Whether you want to improve the skill, leadership and commitment levels of your current team to elevate them to be the best they can be or you need to add a superstar to your roster – you have to be able to assess their skills, attitudes, behaviors and motivations. How do you make increasing employee success happen?

Most agency owners are not development or hiring experts. How do you determine if you have the right people in the right seats? How do you know you’re hiring not just the right person, but the right person for your agency? Do you just go with your gut and hope things will work out for the best?  

Having the wrong person in the wrong seat or hiring a bad fit employee will cost you about nine months of their loaded salary. And that’s before you factor in the potential risk of losing a client or team members. My podcast guest, Art Boulay can ease some of this angst by offering common sense solutions for hiring better employees and making current employees stronger. He does this through a series of assessments both of current employees and prospective hires to help you keep your agency on track and moving forward.

Art and I discuss the ins and outs of employee acquisition and retention.  Amongst other things, we cover:

  • Assessment tools for hiring the right employee lead to more objective and effective hiring
  • How Art’s tools can assess agencies, what makes them unique, and how that will help to find the right future employees
  • From hire to retire: what employers and employees should do to ensure that employees don’t leave right away
  • The strategies for increasing employee success in any agency or organization
  • How to use assessments to counteract biases that we bring to the table during the hiring process
  • Why asking specific types of questions and having at least two people conducting an interview will reveal what you actually need to know about interviewees
  • Tips for making ads as attractive as possible to the people you want to hire and unappealing to people you don’t even want to interview
  • Why age is not an indicator of knowledge and skill: hire leaders, not experience

Art Boulay is the owner of Strategic Talent Management and has partnered with AMI for years. He has created (through testing A players) profiles for the ideal candidates for most agency specific positions.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/art-boulay/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)

I.     Assessments for Increasing Employee Success

II.    The “From Hire to Retire” System

III.   Tips for Being a Better Job Interviewer

IV.   Immediate Action Steps for Increasing Employee Success


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

Drew: Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with you again, with another episode of Build a Better Agency. I am really excited about today’s topic. Because if there is one thing that all agencies have in common, it is their reliance on their employees. For agencies, that is our greatest asset, our biggest cost factor, and often times our greatest source of frustration. So we’re going to dig in to that today.  

As you know, this podcast is all about helping small to mid-sized agency owners run their businesses better, make it more profitable, make it more fun. I know all too well because I walked the path with you, the risks that we all take as agency owners. So I want to help you mitigate those risks and maximize the rewards that can come with agency ownership. And that’s what this is all about. And so no better guest to join us and talk to us about how to do that than my friend, Art Boulay.  

Art is the owner of Strategic Talent Management, and he helps leaders fully realize their own talent and the talents of their employees. What I love about Art is that when he works with agency owners or other business owners, he’s very practical. He gives you great ideas. He’s got a great a sense of humor to help you get over the bumps. And he really has some common sense solutions for helping us either hire better employees, or better fit employees, or make the employees that we have an even stronger, better fit. So with that, I want to welcome Art to the show. Thanks, Art, for joining us.

Art: Well, Drew, thanks for the invitation. This will be fun. Always good to talk to you.

Drew: It will be fun. So Art has been a partner of Agency Management Institute for quite a long time. And many, many years ago, Art decided…and I think this was brilliant, and it’s really served a lot of agency owners well. He decided to profile sort of the best of the best in many agency positions so he could create an ideal profile to test against prospects for his clients. So in other words, if I wanted to hire an AE, Art’s got a model for…we took the top 15, 20, 30 AEs and we tested them. And we found some commonalities in all of them, both in terms of how they work, and why they work, and what motivates them. And then Art can lay your candidate against that profile and tell you where they match up and where they don’t.  

And I will also tell you, and Art I’ve told you this before, my agency has used Art in several cases. And sometimes I was smart enough to follow Art’s advice, and other times, quite honestly, I thought I was smarter than Art, which always proved to be an expensive mistake on my part. So I can speak from personal experience that Art’s work is on the money, and I know many other AMI agency owners are shaking their head and nodding, saying, “Yep,” that they too have had the same experience.

So Art, I want to talk a little bit about how you came to be doing this kind of work, and your background, and the kind of work you do day in and day out. Just tell us a little more about you, and your company, and the work that you do.

Art: Sure. And one thing I’d say is it’s not very hard to be smarter than Art, but it’s the assessments that it’s tough to outsmart, so I will give credit to where credit is due.

Drew: Fair enough.

Art: But my background was in business. I had a 10-year run in the IT field, where I became a manager. IT in those days was kind of new and exciting. There were a lot of people like me in the business who didn’t have computer science degrees because they hadn’t invented those yet. But as I became a supervisor, a team leader, then I moved into management. I really discovered that’s what I enjoyed, and went to a lot of conferences, and read a lot of books, and really tried to wrap my head around this whole issue of leadership and management, which was new to me. But I realized from the beginning, even in my technical field, it was the people who made a difference. And yet, because I was on a technical field, most of the courses in development and opportunities existed in the more technical areas, how to be technically a better IT shop.  

And I really preach that today. As I developed my own business in ’91, I brought this idea with me. It was really about the people. And as we accumulated these assessment tools that I use today, which are so important to the core of what I do today, the things we measure are the soft skills: the people skills, communication, relationships, people’s attitudes about their work or about working in teams, or about doing good work, or being planners or organizers. It’s that kind of thing that makes the difference.  

I’m assuming anybody listening who’s run an agency, built an agency over the years, they know how to pick out that AE that you were using as your example earlier. They know the skills to look for, the education to look for. They might even have a test or something they can run a candidate through to better determine their technical skills. But we all know from experience is it’s attitudes that make a huge difference. Can they communicate? Do they bring a relationship attitude toward their work? Or are they just the consummate technician who can not communicate with team members, and clients, and so forth? So that’s what we really focus on today is the people side of the equation, or the soft skills.


Assessments for Increasing Employee Success

Drew: So some people have some aversion against assessments. I don’t know if they think they want to trust their gut. I think most agency owners are terrible at hiring, in terms of interviewing. We break all the rules. We talk too much. We don’t ask the same questions every time. We end up deciding to hire someone that we like, rather than somebody who might actually be good at the job. So talk to us a little bit about the value of an assessment, and specifically the assessments that you use, because I know there’s a bazillion out there.

Art: Sure. And what I’m very clear about is…and I know there’s a lot of very small agency owners out there who run an agency of six or eight people, and they might be thinking, “Well, who needs an assessment? I’ve got six great people. I’ve known them for years. I’ve worked with them in various places. Maybe I was their customer or vice versa in past situations.” And to those people I’ll say, “You are exactly correct.” You have the world’s greatest hiring system. In fact, all of your systems in your business are working very well. Because it’s a small organization, the four, or five, or six of you can sit down around a table and quickly come up with new ideas, set a new direction. In a bigger company, that might be called strategic planning, but you can do it almost without really thinking about it. When you go to hire somebody, you’ve got three or four people around you you trust totally. You’ve each got a Rolodex and you’ve got four or five people that you trust totally. You bring them in, and they work very well for you.

The key is for when your agency gets to, I always say, the teenth employee. Whether it’s the 13th, or the 15th, or the 17th, we start to run out of Rolodex. We’ve hired all of our friends and close colleagues, or the ones we’d like to hire are gainfully employed somewhere. And so for the first time, we stick an ad out there on LinkedIn, or the current internet job board, or what have you, and suddenly we find our hiring process breaks down. Well, it didn’t exactly break down. It’s just it ran out of steam, and you didn’t have a formal process. So what the assessments, and better interviewing, and all those things represent is a formalization of a system to replace what always worked around here when we were very small. And that’s really what I’m representing.

And when you think about it, too…and I just had this happen to one of your members. We were just starting to work together, and I got an email from him the other day. And he said, “You know, you’re exactly right in your assessment of that individual.” But he said, “I think we get to the point where we really want to see what we want to see. We’re hungry for a new employee. We’ve got a big contract on the table. We’ve really got to make this work quick. So the next person that comes in here with a decent resume, the right education, the right technical skills, maybe in our subconscious mind we overlook some of the weaknesses we’re picking up in the interview. Or even after we hire them, we’re making excuses because we really want this to work.”  

And I think those biases are our biggest challenge in increasing employee success. The assessments, they don’t often tell you something is a complete shock. Like this gentleman, he recognized that the assessment had accurately labeled this person’s key fault and he knew it. The problem was he hadn’t really dealt with it, or admitted it to himself and taken the appropriate action, which is he probably should have never hired the person. So the assessment is usually, I talk about it as more of a validator to confirm some of the things you knew about but didn’t want to admit, or you knew but couldn’t quite put your finger on what the problem was.

Drew: Well, I think oftentimes, agency owners wait so long to hire. They wait until they’re so desperate for an employee that that desperation shows up in the hiring process.

Art: Yeah, and I’ve been there too. We really got to fill this position, and we really want the next person walking in to work out. And one of the things I always remind people is your own staff, or maybe even these friends of yours that are in their Rolodex, you know all their faults because you’ve worked with them for years. The new person walking in has no faults. You’ve never seen them make a mistake. They’ve never blown a pitch to a new client. They’ve never upset one of your best clients. So they come in with this aura of perfection. And then when you add to that, “I’m a little bit desperate. I really want this to work,” lo and behold, we end up hiring them. So it’s a human nature thing. That’s why I say an objective, world-class instrument that can really describe for you in plain black and white objective language how this person thinks, their basic attitudes and beliefs. That can be very helpful in making the final determination. Should I actually hire them for this job? Maybe a different job? Or maybe let my competitor hire them and suffer the consequences.

Drew: Yeah. Yeah. I think one of the things that you do that I find interesting and insightful is that when you’re helping an agency owner assess a potential employee, one of the first things you do is you also test the agency owner. So talk to us a little bit about that.

Art: Well, it comes out of the…I used to be in IT, so it was drilled into our head. You had to have a plan. You just couldn’t put a bunch of coders to work and say, “Okay, start writing code.” You needed a plan. So one of the key things we do in that planning phase, among other things like, “What are we trying to accomplish for business?” And I need, especially if it’s a new client, I need them to educate me as to their vision for the future and so forth. But when it comes down to the assessments on an individual hire, I only know the generic AMI agency. I’ve dealt with a lot of them. There’s certain things I can expect. I know basically what you’re doing. But the fact is they’re all different. Those people that meet with you in their groups, they recognize similarities, but they also know there’s differences and they can learn from that.  

And I need to measure that precisely, and so what we do is we use the assessments to assess, typically, the owner. Maybe their spouse if they’re working in the business. There’s always one or two highly valued people. I always tell them, “Pick somebody who really, really deeply knows your business and what you’re trying to accomplish.” And when we put those two, three, four people together in a larger agency, maybe it’s half a dozen people or 10 people, but when I do those assessments, a lot is going to happen as a result. Number one, I always tell my new client, “You’ll see these assessments. And first of all, you’ll get an idea of what they can tell you. And when you see assessments of yourself and people you know very well, you’re going to have as good an idea of anybody on this planet if that instrument is accurate.” And so they get a sense of what we are doing, but it also gives me a picture of what makes that agency unique. There is often some small factor that comes out of the 93 different specific factors we measure. There’s often something, or some combination of factors, that pops up as the unique identifier for this particular agency.  

And that becomes a key piece of my work, because that’s part of your culture that you’re not necessarily going to pick up or be able to quantify in any other way. So as you said at the beginning of this interview, when we actually bring in a candidate and do that candidate’s assessment, now I can bounce it off this, what I call a cultural assessment. And I’m looking for not a perfect match, but I’m looking for somebody who’s at least complementary to these unique set of characteristics that makes Agency A different from the other agencies around them. And so in this way, we can be reasonably certain that we find somebody who fits, who will hit the ground running because they get it. They understand what you’re doing and how you think right off the bat, because we’ve purposely picked somebody who fits that mold.

Drew: Well, what I love about your assessments, it’s not really about finding the right, fill in the blank, AE, art director, whatever. But it’s really finding the right AE, art director, for you and your agency, or you and your business. Because I know you work with folks other than agencies as well, but it really is about the matchmaking aspect of it that I think really elevates the work you do to a different level. Because as every agency owner knows, it’s not that hard to find someone with the right skills. But it is difficult to find someone with the right skills, the right client service attitude regardless of what role they play in the agency, and someone who fits into the culture. That’s a trickier combination.

Art: It is tricky. And we use words like “fit”. We use words like “culture”. We use a word like “attitude”. And generally when we’re using those, what we’re saying is, “I know this can’t be measured. I know it’s not very accurate. I’m just going to use this tagline to describe this fuzzy area that we all trip over as people who hire employees.” The point is, we can actually measure those things. And the key is, as I tell especially a new client, I could run this on a candidate and I can measure the candidate very accurately. But again, I need to have some idea. I call it a benchmark or a cultural standard, whatever language you want to use. But I need that target so that I can say, “Okay, this is what makes Drew’s agency unique among all those agencies.” And now when I run this assessment on an individual, I can actually say, “There is a match, or a reasonably close match.”  

Or sometimes we can say, “There’s maybe not a great match, and there may be some very good business reasons you want to hire this individual, but at the very least, when you bring them aboard, you’re going to have my report that will help you understand there will be some issues, and they’re going to be in these areas. And if you can work around those, build around those, talk those through, maybe even do a little development on the new person, you can make this a successful hire.” So sometimes it’s a matter of taking the mystery out of it and making sure there’s no surprises when Art Boulay shows up and isn’t exactly what you were hoping for.


The “From Hire to Retire” System

Drew: Right. Well, and then I think about the conversations we’ve had where…I think for a lot of agency owners, there’s such relief after you hire someone. But unfortunately, agencies are horrible at onboarding new employees and getting them up to speed and feeling comfortable. I joke around when I teach the workshops that…typically, our training process is, “Hey, it’s nice to meet you. Let me give you a quick tour and introduce you to everybody. Here’s where the supplies are. Oh, by the way, you have a client meeting at 10:00.” So talk to us a little bit about what owners should be doing after the hire.

Art: Well, that’s a great point, and I have a whole employee success flow I call “From Hire to Retire”. And a key part of it is the onboarding process, because it is important. I’ve accumulated different facts and articles about onboarding over the years, but most of them will tell you that about a third of your new employees will be lost in the first 30 days. And very often, we find that it’s not because of any single, dramatic point of failure. It’s typically an accumulation of small things that, “Oh, well, the hiring contract didn’t quite get implemented the way I expected,” or, “Some aspect we talked about didn’t quite get delivered upon.” Or I hear this a lot too, “The owner, my boss is so busy they really haven’t had time to work with me as I was hoping.”  

And so one of the most important things in increasing employee success that I recommend to people is put your expectations, both from the new hire’s point of view and the hiring person’s point of view, put your expectations out there in plain English. It shouldn’t be a six-page document, but several bullets. Five, seven things at the top. What are the expectations for this position? Again, if both parties do that and they have something specific to pay attention to in those critical first days…30 days at the very least. I usually like to say the first 90 days. Keep a regular conversation going about these expectations. Because as I say, it’s not often that there’s a major breakdown. But if two, or three, or four of the expectations I had as a new employee are not being met, or that you had as a new employer aren’t being met, there’s going to be accumulating dissatisfaction on both sides.  

And if it gets to a certain point, again, there’s a…the employee is brand new to your company. They don’t know the history. They’re only going from what they’re experiencing in those first few weeks. And the idea begins to creep in their head, “I made a bad decision. I shouldn’t have taken this job. I should have taken the other job.” And maybe even the employer is having a similar thought.  

Have that conversation right off the bat. Keep it going in the early days about expectations. If something’s going a bit off the rails, you deal with it. You can at least talk about it. You can apologize, whatever it takes. But basically, the onboarding process is the opportunity for both parties to say, “Hey, I’m getting to know you. It’s looking even better than it did when I first read your job ad and talked to you on the interview. I really want this to work.” But if you don’t jump on that early, you never get the opportunity, and slowly but surely the relationship breaks down and quite often ends badly. And it typically ends in that 30-60 day window.

Drew: Well, and I think agency owners for a while, certainly right after the recession, had the luxury of, A, hiring anybody they wanted because there was a ton of talent out there, and B, they were a little laissez-faire about their attitudes about employees because they were a dime a dozen for a period of time. But now, the pendulum has swung and agencies are struggling to find good employees, and they’re competing against other agencies, and they’re having to up the ante money-wise. And I think this is particularly a problem when you’re hiring millennials who have a very different attitude about longevity and their career, in terms of how long they’re going to stay somewhere. So they’re much more likely to bail if it doesn’t feel good.

So everything you’re saying is even more critical today than probably it ever has been for agency owners to be mindful of. So, why don’t we do this better, Art? For agencies, it’s such a critical factor in if our agency is successful or not, or if we make money. So help me understand, and I certainly have fallen into this as well. Help me understand why agency owners are so bad at hiring and creating employee success.

Art: Well, I don’t think it’s just agency owners, and there’s some agency owners out there that are very good at it. My wife, for example, is very good at hiring people. She has a good intuition. She reads people very well. And those skills are wonderful when it comes to hiring. And I’ll be honest with you. I’m not as good at that as my wife is, so I’ve always marveled at how effective she is at screening employees and picking out excellent people. I think a lot of us are more like me. It doesn’t come naturally. We don’t have that sixth sense, or we have biases that get in the way. And I don’t mean big ism-type biases, but just little subtle things that get in the way of our judgment.  

And so that candidate who looks like somebody we worked with one time that we didn’t like or didn’t get along with, somehow, very subtly, we cast them into a do not hire category. Or it’s a good friend of ours. We’ve known them for years, and we have a little bias to make a job for them. So it’s these biases, I think, that we have to be aware of. And the assessment is just simply one tool that you can plug in, you can add to your process. And that’s a key thing. I don’t let anybody think, “Well, somehow we can just replace interviews and all kinds of hiring devices with Art’s assessments, because they’re so accurate.” But we add the assessment in to counteract that bias that we all bring to the table, and we may or may not be that aware of those biases. So it isn’t that your agency owners are such bad hiring people, Drew. Shame on you. Certainly, we all bring those biases to the table.

Drew: Yeah. Maybe the question is, “Why are humans bad at hiring?” There you go.

Art: Well, that’s what I’m getting at too.

Drew: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and back to your story about the guy who has said, “Hey, I guess I’m seeing what I want to see.” I think one of the things the assessment does in increasing employee success is it forces you to acknowledge that nudging you might have had in the back of your head or in your gut about something the candidate said or didn’t say, but you don’t really want to see it. But the assessment demands that you at least acknowledge that there’s something there.  

Art: Well, I’ll give you a perfect example. And, again, it happened with one of your members just over the weekend here, is that I had assessed the core team. We’re in that getting to know you phase, so I had asked to assess the four or five core people around the owner. And there was this one individual that I felt, if I just saw this as a hiring applicant, frankly, the owner would have never seen them, because I would have just considered it a huge red flag. And may or may not have even phone interviewed them, because it was that dramatic. But I’m looking at them and thinking, “Well, this person has been an employee for three or four years,” I believe it was. And the assessments are not infallible. I don’t pretend that they are.  

So I was cautious on how I worded it, but the point I made was that this person is rather full of themselves. And the consequence of that is they don’t see. They have arrived. There’s no need to work at this anymore, or study, or grow. So it puts a little bit of damper on their energy and drive. And I could see that very clearly in the assessment. But again, the fact was that they’d been an employee for several years. And my client thought enough of them to consider them a top player and somebody he depended on, so who was I to say, “Oh, no, you’re completely wrong. Your judgment of four years in the making is completely wrong”?  

Well, when I sent the report through, the message I get back is, “You know what? This is absolutely accurate, and I had been overlooking it for all this time, but you’re right. This is not going to work because this person is rather full of themselves. And everything you’re saying is a consequence, is actually coming true, and I’ve been trying to see them as somebody who’d move up to the next level.” But that issue of ego is a tough one to discern sometimes, because I’ll get the pushback from a client quite often, “Oh, no, I disagree. They’re self-confident.” And I’m saying, “Well, there’s a fine line between self-confidence and over-the-top, or ego-driven, or self-absorbed. And I’m saying they’re a little more on the self-absorbed side, which is dangerous.”  

But that’s a perfect example of even setting aside our biases, and setting aside, “This is what we’d like to see in the person.” Sometimes we like to make excuses for people in the interview and say, “Well, maybe they didn’t come across well because they were nervous,” or, “Maybe they’re coming across as a little bit self-centered because they’re trying to make a good impression and they’re simply good salespeople, and that’s what I want out there in the public.” But that is another area where we fail, I think, in the interview process. Particularly, as I’ve said earlier, people like myself who may not pick up on these cues perfectly well. We may have a few biases in our brain floating around, is that we make excuses.

One of my number one interview tips for people is, “Do not make excuses. Do not press forward when you see anything that doesn’t look right. Dig deeper. Be skeptical. Assume the worst.” And if you assume the worst, then you say, “Well, maybe it’s ego, and maybe they’ve got too much ego.” Well, push on that. And if turns out you’re wrong, well, then you’ve just proven to your satisfaction that they are in fact self-confident. You don’t have to be worried about an overly built up ego. But if you never conduct that test, you never push, you never be a little bit skeptical, you may miss what was a clear red flag in the interview, and you could have avoided hiring the wrong person to start with.


Tips for Becoming a Better Job Interviewer

Drew: Yeah, that gets us to a great point. So the assessments are dandy, but a key component in hiring, obviously, is the interview process. And I know you have some best practice tips around that. Can you just walk us through? How can we better interviewers? Because I think we struggle with that. That’s one of the things, you don’t learn that in college. You don’t usually learn that in your job as you’re moving up the food chain, and voila, all of a sudden you’re an agency owner and you’re hiring people. So you end up just having a conversation with folks, which is interesting, but it may not be as helpful as we would want it to be.

Art: Well, there’s a couple of ways to approach that. One would be from a point of view of the job itself. And one phrase I like to use is, “Let the job speak for itself.” And you mentioned the conversation, and I think you mentioned this right up front, is that many times agency owners, owners of all stripes, they talk too much in the interview. And I think partly they talk too much in the interview because they haven’t really planned out the interview, “What am I going to ask?” So what I suggest is, number one, keep the talking to a minimum. You should only talk about 10% of the time. And to do that, you need very good, open questions where the person can talk for five or six minutes on a 10-second question.  

And one set of questions has to be built around the job. And so when I work with a client and we spend the time, I’ve already discussed setting a benchmark for this job, say an AE for example. The benchmark might be around more of a…and by the way, there’s different flavors depending on my clients, I have found over the years. But say one flavor of an AE is much more of a customer service person as opposed to sales. So if that’s true with your agency and you know that, and you’re comfortable with that benchmark, then we need to tune your questions around the benchmark factors that we’ve already agreed accurately described this new position.  

And again, let the position speak for itself. Ask questions that will reveal a person’s attitudes, feelings, beliefs, strategies, whatever they are, around the factors core to that job. And ask them in such a way that you, again, you can ask a short question and get a lengthy, rambling answer from the individual, so you can really get deeply in there about how they really think about these core factors that we’ve already established to describe that job, or benchmark the ideal candidate for that job.

The next thing I recommend is, “Always press forward.” Don’t be satisfied with one answer, especially in your business. Think about it. We’re interviewing people who are experts in marketing, and selling, and branding, and all those sorts of things. They know all the correct words. They know all the right phrases. And if they’ve been around at all, then they’re pretty smart about these things. In other words, they can paint a pretty good story. So I always assume the first cut of my question is going to get a really good answer.

Drew: Yeah, right. They’re salespeople. Regardless of their job, they’re good at spinning things.

Art: Well, that’s right. If I was hiring you to be my new marketing director, you’d know all the things I’m looking for, and you would play to that and use all the right words. So I always discount how wonderful that first response came. I always have a follow-up. And this is, again, where the planning comes in. I’ll ask a hypothetical question, like, “How would you deal with this particular client, or this particular situation, or this particular job opportunity?” Whatever it is that I’m digging into. And then I will be prepared with at least a couple of foll