Episode 382: Adapting the hiring process to a new era of agency staffing with Art Boulay and Sue MacArthur

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It’s no secret the job market has shifted immensely over the past 3–4 years. One minute, we’re hitting the brakes and halting all new hires. The next, we’re kicking things back into gear and going through a hiring frenzy with inflated salaries. And now, we’re entering a recession but still need to hire top talent at an affordable price. How do we keep up?

This week, I’m talking with Art Boulay and Sue MacArthur, two experts in talent management and agency staffing. They created a perfect formula for assessing potential new hires’ strengths, weaknesses, and full-on red flags that could save you a lot of time before even starting an interview.

This episode is packed with information about how agencies can optimize their hiring in a job market where you only have a few days — rather than a few weeks — to decide on a candidate. I hope you grab a pen and paper and take some notes on this one because this could change your entire approach to hiring new team members.

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 staffing

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • How hiring has changed rapidly in the past 3–4 years
  • What agencies should have in place before they begin looking for a candidate
  • Why you need to try your best to lock in a new hire in under a week
  • Don’t be afraid to make a candidate sweat a little
  • Why trying too hard to sell your agency to a candidate could lose you a great hire
  • Identifying yellow and red flags for in-office, hybrid, or remote positions
  • How to handle and possibly prevent a bad Glassdoor review if you encounter one
  • Pay attention to the little things — body language, demeanor, and even their background in the Zoom call
  • The most critical things to consider to get the right candidate to accept your job offer

“It's a lot like the real estate market in some areas with multiple offers. Everybody's coming in over asking price, and it's going for a ridiculous amount.” Sue MacArthur Share on X
“I think small agencies do have an edge because they can make decisions quickly. That's the beauty of a small business.” Art Boulay Share on X
“It's okay if you offend in an interview, right? Because you want this to be a fit not just for you, but for the candidate.” Sue MacArthur Share on X
“The rule of thumb is the interviewer should talk 10% of the time so that 90% of the time the airtime is going to the candidate.” Art Boulay Share on X
“Every step in the process needs to really paint the picture of who you are and be engaging to that candidate.” Sue MacArthur Share on X

Ways to contact Art and Sue:

Resources:

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. The Build a Better Agency podcast presented by White Label IQ is packed with insights on how small to mid-size agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McClellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody. Drew McClellan here from Agency Management Institute, back with you for another episode of Build a Better Agency. We are going to talk about a very important topic today. We’re going to talk about hiring and retaining great employees, which I know is at the forefront for many of you, of your worries. So we’re going to talk about that in a minute. But first I want to give you a little bit of information about, A, the research project that we completed late in 2022 and, B, the Build a Better Agency Summit.

We wrapped up a research project in 2022. We talked to agency employees, and it was really about how are they feeling about working in agencies post-COVID, what are they feeling about the work environment? Are they working from home? Are they working hybrid? Are they working in the office? How are they feeling about that? How are they feeling about communication and relationships in this new sort of hybrid world? And there were some really amazing takeaways.

In the next week or so. We’re going to have all of that information on in a 30-some page executive summary on the website for you, and I will let you know when we have that. But I will tell you that one of the things that they talked about was this idea of really having clear communication and what it’s going to take for them to want to stay at your agency. And that many of them are realizing they actually just aren’t built for agency life. They’re not wired to love the chaos and the deadlines and the pressure and the weird hours sometimes. Either they personally aren’t wired for it or their life isn’t wired for it.

So that’s one of the things I want to talk to our guests about today is how do you suss that out in the interview process so that you know that you’re hiring somebody who will thrive and love the agency environment? Because let’s admit that it is not for everyone, but if it is for you, there’s no substitute for it. And when we’re looking at hiring people and wanting to keep them for a long time, that seems to be a critical element that we should be factoring in.

I’ve been promising you that every episode I’m going to tell you about a different speaker at the Build a Better Agency Summit. So one of the speakers, one of the keynote speakers, I think we have him on day two, is a guy that I have known for 20-some years, a really great friend of mine named Mitch Matthews. Mitch Matthews is one of the leading experts in leadership, probably in the world, but for sure in our country.

He has two podcasts that are in the top 5% of all podcasts downloaded, and he’s a great storyteller. And he is going to talk to us about how do we show up as leaders in 2023 and beyond? What do our employees need and want from us and how do we show up as authentic as who we really are, but also how do we inspire and drive our entire team to have the commitment to excellence and the drive to do better and to keep growing, like we want them all to have. You’re going to love Mitch. He’s funny, he’s poignant. He’s a great guy. And I promise you will leave feeling fired up about your team and have new tools to communicate and connect with them.

He’s just going to be one of the many great speakers that we have at the Build a Better Agency Summit that is coming up in May. So if you’re an AMI member you can come to Family Day, which is May 15th, and then the full conference is May 16th and 17th. So we’d love to have you there. Grab your tickets now. They’re on the Agency Management Institute website. You just grab a ticket now and then don’t forget to grab your hotel room too, because the room block will also out.

All right, so let me tell you a little bit about our guests. Art Boulay and Sue MacArthur run an organization called Strategic Talent Management. They have been an AMI partner for 20 years, and in the beginning, what they really did was they were kind of leadership coaches, but they developed some really interesting assessments that assess someone’s motivation to do the work, someone’s sort of inspiration level to do the work, how much gas in the tank they have, are they a self-starter?

And, interestingly, how they’re going to mix and match with the rest of the people on their team if they came to work for you and with you. And we actually, for the last probably 15 or 20 years, what we’ve been doing is we’ve been using their test and we’ve been profiling the best of the best in agencies, the best director of account service, the best creative director, the best digital director. And so we have profiles of these rock stars and we can compare, well, when I say we, Art and Sue, can compare your candidate against the rock stars and tell you where they’re similar and where they’re different.

The data is remarkable. I’ve done the test. Here’s what I tell people, is when you get tested, when you take this assessment and you read all about yourself, two things are going to happen. Number one, you’re going to be astonished at how accurate it is. And number two, you are not going to want anyone else to read it because it shows you the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it. It’s incredibly valuable in the hiring process, but we’re not going to talk about that very much today. But I just want to give you sort of a foundation that Art and Sue have been in our business for a long time.

They now do a ton of recruiting for agencies all across the land. And well, what I want to talk with them about today is what do we have to do different in terms of our hiring process given the environment that we’re in right now. So we probably won’t talk about the assessments much. We might touch on them, but it’s one of the more fascinating things that they do. Just wanted you to have that foundational knowledge. So let’s get to Art and Sue and welcome them to the show. Art, Sue, welcome to the show. Thanks for being with us.

Art Boulay:

Thanks for the invite. Good to see you again.

Sue MacArthur:

Thanks for having us.

Drew McLellan:

So if there is an understatement of the decade, the fact that agencies are struggling to hire people and that hiring has changed in the last couple of years, probably has to be the understatement of the decade. True? Are you seeing that on your end too?

Sue MacArthur:

Absolutely.

Art Boulay:

Occasionally.

Drew McLellan:

Just occasionally, Art?

Sue MacArthur:

The whole hiring process, the hiring market has just been turned on its head. Nothing is the same as it was three or four years ago.

Art Boulay:

Yeah, we used to say hire slowly and fire fast, but we need to tweak this today to really say you got to hire in a structured and deliberate way. And similarly, given the difficulty of hiring, you need to let somebody go in a structured and deliberate process. But here’s the catch, you’ve got to do both of those quickly. That’s really the story.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well, and I think too, one of the things that’s changed, and I think it’s softening a little bit, but one of the things that’s changed is, while an agency is talking to a candidate, they’re entertaining five or six conversations and offers at the same time. I can’t tell you how many times I had an agency owner say to me, “God, we found the perfect person, but before we could get through our process, they took another job,” or “We made a job offer and they came back and said, ‘Well, I have three job offer, and I would need to match the salary of the highest job offer, which is not yours, so if you want me, here’s what I’m going to cost.’” So things are boiling right now, I think.

Sue MacArthur:

It’s a lot like the real estate market in some areas, where there’s multiple offers. Everybody’s coming in over asking price, and it’s going for a ridiculous amount. And there are no discounts in this market

Drew McLellan:

Right, without an appraisal or… Yeah, yeah.

Sue MacArthur:

No inspection, nothing. No tire kicking at all. Just come in with as much money as you can possibly spend.

Drew McLellan:

And that’s frightening for the agency owners. I mean, people are already their biggest expense and when they’re having to come in at 20% higher than what every salary survey says they should be paying, that’s a scary precipice to be on.

Sue MacArthur:

And also we’ve lost the ability to have a local discount in smaller markets. Folks in smaller cities and in rural areas are used to being able to pay less than New York and LA and San Francisco. That isn’t the case anymore because everybody’s working remotely, or a lot of people are. And when your whole talent pool is the country rather than your own local market, you’re also having to play with the salaries that that demands.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Art Boulay:

But given that, there’s still things that can be done. I know Sue and I worked with a client of, I don’t know, a couple of years ago who literally took six weeks to make their hiring decision in an average situation. I course they were using that same technique when we worked with them, but we finally convinced them six weeks is wholly, totally unreasonable. It’s really got to be more like six days and we see even less. I think there is a way for, especially, I think, small agencies that you represent do have an edge because they can make decisions quickly. That’s the beauty of a small business. And they really need to. So frankly, they’re going to be in a better situation to speed up their process than a great giant global agency with a thick manual of how do you hire people.

Drew McLellan:

So let’s talk a little bit about… Because what I’m hearing you say is we have to move faster, but we also have to move wisely. Again, this is not a nominal investment for most agencies, and we all know what it costs when you bring the wrong person into the organization, especially if you introduce them to clients, the team starts to like them and then all of a sudden they’re not able to do their job.

Art Boulay:

Or the team doesn’t like them.

Drew McLellan:

Or the team hates them, right. That’s right. Yep. So let’s talk about process. What should agencies have in place before they put out the job description or start looking for a candidate?

Sue MacArthur:

Well, I recommend that they think really hard about what they absolutely need in the position and what are some things that would be nice to have, but they might be able to train, too. So they can upskill someone who might be ripe to move up. That will open up some opportunities. But also by knowing exactly what they need, they can structure their interview in such a way that they really drill down into those particular issues. And I also advise that they have more than one person involved in this process. Have various stakeholders in there, but be prepared to move that along. It’s not a have them in to interview with one person this week and invite them back next week. It is move them from one office to another or have them sit in the conference room and shuffle in different people in one visit or over a course of a few days.

We don’t have the luxury of doing this over the course of weeks. But structuring the interview knowing who’s going to ask what question, and even more important, what do you want to hear, and what are some responses that are yellow or red flags? What do you not want to hear? A question I often ask people is what are you looking for in the next step of your career and what would you like to avoid? And I had one candidate recently when they answered the “What do you want to avoid?” They basically described exactly the position I was interviewing them for.

Drew McLellan:

Aha, okay. Well, I can help you avoid that, then.

Sue MacArthur:

So there’s a hint.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right.

Art Boulay:

Well, and building on this idea of a structured interview, it’s important when you’re asking the question, and Sue alluded to this earlier, but you need to know why you’re asking the question, and there is a precisely correct answer you’re looking for. We can’t afford to be asking random questions because there’s a study that’s been done on this, probably more than one, but it shows that hiring managers who are reading the notes from an unstructured interview, in other words, just sort of random questions and feel-good questions, if they were reading those notes, they were more likely to make the wrong hiring decisions than if they didn’t read any interview notes whatsoever.

Drew McLellan:

Wow.

Art Boulay:

It’s misleading because the problem with a non-structured interview question or series of questions is it’s going to reflect the bias of the interviewer, an interviewer or the team. As soon as those biases slip in there, or kind of no direction at all, the outcome is purely random. So you end up either hiring somebody you may not, should not have, or frankly, this is the worst outcome, given the hiring situation, you pass over somebody that you should have hired. And people often forget that because you can’t measure that as easily. But it’s critically important that the interview will be highly structured, you know exactly what you’re asking and why you’re asking, and what is the right answer.

Drew McLellan:

So are there some interview questions that should always, regardless of the position, be in the mix of questions? And I hear what you’re saying, Art, I think a lot of agency owners, when they go in to interview someone, agency owners or leaders, when I eavesdrop on those conversations, they’re spending so much time to trying to convince the candidate that the agency’s a good place to work, they don’t actually ask any really drilling questions about is this person for the agency. It’s almost like they’re afraid to offend.

Sue MacArthur:

Right. And you know what? It’s okay if you offend in an interview because you want this to be a fit, not just for you, but for the candidate. Because if they come on board, so often, when I ask people, “Why are you leaving your current role?” it often comes down to a difference in expectations, especially if they’re moving on quickly. “It was not what I expected.” And what that tells me is the person they talked to when they took the job did not paint a realistic picture of what they were getting into, either the role or the company. It’s like dating. You’ve got to get the good, the bad, and the ugly. Is this somebody I want to commit to? And they need to know exactly what the landscape is before they come on board. So don’t be afraid to offend.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Sue MacArthur:

But the question of why are you leaving? Why are you looking for a new role? What are you hoping to find here that was missing?

Drew McLellan:

Oh, great questions. Yeah.

Sue MacArthur:

And asking about their plans for the future. Is the picture that they’re painting clear? Because that’s a really good sign that they have some goals, which is a good indicator of energy and drive for performance. They know where they’re going and they’re focused on getting there, and listen to whether what they’re describing is in sync with what you’re able to offer them.

Drew McLellan:

Any other questions that, no matter what the job is, I should be asking?

Art Boulay:

Well, by the way, and this get gets to cutting the time out of the interview process. Sue mentioned earlier in the old days, we’d have round after round of interviews, this is why you’d get to three, four, or five, six weeks. But if you combine those all together and have the three or four key stakeholders in one interview, that’s more efficient. But even before that, think about having, we call it an initial vetting interview. And the entire purpose of that is to decide if we should even move on with this person. And some of the questions Sue’s already raised come right out of that.

We talk about that in our updated Interview Guide. And one of my favorite questions is “Tell us what are the favorite things about your current position, or maybe the last couple of positions?” And they’ll answer that question. And then you want to ask, “What are the least favorite things, things that don’t want to do again?” And as Sue said earlier, if they’re describing your position, the things they don’t like to do, they don’t like to sell, they don’t like to take direction, they don’t like people standing over their shoulder, I mean, that’s a great vetting question because what’s the point of moving on. Now we want to put our energy into somebody that got through the vetting interview, and so far so good.

Sue MacArthur:

I also recommend putting together a series of scenarios, and I’m sure every agency owner can come up with half a dozen situations-

Art Boulay:

Yes.

Sue MacArthur:

… that this person could encounter in this role. Real-life examples. Throw them out there and ask, “How would you respond? How handle this situation?” And if their description of how they would respond is in line with your values and the way that you would want the situation handled, then that’s a great sign. If they go off and do something that makes you cringe, then there’s another sign that this is not the right hire, but real-life examples. And that serves the other purpose of helping to paint the picture of what this role is really like. “These are things you will likely encounter if you come on board in this role.”

Drew McLellan:

What are some interview mistakes that we are making, particularly, and then I want to really dig into the structure of how do we get all this done in a week and what else do we have to have in place? But while we’re talking about the interview part of the process, what are some of the mistakes that you see business owners and leaders making in that interview process that send them down the wrong path?

Art Boulay:

Well, I think that you mentioned the number one problem, which is the owner or the hiring manager talks too much and they’re often talking too much to promote their agency.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, selling.

Art Boulay:

While we understand that, the rule of some is the interviewer should talk 10% of the time so that 90% of the time the airtime is going to the candidate. So that’s probably a classic situation. But again, I think a lot of that comes from, as you said, selling. These people are used to selling their agencies all the time, so they fill the dead airspace with some sales talk. But again, if it’s a carefully structured process, you’re going to fill the airtime with a powerful question that takes the candidate five or 10 minutes to answer. So again, the secret is structure, but resist the urge to sell your agency, and just ask those questions. And I think related to that is we’ve talked about one of the favorite questions I know Sue asks is, “What in our ad got your attention?” Or “Why do you want to work here?”

There’s a couple of reasons you asked that. Number one, again, if they describe something you don’t have, then that’s probably not a good fit. But even the simpler responses or conclusion would be, “Hey, they did some investigation of me. They already know about me. They’ve gone to Glassdoor, they’ve looked at my website. Maybe they’ve even talked to ex-employees. They know something about the agency.” And that’s critically important because if they know something about you when they came into the interview, guess what? They’re going to do the same thing with your clients before they go to a sales pitch.

Drew McLellan:

Right. So you mentioned the evil Glassdoor. Let’s talk about that before we talk about how I structure those six or that week of interviewing. Agency owners are petrified of Glassdoor. They take those reviews super personally and they’re convinced that one review will tarnish the