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Episode 003

 Nancy Lyons

Nancy Lyons

creating culture 

with Nancy Lyons

Culture. It’s the ultimate buzzword. But the truth is it’s the difference between the success and failure of every digital agency. If your team is miserable then your clients are miserable. If everyone feels appreciated then there is nothing you can’t accomplish. This week Carl welcomes Nancy Lyons of Clockwork, possibly the best place to work in the whole dang industry.

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Transcript

 

Announcer:    
Welcome to The Bureau Briefing, a podcast by The Bureau of Digital, an organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now, for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:    
Hey, everybody, and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. As always, it is Carl. It is Friday, and I hope you had a good week. Now, having a good week is often dependent on where you work. If you had a good time or not, a lot of times, it's about the culture. I'm excited to have with us today Nancy Lyons from Clockwork. How's it going, Nancy?

Nancy Lyons:    
It's going good, Carl, how are you?

Carl Smith:    
It's going good. You know, you asked me that question earlier. I don't like to think about it, but I think it's going pretty good. Now, you're an alumni of 200 Camps, and we have had you keynote multiple summits, so thank you for all that. Thank you for being such a strong supporter.

Nancy Lyons:    
Thank you. Of course.

Carl Smith:    
Now, Clockwork gets recognized all the time for being an amazing place to work. I mean, I don't want to put a number on it, but I think maybe, I don't know, 16 times that you've won those best workplace awards. Is culture something that you plan, that you put a strategy against, or what's the secret to creating such a great place?

Nancy Lyons:    
I think it is. I think it's not something that we talk much about, or we certainly haven't historically talked much about in business school, about how to create healthy cultures, but I think it is something that's really deliberate, and I think it is, not only is it something you put a strategy against, but I think it is a bit of a business strategy, because where there are healthy people, there are healthy deliverables. There are healthy client relationships. I think that really thinking about the kind of culture you want to create is as important as thinking about the product you want to deliver.

Carl Smith:    
That makes perfect sense. Happy people are going to want to extend that out, right? That's how we are as social creatures, as primates. We want to be a part of the group, and when you're in that great space, and you feel like you're being taken care of, it's just easy to relax, right?

Nancy Lyons:    
Yeah, absolutely. I think in addition to that, you're proud of what you've become a part of, because culture isn't about sort of the trickle down of leadership thinking. Culture is owned by everyone, and culture evolves because of everyone's participation and belief in the value of it. Culture isn't just about how I think and what I mandate. It's how everybody comes to work every day and participates in the daily operation and the daily delivery of the work. I think that makes you feel good about where you are. It makes you feel valued. It makes you feel a part of something bigger than yourself, and you take that out into the world, and you represent not just the work that you do, but the people you do it with, in, I think, ways that are appealing to potential clients.

For us, it's part of our sales strategy. It's part of our brand. It's part of the brand promise, and the promise we make to our clients. It's not just, "You're going to get great work. We're going to give you solutions that solve your problems." It's also, "You're going to enjoy working with us," which I think, when technology is part of the equation, is a big question mark in most clients' minds. I think they're terrified of the big spend. I think they're concerned about what they don't understand. I think they're worried about vendors with attitude, and I think the fact that we have ... One of our core values is we're nice. Niceness is baked into our culture, and it's not fake nice. It's real nice. I think knowing that you're going to work with people that you actually enjoy, both internally and in our client relationships, makes for great business relationships. That is a sales strategy.
Carl Smith:    Without a doubt. A prospect coming in to Clockwork is going to feel that culture.

Nancy Lyons:    
Yeah. We hear that often. When we're pitching work, we often invite prospects here at some point in the process, whether they're in town or not, because people say that when they walk through our doors, the energy is palpable. We have clients all over the country, and when they come here, they really enjoy it. We have clients here in town. There's a lot of Fortune 500s, lot of Fortune 100s here in Minneapolis, and oftentimes they'll park here, our clients will park here for a period of time, because they like the energy. They like the camaraderie. They like being a part of their team, and we want that.

Carl Smith:    
Now, I used to work at a full service agency, and the woman that ran it, Melanie, was brilliant. She was brilliant in a lot of different ways, but one thing she did that I always appreciated was, when we would have a prospect come through the office, and we wouldn't know, it wouldn't be prompted, we wouldn't be told. We had empty offices. We had a really big space, and she would tell the prospect, "That's where you can work from if you need to escape from your day to day." It was so strong, and we would find that those prospects would come back. They would become clients, and they would become lifelong clients, even when they went somewhere else.

Nancy Lyons:    
We see the same thing. Our space is a reflection of us, and the collaborative spaces are where you see the most people. Interestingly, where a lot of people hang out, we have two buildings, and in both buildings we have a pretty big kitchen. It's just like your house. When you have a party at your house, where do you find people? Inevitably, they're gathering in the kitchen, because that's the meeting place. That's the place where you feel familiar and at home. Here, it's the same thing. We have these two big kitchens with these two big tables that people gather around, and inevitably, you see people near or in the kitchen. We also have these, what we call quads. They're small-ish conference rooms that are situated around those kitchens, so when people break out to collaborate, you find them there. That's oftentimes where we find clients. They'll hang out in the kitchen with everybody else. When they need some private time, they hide in a quad. We have windows that help us to see into those quads, and we can see them in there, working and talking, and making themselves at home. That's really what we want. We want them to make themselves at home.

Carl Smith:    
Now, you're saying you're in two buildings. How many people are working at Clockwork?

Nancy Lyons:    
There's 71.

Carl Smith:    
71. How fast have you been growing? How many people were you two years ago?

Nancy Lyons:    
Two years ago, we were probably 60-something. In the last few years, we've been very deliberate in our growth.

Carl Smith:    
Good. Sorry.

Nancy Lyons:    
No, it is. It is good. I would say that we've been just slow, and steady, and in the last couple of years, we've really been trying to determine if everybody here is absolutely the right fit. We don't have a ton of turnover, but the turnover that we do have is very intentional. The people that are here are part of, we have these four multi-discipline client-facing teams, and they act as four small businesses, and they have to be able to operate in that context, and every single person at the table has to bring some amount of leadership to their role. It's not just a dev in a corner, in a cubicle, or whatever. They bring some amount of leadership thinking to the work that they do. That's really important to us.

Our growth is a reflection of the way we've sort of deliberately tried to flesh out those teams, because they are the whole relationship with our clients. Any one of them can find themselves in a client meeting, taking a client call on site with the client, doing strategy work with the client. They all are pretty multi-disciplined and very well versed in business. Our growth has not been, "Oh, hire seven devs," or, "Hire a bunch of designers." It's been very much about, "We need this position filled on this team, doing this kind of work." We're larger than the average, but when you think about it in the context of those teams, it's really several small businesses, and they don't act independently, but there's a lot of autonomy on those teams.

Carl Smith:    
One of the reasons I accidentally blurted out, "Good," was because you think about that size, and two different locations, even though it's two different buildings, and culture is so much about energy, and so much about knowing who's in the room, and understanding them, in my experience. Understanding that it's broken into four teams, that's also interesting. Does each team have its own culture?

Nancy Lyons:    
I think each team has its own unique energy, but the culture is shared across the organization. You know, we have distributed folks, too, so we've got somebody in Austin, we've got somebody in Los Angeles, we've got somebody in Fergus Falls. There you go. Just a minute. The great metropolis of Fergus Falls. We've got somebody in Omaha. Some of our team is distributed. The majority of our people are here, and each one of the teams has unique characteristics that I think make them great at the work that they are tasked with, but the culture is the umbrella, is the wrapper, that I think unifies all of those teams under the Clockwork values.

Carl Smith:    
I'm curious, with the distributed members of the team that you have, the remote members of the team, what special steps do you take to help them feel part of the culture? Having run a distributed company that was roughly 40 people, satellites form, and you get people who start to get in a funk. What steps do you take with those people?

Nancy Lyons:    
Well, most of our people that are distributed visit us at least once a month, so there is definite office time that's part of the deal. They can come in and get face time, and be part of their team in a physical way. We are constantly exploring ways to communicate, so we make really thrilling use of Slack, as most organizations are doing these days. In addition to that, I still subscribe to old school weekly communications via newsletter, so I write a letter to my staff. It used to be weekly. Now it's every other week, and I share that with our CEO Meghan. Meghan does a week, and then I do a week, and the letter is, "Here's what's happening. Here's what's in my purview. Here's what's on my mind. Here's what we're looking at," in terms of new business opportunities. In addition to that, we call out great accomplishments of folks on the staff all over the place. We call out new client opportunities. We call out victories.

Really, I think the most important thing we can do for distributed teams, but also for the teams here, is commit to consistent communication and as much accessibility as we can offer. Every time we have a staff meeting, the cameras are on, and those people are in attendance just like everybody else. Every time we have meetings, we try to have them be Facetime, or Skype, or Google Hangouts. We use a lot of Google Hangouts. We try to eyeball each other as often as possible, in a variety of contexts, and we try to keep the communication channels wide open. I make myself available, and Meghan makes herself available, and it works.

Now, does it cure everything? No. I think it's next week. Tomorrow, I'm going to Denver for a meeting, and next week we have a staff meeting. Some of the staff requested that it be next week because several of them will be visiting, and I'm unable to because I have a conflict, and that makes me feel bad. They want to be in the same room. Now we know, and now we're going to very deliberately try and schedule all of our staff meetings when we know that our distributed staff can be here. It's just a matter of having the right conversations and being open to the feedback.

Carl Smith:    
I think you're dead on with the consistency, and being able to have everybody in the office at least once a month. We used to always talk about people over pixels, and the idea of never having seen someone face to face that you're trying to create something great with is just frustrating. To be able to do that once a month is, I mean, congratulations. There are a lot of distributed teams that are happy to get together once a year.

Nancy Lyons:    
I mean, it's just important to us, and so we make it happen.

Carl Smith:    
You've created this great culture, or you've enabled this great culture. I struggle with the ability to create culture.

Nancy Lyons:    
I agree.

Carl Smith:    
I think you can set it up and nurture it, and let it kind of become what it wants to, within a certain parameter, or certain restraints. I really struggle with this. I'm curious, what have you struggled with? What have been the challenges where maybe the culture was going somewhere you weren't sure about, or maybe you were just in a bad day, you just couldn't get out of your own funk? How do you deal with those challenges?

Nancy Lyons:    
You know, it's interesting. I just had a conversation with somebody else who's going to be at Owner Summit in a couple of weeks, about transparency. One of the sessions is going to be about transparency, and we were having this conversation while she prepped for it. Transparency has been the best thing that we've committed to as an organization, and it's been one of those things that has bitten me in the butt on more than one occasion. What you think you're communicating can be very far away from how it is received, and one of the things that we have once a year, is we have a facilitator come in and conduct a communication workshop to help illustrate ... This is when everybody's in the office, and everybody is forced to do it, and I say "forced" because sometimes people are like, "Really?" They end up really enjoying it.
    
We take a half a day, and we go through this workshop so that we get to see what kind of communicator everybody in the company is. You break down communication styles by, there are people who are promoters. There are people who are controllers. There are people who are analyzers, and there are people who are supporters. Promoters are like you and me, Carl. We're the people who ... Yet, you and I have been at events where you've seen the side of me that's not a whole promoter. Promoters are people who can be in a crowd, who can work the crowd, who can meet people, who are constantly moving, lots of energy, they're great at sales, but they may not be super detail oriented. Do you know what I mean?

Carl Smith:    
I totally know what you mean.

Nancy Lyons:    
Promoters are a very particular, and promoters are usually leaders inside of organizations. They are sales people, they are driving. They are the driving force. They are the energy. Lots of people don't understand promoters, because they seem a little wacky.

Controllers are the type A folks who like to have the right information and the right process, and make the right decision, and move in the right direction, based on research, and solid thinking, and planning. Analyzers are people who hear things and they sort of perseverate, and they want to get all sorts of information before they make a decision, so they don't necessarily make decisions quickly, but when they do, they're very precise about them. Supporters are people who are relatively passive and support the teams around them, who show up and get a lot of work done, but they do it in a quieter way.

I think once you know how people communicate, it's eye opening. Oftentimes, when you deliver messages, you have to consider that there are these different personalities and communication types hearing the messages, and how they receive them may be different than what you intended. What I've learned over time is that context is of critical importance, because I can say something, and I've certainly done this before, where I've made some sort of declarative statement and people have believed that I have just laid down the law about something new and walked out, and suddenly they're selling something, or doing something, or shifting gears, because they heard me say, "Well, from this day forward, we shall always do this." Maybe I was just exploring, or I was thinking out loud, or I was talking about something, or talking about a frustration. I have created situations where whole teams have made massive, dramatic left turns, when all I really wanted them to do was start maybe thinking about something.

Really understanding who you're talking to and how to frame up the message so that they hear it, and another great example is, controllers want to get stuff done. They want to get stuff done, whereas you and I want to catch up, right? We want to talk a little bit before we jump into it. What I learned about controllers is, you don't go to a meeting with a controller without an agenda, and you dive in. You walk in the door, and you dive in. If you want to sit around and shoot the shit, you save that for later, because they will feel like you are wasting their time if you don't jump right in with a controller. Meghan, who's our COO, and my sort of partner in crime, is an absolute controller.

Carl Smith:    
As is my partner, Greg Hoy.

Nancy Lyons:    
Yeah, see? You get it. Once you learn how people communicate, it makes that communication thing a little bit easier, if you're willing to be thoughtful about it. I think where I really screwed up is just not in being thoughtful enough about who I'm talking to, and just being sort of a classic promoter. I can't recommend that sort of study enough. I think understanding the different personality types is a brilliant way to get a better handle on your business.

Carl Smith:    
It's also a great way to make your life easier. Every one of those types plays a very vital role in the success of a team, right?

Nancy Lyons:    
Oh, yeah. They're all critical.

Carl Smith:    
When you're going through the hiring process, do you ever think about the type of communicator you need in a role, as well as the skill set?

Nancy Lyons:    
We do, yes. Absolutely. Interestingly, Owner Camp, and the folks in Owner Camp really were very influential as we made our shift to teams. The relationships that I built through Owner Camp and Owner Summit have been instrumental in creating sounding boards as we made some of these shifts. Interestingly enough, one of the things that we didn't pay a ton of attention to in making the shift was that very thing. We have one team that is chock full of analyzers and controllers, which is weird, right? We did. We've made some shifts since then, but when we got there, and once we fell into a rhythm, realizing that was like, "Whoa. Now we know better. Now we know how to sort of fill in some of those blanks in the teams." When we were deciding on the teams, it was really about skill set and ability. It was really about, "What job do we need done here?" Now, we're layering in sort of the communication thinking, which is interesting.

Carl Smith:    
We're almost out of time, but I was hoping you could answer one more question. I'm curious, if a shop were to ask you, "How do we start? At what point do we just start to fix the culture, or make things better?" What would you say is a good point to just start?

Nancy Lyons:    
Now. I think as soon as possible, and then always. I think when most people start examining their culture because something doesn't feel right. Because there's politics, or in-fighting, or back channel conversations, or something unhealthy is happening, or partnerships inside of organizations aren't working, or teams aren't functioning well. Usually, by the time people say, "How do we fix? How do we look at? How do we get a better handle on our culture?" It's because they recognize that something isn't working. I say "now," but then don't stop. It doesn't stop. It's an ever-evolving conversation and commitment, and I think the other thing that people have to sort of let go of, most of us who own studios or agencies are entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs are brilliant at being scrappy, and not only selling the work but getting the work done, delivering the work, managing the relationship, but at some point, you have to know when you are not the person who's best suited for the job. Whatever the job is.
 
Then, learn to let go. Empower the people around you and let go, because most of the reasons why cultures are unhealthy is because somebody in the mix is too controlling. That's not the controlling personality type. That's different. Controllers are different, but controlling, somebody who has just too tight a grip on everybody else trying to do their work, or trying to put their spin on their jobs. I would say now, and always, and let go a little, and let your people participate in a meaningful way, and you'll be amazed at what happens.

Carl Smith:    
That's great advice, and thank you so much for giving us your time today, Nancy. Congrats on all the success at Clockwork.

Nancy Lyons:    
Thanks, Carl. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me today.

Carl Smith:    
You're welcome. Everybody else, thanks for listening. We'll be back next week with another episode, and we will talk to you then.