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 Share on X
“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 Share on X
“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 Share on X
“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 Share on X
“Be true to who you are, but then get employees that align with that mission and that vision.” - Barbara Mason Share on X

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 also what company, what, what, what we call soft skills. Yeah. How do they fit into your culture? And then having an interview and screening process that, that magnifies both of those for you so that you can make a good decision. A lot of times the interview questions and the interview process is very disconnected from what the ideal is. Meaning we’re asking questions that are not relevant or they’re one sided. We’re just asking about your technical capability, but we’re not asking about what you value to make sure that it aligns with the company.

So I think that’s one thing, is to make sure that you have a very good process. That’s a mistake that I see. Two is just, I see people settling, you know, they’re, they wait too late to hire. Yes. So now they’re desperate, right? They have not had a succession plan. So Drew leaves, he’s my, you know, he’s my top player. Now I gotta hire somebody else, but man, I need somebody fast because the work is coming in. Yeah. And so then I just settle and get something that’s less than ideal.

Yeah, I see that a lot too. The other thing I see a lot, and I wonder if you do too, is agency owners, when they interview, it’s almost like they’re trying to convince the person it would be good to work for them or work at the agency, right? Like they’re, rather than the candidate selling themselves, the interviewer is trying to sell the position or the company.

Company. Yeah. I’ve seen that. And again, that’s, again, it’s more of a one-sided and kinda a misplaced, you should be letting the candidate, and again, if they’re in the ideal candidate, I believe they should know about your company, right? As much as they can possibly know, you know, from the internet and all that. And they should come with questions about, okay. And making sure that there’s an alignment. And when the candidate does that, you get a chance to see, again, their interest, right? Their ability to think and, you know, and see, you know, are they really interested? What kind of questions are they asking? And then of course, you can always sell your company as you answer the questions, but it should be more from, from the candidate side that you’re looking at more than from your side.

Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s so true. I think, I think the questions they ask you tell you all kinds of things about them, right? Absolutely. Yeah. I want to ask you a little bit more about sort of that engagement with employees. But I wanna take a quick break first, and then we’ll come back and, and talk a little bit about that. I promise I’m only gonna keep you a minute before we get back to the show. But I wanna remind you that the Build a Better Agency Summit, the annual conference where we bring 350 agency owners and leaders together is coming up May 21st and 22nd. May 20th is a AMI Family day or member day. But whether you are a member or not, we would love to have you with us May 21st and 22nd to read more about the conference, see who the speakers are, or register head over to agency management institute.com.

And the very first button on the nav is BABA summit. Click on that and all the information is right there. And we would love to see you in Denver in May. All right, let’s get back to the show. All right. We’re back with Barbara Mason, and we are talking about really how to build the dream team and how to keep the dream team together once you have them. And so earlier in our conversation, we were talking about some of the things the agency owner or agency leader can do to create that personal connection and, and relationship with the employees. But I have a lot of agency owners say to me, I go to an all team meeting, I have an open door policy, I do all of these things. And nobody says a word. They just don’t, they just don’t engage.

I don’t know what they’re thinking. I don’t know if they’re mad, I don’t know if they’re just shy. I don’t know what the deal is. How do I get them to be more engaged in simple conversations in the planning for the agency and the vision for the agency? How do you recommend we ignite a fire inside our employees so that they proactively engage back?

Yeah, absolutely. And if, if you have the ideal team and they’re not engaging, or even if you don’t have the ideal team first is figure out or try to figure out why are they not engaging? So if you’re in a physical space, watch body language at meetings, right? Are they paying attention and just not talking? Right? And I’ll always say there is always, if you get a group of 10 people together, there’s always at least one that, that that’s extroverted. They may not be talking for various reasons. If you can find the one, then you can go to them on the side and say, Hey, you look, you’re about to say something to me, but you didn’t tell me what you think about where we’re headed and they get blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Hey, do you mind sharing that at the next meeting?

Right. Right. So that’s one way to do it. But even you can use the ones that are not talking, the ex, the introverts, or the people that are just quiet and use the same approach. Go to them individually after the meeting and say, Hey, we talked about this new change we’re gonna do. I noticed you didn’t say anything, but I would really love to hear what you think about it. Do you think we’re headed in the right direction? Right. And get their input. Or you could always call on people in the meeting. Again, not in a way that puts them on the spot, but hey, Drew, you know, what do you, do you think this is the right trend that we’re following? Yeah. What do you think? Either they’re gonna just, I don’t know, shout, you know, cower down, or they’re gonna say something.

Another trick that I’ve seen or a tactic is allow your employees to run the meeting for the day, or run the agenda. Right? Because let me tell you something, if they do it and nobody’s talking, they’re gonna see what it feels like and they’re gonna get their peers to say something,

Right? Right.

So there, those are some tactics that I’ve, you know, helped my leaders use.

So in a small business, who should own HR,

An HR expert, that’s who should own HR. Now, when I say that, meaning when you think about building a team and building people and all of the stuff that comes with that, and HA person who has an HR background, it is going to be the best ideal solution for that. And you can get that in many ways, right? As you’re growing your business, you may have somebody that’s on a consultant basis. So it’s not somebody that you’re hiring full-time, but you get fractional HR support, right? So there’s an option for that. When you’re small and you’re growing as you continue to grow, you may have someone that’s in, in-house, part-time. As you continue to grow, then you have somebody full-time. But the point is, is that you always have somebody within your organization, either on a consultant fractional basis, or internal to your company that is an HR expert with a background that can help you navigate.

Because HR, when it comes to people, it’s broad, it’s everything, right? It’s your hiring, it’s your workplace cul culture, it’s your succession planning. Like if I have an ideal team, what if my top player, you know, is married to someone that’s in the military, he’s gonna move in two years. Right? What am I gonna do? Right? Am I developing a succession or a pipeline to take over in the next two to three years? It’s all of those things. And when you dedicate that responsibility to somebody else, that is not their sole focus, it is going to get missed. Yeah. It is not going to be done to the best of its ability.

You know, in many agencies, I’m not sure why this happens, but in many agencies, well, I think, I know many agencies, the HR function falls to the finance person or the ops person. Yeah. And usually it’s because they handle the insurances and all of the sort of black and white side of HR, the benefit side. So by default, they also are the ones that are posting the jobs and you know, and they might even be the initial screener of interviews or things like that. Is that the worst position to have doing that? Is that the, is that better than the owner doing it? Like where in the rank of, oh, for the love of Pete, don’t do that.

Yes. Does that fall? Yeah.

Yeah. That’s a tough question. It is better than the owner doing it because the owner should always be focused on strategic vision and being the CEO mindset. So it is better than the owner, but it is not ideal. And here is why the ops person is, their focus is to focus on ops. Yeah. It’s kind of like, okay, this is my job, then I’m gonna give you this other stuff to do. Right. And it’s kind of like, what, what’s the, what’s the adage? Jack of all trades, master of none. Yeah. They’re gonna be the master at ops. ’cause that’s what their focus is. That’s usually where their training is and where they’re looking. Sure. The hiring and the people piece is like a side product.

Yeah. And

They’re not skilled in that area. Not mean that they can’t interview, but there’s so many things that go into talent assessment that we’re skilled in, we’re trained in, right. We know what questions to ask. And then just how to deal with, you know, problem performers. Just so many, so many things. And so I always ask owners and, and leaders, it’s like giving you don’t give your research department the marketing function.


But there’s this thing that, oh, anybody can do HR, and that’s just not true. Right? They can’t do it. Well, lemme say that.

Well, and you know, in an agency, we don’t have big machinery, we don’t have a lot of equipment. The greatest asset we have and, and what makes or breaks us money are the bodies, the people. Absolutely. The human beings that deliver our services, that interact with our clients that help take things off the owner’s plate. So I think, I think HR obviously is an important thing in every business, but in our business it’s pretty critical.

Absolutely. And then I think the strategy piece is what gets overlooked, because HR really should be your strategic partner. So we’re talking a lot about, you know, the day to day, the hiring, and you know, the culture building that is, you know, stuff that goes day by day. But what about your workforce planning? So where is the business headed in five years? And what skills do I need? So that conversation about where the industry is, is going and the trends, then, okay, let’s say they’re trending somewhere else. Do you have the people and the skills? Do, do your people have those skills? If not, are we gonna up level their skills? Or do we need to hire different people?


That’s where HR comes in as your strategic partner, right? They’re doing the research, they’re finding where those skills are and giving you a pathway of how to either get your internal workforce there, or how do we now bring in some new talent?

Well, and I, I think we’re seeing that right now with ai, right? Absolutely. So, you know, absolutely. A few years ago, agencies, yes, we were kind of paying attention to ai, but it wasn’t the pressing issue that it is today. And for a lot of agencies, they’ve had to turn to the team and say, okay, who, who has the time or the willingness or the interest to start experimenting with some of these tools and figuring out how we can bring them in to our agency and use them on either our own behalf or clients. And so that I’ve been, it is been interesting for me to watch how agencies are navigating that because it’s not, it’s, there’s not a department that should be the AI department, right?

Right. AI can touch any aspect of our business. And so they are having to figure out who on their current team, right. Has not only some expertise, but more importantly, some interest and drive around growing and learning in this new space. Right?

And that goes back to knowing your employees and also knowing their skill sets. So yes, you can ask who has the time and energy, but also as an agency owner, you should know, well, who has the skill to do it? Right? And who may be intro like, oh my goodness, you know, Brian is always talking about technology. He’ll be the perfect person. Right? Right. I think another thing is, when you say that you have an ideal team, when I talk to leaders, whether they’re my clients or not, I always say, how do you know what makes them the ideal team? And what I’m getting at is, do you have metrics that you can measure by in terms of their performance? Right? Because a lot of times performance is just this vague thing. All like them, they show up for work.

Well, that’s what they’re supposed to do, right?

That’s what you’re paying them to do. Right?

Absolutely. It’s a barter system. They work, you pay them. Right? How are they delivering to the bottom line? Do you have key metrics or key performance indicators in every role that that identifies whether there are meeting or exceeding the expectations? And many times that is not the case.

And have you communicated those KPIs Absolutely. To the employees so they know how they’re being measured?


Yeah. Well, and this all gets back to kind of the earlier part of our conversation, which is what kind of a relationship have you built so you can have these kind of conversations, right? Not only here are the KPIs and we’re gonna meet quarterly and talk about how you’re doing against them, but also where your interests lie and where you’d like to grow professionally. Oh, you know, you’re fascinated by technology, great. Then you can lead the AI task force or whatever it may be. Yeah.

And when you’re talking about those things, those things take time. And so if you have, let’s just say a small agent, I’ll just say 10 people, if you, as the owner is trying to do all of that, that’s gonna be a major fee. If you have 200, your office manager didn’t have time to do that. And so your HR person kind of helps you with that. The HR person should be able to give you the pulse of your company, right? Yeah. When I was in corporate, in a physical location, I was walking the floor, I knew what the employees wanted, thought felt, right? Or my teams did. As I continue to, to promote even virtually, you gotta have somebody who is the objective person, the safe person to just talk to employees, right?

So that’s another reason why

I think some agency owners and leaders fear having someone in that role because it becomes who everybody goes to complain to. How do you manage, how do you manage that? Both as the HR person, but also as the business owner?

Yeah, I think as the HR person, HR should be a safe place for employees. And so when you say complain, it should be a place where they can come and talk about what’s really going on. Right? And some of that is not gonna be positive, right? As the HR person, I’m always trying to direct to solutions, you know, and bring people together from a company perspective. I think having that fear is, again, goes back to the culture. What culture are you creating? You know, and how are you positioning HR within your company? Right? Right, right. And so if HR is viewed and portrayed as a strategic partner, right? Not just the administrative person who, okay, go over there and get your direct deposit done, or you know, let her know if you have an issue.

But if they’re seen as a strategic partner position that way, then that’s gonna be a lot less of a fear that you have to kind of back with.

Yeah. What are your three or four secret favorite interview questions?

Ooh, that’s a good one. Okay. So one of the questions that I always ask, and I think it gives you a lot of information, is very basic, is, you know, tell me what are your goals and how do you feel like this company, this position, will help meet your goals? So I’m looking for a couple different things. I wanna know where do they have a vision about where they’re headed and how does this job and company impact those? So how do they see it coming together? It’s a very thought provoking question. So that’s one. Another one that I use often is, tell me about a time that you had to influence someone at a level higher than you.

Hmm. And so with that question, I’m, I want to see their ability to challenge the status quo and how they do it in a respectful way. You know, do they bring data, whatever the case may be, or are they literally afraid of talking to anybody that’s in a, in a position higher than them? So that’s another one that I think gives you a lot of information. Another one is either, you know, tell me about the greatest accomplishment you’ve had and tell me, you know, what the process was to get there. Because at different points of the interview, you wanna see who the, the, the goal is to see who they really are. Right? Right, right. And to make them as comfortable as possible.

So when people talk about their greatest accomplishment, what you should see if you’re virtual on a screen or in person, you should see them light up. Yeah. You should see them relax and kind of get into this. Oh, ’cause they go back in their mind Yeah. About something that they feel about

They’ve kind of it all over again. Yeah.

Yes. And re and the reverse of that is tell me about one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made professionally and how you feel about that. You should see some genuineness, like, because they gotta go back. Right?

I have to feel that again.

And if they get a real place and where they made a mistake, you’re gonna see true authenticity. And it’s not so much about the mistake, it’s about their willingness. One, are they self-aware? And it’s about their willingness to share, especially if on your, if a value on your team is to be, have the open communication, Transparency integrity, all of that stuff, you’re gonna be able to see all that. So those are like two or three questions. I got a bank of them. But those are like two or three questions that give you a lot of information.

I think one of the challenges in interviewing is that the interviewer talks too much.

Oh yes.

So how do we, how do we prevent that? How do we, is that asking more open-ended questions? Is that I also think people don’t prepare well for interviews. They don’t go in knowing what they’re gonna ask. They just sort of shoot from the hip and ask a bunch of questions, which means they end up talking. So what are some best practices to be a better interviewer?

One is make sure that your interview questions are relevant to the job. And I mean, this is like, so key. So when we develop questions for our clients, we usually give eight to 10 questions. And they are directly related to the skills of the job and also what that client is looking for. So if I know in the last position, the person that they had was just, you know, avoided conflict and they really need somebody in this position to challenge the status quo. I’m gonna have a question about that. That’s what I mean about being very specific on what you’re going to ask. That’s number one. Number two is try to use behavioral or situational questions. Things that say, Drew, tell me about a time you did this.

Give me an example of this. Because past behavior predicts future performance. Hmm. So if you wanna know what they’ve already done, because how they did it and what they did is what they’re gonna do for you, you wanna do that instead of asking, so tell me what’s your favorite color and how does that, you know, resonate you that? Right. It doesn’t matter. Right.

Right. You

Wanna use those situational type questions. I would say 60% of your interview should be that you wanna have a couple of hypothetical questions and hypothetical meaning tell me, if you own this company for 30 days and you see what’s going on in the industry, tell me some things that you would change, you know, pre immediately, and what would be part of your five year plan. It causes them to think. Right. Right. So that’s a very open-ended. The last piece of advice is ask the question and let there be silence. Like, don’t give a lot of lead in. There’s no reason for you to give your anecdotes. It’s just, we’re here for an interview. We got 10 questions.

You know, if you need a moment to think about your answer, if you need me to repeat, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah. All the stuff, make ’em feel comfortable. Build a rapport. But once it’s built in the first five minutes, ask the question and let there be solids.

Yeah. I think that’s so uncomfortable for people that they just fill it with, well, I’d say this or my best moment was like, they just can’t help themselves. And I think part of it is agencies are often storytellers, right? I mean, that’s what we do for our clients. And so the, the, the silence opens the door to tell a story.

Yeah. Another thing I’ll add in there is that, again, you should have a screening process. So, but to me, before you get to the agency owner, there should already have been some screening going on and some pre-interviews. This is another reason why HR partner can help you. So when we interview for our clients, we do all of the pre-screening, and we do the first set of interviews, and then we bring to the owner, the top two to three people. Yep. So they’re not interviewing more than two or two or three people, and we’ve already covered a lot of ground. So in that situation, by the time, you know, you meet with, you know, top two or three, they’ve gone through, we’ve, we’ve, you know, validated the technical skills, validated the, you know, the culture piece and all that.

You can have more of a conversation if you want to. Right, right, right. But if this, if it, if you’re only doing one interview, you, you don’t have the luxury of doing that.

Right. Yeah, that’s true. You know, you said something that, that made me think, so I, you were talking about sort of the, hey, tell me a time you had to basically manage up, or you had to raise a red flag. And I think in a lot of agencies, one of the challenges is getting people comfortable having difficult conversations. How do I create a culture and how do I encourage the behavior of somebody saying, Hey, I think you’re about to give them the wrong medicine. Or, you know what, I, I don’t think that’s the approach we should take with this client. Or, you know what, I’m really frustrated, Drew’s my partner in this work, but he is not.

Do you know, this is a group project and like we all had in college, I’m doing all the work. How do we encourage our employees not to complain, but to have radical candor in their conversations, regardless of who they have to have that conversation with? How do, how do we teach them and coach them and make it safe to, to be someone who speaks up?

Yeah. I, I think one, you have to set that expectation that it’s okay. And then as the leader, you have to model it. It has to come from the leader first. Right. So going back to, you know, should we be transparent? It’s the leader saying, you know what, guys, let me show you the trend. Last quarter was not our best quarter. We have got to turn this ship around, or we’re gonna have to make some, you know, some really tough decisions, right? Or, Hey guys, I messed up. I thought we should have done, we did this. That was actually not the best decision. Here’s how we’re gonna correct it as a team. Yeah. So the leader has to do it first. ’cause you can say, Hey, we, we want candor, but if they don’t hear you do it, then they’re not gonna feel comfortable doing it.

And then the next, you’ve gotta ask questions, ask the tough questions. Drew, do you think we made a mistake with this? What would you have done? D what would you have done differently? What is another approach that we can add to this? Right? So again, you have to again, know your team. So the language is gonna, you know, ramp up if you feel like you have a really tough team that can say, Hey, what do we, what do we miss? Yeah. Or you can say, what do you think we should add to, because that’s a different phrasing, right? It makes people feel a little bit more comfortable. So depending on, again, the tone of your team, yeah. You can use varying, you know, words and things like that to kind of help bring ’em along.

Okay. So for the agency owners who heard you say, you need to model this, when you have clients who are business owners or leaders and are not good at that, how do you help them prepare or coach them to develop that skill? Because I, I think you’re absolutely right. A, we have to model it. And BI will tell you, I don’t think very many people are good at it,

Right? So when I’m, when I’m working with a leader, you know, and from a a coaching perspective, I’m always trying to find out why. Get to the root of, tell me why it makes you feel uncomfortable. Is it a communication? Like, I just can’t find the words? That’s usually not what it is. It’s usually deeper than that, right? Yeah. Right. They’re gonna think I’m a failure. I don’t, you know, they may think, you know, they may leave or whatever the case may be. Let’s get to the root of the issue first.


Then let’s, let’s, let me give you the words or the, the platform to say it, you know? So maybe it’s at a round table, maybe it’s in the weekly meeting, maybe, you know, it’s another way, but let’s find the, the, the medium to have the conversation. Yeah. And also, who should the audience be? Is it everybody or is it this department? You know, whatever the case may be. So it’s really kind of going through the process. And then a lot of times I give them the words to say, and if they follow my words with their own authenticity, obviously then it usually, you know, works out. But if they have a, a problem with kind of crafting the message, we help kind of do that with scripting and role playing and things like that.

So I think a lot of them default to doing it in writing. Good idea, bad idea.

Candor in writing and sharing Transparency and moments like that I don’t feel like are best in writing. I, I don’t personally, because I think writing is a very, in, now writing can be like, Hey, we talked about this and this is the follow up. But for, for that to be the communication vehicle, I don’t think is personal enough. If you’re trying to build a culture of candor and Transparency and you can’t verify that everybody is reading it and then messages get lost in words versus me just having a conversation and you can see, you can see me and we can kind of banter back and forth together.

Yeah. So as you look down the pike at 2024, are there some Employment trends or workplace trends that you think we need to be keeping our eye on or thinking about considering?

Yes. You mentioned ai. I think AI is definitely on the rise. So figuring out how that impacts your business in a positive way or a non-positive way. And how can you, you know, ride that trend or this new wave or whatever, you know, how does it help your business, right? How are your competitors using it or not using it, and how can it be a competitive advantage for you? I think it’s one, going back to culture is if you don’t have some type of mental wellness or employee assistance, benefits, things like that, that kind of helps with them being a whole person and being able to take off for an elderly parent, I would encourage you to think about some benefits that offer that. Okay. I think that would be helpful as well.

I think also today’s workforce is really concerned about what’s going on in the world around them. Yeah. Right? Yeah. So social justice issues matter, and so you cannot ignore that, right? Whatever your positioning is, whether it’s politics, gun control, you know, crime, you know, black lives or whatever it is, you cannot be ignorant to the fact that it’s out there and, and pretend like it doesn’t exist. Because today’s workforce, they want to either talk about it or at least know that you’re aware and where you stand on these issues, whatever the issue may be.

And that did not used to be that way. Yeah. It was not like it never used to bleed over into the workforce, but it bleeds a lot over into the workforce. And people want you to take a stand and know where you, where you’re standing.

So I was gonna say, I think a lot of people feel like that’s like, they shouldn’t talk about those things, right? Especially if they’re religious or, you know, super emotional or family oriented or political. I think we as a, as a globe have lost the ability to have civil political conversations. Right? So in what environment or how would you recommend? So for example, I had, I, I have a agency owner who’s Jewish, and when everything was happening, you know, this fall when it’s all started with everything going on, they didn’t, they were kind of offended that a lot of their employees didn’t say anything to them. Like, I’m really sorry about what’s happening and do you know anyone over there that’s being impacted by this?

And, and, but they didn’t know how to talk about it with their employees because, so now it’s a hotbed issue. Yeah. It’s a political issue for him, it was a personal issue.


And he was hurt, right? Yeah. That’s a big quagmire of emotion and stuff. And so we really talked through how to have like a really candid conversation about how he was feeling and his take on that situation and how to invite sort of dialogue around it. But how, how do you recommend when we have these sort of hotbed issues, right? DEI issues, all kinds of things like that, that are, that are impacting our world today. How do we approach those sensitive issues in a way that is positive, that people feel it’s inclusive, that you, you can probably assume that not everybody on the team is gonna share your opinion about that issue, right?

So how do we have those conversations?

I think as the owner, you first have to determine what level and what culture you’re trying to create. Now everybody says, Hey, we want an inclusive culture, but what does that really mean? Right, right. In terms of, and then whatever that is, if it’s open communication and you know everybody, you know, it’s inclusive and we can show up how we want and all that, then again, you have to model it, right? Right. And so it’s the owner saying, you know what, I have family there. I’m hurting today is not, this hasn’t been a good week, you know? Right. I don’t know if you’ve seen what’s going on in Israel, but being open and sharing that. Right. Yeah. And again, it is sharing it in good times and bad times so that the next time if something were to happen, oh, you know what, man, let me check on Drew.

He, he may not be okay. Right. Right. Or, you know what, whatever the case may be, I think it’s, it’s setting the tone on what the culture is and then modeling it, right. And not ignoring those issues. Now again, some companies, again, your culture may be like, we don’t talk about that kind of stuff, and that could be your culture. You have to get employees again that are okay with that,


And make that known and upfront, like, you know, we kind of take a, an approach where work is working. I mean, say that, right? Be true to who you are, but then get employees that align with that mission and that vision. That’s why co and it goes back to the foundational what com, what culture are you trying to build? What type of company do you want? Yeah. And there is not a cookie cutter, you should be this, because at the end of the day, if the owner themselves are not being authentic to who they are and their own personal convictions, values, thoughts, right. It’s not gonna be, it’s not gonna work.

Yeah. You can’t pull that off long term.


Yeah. And I think probably, especially if you have a, we don’t talk politics or we don’t, we don’t have, we don’t have, you know, critical issue kind of conversations, right. That aren’t work related. You probably have to explain why too, right?

Absolutely. A yeah, you should absolutely. Just like, you should explain if we are gonna, you know, talk about those issues, right? So let, let’s say you have an open culture where, you know, L-G-B-T-Q is celebrated and not tolerate, like, it’s like it’s part of our culture that should be upfront, right? So that way you’re attracting people that are okay with that mission. And so if you’re talking about in that open forum, you don’t have an employee who’s offended because they don’t believe that way. Does that make sense? Yeah.

And the, it totally

Does the reverse. If, if that’s not tolerated, you know, in your company or not expected, then that’s also known, right? So that if I, if that’s a value of mine, then I don’t join your company because we’re not aligned. Yeah. And I hate to make it that black and white, but it does come down to, you should be very clear on the type of company and culture you’re creating and then getting employees that align with that mission and vision.

All right. Last question. What’s the biggest mistake we make when it comes to our people?

Wow. The biggest mistake we come, we, we get to and know and, and our people. I would say it is just knowing our people and developing them. And when I say know them like you, you know them, you know what’s important to them. So that way you kind of have what I call like a you, you, they have a pattern of behavior. This is who they are when things are, you know, good so to speak. And you notice the slightest difference when something is off. If somebody always comes in at 7 45 and then you start to see that trend may not mean that the world is falling apart, but that’s different. Right.

That’s odd.

They don’t have a picture of their dog on their desk anymore. That’s interesting. Did their dog die? You know, it’s, it’s knowing and, and it sounds so simple, but when you know your people, then you’re able to quickly jump in, pivot, navigate, talk to them and find out what’s going on, and help them be their best sell so they can deliver a great product and they feel like I want to be here. Yeah. Because that’s something that you just can’t get everywhere.

Yeah. Well, and you think about it just, it’s human nature. When somebody says, you know, Hey Drew, I, I noticed that, you know, you’re fill in the blank. Something has changed. Even if we don’t want to talk about it, we do appreciate that they’re paying enough attention that they know. Absolutely. Right. Absolutely. Yeah.


So it feels like you’re, to your point earlier, you’re not a number, you’re not, you’re not a, just a cog in the wheel, but you notice that I’m coming in 20 minutes late and I can say, well, you know what? We’re having to meet with Kelsey’s teacher every other day because there are some behavioral issues, or she’s being bullied or, or she is the bully, or whatever it is. Right? Right. So it, it does also open the door to deepening that relationship, so, right. Yeah.

Because I feel like the foundation after that, I mean, you can do all this other stuff, but if you don’t have that basic foundation, then you’re gonna catch issues a lot further down the road that may be too far gone. Yeah. Right. And, and not to say that you’re never gonna lose people because people have life situations, right. Sure. You know, people’s spouses leave or you know, they have to relocate, whatever. But you wanna keep your great people Yeah. For as long as you possibly can.

Yeah. This has been awesome. Barbara. If folks wanna learn more about the work you do with clients or follow your content or reach out to you and ask a question, what’s the best way for them to get connected with you?

Yes, I would love that. So my email is Barbara at career pathways consulting.com. You can follow me on social media, on LinkedIn and on Instagram under Barbara Mason, I, I post content there regularly. And then our website is www.careerpathwaysconsulting.com. And there’s a chat with us, you know, contact us button. So would love to hear from you.

Awesome. So we’ll put all of that stuff in the show notes, everybody, so that if you are driving or walking the dog, you don’t have to try and remember that. Barbara, this has been great. Thank you for sharing your expertise. Thank you for the passion that you have around us, building good teams in our world, that that’s the success metric, honestly, that if we can’t get that right, our business is not gonna be successful. So I’m, I’m grateful for your time and expertise. Thank you. Thank

You. I enjoyed it so much. Thank you so much.

You bet. Me too. Alright guys, so Barbara gave, if nothing else, I hope you jotted down the interview questions. I totally am gonna start using those, but lots of nuggets in this hour for you to take away, for you to employ inside your organization. And maybe, you know what, this is gonna air, you know, if you’re listening real time, if you listen every week, this is gonna air in February. And so it’s a great time, the start of the year to really cultivate deeper, more meaningful relationships with your team to think differently about the folks that you’re gonna bring into the organization. Because we all know when we bring in a bad apple or a bad fit, even though they’re a good human being and maybe they have great skills, when you’re a small agency, and I’m talking small, like a hundred people or less small, one person who is out of alignment can jack things up.

So use what Barbara taught us today to build a bigger, bigger, better, stronger team for 24. Alright, a couple quick things before I let you go. First and foremost, thanks to our friends at White Label IQ. As you know, they’re the presenting sponsor of the podcast and they are an agency’s best friend. When you’re looking for a partner to do web dev design or PPC, they white Label that for many, many agencies. So head over to White Label IQ dot com slash AAMI to learn more about them. And last, but certainly not least, just a genuine and heartfelt thank you for me. I’m so grateful that you come back and listen every day or every week and that we get to hang out together.

So thanks for being here. I’ll be back next week and I hope you will too. All right, thanks for listening.

That’s all for this episode of AAMIs Build. a Better Agency Podcast. Be sure to visit agency management institute.com to learn more about our workshops, online courses, and other ways we serve small to mid-size agencies. Don’t forget to subscribe today so you don’t miss an episode.