you coach some of your business owners who maybe aren’t great and that’s doesn’t come naturally to them to have those kind of conversations?

How can they begin to create those kind of connections with their employees?

Yeah. For those type of leaders that are more introverted, I usually recommend that, you know, a lot of times they’re better with one-on-one conversations. Now that becomes difficult if you have a really large team, if you have a hundred, a couple of hundred employees, that becomes really difficult. Really, really fast. Right. And so that’s one way to do, it’s to have one-on-one conversations, because they feel more comfortable that way. A second way to do it is to have somebody on your team that’s like the second in command that has more of that personality, right? Yeah. And they can quote, unquote, get information for you or kind of help bring you along. A third way to do it is, one of the things that some of my leaders do is that they have a meeting in their meetings at the top of the agenda.

It starts with something personal. So it doesn’t have to be like, oh, you know, my dog died today. But it’s like, Hey, what do you want to share? What’s a, what’s a win that you had in the past week? And they can share a business, win a personal win. It’s an open-ended question. Some even say, Hey, how are you feeling today? Right. It, it’s very open-ended, so employees can go wherever they want to go, you know, and they allot, you know, the first 15 minutes to kind of just go around the room in the meeting. So that, that’s a way that’s kind of non, not in your face, so to speak. Yeah. Because it’s on the agenda every single week and people just know, so you don’t have to conjure up like, oh, let me ask Drew about his dog, you know?

Right, right.

It’s just kinda, oh, and then when you hear Drew says, you know what? My dog got sick this week. Then you can go to Drew individual and say, Hey, how’s lady doing? How’s Max doing?

Right, right, right. Or do you need to take some time off to go to the vet or whatever. Absolutely. Yeah. How have you seen post Covid? How have you seen the benefit packages change? Or are they pretty much the same? Is it pretty much, you know, healthcare and vacation time and the same, the same laundry list of, of offerings?

No, I’ve seen it change, you know, quite a bit. There’s some things that are new that people are offering that I would say definitely is a result of Covid. So one is like mental wellness and employee assistance benefits is really on the rise. I mean, you saw that in big corporations, but you didn’t really see it in small businesses, is either allowing employees to have time off. So unlimited PTO is one that I’ve seen a rise in. Also a allow allowing employees to be offered like mental wellness days or offering some type of benefit where they get two free visits to a counselor or something like that. Also, just remote work schedules. I mean, COVID kind of pushed us into the whole work from home, and a lot of businesses have just not returned to physically in the office.

And that is a benefit now is to offer the, these hybrid work situations or fully remote situations that allows people to kinda have their whole life, so to speak. Yeah.

Right. So for the agency, so I would say most of our agencies are hybrid. So I mean, we have everything on the spectrum. So some agencies, depending on where they lived, never went home. They lived in a state where it wasn’t required, and they just worked in the office all through covid and others who literally gave up their lease, said We’re never gonna have a physical space again. And have been working virtually since Covid. And then I would say most of them are in the office probably three days a week, and then work remote two days a week. I think a lot of the agency owners struggle with how to create culture in either the hybrid or virtual environment. We are very used to gathering around food and Yeah, right.

And in-person meetings and doing things together, whether it’s like a Habitat for Humanity build or whatever it may be. And now, not only are we probably hybrid, but one of the other things that Covid did is what did was, is it doesn’t really matter where the employee lives anymore. Absolutely. And so many of our listeners were used to having all of their employees in the same city, and now they’re scattered all over the country or all over the globe. Yeah. So how are you helping clients create connection when they’re physically not in the same place?

Yeah, you have to be extremely intentional. You know, I won’t focus on the hybrid because if we can get the fully remote, then we can kind of, you know, morph into the Yeah. To the hybrid. But you have to be fully intentional. So a couple of things is having some designated, you know, times on Zoom, and you’re right, people love to gather around food. Now, obviously you can’t be in a restaurant together, but if you have the budget, what I’ve seen some companies do is they’ll just give everybody like a $25 DoorDash, right? Right. So you get your lunch and we’re all, it’s almost like we’re having lunch together, but we’re talking, and it’s just more personal casual catching up. So that’s one way to do it. And then obviously if DoorDash is not in your budget, then just everybody, you know, bring your own lunch,

A lunch, right?

We get on Zoom and we talk about it, you know, maybe it’s share favorite, favorite recipe or something. So that’s one way. Another thing is look for opportunities. Like if community focus is a huge value for your company, think about way things that are everywhere. So you think about like Toys for Tots, that’s something during the holiday season that I think the Marines or the military does. That’s usually in every state, you know? Yeah. It could be something that I could be in Kansas and, oh man, here’s the gift that I got, and I could be in Los Angeles. Something that may be a little bit more universal that everybody can participate in, even though we’re not in the same city.

Yeah, that’s a great idea. You could each show the toy that you bought for the kid. Yeah,

Yeah. Or the American, you know, breast, you know, cancer society, something that’s kind of universal. United Way is a good, is a good example. Yeah.


People can rally around a common cause even though they’re not physically together.

So let’s assume that the people listening don’t have the dream team that we’ve been talking about, that they, they’re, they still have some employees that are B or C players, and they really wanna level up this year. What are the hiring mistakes that you see people making that bring less than ideal candidates into the fold?

Yeah. So one is not knowing what you’re hiring for, meaning what position, what technical skills did you need them to be able to do, but