Nora Lahl, Partner, Director of Client Engagement, Lightburn

Nora Lahl, Partner, Director of Client Engagement, Lightburn

Nearly nine years ago, Nora Lahl left print production at a traditional agency to venture into the world of digital. Signing on with Lightburn, a Milwaukee-based web design and digital marketing agency, she saw the need for a move from a focus on projects to a focus on client services and client relationships. Stretching outside her job description, she went to work fulfilling that need.

Today, Nora is a partner at Lightburn. After nearly a decade building relationships with clients and investing in Lightburn’s success, she knows a great deal about what works and what doesn’t. Nora joins us to talk about her journey from print to digital, how project managers can level up to business leaders and what it takes to go after and formalize an executive role.


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Carl Smith: Stopping by the Bureau Studios today, we have got Nora Lahl. Now, I've known Nora for a while. She had come to the Digital PM Summit. She was one of the first attendees of the Women's Leadership Camp that we had, and recently, some big news, she became partner and Director of Client Engagement at Lightburn, so welcome to the show, Nora Lahl.

Nora Lahl: Hi, Carl. Thanks for having me.

Carl Smith: You're welcome. Now, I reached out I think the second maybe that you published the blog post because for me, I hear so much from so many people about how it's hard when there's not a career path in a company, and I hear so many owners saying they're not sure where to promote from or how to promote. Now, you started at Lightburn like over eight years ago, right?

Nora Lahl: Yeah, it's almost nine years now.

Carl Smith: Tell me, one, the story of applying for the job, getting the job, getting started, and just what that was like.

Nora Lahl: Sure, so I actually ... I worked at a traditional advertising agency, and I had started helping out with their digital project management. It was fledgling proper digital at this [inaudible 00:01:24] agency, and so they would sometimes outsource development work, and so Lightburn was one of our contractors for that and have been for many years.

Carl Smith: Got you.

Nora Lahl: When I started helping out with that, I met some of the folks at Lightburn and realized as part of that process that digital was really clicking for me. I came from print production, so setting up different ad sizes, and managing image rights, and stuff like that for traditional campaigns.

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Nora Lahl: As soon as I started doing the digital, I realized, "Ah, this is a career for me. I can see myself here longterm," and it was very exciting, and so ... Oh, go ahead.

Carl Smith: No, I was just going to ask. So, it was exciting in terms of what you'd be able to do there, and having been at advertising industry for a long time, man, the media side of things can get so boring, but what was it that attracted you to Lightburn? Was there something specific about them, or were you just like, "This is a space I want to move to?"

Nora Lahl: I knew it was a space I wanted to move to, and at the same time, I was learning that I wanted to be in this space from Lightburn because I was being exposed to it mostly through my interactions with them. They were asking smart questions. They were three steps ahead of us often, and they clearly knew what they were doing technically, and that was a fun challenge for me as a project manager on the other side where we're providing designs and having to work back and forth, and I just found them to be really I guess lower-case agile like they were adaptive and very focused on good solutions.

Nora Lahl: Then, I wasn't seeing a path forward with that agency. We were very siloed and there wasn't a lot of focus on personal growth and success. I was in a role that was useful, and I was doing a good job, but they weren't necessarily interested in moving me into something completely different. I was helping out, but there wasn't a clear path for me there, and so as soon as I found out that Lightburn had a project manager role, I applied thinking that they would maybe give me a courtesy interview because I didn't have that much experience in digital, so I just sort of like, "Well, it can't hurt. They know me. They'll be nice to me at least when they say no."

Carl Smith: Meanwhile, Scott and Andrew are going, "Oh, thank goodness. We're hiring a real project manager because we don't know what we're doing, but we're bringing in somebody from advertising and they know what to do." I bet it would be awesome to see the two conversation side by side.

Nora Lahl: Oh, yeah. I mean, the things that I've found out later, years later about how that went down is really funny because I was nervous on my end, and they were going, "Oh, wow, we could get Nora. She really knows what she's doing." I had them all fooled, but I think I did ... One thing that I've always had is some level of that fake it till you make it mentality and a level of curiosity in the unknown. When I started doing print production, I was not trained in it at all. I just had a little bit of experience, very light experience with photo editing and some QuarkXPress if anyone remembers that program.

Carl Smith: Oh, Quark.

Nora Lahl: Yeah.

Carl Smith: Oh, Quark.

Nora Lahl: I had very light understanding of it, but I knew that I had the potential to learn it, and so I really learned that on the job. I'm not afraid of the unknown in that way, and I think that always served me well is asking for more, "What can I add? What can I do three steps beyond my job description?" That's I think what made me comfortable interviewing for the project manager role here even though on paper, I didn't feel that I had the sort of explicit experience that they were requiring, but through our ... the interview process, it was a conversation. Both. I think I had two interviews here, and it was just ... We just were on the same wave length. We really got along and understood each other. It wasn't questions and answers. It was a conversation the whole time, and that was obviously a good sign.

Carl Smith: Oh, that's amazing. When you get there, how many people work at Lightburn? What's the shop like?

Nora Lahl: I was 10. Now, I wasn't the 10th hire ever, but we went from 9 to 10 when I was hired, and then that ... I think I was hired in September. Oh, yes, I was, so it was right after Labor Day when I started. We hired two or three people within a month, so we grew ... That was a little bump there from like 9 to 12 in short order.

Carl Smith: So you get in, you become a digital project manager by default of the work that you're doing, and what kind of changes did you see that could be made when you first got there?

Nora Lahl: Oh gosh, I'm going to have to reach way back. I think that the thing that was missing from Lightburn when I started was a focus on client service, which is interesting because we do not have dedicated account management, and that's always been a struggle for us, so project management, account manager, client relationship. But in the end, for what we do, and the size of clients, and the size of projects that we have, we really see our project management team as client service like if we are not providing that relationship-building day to day in the project management, then it's all going to fall apart, so for us, having project management that's very client-happiness-focused can be a challenge for sure, but if our project managers aren't comfortable with that level of interface with clients, then we're going to have trouble.

Nora Lahl: When I started, there was a little less of that client happiness focus, I think, because we're busy. Everybody is busy doing great work and delivering in the end, but sometimes, the path to get there was a little bumpy, so regular status reports or being on weekly calls. That kind of thing. We would let that kind of thing slip because there wasn't as much focus on the happiness throughout the course of a project.

Carl Smith: I totally get that because when you're so busy, and they were in a growth mode, right?

Nora Lahl: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Carl Smith: Things were going well. They were doing great work keeping their commitments, but it can be hard to keep the conversation going, and we used even send emails that said, "Nothing to report." In the email, we'd say, "We just thought you might want to hear from us, but we're really busy, so just know that we're focused on you."

Nora Lahl: Wow. I mean, we all know ... Yeah. Everyone knows what it's like to ... There is not much to say for a few weeks while you're building something that we've all talked about, but from a client's perspective, that is scary, and you're paying a lot of money.

Carl Smith: It's so scary.

Nora Lahl: Yeah, and just no news is good news. Like you said, sometimes, that's all you need to hear. I think my perspective as a ... coming from a larger agency that maybe put too much energy into account service without output, you can see that as well, so that balance has always been something that we work on, and we have different types of relationships with clients, so different clients require a different level of that service. That's a lot of what I'm providing is some consistency in just our client relationship-building.

Carl Smith: I had a client at the agency I was at, and the team, I was part of the team. We had made some mistakes and things were not going well. I remember the client telling me, "Carl, you're the most expensive great friend I've ever had, but it's not going to be enough."

Nora Lahl: Yeah.

Carl Smith: I was like, "Okay."

Nora Lahl: Everybody really likes us. I can totally commiserate with that like I know that feeling of like, "We like you, but what's ... What's going on?"

Carl Smith: Yeah. I was like, "Wait. We're still on for tennis Sunday, right?"

Nora Lahl: Yeah. We've definitely been there.

Carl Smith: So, Lightburn goes ... You're the 10th hire. Not of all time, but of that current growth period?

Nora Lahl: Yeah.

Carl Smith: Then, today, over 20? Is it like ...

Nora Lahl: Yeah, we're 20 right now. Yeah.

Carl Smith: Okay.

Nora Lahl: We've got a couple hires floating around that we're hoping to do this year.

Carl Smith: What's the make-up of Lightburn now?

Nora Lahl: We have a digital marketing department, so we have team that does PPC, social ads, SEO, engagements, and then we have two dedicated project teams. I don't know if you recall, but when I was that PM Summit I think in 2015, I did a lightning talk on team structure, which was definitely a hot topic then.

Carl Smith: Yeah. Absolutely.

Nora Lahl: I think that that settled down a little bit whether or not that's the right path to go, but we still are operating in a team structure, so we have two independent project teams that can really run a project from start to finish self-contained, so we've got design, front-end, back-end, project manager, content, UX all working together in one team. So then, it adds quite a bit of consistency from project to project in our ongoing client relationships, and that's something that changed a lot for Lightburn is we ... and I'm sure this is the case for a lot of digital agencies.

Nora Lahl: When I started nine years ago, we're very project-focused. We build a website, it would be great. Maybe a couple tweaks post-launch, and then we wouldn't hear anything for six months, and that was the nature of it, and that was the expectation from clients, and that was how we structured our work. Now, we've really focused so much on building account relationships so that we have clients that we have for multiple years, ongoing maintenance work, ongoing content generation, digital marketing, just ... We don't build sites, and then let them sit and decay anymore. I mean, that's the nature of what we're all doing has shifted, and so we're really lucky to have some great accounts that have been with us for many years, and we're growing together.

Carl Smith: I think it's really smart to have a relationship focus. I will say that I think I'm part of the reason or at least I was part of the movement to go product or project-based because when I came out of the full-service agency, I had seen so many bad decisions for work based on maintaining a great relationship, and I think as a lot of digital departments spun out of traditional advertising, we made this decision. The work is going to be more important than the relationship. What we didn't ... and we could get away with it too because there were no great digital shops out there, so if you were halfway good, answered the phone, kept your word, and delivered on time, right, you were going to crush it, and I would tell clients at the beginning, "Look, this is probably the only project we'll work on together, but because of that, we're going to be so honest with you that you don't have to worry. We're going to build the right thing."

Carl Smith: It was just one of these things we used to tell people in pitches. "Look, if you want to work with somebody who'll tell you no if you're about to fall off a cliff, we're the group." Right? We get hired all the time, but over time, clients get more sophisticated, people understand more, and you have to get over that just because one industry treats relationships a certain way, it doesn't mean you have to. You can be nice and honest, and grow a client.

Nora Lahl: Absolutely, and I think we do still need to figure out when we're comparing ourselves to the traditional agency model, what do we want to ... It's buffet style like take you want from that and what is good, and leave the rest. It's okay that we can borrow some of that model without all of it. I mean, we don't ... We just have to treat it differently. What we found is we really focus on finding relationships with clients who value digital, and so what I mean by that is ... I read an article. I think it was in Slate many years ago about these sort of nuisance industries so like an airline or a cable provider. Nobody likes their cable provider because nobody is in it for the cable. They're in it to watch their favorite show, right?

Carl Smith: Right.

Nora Lahl: No one is excited to deal with their cable provider on any level. They just want to watch their favorite show.

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Nora Lahl: There are a lot of people out there who know that they have to have a presence on the web and maybe they need to give a portal for their dealers to report numbers or whatever, but they don't like it, and it feels like this extra thing that is always picking away from some other budget that I ... I understand my marketing budget. I don't understand my digital marketing budget, so it's a nuisance.

Carl Smith: Yeah. Yeah, the ...

Nora Lahl: We look for clients that see us as an opportunity, who are excited to rebuild their site, who are excited to dig into the nitty-gritty of it with us, and that's where we have those good relationships.

Carl Smith: Right, and that's what a client wants. I've talked about this quite a bit, but the whole issue is when people aren't familiar, when they aren't able to talk to a client in terms that they understand. Like get rid of the alphabet soup. Get rid of all the different language, and the technologies, and stuff. Just talk to them about what's going to happen, what it's going to be like, what the benefits are going to be, and then they'll feel good, and they'll understand their digital budget a little better, right? That, to me, has always been one of those things, especially with dev-heavy shops that they come in, and they just feel like they have to flex their knowledge instead of extend their hand.

Nora Lahl: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Oh, I've seen it. I've watched it happen in a meeting where you've got a client who was maybe feeling a little insecure in their knowledge, and they are really good at what they do, but they show up into a room where they don't feel like they have that authority anymore, and then maybe the people who are talking to them on our end are younger than them, and they immediately ... If they start hearing these jargony-sounding words, they are starting to immediately shut down and push back, and so I always push towards like meet people where they are, and a lot of what we have to do is education, right? Like part of what we're doing is just explaining what these tools are that we're using, or what a wireframe is, or the ... Don't just say API at somebody.

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Nora Lahl: Make sure that they understand. That's not that complicated a concept, but that can really throw somebody off really quickly and they [crosstalk 00:17:08].

Carl Smith: Especially if you start saying, "Well, we don't have an advanced API."

Nora Lahl: Yeah.

Carl Smith: "Advanced what? What are you talking about? I'm so confused."

Nora Lahl: Yeah.

Carl Smith: "Please give me my money back. Can I go home now?"

Nora Lahl: Yeah, it can be really intimidating, and again, like we are used to doing this all day long. This is all we do, but this might be the only time in a couple years that somebody digs into this level of complexity on their digital presence, so making that comfortable is important.

Carl Smith: Exactly. Compare it with going to see a mechanic, or going to see a doctor, or going ... You want to understand the impact on you. You want to understand in terms that you understand, and I think one of the things that we've established is you're a leader. Like the things that you've been talking about in this conversation, right, digital project managements lead by default. They have to in order to get things going, but what happened once you were in there as a digital project manager for a while? What was the next step?

Nora Lahl: That's a toughie. I don't know exactly how it happened. Some of it was a little informal, I would say. I started being part of conversations about what to charge and how to charge. I started being in conversations about who ... as we grow, who do we need to hire next. Like I said, I think I always stretched a couple steps beyond what my job description is to be concerned about other aspects of the business, so very early on, I was spending more of my energy on the overall success of Lightburn than on my personal success, so I was very often not concerned about whether or not I look bad, or whether or not I checked my stuff off and forget the rest, which I think is a natural tendency of a project manager, right? Like the whole point is that you're orchestrating complex teams and helping everyone else be successful, and so that ... I don't think that it's an uncommon thing for a project manager or someone with project management tendencies to also be a leader. I think Meghan McInerny, is it?

Carl Smith: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nora Lahl: She gave a great talk at a Bureau event that I wasn't at, but I watched it online about that path to leadership for project managers, and especially in digital, I think project managers do have that opportunity to be real leaders within their organization, so I was part of conversations that I at a certain point said, "You know, I'd like to formalize this. It's a little uncomfortable for me to be in these conversations, but it not necessarily be formal. I think it's appropriate to formalize this in some way," and so we created a leadership team that was official.

Carl Smith: Okay.

Nora Lahl: I've been on that team for, I don't know, four years, and so that was the first step to designating that because we're very flat, right? Like a small agency, it's not surprising that we're a pretty flat organization, and so adding a leadership team, that started to introduce me to a little bit more of the details of the business, so the business side of what we are doing. Just lots of numbers that ...

Carl Smith: You didn't run away?

Nora Lahl: No.

Carl Smith: Was that something you were like, "Give me all of this?"

Nora Lahl: I wanted all of it.

Carl Smith: Oh, wow.

Nora Lahl: I was good and bad like it was fascinating to me and something new to learn, right, like reading a balance sheet. What does that even mean? And understanding just how utilization works and some of these higher level things that I hadn't been privy to before, and it was very like ... Scott is a very low-key ... So, this is one of the brothers who founded Lightburn. Scott is very low-key, but like when I look back, he very carefully introduced more and more information, and more and more awareness to me, and didn't just dump it all at once.

Carl Smith: That's good.

Nora Lahl: He was thoughtful.

Carl Smith: That's because he respected you and he wanted to make sure you were there because you were so valued, so he's like, "I'm not going to throw her in the deep end. I'm not going to do that."

Nora Lahl: He didn't scare me like that. Yeah. It was nice to look back after the fact and be like, "oh, some of these things, some of these decisions we made, like that makes sense now. I know the whole picture, and I understand some of the stuff that as an employee just as you don't quite get," and you shouldn't have to. Like I think that there is a level of ... A leader should be protecting our team from having to worry about everything all at once, right? So then, I started getting introduced into a little bit more of that worry, but also the excitement. Also, the good parts and the things that ... What can I bring to the table to affect some of this stuff that we're trying to do here as a business?

Nora Lahl: Then, I'd say like I ... The concept of introducing ... bringing on another partner, I was pretty forthright with Scott and Andy that like that was the path I wanted to be on because this is the only place that I've ever been that I've got any interest in business ownership like that just wasn't anything on my radar. But then, once I was here, it just all felt right, and I was like, "I could see myself doing this," and I'm more interested in the business than I've ever been before, so I told them that that was something that I was interested in, and they were like looking at a path towards that as well, and then we both were ready at the same time to make it happen.

Carl Smith: I'm not going to say it's a Hollywood story because people want more drama. There's not enough drama in the story, so you ...

Nora Lahl: I'm trying to think of a drama I can give you, but the only drama I would say in this whole story is that when I started, three days before I started the job here nine years ago, I found out I was pregnant for the first time, and that was horrible. I do not recommend that, and I probably wouldn't have taken the job had I ... like I would not have pursued the job at all had I known.

Carl Smith: Right.

Nora Lahl: If it was off by a month or so, I probably would've just hunkered down. I've been at my previous job for like five years. It was comfortable. It was familiar, and I probably wouldn't have pursued it, so I think it's like really amazing timing for me that I didn't ... I didn't miss that opportunity because of the fear of the unknown and ...

Carl Smith: What a serious butterfly effect right there.

Nora Lahl: Yeah, yeah.

Carl Smith: Right?

Nora Lahl: It did change the way I operated obviously like I was a new parent and a pregnant person, which you don't go party with everybody, and so that changed when we were 10 people, 12 people, and pretty young, and so I had to ... I think I looked a little bit more like a grown-up when I was coming in than maybe I would have had that not happen, so that ... and for myself too like I was feeling more responsible than ever before as I was starting here, so I'm very thankful that I didn't find out that I was pregnant until it was ... the job was already a done deal, I guess.

Carl Smith: Now, you've got ... Is your child eight or seven?

Nora Lahl: He's going on eight. Yeah.

Carl Smith: Going on eight, so there you go. I mean, Lightburn is a weird name, but I'm sure that he'll be fine. Now, you're a partner, and the day after it happened, did you wake up and do something different?

Nora Lahl: No. Nope. This last year, we've been leading up to it, and so at some point last year, Scott, and Andy, and I started working on giving up responsibilities just a little bit more so that it wasn't always all three of us had to agree on every single thing, so we were a little bit more focused on who is leading decision-making in different areas, which ... and I don't know if this is because it was two brothers starting this, and they were early 20's, barely able to drink, and were just a set together, always making decisions together, but I think we struggle sometimes with wanting to always build consensus with each other. Sometimes, that's great, but other times, you need to just make a decision, and move forward, and have confidence that it's your responsibility to make that decision. That's something that I think bringing me on has been a benefit for them to think that way in a way that they hadn't before.

Carl Smith: I have to ask at this point. I just made this connection. Do you know Danielle Harder at Yellow Pencil?

Nora Lahl: I do not.

Carl Smith: Danielle is a new partner at Yellow Pencil, and it was founded by two brothers.

Nora Lahl: Oh, that I knew, yeah, because Scott met with them before.

Carl Smith: Yeah, and so she is now at the table, and one of the brothers has moved on to pursue other stuff. He was at that point where he's like, "Ah, whatever," so keep an eye on Andrew because I think he's the one that looks like he's going to bolt.

Nora Lahl: Don't [crosstalk 00:27:22].

Carl Smith: We all know what happened.

Nora Lahl: Yeah. We do joke a lot because the ... We had to completely rewrite the operating agreement because as you can imagine, two brothers starting a business right out of college, it's not the tidiest [inaudible 00:27:37].

Carl Smith: Oh, yeah. Oh, man.

Nora Lahl: That was part of just the natural maturity of the business, but then also like, "Okay. We're bringing on a third person. We have to button all this stuff up." Right? The one thing that we kind of ... Everything went very smoothly like it was a very nice process I would say as far as like negotiating all of the agreements and all that jazz, but the one thing was, "What do you do when you need to kick somebody out?" We all three looked at each other and were like, "Uh." It's a running joke now because we found a good solution from the attorney that was helping us, but it's just a funny like that is ... With three people, that is one of the complications, right, like ...

Carl Smith: Oh, without a doubt.

Nora Lahl: The thing that I come back to is when Andy and I were first talking about this, he just said, "Look, you cannot enter into something like this unless you have 100% trust in the people that you're doing this with. So, if we trust each other, we will figure it out, and all of this paperwork and all these signatures, it's important, but in the end, if we trust each other, we're going to be okay." Maybe somebody else at another company doesn't feel that way and needs more than that, but here, now with Scott and Andy, the three of us, that trust is at the core of why we're doing this together.

Carl Smith: Well, I'm excited for you, and I'm excited for them. I'm excited for Lightburn. Along with what's going on over at Yellow Pencil, this is just fun to me to watch people get promoted from within, and both times, project managers. Both time, project managers. You understand, right? You know what it's going to take and you're hungry to know more, so I'm just super happy for you, Nora. I want to get you back on the show about a year from now and talk about what happened, so thanks so much for swinging by.

Carl Smith: You got it. Everybody listening, all the best, and we'll see you next week.

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