This week on the Digital Velocity Podcast, Aaron Burnett of Wheelhouse DMG joins Erik and Tim to discuss building a values-based business that will benefit both your employees and your clients.
Generally, expected behaviors and values in business relationships take on a more defensive tone than those in personal relationships. Aaron says, “But in business, particularly in larger companies, my experience was that you walk into a professional context and there's a different set of rules that you are told apply, either explicitly or implicitly. And it is that we have contracts to protect ourselves from one another. You're my client. I've got this SOW that tightly defines what I'm willing to do for you, you've got it so you can hold me accountable, and we're really explicit about what we have to do. We're protecting ourselves from being taken advantage of, and we're going to live within these rules, assuming the worst of one another.”
However, we should exercise the same positive standards and values in our business connections as we do in our personal ones. Aaron explains, “If I'm working with you in a business context, I think I should also be helpful and generous in that business context in the same way that I am in my personal life. I think I should assume that you're a nice person and a decent person and that if I tell you that the foundation of our relationship is I'm going to look out for your best interests, and I promise to do that, but I'm going to rely on you to look out for my best interests. That's a much healthier and more productive and more effective way to work.”
When businesses create and foster strong values in a professional setting, rewards will always follow. Aaron says, “We'll probably do work that we're not explicitly paid for, and that's going to be okay because we're looking out for your best interests and we'll rely on you to look out for our best interests. The virtue of that is that we forge very strong partnerships very quickly, and our clients can be sure that they can work with us and call on us without holding their wallets. It's also that as they ask for help in areas for which we weren't initially contracted, we get to show off that we're really good in these other areas, and that's the best way to expand a relationship.”
Listen to this week’s episode to learn more about how to establish a values-based business for your employees and clients.
About the Guest:
Aaron Burnett is CEO and founder of Wheelhouse Digital Marketing Group, recognized by INC Magazine as one of the best places to work in the United States and by both Seattle Magazine and the Puget Sound Business Journal as one of the best workplaces in Washington State.
Every point of Aaron’s career has been marked by his ability to leverage technology and his creativity to drive growth. At AT&T Wireless, Aaron started as a temp data analyst after college, rising to become VP of Sales & Marketing in just five years. While there, he developed and launched a telecommunications platform that reduced key network expenses by 80% and increased call completion rates by 16%. As SVP of Marketing at Speakeasy, Aaron doubled direct and affiliate sales within 100 days of start. As VP of Marketing at NetMotion Wireless, he executed a strategy that fueled customer growth from 70 to 700 in less than two years. And at Wheelhouse, Aaron and his team have developed technology and services that guide digital strategy for clients such as NASA, Delta Dental, and Providence.
Tim Curtis: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to this edition of the Digital Velocity Podcast. I'm your host, Tim Curtis from CohereOne.
Erik Martinez: And I'm Erik Martinez from Blue Tangerine.
Tim Curtis: Today on the show we have Aaron Burnett. Aaron is the CEO and founder of Wheelhouse Digital Marketing Group, a fast-growing digital marketing agency recognized by Inc. Magazine as one of the best places to work in the US and both by Seattle Magazine and the Puget Sound Business Journal as one of the best workplaces in Washington State. Aaron delivers an engaging, inspiring conversation about building a thriving values-based business whose growth and culture are [00:01:00] fueled by helpfulness, generosity, and joy about the current state of digital marketing through the lens of a leading digital marketing agency. Aaron, we're glad to have you on the show.
Aaron Burnett: Thanks very much. I'm happy to be here.
Tim Curtis: Why don't you start off and give us a little bit of background? We always like to get a good background on folks, a little synopsis of your story, how you founded Wheelhouse. I've been familiar with you for quite a while now, but I'd love to hear a little bit more about the story.
Aaron Burnett: Sure. Happy to. So, if we go back toward the beginning of my career, I started as a VP of marketing and then VP of sales and marketing with AT&T Wireless. Then had a number of VP/SVP marketing roles with other principally tech companies here in the Pacific Northwest. The foundation for Wheelhouse and the reason for its founding was really a couple fold.
One was, I love digital marketing. I love the definitive outcomes you achieve. The fact that, whether you did it or you didn't is right there in the data. I love the intersection of creativity and technology that's inherent in digital marketing. But more foundationally, [00:02:00] I wanted to found a kind of agency that I wanted to hire when I ran marketing for other companies in a couple of key ways.
The first is that when I hired agencies, particularly at the larger companies for which I worked, there was kind of a kabuki theater that took place. Which is, I'm gonna hire an agency, the agency is going to assign an account manager, the account manager is going to be my friend and try to develop a tight relationship with me. But what really is happening is that the account manager is there to facilitate communication, but fundamentally to monetize their relationship with me. And the agency's principal aim always seemed to be to increase their fees and monetize that relationship.
So, it's great we've got an SOW. You asked the question that was outside the bounds of the SOW, or you asked for help in this particular area. Let me introduce you to a change order or an incremental SOW. So, fundamentally, what I wanted was to hire people with expertise who would help me, and what I got was people who were really interested in collecting my money as [00:03:00] their first and most important priority. That felt bad to me on a personal level, and it also seemed contrary to the way I believed other people wanted to be treated.
And so at Wheelhouse, I wanted to create a company where we're really good at digital marketing, but we engage with people on a personal level using the same values and the same behaviors that you would use in your personal life. And this is the other thing that I wanted to do in founding the company. In our personal lives, and we interact with one another, I chat with you, I meet you somewhere. I don't assume that you're out to take advantage of me. I assume you're a nice person. I'm gonna be nice to you, gonna be kind with one another. If there's opportunity or need to do so, we'll be generous and helpful with one another. That's my experience with nearly everyone in my life.
But in business, particularly in larger companies, my experience was that you walk into a professional context and there's a different set of rules that you are told apply, either explicitly or implicitly. And it is that we have contracts to protect ourselves from one another. [00:04:00] You're my client. I've got this SOW that tightly defines what I'm willing to do for you, you've got it so you can hold me accountable, and we're really explicit about what we have to do. We're protecting ourselves from being taken advantage of, and we're going to live within these rules, assuming the worst of one another.
The foundation of Wheelhouse is an assumption, a bet, a gamble on the good nature of people and their good character. If I'm working with you in a business context, I think I should also be helpful and generous in that business context in the same way that I am in my personal life. I think I should assume that you're a nice person and a decent person and that if I tell you that the foundation of our relationship is I'm gonna look out for your best interests, and I promise to do that, but I'm gonna rely on you to look out for my best interests. That's a much healthier and more productive and more effective way to work.
And so the values that the company is based upon, the values that continue to inform the way that we interact with clients, [00:05:00] prospects, and with employees are helpfulness and generosity. We tell every prospective client and every client we exist to be helpful, and that helpfulness is not limited to the SOW we've signed. You might be a digital advertising client, but if you've got an SEO problem or an engineering problem, or you get stuck on analytics, ask us. We'll help, and we will be generous with our time and resources, and expertise.
We'll probably do work that we're not explicitly paid for, and that's gonna be okay because we're looking out for your best interests and we'll rely on you to look out for our best interests. The virtue of that is that we forge very strong partnerships very quickly, and our clients can be sure that they can work with us and call on us without holding their wallets. It's also that as they ask for help in areas for which we weren't initially contracted, we get to show off that we're really good in these other areas, and that's the best way to expand a relationship.
It's the client saying, I've noticed you're great. Would you please do more of that? Let's formalize this relationship. As [00:06:00] opposed to us going in and pitching and saying, you know, we do your digital advertising. We could also handle analytics or engineering. And as a consequence, we've got really long-term client relationships. Our average client tenures five and a half years. Part of that is certainly that we're a performance marketing agency. So, we're delivering strong performance month over month and year over year. But it's mostly the relationships.
And then the remainder of the values also are critical to the way that we operate. They are trustworthiness and stewardship. Stewardship should be core to any agency. There's nothing particularly avant-garde about that. Trustworthiness should be as well, except that we express it a little bit differently. We are going to give the very best advice and be absolutely trustworthy, especially when that advice is contrary to our self-interest. When what we need to tell you to do is you shouldn't spend that money with us, or you should reduce media, or the project you want us to do is not the best project for us to do.
And then finally, it's joyfulness. We believe in pursuing joy on a daily [00:07:00] basis, and that word pursuit is important. This is arguably the hardest value to employ and cultivate. It's easy to get busy, it's easy to forget, and so we chase it. You should get joy from the work you do, from the interactions you have with your coworkers, from the way that you interact with our clients, and so we build things into our culture and our interactions to try to make sure that's the case.
Tim Curtis: You've obviously thought about these ideals and you've had them in place for a while, but how did you arrive on those five in particular? Was it an evolution? Did you go away for a weekend to the top of the mountain and come down with these thoughts? What would that look like?
Aaron Burnett: Yeah. So, they weren't there right at the inception of the company, not in terms of any formal codification. They were instinctive. They were the way that I had behaved in my professional life and my personal life up to that point, and so in part, they were sort of inherent in who I am. In all candor, a couple of the values also come from things that I didn't like in prior business situations and things [00:08:00] that I believed that I wasn't good at.
And in particular, you know, we were chatting a little bit earlier about business development. I would've said prior to Wheelhouse, I really don't like business development because what I'd seen in terms of business development always smacked of a sales process. I'm meeting you. I really want to charm you. I wanna be able to weave into our conversation little snippets that show off what we can do, and then I wanna mine for opportunities and seek out a way that I can now formally present those opportunities to you.
In the same way that that account manager dynamic that I described earlier seem disingenuous. I'm being super friendly, but I've got an agenda. BD seemed like that to me too. So, the only way that I could figure out to do BD that felt authentic to who I am, and that I thought was good and kind and healthy for the people with whom I was interacting, is just to be helpful to everybody I meet, and to be generous with what I knew how to do.
I was the first SEO, and we began as an SEO firm. I spent a lot of time just chatting with people, and if [00:09:00] they asked me about digital marketing, I would tell them whatever I could to be helpful. I'd point them to other resources. I would fix issues with their sites. I found that being helpful and generous, always resulted in a good thing. It either resulted in some engagement with that person or it resulted in them being left with a really good experience, a good taste in their mouths that they would share with other people.
At some point down the road, it might be months, it might be a couple of years, someone would come back to me and say, I was talking with Tim and he mentioned you're good at this. You helped him a bit. I wonder if I could talk with you about what I need. So, those first two values came out of my innate personality, but my discomfort with classic business development.
The notion of joyfulness came from what I had seen in working in lots of different companies, but in particular in startups, and in particular, in venture-backed startups. Where it seemed to me that what people were being told when they worked in [00:10:00] startups was, you are going to sell your soul and quality of life for this period of time with the promise of riches at the end. And there's some percentage chance that you get the riches, but everybody makes the same pact. You're gonna work really long and hard. It's not gonna be fun. The people you work with might be mercenary and aggressive and make you unhappy, but it's gonna be worth it in the end cuz you get this money.
And that seems so miserable. I saw it being miserable for other people. It was not a great experience for me either. And it just seemed to me that there has to be a healthier way. It is reasonable that you should enjoy not just an outcome, but every day. It also comes from, in all candor, the experience of working like that early in my career to get what I thought I wanted. I wanted to be a vice president at AT&T Wireless by the time I was 30, and I worked in my twenties really hard to make that happen.
I missed it, but I made it by 31, and [00:11:00] it didn't make any difference to how happy I was. I didn't suddenly become relaxed, easygoing, joyful, happy. I had the same level of anxiety and stress that I had when I was working to get to that goal. But I had the tremendous gift of getting what I wanted at 31 instead of getting it at 60 and realizing that the last 30 years were a folly. And so I was able to reflect at that point, the value and quality of ambition and achievement versus what maybe has real inherent value in life.
Erik Martinez: I align pretty nicely, I feel, with your values. We're not maybe lockstep sync, but I'd say we're pretty close. My experience has been that working with corporations, large corporations, has been difficult.
Now, I'll give you an example. I was working with, I was on the client side. I started on the client side, like you and I was working for a company where we were working with a website platform company, and that website platform company had been sold to an investment group, [00:12:00] and they brought in a whole new group of management and sales and an account management team. And I was having dinner with one of the executives. He said, Erik, I don't understand. I don't understand why this community of companies that we work with take everything we do so personally.
The context is that you know, the vast majority of the clients of this particular software firm were owner-operated companies. It is personal. It's their dollars on the line, it's their business, it's their livelihood. And it's hard to convey that to somebody who is in that kind of mercenary role where they don't have any skin in the game other than they lose a job, they can pick up and go find another job somewhere else.
What's interesting here is I actually grew up on the owner-operated side and felt that way working with these types of folks, and you worked in that type of environment and came to the same conclusion. Just going back to the [00:13:00] helpfulness piece of it, we constantly have debates within our team about how helpful should we be. Is it maximum verbosity? Is it helpful in small chunks?
When I started my business, pretty much my client would say, Hey, I need this, and I would just do it. It's kind of the same story. But, you know, one of the challenges of that is there is a cost to doing that part of the business, and so how do you guys go around balancing that helpfulness part with the very real fact that if I burn an extra a hundred hours on something, there's an actual real cost to that? I'm just kind of curious of how you guys navigate that.
Aaron Burnett: It's tricky. There is always tension. We've tried a number of different ways to go about this. The approach that we've landed on that seems to work pretty well, although is still imperfect. It sounds simple, and it is. Everyone has license to be generous. So, everyone in my company has the ability to go outside of an SOW. It needs to be a choice and they need to know they're doing. It's [00:14:00] not that everyone can just turn a 10-hour project into a 50-hour project because they got carried away. It is, we've got guardrails that let people know where they are within the burn on a project or a particular retainer.
Seventy percent of our work is retainer-based work, so we've got consistent run rates and a long-term relationship. People know when they're outside of the bounds, and we've just said make sure this is a decision and not an accident. Because in the past we have had a couple of incidents where people didn't pay attention and they just burned super hot, and it was only when they were 90% through the project and realized, oh, I'm 1.3x what I should have done on this project, and I've still got another 10% to go. It wasn't a choice, it was an accident.
So, two reasons for that, and then two kind of happy byproducts. One is, when it's a choice, you're thoughtful about whether this truly is an investment and whether it's an investment that's gonna be appreciated [00:15:00] by the client. The second is you can express it to the client and you can do so in a manner that makes clear, hey, this is a part of our values. Here's what I'm doing or what I've done, and here's why. The third is that if you tell people, this is what I'm doing, or this is what I've done for you, and you do it early enough because of the foundation we've expressed with our clients, which is, I'm gonna look out for you and you're gonna look out for me. Quite often the client says, oh no, let me make you whole on that. I'm really grateful that you just went ahead and did it, but we should pay you for that work as well. And so you get the happy byproduct of that generosity also being rewarded ultimately.
Erik Martinez: You hit on a really important topic. In our company, we talk about trust and that there's a bank of trust. If you're helpful and thoughtful and you're genuinely looking out for the best interests of your client partner, over the course of time you build trust. My experience has been when you have that situation, when you make that mistake, because you ultimately [00:16:00] will at some point make a mistake, and that costs the client money or time or both. When you make that mistake, they will know that it wasn't because you weren't diligent or you were careless, or that you didn't care. It was, Hey, we made a mistake. We're human. We do make those mistakes.
And I agree with you that that usually ends up getting rewarded. Whether it's in the scenario where you say, where the client came back and said, Hey, we'd like to compensate you for your time, or nine times out of 10, in my experience, it's been, Hey, you know what? We would like to do more work with you. We see that as well.
So, you know, as you look at these values, how do you guys go about communicating that when you're working in a client engagement or you're talking to a prospect that doesn't really know you guys very well? How do you communicate those values in a way that makes sense to them?
Aaron Burnett: In a couple of ways. So, first, mechanically we lead with values. You know, we were having a conversation earlier about [00:17:00] being careful and selective about clients with whom you work and making sure that there's values alignment. In those few instances where we've not done that, it gets really painful really quickly on both sides. And in our case, because we are so focused and have operationalized and given license for people to be helpful and generous if we work with the wrong kind of client, someone whose MO is just, I'm gonna get as much for as little as possible. We can be taken advantage of so quickly, and that has happened a couple of times in the past. There is a specific profile for the kind of client that will do that, and even a specific ownership structure that quite often leads to that sort of behavior, so we have to be careful of that.
And we lead with values. It's the second slide in an intro presentation. We often don't use an intro presentation when we talk with prospects. We're just having a conversation with them about what they need and who we are and what we do. We start with the way that we behave and why we behave that way and what the values are that will animate and [00:18:00] inform those behaviors and the implicit quid pro quo that's inherent in those values. This is my promise to you. This is your promise to me, and the subtext there is let's make sure that you're really comfortable with that and that's the kind of relationship you want.
And sometimes a prospective client will say, no, that's not what I want. Sometimes they say it really explicitly in ways that astound me. No. No. I want a team of people who will do exactly what I say, who I can burn at both ends when things get really busy. I'd like them to be working when I'm sleeping. They will literally say those words out loud. Which makes it really easy to say, I think we're probably not a good fit for you. You'll want someone different.
Erik Martinez: I completely agree with that. Having sat on the client side and having gone through some of those very same concerns. Is the agency out to get me? Are we out to get them, right? It's really, really important to know that the work gets done [00:19:00] when there is mutual trust and collaboration between the partners on both ends of the deal. I've worked with some other agency partners who are working with some of our clients. And what I've experienced is sometimes they just want the whole show. They wanna do everything. They don't want any client involvement in it. Operationally that sometimes makes sense, right? There may be things that you have to kind of silo over here, let the agency go do what they do and bring back a finished project.
But when you're working on retainers, we are very similar in terms of how we work. We have mostly retainer business, we've got long-term relationships. And when you're trying to work with a team, you've gotta kind of fill the holes that are necessary. Their priorities may change because their business context has changed, and so you need to pivot with them and realign your resources around their goals and objectives. That's the healthiest working relationship with a client in my experience.
Aaron Burnett: That's right. Yeah. You're absolutely right. And so [00:20:00] there are two things that are key, and you mentioned a couple of them. One is that the relationship has to be focused on a business outcome. That's what you need to be focused on delivering. Not the scope of work, the business outcome. As long as that's your North star, then you can be clear and you can be super flexible. Our SOWs for retainers often include language that explicitly describes this. It's called a flexible engagement model. It's basically, hey, the rest of the SOW says that this is a digital strategy retainer, but we're trying to achieve this thing and priorities change.
We are going to flexibly deploy all of our resources from throughout the company in a manner that is loosely related to the amount of your retainer. At any point in time, and we will work to a series of iterative project plans so that we're clear on priorities, but you get all the things that we know how to do. And we will mix and match, and your SEO retainer can become an engineering retainer for two months and an analytics retainer for one month or 50/50 or what have you because we're focused on achieving [00:21:00] this goal, not on working through a punch list of SEO best practices or something like that.
Tim Curtis: So, as we were talking before the show, CohereOne, I closed our offices in San Francisco. COVID taught us a lot, right? COVID taught us that we could work remotely, and in many respects, the talent was requiring us to be able to work remotely. So, we adjusted our model. But with that came the challenge of instead of having an office environment, being in a virtual environment, instead of visiting clients onsite, it became virtual with Zoom. And talk about your transition. I mean, how do you maintain those values when you're now decentralized?
Aaron Burnett: Yeah. It's been tricky. So, we went remote March 6th, 2020. I think I was telling you at the time, I had almost 8,000 square feet of office space in Seattle and another couple thousand in Richmond, Virginia. Everybody [00:22:00] was in office with just a couple of exceptions. At this point, I have employees in 17 states. In part because of the lockdown and the fact that everybody could work remote, and they did. People moved to other places and bought houses and shifted their lifestyles. And in part, because the super competitive labor market during that time required us to seek talent, particularly really specialized talent, like a data engineer or data scientist, wherever we could find them. All the big companies were competing for exactly those same people.
So, we've tried lots of different things and some of them worked well, some of them didn't. Early on, I had weekly company meetings. Part of that was just, Hey, there's a lot changing really quickly. I'm gonna talk to you every week about what we're doing, and this will be the point when we're unified, we continue to reinforce and galvanize the culture. I think in fairness, we were benefiting from the fact that we had all been in office together, and so there was cultural continuity and almost muscle memory from that in-person experience. The further [00:23:00] away we got from that, the more we've needed to come up with different ways to interact and connect and reinforce our culture and values.
We've always tried to operationalize our culture, to make our values habits, which is what we've talked about for years. A value becomes a habit. It becomes instinctual. It's ingrained in each of us individually and us collectively. Some of those things we've continued to do. So, we do what are called generosity days. Once a quarter, everyone in the company takes time off to volunteer, give their time to an organization that they care about, and we make a financial donation to that organization. By the way, the only rule there is that you have to be directly helping someone. You can't go stuff envelopes at a charity or something administrative. You need to be up close and personal with the people you're helping because that teaches us humility and it gives us an opportunity to reflect.
There's a lot about being in a digital marketing agency where we are always the experts. It can be [00:24:00] too easy to lull yourself into this notion that we are expert. We always know what we're talking about. You go help, I don't know, cook breakfast for a group of homeless people at a homeless shelter, or figure out how to run a food bank or how to pack or unpack or sort food, you know nothing walking in. And you are by definition put in a position of humility and you get to reflect on the other life experiences that people are having.
The other thing we do is something called the Joy Fund, and the Joy Fund is intended to activate that joy value. Every month, every employee gets $50. They can spend it any way they want on anyone else in the company. They could save it up and spend six months at once. They could join together with other people. The only rule is you have to spend it on something that delivers joy to someone else in the company. There are two things that come from that. One is, if I'm gonna deliver joy to you, I have to know you well enough to know what actually brings you joy. And the second is I get to see my impact [00:25:00] and that I have given you a fantastic experience, and that gives me a sense of agency in the world to make other people's lives better.
And so we've continued to do those things and we tried to cultivate ways that those things can become virtual. We tried all of the things that most other companies tried, virtual happy hours and games and team building activities, and all sorts of things. Some of those things didn't work very well. Some did. We found anything done for the entire company, a company happy hour, does not work. It's too many people on Zoom. You can't talk over the top of one another. You can't get a relaxed, collegial conversation going. But you could do that at a team level with five or six or seven people. Certain kinds of games that are digitally enabled for small groups can work as well.
And then for connection, which is the thing that I found I was missing the most. I'm a really interpersonal person. I like to sit across from you. I like to talk with you, hear your tone of voice, see your [00:26:00] facial expression, read your body language, all the subtle things that we didn't realize we were collecting when we were just living a normal life, and that disappear in a Zoom context, I miss.
We now do virtual one-on-one connections. We use Slack like lots of folks do. We've got an integration with Slack that randomly connects people in the company and will prompt get-to-know-you kinds of questions and then set up a coffee meeting. Where you're connected for the next two weeks? Meet each week and just spend some time getting to know one another. So, we'll do that as well. And I have found those one-on-one connections to be really valuable. Good way to get to know people, stay connected to folks in the company.
You know, your question about how we actually ensure our values are a part of our client relationships, it's by leading with them and repeating them. They're a mantra in the company. They are a part of most of our discussions. They're a part of our community meetings. They're the reason [00:27:00] why we do or don't do a thing. They inform our compensation, philosophy, everything. So it's just being more thoughtful, more intentional in the way that we interact with one another.
And then the final thing is since it's absolutely clear that we are permanently remote. You know, we've shifted to a smaller office and tried to bring people into that office and it's really clear that folks are very happy with working at home. They're doing great work and they're super productive and in many instances, they've been able to improve their lifestyles by doing so. I'm not gonna force anybody back. Instead, what we're doing is every six months we bring everybody to Seattle and we spend a week together. We will over time bring people to different destinations and just make that a part of company operations.
Tim Curtis: We do something very, very similar every six months. We actually, last week had our team together in Vegas and we did our holiday party, Christmas party in Vegas and had sort of year-end meetings. We had individuals who were actually tracking and counting down the days so that we all knew how long it was gonna be, and so it was sort [00:28:00] of setting that expectation for a great time together. We actually really all enjoy each other's presence. It's unusual when you develop a culture like that. Sadly, that's not the norm.
And so what you've built at Wheelhouse, unfortunately, is not what you necessarily see spreading across there. And I think the Joy Fund probably is that tangible example of culture, culture being lived out. The volunteering and generosity of going and doing an act of service, servicing someone else. Those are things that make your culture real and really reinforce it. And it's sort of it's where the rubber hits the road. You're living out those values in a way that is big.
And as we were talking, as you, you referred to our conversations about business development. In terms of sensitivity, when I'm looking across, you know, the agency, one of the things that I think is so interesting is business development seems to be the area of the company that is oftentimes impacted the most by culture. I don't necessarily understand why that is, but it sure seems to be, and I've heard other agency owners [00:29:00] talking a little bit about that and referencing that. Do you see, as a result of implementing this within the company, are you seeing changes in your client service team or account service team? What are the tangible changes that you recognize occurring within the company?
Aaron Burnett: Yeah. Well, so first, from a timeline perspective. Although we hadn't formalized the values at the beginning of Wheelhouse. We're in our 13th year, so founded in 2010. The values were formalized and written down in 2012, and they haven't changed. The one adjustment is that we have kind of foundational unwritten value of empathy that undergirds almost everything we do, but the values haven't changed. And so, rather than seeing changes in those functions as a result of the values, we have figured out ways to build those functions in a manner consistent with values, and we see adaptation of some of those functions to be consistent with those values.
We all hire people from other agencies. What I've seen on the [00:30:00] BD side, in particular, is that the way that we approach BD philosophically is very different than most other agencies. Probably the crispest way to say that is that we don't sell. We're gonna be helpful, we're going to be generous with time and resources, we're gonna look for a fit, but there is no coercion. We have no closers. We're not gonna apply any pressure.
What I've been able to instill and what I've seen evolve is that when we bring in a BD person from the outside, they'll come in with all of their old habits. This is a volume game. There's pressure. Hey, I need to reach out to this person. I need to keep the pressure on. I'm going to sell them on this thing. And our mantra is we don't sell. Forget the pressure. Don't try too hard. Just do a really good job of helping them. Have faith, have confidence. That's enough.
It might not close on your timeline. It might not happen right now, but something good will happen. It will happen on their timeline in a month when they're ready or it might [00:31:00] not happen with them, but you will have given them such a good experience that it will happen for one of their close contacts who also needs help. Let the virtue of our values actually inform and power our business operations and our revenue, our business development process.
Erik Martinez: Let's pivot for a moment, Aaron, and talk a little bit about getting to know your team better. I read some things, in preparation of this podcast, that you guys do. I thought it was really interesting that I think not only other agencies could do, but our clients, our audience, listening audience could actually take some of these methodologies and apply them to their business. But you talk a little bit about using DiSC Profiles and Saboteur Assessments and The Five Dysfunctions. Can you talk a little bit about how you use those tools to get to know your team and what it does to help you improve performance and productivity?
Aaron Burnett: Sure. Well, so use of DiSC [00:32:00] Profiles and the Saboteur Assessment starts actually in the recruiting process. Every finalist candidate, before they interview with me, will take a DiSC assessment and we'll have their profile, and they'll take the Saboteur Assessment as well, The DiSC assessment is a lot like Myers-Briggs, but it's applied to a professional context and it gives us a couple of things. It gives us insight into personality type and disposition for a candidate.
We know what kind of disposition and personality type is suitable for which of our practice areas and disciplines. It also gives us clarity with regard to how that personality type is going to interact with other team members or other leaders in the company. What's going to be easy and comfortable? In what ways might we make that person crazy or frustrated? I have a very specific personality type. I am the only one of my personality type in the company from a DiSC perspective. If I were to work very closely with certain other personality types, [00:33:00] I would frustrate because of that disposition and the behaviors and habits that are associated with that.
The DiSC profile is shared with the hiring manager and the practice lead so that they know who they've got on their team, and it's also available and shared with other team members. So, hey, I know who you are, and it can be used in team-building exercises. A Saboteur Assessment is a nice compliment to the DiSC. It looks at personality type through the lens of the way your disposition, the way certain characteristics, are likely to become more predominant when you're under stress and how they can literally sabotage you.
So, there are some aspects of your personality that may be superpowers under the best of circumstances. Here's how they will show up when you're under stress and might undermine you, create difficulty for others. And we know a couple of things out of that. Again, we get a sense for disposition. Is this the right sort of person for this role? We also know with [00:34:00] absolute certainty that there are a couple of profiles that will never work in our company. Because before we used it, we hired folks who had those characteristics and we didn't know it.
We took everyone in the company through this assessment and there were a couple of people who had this particular set of Saboteurs in a particular order and waiting. And both we and they looked at these results, and them first and then us said, oh, this isn't good. This is not going to work here. They ended up finding work elsewhere and we realized that profile is never going to work with us. We use all of that in a team-building process.
You mentioned Five Dysfunctions. So, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a book by an author named Patrick Lencioni. It's a business fable that tells the story of a new CEO stepping into what had been a fast-growing, well-funded startup that is languishing and an executive team that despite well-intentioned and high-performing members, [00:35:00] is not doing a good job of running that company, and the way that she galvanizes the team, creates alignment and builds a really strong foundation and a high functioning team. And it is by approaching these five core dysfunctions that get in the way of a team trusting one another, holding one another accountable, being open and candid with feedback, being focused on results. It is the single most impactful thing that we've done at a team level in our company, in our history, and I'm about to do it again with all of the teams.
So, in that process, part of what we're doing is going through these professional dynamics, but more foundationally because the bottom dysfunction is a lack of trust. Trust is foundational to everything. We are getting to know one another on a deep level. My feeling, my belief is that the notion of work-life separation is an illusion in a couple of ways. First of all, just practically, we all [00:36:00] work with our brains. When you go to work, when we were going to a physical place, you didn't put a different brain in to go to work and then take that one out and go home. It's not like severance, right? You take the same brain with you and if you care about your work, you are thinking about your work in the evening, and you have a personal life. That personal life is a part of what you're doing during the day. It's all blended, and so too is your identity.
You should be able to bring everything that you are to work and be that same person. You shouldn't put on a different persona when you come to work. So, we want people to be able to show up authentically for who they are at work, and we want to know people for that. Our goal, which is an audacious goal and kind of heretical for certainly an agency, maybe any business, is that everybody in our company should feel known and loved by their team members, really valued for who they are. You can't feel really valued unless you're truly known. So, we start with truly knowing one another.
And the DiSC Profile, the Saboteur Assessment, going through discussion points around Five [00:37:00] Dysfunctions is a part of that. One really powerful aspect of using these tools is that unlike the DiSC Profile, which is fairly academic and describes characteristics in fairly dry terms. You may react like this. The Saboteur Assessment delves into the origin story of these particular characteristics. So, I'll give you a couple of examples.
My two strongest Saboteurs when I first took the test were called Pleaser and Controller. I wanna make everybody happy. If I interact with you, I want you to be delighted with that interaction and think that I was nothing but kind and helpful to you. I also have a very specific way that I want things to turn out and be handled, and so I'm a controller. And under stress, those two things show up powerfully.
Those can be superpowers if I'm in the right circumstance. As a pleaser, I'm highly attuned to your needs as a client and I'll take excellent care of you, so that can be great. [00:38:00] Under stress, being a pleaser can be debilitating. If I need everybody to be happy with a critical decision, at a company level, I may do nothing or defer a really difficult decision cuz it's gonna be so uncomfortable for me to make you unhappy. Knowing that's really helpful. And then what even is more impactful is that same assessment will describe the lie you tell yourself that justifies the behavior, the likely origin story, and the thought process associated with it.
And when you go through sharing, reading out loud, this is my DiSC Profile. Here are my Saboteurs. Here's the origin story for my top two saboteurs. You end up talking about, oh yeah, so here's what my mom was like, here's what my dad was like. Here's this experience I had that caused me to behave like this or to really, really be focused on that or to feel hyper-vigilant in a work situation.
And now you're talking about who we really are and having done so, the [00:39:00] next time you and I interact, if I know these things about you, I have a sense for what you need in that interaction and how to better care for you and communicate more effectively. If things go sideways, I have a much clearer understanding of why. It's not such a mystery to me. So, our relationship becomes much more functional, much more intimate, and much more authentic. We can skip all of the, I don't know, all of the machinations, the things that we do, the niceties that we employ to try to, play nice cuz we don't totally understand each other and we can move straight to shorthand, which is all about efficiency and intimacy.
Erik Martinez: Yeah, I think what's really cool about all this, first of all, you need to write a book. I think these are really, really important topics as we are all dealing with complex environments, complex personalities. You've got a team, I believe you said 30 people. Every one of those people is unique and have their own dispositions and their own family lives, and interweaving that into the culture of your [00:40:00] company is really, really quite a remarkable challenge. It's really something that's kind of forsaken.
Back to kind of how we started this conversation, right? You're supposed to act and behave differently at work than you do at home, and the reality is those lines are very blurry today and have gotten blurrier in the last couple of years. I think that's really, really important to make sure that we're taking time to listen to our teams and learn about them and help them fill their buckets in whatever way that's possible, so we can focus on client objectives, we can focus on good outcomes. I got one more question before we move to wrap up. You have such a unique culture in your company. I'm curious to know if you have clients who have adopted elements of your culture in their companies.
Aaron Burnett: Yes. I think that's true. I'll also say that our culture has definitely impacted clients in some pretty profound ways. I'll give you a couple of examples. Let me approach it this [00:41:00] way. Our commitment to our team members is that they're going to be working with folks who treat them well. These are going to be healthy relationships. There have been a couple of instances where that has begun to be not the case. New stakeholders introduced on the client side. That stakeholder has a completely different way of interacting with an agency. Theirs is more about the yelling and the beating and not about the partnership.
We have had more than one instance where we've called, and sometimes it's me, sometimes it's one of the VPs, and said, we seem not to be a good fit for you anymore. Here's what I'm seeing. Here's the commitment we make to our employees. We can't keep working with you because that's in violation of our values and this promise. We're gonna give you 90 days’ notice. We'll help you find another agency. We'll transition. In more than one instance, the client said, oh, I'm sorry. I had no idea. We'll adjust, right? I'll change my behavior or I'll talk with this person. They'll change their behavior, or we will swap out a stakeholder on our side so that this [00:42:00] person who's problematic isn't involved.
I'll give you one more example that is more profound. We had a CIO at a financial services client, and everyone else on the client side was great, but this person was really aggressive and insulting, and unpleasant to work with. This was the call every week that folks on my team dreaded, would really feel stressed about, and then sometimes there would be recovery afterward. One of my VPs who knew this person called and said, effectively what I just said to you. These are the behaviors that are problematic and we just can't do that.
This guy's response was, I had no idea. Tell me more. Tell me what I'm doing. And she did and was really, really direct and clear. And then he said, please send me an email and follow up with specifics, and she did. And his response was, I am sorry. I will change this, and he did, in a profound way, like completely shifted. Not just with us, but his work persona as well, and the way that [00:43:00] he was interacting with others. And so I've seen that kind of impact.
The other thing I've seen is that when people leave Wheelhouse, and this is an explicit goal. We want them to take the culture with them and take it somewhere else, and integrate it with their new work environment or if they're at a leadership team level, inform the values there and we see that repeatedly.
I haven't seen another company wholesale adopt and copy our values in entirety. What I do see most often, and in fact, I just had this experience over the last month, in particular, the notions of helpfulness and generosity. Those seem to be the most attractive and compelling to people, and I've seen those go into action immediately.
I had a conversation with another company CEO, a software development firm CEO, six weeks ago, described our culture and values. He wrote them down and two weeks later said, I'm using helpfulness and generosity right now. Here are the things I'm doing. Here's how it's working, and they're now [00:44:00] really core to their operations as well.
Erik Martinez: That's really cool. That's a fantastic story. This is a critical component of not only the working relationships with our clients but our working relationships with our teams and our teams with their clients. Because at the end of the day, we're all striving to help coalesce around a set of business objectives and improve everybody's experience along the way. So, this has been fantastic. Really appreciate you coming out. Aaron, if somebody wanted to reach out to you, what is the best way?
Aaron Burnett: Sure. They can certainly reach me on LinkedIn. They can reach me on Twitter. I'm @AaronBurnett and via email, email@example.com.
Erik Martinez: Awesome, Aaron. Well, thank you so much for your time and, and your experience and I really do think you should write the book on this topic because I think you guys have done an amazing job of doing something that's really, really quite challenging in a business environment of incorporating all [00:45:00] those values. So, congratulations on that. Well, that's it for today's episode of the Digital Velocity Podcast. I'm Erik Martinez from Blue Tangerine.
Tim Curtis: And I'm Tim Curtis from CohereOne.
Erik Martinez: Have a great day folks.