Chris Bennett is the CEO and Founder of 97th Floor, an award-winning digital marketing agency. He speaks on marketing and entrepreneurship at universities and international conferences, including SMX, SearchLove, Adobe Summit and DreamForce. Chris shares his story on how changing his management style grew his business, while fostering happy employees.
I was recently on the phone with an old friend of mine who had just taken a new job as head of HR over a 500+ employee turkey farm. He said he had seen all of our culture success recently, and wanted to pick my brain. To put it lightly, things at the farm were in disarray. I didn’t know if I could help—turkey farms and marketing agencies are two completely different worlds.
But as we we started to talk I was reminded that humans are humans, and it doesn’t matter what you do for a living, there are certain things that work (and certain things that don’t) when it comes to how humans want to be treated.
Let me give an example. The turkey farm had been having an issue with plant workers taking too long using the bathroom. Specifically, management felt that 10 minutes was more than enough time for a bathroom break and they didn’t like the 12 minute average they were seeing.
Do you see the problem? You have a situation where management is telling other human beings how and when they can go to the bathroom. Sure, a lot of those employees were probably turning their bathroom breaks into bathroom-themed cell-phone time, but that just brings up another issue—that these employees feel that the only way they can get a few minutes away from their posts is during a bathroom break. That doesn’t suggest the most enjoyable working environment, now does it?
After about two hours on the phone with my friend I realized that I couldn’t go through addressing each issue one by one; we didn’t have the time, and it wouldn’t solve the core problem, in any case. The problem was the relationship between management and personnel. It was all an issue of employee autonomy, or more accurately, a complete lack thereof. After all, as business thinker and author Daniel H. Pink so succinctly states,
“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”
In my opinion, autonomy should be at the heart of all management. Set expectations and clear KPI’s for your team, and then let them run. Since we gave our employees full autonomy at 97th Floor, the difference has been night and day from top to bottom.
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I can’t tell you how much time I used to waste reprimanding adults for being five minutes late clocking into work in the morning or coming back from lunch, and that doesn’t even touch on hours of conversations about tracking vacation time. There were days in the office where noon would come and go without me getting any of my tasks done, because of all these pointless meetings. Not only was it a waste of time, but it was a strain on our work dynamic and the relationships I had with my employees.
And, as the cherry on top, it was a huge added stress on myself, my work, and my company’s morale—all during a time when the company was growing and needing as much attention as possible. It is not uncommon for budding companies to have serious stress and growth issues around the 7–20 employee range, and from my experience it is mostly from system and structure cogs. We were at about 10 employees during this time. Sometimes I’m amazed we made it through.
What changed for us? Our first W-2 employee and now COO Wayne Sleight came on with me before we had any time clocking or vacation tracking. We started out where I would just give him assignments with specific KPI’s that I passed on from the clients, and then I would let him do the thing—not out of business acumen or strategy, but because I was so busy closing clients and working to grow the brand and keep the bank account healthy that I didn’t have time to micro-manage.
As we started to grow I continued to manage Wayne the same way while I was running the rest of the company completely differently. Wayne had complete autonomy while everyone else had more and more policies thrown at them. What do you do when your employees are taking too long in the bathroom? You write up a new policy and threaten everyone to sign it. Wayne started to add team members under him and his team was growing and growing and we kind of had two different companies inside one roof. This started to turn into an ‘us vs. them’ mentality and it was threatening to overwhelm us all.
This continued to build, until one day when Wayne and I were talking about company policies. He said, “Look do you really care when or where or how I work if I get the KPI’s done and the clients are happy and re-signing?” This hit, and I thought about it for a long time. The truth was that, no, I didn’t care one bit. All I really cared about was how happy the clients were. As long as the business was doing well and our clients were getting the excellent service we were hired to provide, nit picky employee policies were just unnecessary stress.
I had been grading myself with full autonomy, and Wayne with full autonomy, while micromanaging my other employees to the point of exhaustion.
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That’s really where today’s 97th Floor was born. Today, our valued employees are treated like adults—given complete autonomy with a fantastic work/life balance that has been awarded and recognized by Inc., Fortune and Entrepreneur magazines.
We started by working backwards, just as Elon Musk did with the auto industry, and we looked at all the things that were superfluous to achieving results for our clients. This helped us draw a clear line between what moves client work and what has nothing to do with it. Once you get that figured out, you make “the work” the center of everything you do.
Is this meeting driving the work? If not, then dump it. Is that policy helping us provide clients with the best service possible? No? Then let’s forget about it. Everything needs to be questioned in regards to the work. See Wayne’s recent post, “Culture Determines Brand Strength” for more.
What evolved from this were a lot of changes that have made us stand out from most other agencies. For example we got rid of individually run departments, and instead we now have teams or pods. In place of a marketing department or design department where each department shares percentages of client work, we have teams made up of a mix of marketers, designers, writers etc., and lead by Campaign Managers. There is still a department head over each of our disciplines (Design Director, Writing Director, Organic Marketing Director, PPC Director, etc.) but now each of the individuals get to function together as a whole team, and every employee on that team is solely judged off of the work they do for the clients.
There are no expectations of how many hours or days are spent in the office. There is no worrying about petty, inconsequential policies. And there is definitely no one keeping track of how long we spend in the bathroom.
The transition wasn’t seamless. Not everyone is ready for this kind of environment of autonomy, and some elements had to be weeded out. But with a little bit of time, the company adjusted. Now, team members are able to police themselves.
One suggestion that I would make to any CEO attempting a similar transition is this: “Move out of State.” Yes, it’s meant as a joke, but there’s certainly some truth to it. Three years ago I moved from Utah back to Southern California, where my wife and I grew up. We always wanted to raise our kids there, and the area was home to a number of 97th Floor clients. Surprisingly, when I moved myself away from the day-to-day employees of the 97th Floor office, I found myself no longer being bothered with the “hey you gotta minute” stuff. I could focus on my role, which is to strategize, plan and execute a growth plan. It also freed my team in Utah from having to worry about ‘looking busy’ for the CEO, and gave them the chance to focus on achieving actual client results.
Has it made a difference? Well, three years ago when I moved we had 24 employees. Today we have have 62. The company has grown more with me gone then when I was there.
One last caveat: There is a big issue that can arise during this transition process of autonomy: employees overworking themselves to prove their worth. This can easily lead to burnout, or reignite old biases based off of how much time is spent in the office. We had to be very clear that vacations are encouraged and that recharging is vital for employees and the company. Having management and execs take vacations is a good place to start.
Early on in this transition, one of our employees, Maggie, fulfilled a dream of going to India. She worked there for nearly a month with no loss of productivity. When she came back it was such a great example to the rest of the company that autonomy works and is possible. How empowering for that employee to be able live a dream without the stress that her job might be in jeopardy.
Whether you’re running a turkey farm, a marketing agency, or anything in between, don’t micromanage; give your employees the power to accomplish great things, and they’ll lead your business into a bright and successful future. Now, if I could just make this philosophy work with my kids, I would have it all figured out.
This story was originally published on the 97th Floor blog.