Agency Unfiltered - Alex and Ryan from Stratagon

People Development in the Remote World

Alex Moore and Ryan Burkett, senior partners at Stratagon, sit down to talk about people development—more specifically, people development in the newly remote-first world. They share the tools and processes they use for supporting growth, aligning collaborators, and building teams that embrace diverse communication styles and preferences.

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Episode Transcript

In this episode, Alex Moore and Ryan Burkett, senior partners at Stratagon, sit down to talk about people development-- more specifically, people development in the newly remote first world we're all now in. They share the tools and processes they use for supporting growth, aligning collaborators, and building teams that embrace diverse communication styles and preferences. What's your desk profile, and how do you identify and invest in high potential talent? Learn that and more with Agency Unfiltered. 

KD: All right, guys. Welcome to Agency Unfiltered. Alex, Ryan, thanks for joining us remotely today. Just real quick, where are we both dialing in from? 

RB: Ryan. I'm joining from the Charlotte office. 

AM: And Alex, I'm joining from High Point, North Carolina. 

KD: Very cool. The topic at hand here, obviously, not just Stratagon, but every agency, every HubSpot partner, and honestly, probably every business is trying to grapple with-- and I hate to use this term because the new normal is so overused, but obviously, kind of this post-COVID or COVID-induced world we now live in.  And so, as we were talking, it sounds like you guys have a pretty intentional plan or process around people development and what it means to help develop your team, develop your people, invest in your people in this, again, quote unquote, "new normal." So maybe the best place to start-- how does Stratagon think about supporting professional development and employee growth? What does that look like? 

AM: Yeah, I think it's interesting. One, I think if I were to step back, coming into COVID-- so let's just say, pre-March of 2020-- there's always been some intentional plans around just employee development and appreciation for it. I would say that after about two to three months into the pandemic, we obviously were 100% remote. And while we were systematically prepared for that, we begin to notice, I just think, different behaviors, and let's just call it edge, right, from I think various members of the team that were just a core function of the reality that we were living in. And after seeing that, it was just a really stark reminder that we needed to double down on some type of programming that not only worked to develop the employee, but also helped to bridge the gap while we were in this new normal. And I know there are a lot of agencies that were already set up to be remote. That wasn't our reality. And that wasn't the expectation of the team, right? So we had to begin to look at things a little differently and begin to set up some programming. So that I don't take the entire time and mic, I'm happy to pass the mic to Ryan and have him talk specifically about the programming. But I think you start that with just identifying the fact that there is an opportunity for improvement. 

RB: Yeah it probably proved to be a bit of a catalyst for us. It was something that we discussed oftentimes. Of course, with any agency who's growing, there is oftentimes a realization that you have to prioritize where you're going to put emphasis. COVID forced us to think about the way that we were engaging as part of our colleagues, even ourselves and the way that we're engaging. And so, therefore, we begin to put some intentionality towards it. So yeah, we've, to Alex's point, spent time not just developing a pathway for our colleagues to continue to grow in their industry and marketing expertise, but also in understanding themselves, their communication and style preferences, understanding some core foundational elements that we believe are just important for business and business engagement. And we took advantage of the last several months to at least begin to plant some seeds and to start, let's call it level one of understanding how to use that in business better. 

KD: It sounds like it was something that was already identified as a need for you guys. And if anything, this COVID-induced remote world we now live in kind of exacerbated the need or expedited the timeline to figure it out, which I can imagine is something that a number wide percentage of our partners at HubSpot, they all probably feel. Let's talk about communication styles for a moment because you mentioned that. It's normal for team members to have different communication styles and collaboration styles, et cetera. Based on moving from an agency that primarily worked in an office together, and now they had to adapt to this virtual remote style, what were the biggest challenges you saw around team alignment, collaboration, communication, et cetera? What were those big challenges, and how did you triage? 

RB: So I'll start. I think physical proximity in the office allows you to alleviate the importance of understanding style preferences, right? That doesn't mean that they don't exist. That doesn't mean that we don't have challenges in how we communicate one with another. But the reality of it is, if the core-- if the people themselves are good people, they don't want to live in discord, right? Good people just want to be good to one another. And I think that our entire group right now is populated by people, although different and very varied in their interest, as well as the way that they engage, are just good people. So when you got a group of good people, we can disagree. Alex and I can disagree, but we can walk away from that disagreement and know that we trust that we're good and want the best for one another. And it's easy then to bridge beyond that, especially if you're in person. If you're in person, you see them, and it reminds you of all the things that aren't associated with the task, the activity, the engagement. And just, if nothing else, physical proximity allows you to want to solve for whatever that discord is that is between us. That doesn't happen when you're remote, and a lot of our agency colleagues have probably experienced that early on in their remote agency set up for us. Yeah, it's not like things were always perfect, but at the end of the day, we always walked away, or at least the next morning, we're coming back wanting to work with one another because we believed in each other. That's not the case when you're remote. And so for us, Kevin, there were a couple of instances that popped up. No major flames, but it was just a few simmering spots in the smoke pile. And we're like, now we need to figure out how to exhaust this as best we can. So we had to prioritize that because we didn't know how long we were going to be in this environment. And even still, it's proving important. 

AM: I was going to say also, I think it's important to think about that we did do some big rock programming. So we talked about communication styles. So specifically, we engage DISC as an instrument, which is all about communication styles. But we've done NBTI and Myers Briggs in the past as well. I think what this environment has pretty much almost forced us, or let's just say, encouraged us to do, is to re-engage that and begin to really weave that into the fabric of our day-to-day operations and how we work. And it's interesting watching the team because now, if nothing else, I think things like this really help to get people to just think about their communication styles, right, and think about other people's communication styles, which, if both people are thinking, you typically are going to get some magic. And that's what it's all about, right? Now, those are like really big rock things. But I think we'd be remiss to not speak about some of the small things that are there. And sometimes I think we, as leadership, may even not appreciate it, but this particular one, I even had a customer that texted me this morning say, "hey, can you remind me that thing that you told me we talked yesterday?" And for us, during our morning pullouts, we have a thing at the end of the pullout where one of them is about getting tight on things like your skillsets. So we call it "Get Tight", and it's like tips and tricks and things that someone saw something in the news, or it's just knowledge here. And then the other one is just about get loose, which is something that's totally relaxed and unrelated to work. And we've had a particular team member who has kind of taken that, and he's given everything from movie tips for the weekend to what's happening in the entertainment world and news. And quite frankly, it's interesting because it's kind of cross-cultural, too. There's things that I think everybody gets the opportunity to learn something that they wouldn't have normally been exposed to. And it's just one of these other just little things that in a remote environment kind of softens the day a little bit. That's the last thing we do on the call is get loose before people go on to their day. Even if it's a tough call, it really sets the mood for the rest of the day. And those little things in aggregate, they all add up, and they really help to embody a work environment while remote that still has some stickiness, if you will. 

KD: I love that. And just to confirm, so get tight, get loose, those are part of the rollups. And are those activities that happen daily? 

AM: For the most part, yeah. Every day. That's a part of our morning pullout. 

KD: That's great. So I mean, it sounds like when we talk about communication, it's not always in the lens of work and delivery and output. But it's like you have to also try and find ways to have that more organic conversation, water cooler conversation that it's going to be hard to replicate in remote, but it has to be intentional if you want to get close to it, which sounds like that's what that solves for. 

RB: Yeah, and we started out at the beginning of COVID, and now it's a little bit less frequent, but we did start out with things like happy hour on Fridays. Everyone was gathered for an hour. We'd end the day early. Don't tell our clients this, but we'd end the day early. We'd all get together on Zoom, and we'd do all kinds of Quizlets. We would play Among Us—just something completely random, if nothing else, just to add back in some humanity to the work that we've been doing, all right? And we were trying to figure out ways that we can continue to do ongoing community service in a virtual environment and those types of things-- playing fantasy football, so on and so forth. Anything that helps to bring us together beyond the task, beyond the project, beyond the campaign, those are the things that we're trying to figure out, how to not to replicate, not to replace, but quite honestly, to create a different mechanism in which to communicate and engage in. 

KD: Well, I was going to ask you guys this. Just, I don't want to go down the rabbit hole, but who has the better fantasy football team? Is it Alex or Ryan? 

RB: To be honest, if you look at our entire roster of all the teams, I think Alex and Ryan are at the bottom. Both of us-- I don't know who. I think I won last week, but I'm sure he'll get me the next time. It's been pretty bad. Look, we're giving him one season, Kevin. We're giving him one season to win it, and then we'll come back and re-claim it. 

KD: Right, I get it. Let me go back to some of the bigger boulders, like the profiling tools that you guys use, the assessment tools. You mentioned Myers Briggs. We use DiSC at HubSpot as well. I'm an off the charts I for those that are listening. I know you guys know DISC, but anybody listening, I'm as I as you can be.  But other than just assessing their profile, their communication preferences, besides having the label—how does that get weaved into other elements within the agency? So once you have that identifier for folks, where and how does it get used from there? 

RB: I'd say that's still being defined some with us. We actually, we didn't try it ourselves. We went and brought in a consultant, who continues to schedule both individual coaching time with some individuals, as well as group sessions with parts and the whole, right?  I'd say that there have been some simple things, things that I've even seen some HubSpotters do, like in Zoom sessions, identifying where they fit on the DISC wheel within their naming, just so that you understand I'm a D, right? And so, now everyone knows where my preferences are and, frankly, understand the way that I'm communicating might be driven by just my style preferences, not driven by the fact that I'm just being aggressive that day, right? So I think people are starting to pay attention to that more, but I'd say that we're far from perfect on it. It does, as leadership, I'll tell you, we have been very intentional within our leadership meetings of recognizing things that would have otherwise been attributed to someone personally, and now saying, OK, let's back up for a second. What is that person's style? Where might they be missing what they need in order to be most effective, so on and so forth. So we've been more intentional about it as leadership. We're also asking our consultant to help us with things like desk-side tools and such. Now they would be virtual tools, of course, but just to remind people of the various style parameters, whether you're looking at the big four, or you're looking at the sub 12. In reality, we haven't nailed it. What we do know is that we tried this before, and we did not put intentionality into implementing it after the exercise. And it went away. So that's what we're being more focused on now, at least from a communication style standpoint. 

KD: Let me ask you guys this. This feels like I'm moving away from the impact of going remote on communication and collaboration. But I think the other side of the coin that we were talking about here is just programming for professional development and employee growth. And so I think when I say professional development-- and correct me if you guys disagree, but there's, like, two layers to it. It's program that caters to all, so something formal for the development of everybody. But then there's probably an additional layer for our high potential employees or folks we have earmarked for a high potential. And so, I'd love to know if you guys agree with that sentiment. And maybe the best place to start is the programming you have in place for professional development as a means for all. 

AM: Yeah, certainly. I'll take the all one. For a good percentage of our agency-- I'm trying to think if there's anyone that this doesn't pertain to. I don't think so. There's an element of leveraging the HubSpot ecosystem, right? From a just professional development in terms of education, like the more technical side of what we do. Once you have that, then, of course, you begin to layer on other types of skill sets that we do across the board. And going back to HubSpot a little bit, I mean, there is obviously certification requirements, and we do all types of team competitions and challenges and all that kind of stuff, which, again, helps the camaraderie there. This year, one of the things—every year, the agency just continues to grow and continue to mature. And you begin to find needs. And one of the needs that, this year, we really wanted to hone in on was project management across the board. We definitely have people who have more project management in their job responsibilities than others. But at some level, everyone in the agency, whether you're client facing or the work that you do impact someone that is client facing, going to have some appreciation for, just the basic blocking and tackling of managing a project. And the reality is, in some cases, you don't have that. Not everyone walking through the door, even if they're high skill in a certain subject matter area, doesn't necessarily mean that they get that. So that's an area that not only we begin to work on internally, but again, we went outside. So in this particular scenario, we went and worked with Wake Forrest University and had them to develop a custom course just for us. And we essentially run our teams through that course. So this was like the inaugural one that we just finished. So everyone has gone through that. It was a multi-day course. Obviously, we did it remote just because of COVID. In a non-COVID world, it'll be in person. And we have that asset now that we can use as a part of onboarding for new employees to really get and understand some of these core tenets to solid project management. And we're not looking for them to be PMI certified or anything like that. It's project management for the working account manager or for the working digital specialist, for example, or the writer or whatever it may be. So that was a really, quite frankly, big investment this year as part of this kind of more broad programming. So those are two more recent examples that we've engaged in that we feel really good about, and the team has really enjoyed them as well. 

RB: Yeah. The other thing I'd add to that is, look, I think we're at that size where we will be more intentional over time, Kevin, in focusing on the resources that we believe could be high potential and high growth individuals. We have been more focused, over the course of our lineage thus far, in trying our best to force everyone into the mindset that they, too, can be a high potential, high growth colleague. So I say all that to say some of this is really around the mantra around our manifesto, which is, one, we're going to push everybody in our entire organization to not be focused on just their function, but more importantly, to be an expert in whatever they're discussing or whatever they're talking to. And to a certain extent, you've got to be a certain personality to be comfortable in this kind of environment. Because we look for everyone to be a champion or a challenger, and it doesn't matter what the topic is. It can be a topic area that is of my focus. And if someone else who just started last week believes that they have an opinion or have research that they feel makes sense to discuss, then I'm all ears. I feel like I can grow from my colleagues just like they can grow from Alex, myself, and the other members of the leadership team. 

So, just beginning to create the environment and almost force everyone to get comfortable in the expertise that they demonstrate on a daily basis. It cuts out the hierarchy. We're very flat from an organizational standpoint, but also, it is getting everyone tuned up to be prepared at any given instance to be a subject matter expert on whatever the topic is. And so we operate that way day to day. So I'd like to believe that everyone on our team is not only a high growth potential individual, but also feels as though they're an expert, depending on the scenario that they're in and the topic that they're in. We do give them opportunities to explore outside of what their function would be. And so that's a good thing. That has helped us from the perspective of mapping individuals when it's time to shift the org. The other thing that we've done is expanded on our human resource commitment this year. So a member of our leadership team has been increasing training and taking on a greater scope for people development, which I think was appropriate when you hit about that 20 mark, which is where we're at now. We'll be creeping over 20 in the next couple of weeks. It's pretty important that we begin to plant seeds so that we can have a conversation about high growth potential individuals in the future. But right now, we've got to keep them all on. 

KD: Yeah, that's-- yeah, very fair. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I know we're coming up on time, guys. Just one other question before we wrap up. I think over the course of this conversation, you've mentioned bringing in outside folks. I think we talked about behavioral consultants or folks to help with communication styling and preference mapping. And then, obviously, we had the example with Wake Forrest. Is there just a quick decision tree or any insight you could help if-- obviously, you've mentioned that requires a significant bit of investment. So when do you know that is the right call to make, when and how to seek outside support for some of these functions? You know what I mean? 

AM: Well, I don't know. I guess, one, we're quick to bring in someone that's an expert, right? It's kind of like, if I've got to go to the doctor, I want to go to the doctor, right? I don't just want to—

KD: Yeah, you don't want to self-diagnose on WebMD or something. Yeah, right. 

AM: Yeah, exactly. I was trying to think the website—WebMD or YouTube or whatever it may be, the doctor. Luckily, in all of these scenarios, Ryan and I and others on the leadership team, we've all got a pretty broad network of folks that we've come across in our past, and whether that's from our time in corporate or just community involvement and the like. So I think, by and large, most people are probably a phone call away in terms of finding someone who really does bring core skill sets in a certain area. And that was definitely the case in both of these. In terms of when do you know it's time for investment, I mean, for us, the need really happened because of the numbers around the table. And as you continue to grow, inevitably, you're just going to have different types of personalities and skill sets around the table that are going to necessitate development. And then I also believe that, look, if you pay enough recruiters and you go through turnover-- and we've been very fortunate that, by and large, as an agency throughout our lifetime, have not had mass turnover. But once you do, you realize it's really costly. 

So when you start really weighing the cost of bringing in a new employee, training and development, hiring, firing, all of that, that total cost is high. So I guess, the saying goes in marriage, some people say it's cheaper to keep them, whether it's the-- whoever it is on either side of that, right? And generally speaking, we want to invest in those people. And it is, we find-- I think it's much less costly not only on the financial side, but also the impact to the client. If you've got a good team and you've hired well, then you should go ahead and invest to keep. Because otherwise, you're going to spin that anyway in something else. So for us, the right time came because of the volume of the team, as well as knowing the general cost of turnover. So it's a worthy investment. 

RB: Yeah, there certainly are topics that we iterate on more than we execute on, right? So, like project management example, we have tried it with bringing on project managers. We've tried to increase focus within pockets. We've talked about it enough that we realized we had to have a more permanent solution, right? So that was a natural-- it was a fairly easy decision to make. To Alex's point, we started having conversations around behavioral assessments and personality styling. We did some of that early on when we were a smaller team. We realized we didn't put enough focus on the post-exercise implementation. So when we started to go through some of the challenges of COVID, we knew that that was a ripe time for it. But yeah, I think a lot of it comes down to just-- to Alex's point, it is a very important lever to pull if it is going to help to maintain not only keep your turnover low, but is going to help to keep your VoC and your NPS high, you've got to do it. You've got to make that investment. And that's oftentimes what we're using as a deciding factor. 

KD: Yeah, that's a great point. Ryan and Alex, one last question for you both. We wrap every episode with this. So we ask every guest, what would you say is the strangest part of agency life? 

RB: I'd say the toughest thing for me to adjust to is many, many, many years ago, when it was 60-hour weeks, I was longing for a time that we would have a team around us and be able to regress from that. And the strange thing is, I have no interest in going back to that. Sorry, I have no interest in deviating from that. I want to be that. Like, I still find it strange that this far in, I wake up and look forward to doing it again every day. So I feel incredibly blessed by that. 

AM: Yeah, I don't know if it's strange or weird, but I'd say I'm probably humbled by as much as you think you know, you realize every day how much you don't. I think if everybody wakes up and will embody that kind of ideology, I think the world will be a better place. But it definitely is humbling every day. There's something new. It's like, well, I just didn't know that yesterday. But we have a saying around here. That's OK. Just don't learn twice. We like to learn once. That' right. There's a cost for education. You don't want to pay that bill twice. That's for sure. 

KD: So true. Well, guys, we're out of time. Thanks so much for dialing in, for joining in. It's been super helpful, super insightful. So I appreciate you both for joining us today. 

AM: Very good. We appreciate it. 

RB: Thanks, Kevin. It was great talking to you. 

KD: All right, guys. This has been another episode of Agency Unfiltered. 

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