How to do Right by Your Employees
In the commodity space of design consulting, your employees are your only defensive asset. If you’re building a services (consulting / agency / firm) company, and not thinking employees-first, reassess your thinking.
In this article, I’ll highlight several simple activities we’ve done to create a [hopefully] great working environment and provide an engaging atmosphere to work in.
“If you’re not a good manager, find someone who is.”
1. Employee Education
Above everything else is employee engagement and happiness. Across the board at design agencies and consultancies I’m shocked at how little is invested into employee education. Realistically, as a services company, your team is what you are selling. In the end you are delivering results against client’s objectives. However, as design consulting becomes an increasingly commoditised space, the team is who makes the difference. They are the first and last representation of your company. If you’re not actually engaged in investing in them, reconsider your approach and start.
We do two main things around employee education.
First, everyone has an Education Budget which they can use to attend conferences, training, classes, or purchase educational materials. This renews each year and we actively encourage everyone to use it. The simple aspect of actively encouraging the usage of this stipend can’t be overlooked and is part of our culture. It’s not simply that we provide the funding, but push its usage. We want everyone to spend the money because we have never seen someone leverage their stipend to poor results.
Second, and as important, we bring in trainers or look for training around Amsterdam. This in itself is not unusual. Many companies bring in trainers. The difference for us is we look to find the best in different areas and focus on the outcomes over the cost. In my previous company, when they were looking for presentation coaches I suggest someone I had worked with who was the best I’ve seen. He routinely coaches executives at Microsoft, Amazon, Tableau and more around the US. He is direct, harsh, and unforgiving. And after one day everyone who attended took massive steps in improving their presentations from articulation to body language to confidence. Yet when we discussed bringing him in, because he was not local, it was “cost prohibitive”. This was at a company well over 20 times the size of Raft.
One of the first things we did once we hired a team at Raft was to bring him in for coaching.
2. Hiring our first employee(s)
In many books I’ve read on being an entrepreneur and starting a company, it discussed how hiring your first employee is a critical step and one you should agonise over. It will represent your initial steps of growth and reflect the type of people you want to hire moving forward. It will help cement the culture.
We more or less did everything wrong here. It’s a difficult story to share because of our early ineptitude, but it’s worthwhile to share for the lessons. Several months into Raft getting off the ground we identified that we were lacking a visual designer. We found a woman to hire who was the girlfriend of one of our previous coworkers. We knew both of them to be extremely talented, and knew her work to be what we needed to raise the quality level of our work.
However, we quickly learned that because the talent requirements fit, the person themselves may not. We made nearly every mistake we could do in bringing this person in and managing them.
Because we didn’t have our cultural values articulated, we couldn’t explain what we were about. Instead we fell back on the work needs. We focused on needing a visual designer to complete tasks. Yet this was the most obvious part that thousands of people could have fulfilled. We lacked the coherences to discuss what our values were. At the same time, we brought someone into a company that, unbeknownst to us, barely had an office and where everyone was routinely at clients given our body shop freelance model.
We didn’t provide regular 1:1s to check-in, and would sometimes even provide conflicting feedback and direction. If you’ve read any book on management and building teams, we did the opposite of what those books declared.
The reasons have already been documented above, but it’s worth sharing how all of these pieces came together to create what became an extremely unhappy employee and unhappy management.
Without an articulated culture, we realised too late that we as founders and our first employee stood for very different principles. As a company, we didn’t have clear decision makers or managers, we realised we could contradict each other and didn’t provide any real career oversight. As a company first starting out, we realised we didn’t even have a studio culture when we didn’t have anyone in the studio for days on end. It wasn’t until we had an employee that we started to connect all of these dots.
When an employee leaves, especially your first, you have the ability to either turn your head in ignorance and exclaim they couldn’t cut it, or reflect on what happened and ask “what did I/we do wrong”. Lucky we chose the latter option and from that point spewed our need to make many intangible aspects concrete as well as focus much more on creating a studio culture.
3. Protecting employees
Sometimes as a Creative Director you have to shield the team from the client. That could be requests, frustration, changes in priorities, or simply understanding where your work will end up.
We did a large design research program for a large corporate in San Francisco — one of the ones everyone in the world would know. We were ecstatic to get the contract. We did in-home interviews in multiple cities all over the US. For those of your who have done design research, you know during the program you build up a plethora of notes. Written, types, audio, video, and images. By the end of a multi-months program it can be overwhelming. On this particular program the team comes back to Amsterdam and begins to pour over the material. Hundreds of quotes and notes, tons of videos which needs to be reviewed and cut. It took half the office a month to compile everything for the final output. During the synthesis I was in close contact with our client project lead. They would continually ask what we had learned and to provide them simple one liners to help. The output of synthesis, usually a research report, is not often a one-liner or bulleted list of platitudes. We explained it’s often good to provide the executive summary, but the report goes into detail for supporting this.
I finally back-channeled with our client lead to find out why these quotable platitudes were so critical. I found out she had a large presentation of which this program was part of. Our output was essentially limited to two bullets on half a slide that would be talked about for roughly two minutes.
You can of course imagine this was not what you wanted to take back and share with the team. However I share this story not only as a point on how to protect teams, but also how to guide them, and how to ensure you are delivering the proper output for client needs.
4. Hiring a team
Hiring an initial team will be one of the most difficult things you’ll do. From figuring out who you need, how to interview them, and how to make an offer, for first time business owners, the amount of unknowns is scary. It can get worse working in Europe where labor laws are stricter in favour of employee rights.
5. Hire first? Or get the work first?
This is a classic question and I believe it depends on a number of variables only a few individuals in a company will know. At Raft, we were always conservative with growth. We watched as other companies would staff up quickly to support a client or new incoming work request only to lay off people or go bankrupt six or twelve months later. We wanted to avoid that, and at times, turned down work instead of hiring too aggressively. Although we tried to avoid this at all costs.
If you do need to layoff people, or downsize in some way, be honest and open about what happened moving forward. I’ve found too many companies will obscure and obfuscate what happened because they will only see growth as positive. Companies may need to constrict for a variety of reasons. I’ve met people who had to lay off people and twelve months later have directly lied to me saying they never did it. I’ve always thought humility goes further than pretending to be the best.
I’ve found experienced entrepreneurs will understand the difficulty of running a business and are understanding when a company needs to constrict. If you fall on hard times, discuss what you learned and what happened. Obfuscating the facts only serves to downplay the leadership qualities of the person who does it.
Decide what you have working for you, and how you can best grow. Do you have an amazing sales person? Can you staff up quickly and keep the work coming in?
As you do staff, ensure you diversify clients. In Year 2 we focused on client diversity because we realised too much revenue was in the hands of a single client. If we lost that client, we would be bankrupt in months. Therefore, diversification of clients became an important part of our growth strategy. When we ended Raft, we had three long term clients who made up most of our annual revenue. If we lost any single client, while it would hurt us, it wouldn’t bankrupt us as we had diversity in the other two. Of course we worked hard to ensure this didn’t happen, but we know if it did, we would be able to survive, and survival was still paramount as we went forward. Even while we were ok, myself and the partners always looked at everything we did as if we have zero in the bank. We always had to bring in costs and more going forward. This way we would never feel the need to rest or relax. That every day was a focused effort to keep us alive. That attitude and leadership cultural piece gave us such different insight.
When most small design consulting companies were full up and would have rested, we saw being full as “nice”, but not complacent. We used times of being full to discuss strategy of what to change or how to proceed to stay relevant. There was never a moment of “we have this all covered”. The best moments were when we were doing well as could have those conversations of what to change. Most people see being at the top at time to celebrate, and validation of the style they had. We always viewed being on top as lucky, and were consistently re-evaluating what we did and what we could improve to bring even more value to clients.
6. The difference in management and leadership
In the first few years of getting Raft up and running I didn’t think much into this. However in the latter years I began to understand its importance. I had been managing for almost 10 years at the time of starting Raft. During this time I was always in other companies that provided guideposts on how to manage. What core competencies and skills the company celebrated. What type of management style was appropriate for the culture — review process and 1:1 timing. When starting Raft, I had other co-founders, some of who were less experienced. I always considered a need to manage people, but as cofounders, I also many times thought of us as equal, therefore bypassing sometimes often needed 1:1’s. I focused my leadership efforts on determining how to run and grow the company. How to bring in work, and what made us unique in a growing commodity market.
After the first year, as we started to take the company more seriously from a direction and decision making level did I begin to think about the delta between management and leadership. There are hundreds of books written on this, therefore I won’t dwell much on any level of completeness for this topic. I’ll simply express the importance deltas I experienced while growing the company.
On the level of leadership, this represents the idea of setting direction. I’ve always said as a Creative Director, my job is essentially only two things. First, set a direction for the project, and second make and edit decisions.
On the level of management, what I learned was to simply listen. When trying to get things moving in the same direction, we can impose all the policies we wanted to. But if people don’t respect you, or having differing opinions, you need to work convincing them through soft skills and soft power. All of this starts with listening and reflecting. It also starts with a level of humbleness knowing that any decision made could be fallible. Therefore the most you listen, the more good ideas may creep in and influence the decisions or directions being made. While I would love to pretend I’m the smartest person in the room, I’m usually not. The only real edge I have, is trying to listen to the team and make the best decisions I could to advance the company towards the goals we thought were best.
7. Building diversity
Admittedly I had never thought about diversity in teams of companies until we started running a company. When you work for a company, so many areas are handled for you. Someone else put policies in place. You do your job while being propped up by the work of other people. It’s easy to say “I could do this” when thinking about running a company because you are only seeing 10% of what actually happens within the entire picture.
When we started Raft and started hiring employees we had the luck of what I’ll term accidental diversity. We didn’t set out to hire diversely, it simply happened. By the time we started thinking about it, we realised we had done a good job of hiring others who were not simply white and male. Make no mistake, much like our business development activities, was luck rather than a calculated plan. Once we realised we needed a plan, or in this case, a thoughtful approach, we had already hired multiple women.
Usually I don’t take much stock in diversity, but as you begin to work and be fully responsible for the company’s output, you begin to see the difference it makes. In a great moment, we were working on ideas for a transportation company. We were sharing our ideas and one of the women said it would be nice to have some type of personal [physical] bot accompany her on the way home from the train station when it’s outside of the city. We ask “why would you want this?”, and she explained that it would make her feel safer walking alone. The men in the group looked at each other and quizzically asked “you don’t feel safe?”. She said “not always” and another woman in the group agreed. It was at that point I realised the importance of diversity. It wasn’t to represent under-represented ideas. It was to represent ideas we didn’t even know exists because we would have never thought about them given our points of view.
Whether you discuss it as diversity, or under its new banner of inclusivity, the aspect of having others who do not share your same identity traits is good to explore ideas that may best solve your client’s needs.
8. How and when to delegate
One of the best things about hiring and staffing a team is you can hire people who fill holes in the company. You hire to make the company stronger, not simply in terms overall skill set, but for the completeness of skill sets. You hire for strengths people bring. When you hire strong people, they generally want to lead, and this is a good thing.
Let me put this simply — to scale you must delegate. Even to scale to our small size, we delegated to reduce overhead and be as efficient as possible. I’ve always seen founders or managers who put themselves as the final approver for everything as weak. It shows a complete lack of trust in everyone around you and presents your ego at the center. No one else is Steve Jobs, and even he said hire great people and listen to them.
One easy example of this was as we scaled, one of the other partners took on Marketing activities. In the latter years I didn’t review everything that was being published to our site. I trusted he would run the project as needed. Sometimes I didn’t even know something would be published, but I trusted him to handle the quality level and goals we had as a company through our marketing materials. I also knew if I saw something after it was published and took exception with it, I would discuss it with him to refine it. I know by making myself the final approver of everything, I would bottle neck the situation and speed was more important than reviewing everything. Also I had to yield that others might be more skilful in other areas or have other ideas. Over time a few employees started taking over instagram and put up more interesting posts and stories that I had thought of.
When we needed a new office, another partner took on the task. He would review some of the offices and floor plans with me, but in reality, I never saw the new office until we moved into it. I never visited the site, but I reviewed a few photos. I felt that he would make the right decisions based on needs and pricing trade off. I knew he would pull me in as needed. I also knew that my time was best served by continuing to focus on building client relationships, and anything that took time away from that would need to be more important, and something only I could do. In this case, I had to trust the other person to make the right decisions.
Delegation made us stronger as a company. If you are not comfortable delegating, you have either hired the wrong people, or are letting your ego get in the way. Both are bad.
That being said, I believe delegation worked well because we had a strong culture to fall back on where everyone understood and valued the same foundational elements. We could act as one cohesive unit. Without that cultural foundation, this wouldn’t have worked as well as people would have acted individually over as a group.
Next articles to read
The Unsung Attributes of Culture
From the article series on running Raft, a small Amsterdam based design consultancy.