Written by: Estelle Pin
Be Found Online was ranked #1 on Ad Age’s Best Place to Work in 2016. Amidst public accolades, they were facing one of the most difficult moments of their development: working with a client who was hurting company morale. The client represented 25% of their revenue, and while continuing to work with them could present significant retention issues, the loss in revenue could cause equally catastrophic losses in staffing.
So what did they do? Dan Golden, founder, president and chief search artist at BFO, came to speak at TINYcon 2017. He told us the story of BFO’s culture of ownership, and how those spectacular employees who helped the company reach new heights also helped get through this and other lows. Watch the video above, or read below to hear about ownership culture and the way this story ends.
What is a culture of Ownership?
When asked what issues keep owners and founders up at night, often answers fall along the lines of revenue, company growth, business development. The same question posed to employees yields very different results—job security, compensation, work load. But Golden challenged us to consider the connections between each.
While the employee feels over-taxed with a heavy workload, the owner is considering whether or not the number of clients can support another staff member to handle the load. And both are intimately invested in the success of that employee.
Ownership means leading with solutions.
To create a culture of ownership, it’s important to connect the dots between these front-of-mind issues for employees and share the business’ worries transparently. An employee who is aware of larger company concerns is more able to contribute solutions to problems as they arise.
Golden gives us an example: when BFO was transparent about the financials of the company, it meant that everyone knew when they were $20k short of a quarterly goal. It also meant that when those expenses were shared transparently, a young new member of the team was able to recognize where one of their unnecessary vendor contracts amounted to about the same amount of missing revenue.
He suggested that an alternative to the vendor could be sourced from within the company, and he had the expertise to help create that alternative. This meant that BFO could save on the $20k they were spending quarterly, not just once, but on an ongoing basis.
How do you create good company culture?
So, what does Dan Golden say helped his organization to get the company culture where his employees were proactively contributing in ways that touched and surprised him? Here were his recommendations:
LET EMPLOYEES HELP DEFINE THE VALUES AND MISSION
Creating a culture where employees are not only bought in to business successes, but take ownership for them, starts with the values and mission of an organization. If those things are mandated to employees from the top down, its’s very difficult to have those values pervade your teams (without an exceptional amount of cultural onboarding). On the other hand, values that arise from employees are more likely to be adopted across every level of the organization. Part of this has to do with having a stronger sense of self-determination.
Besides including your employees in the conversations that set the tone for the organization, it’s also important to include them in the conversations about the financials and the business development of the company. Even employees who are bought in to the cultural values of an org can feel uneasy if they have job insecurities, as a result of secretive financial reporting.
SHARE, LISTEN, AND ACT
As important as transparency is for top-down communication about the organization, it’s also necessary for that to be more complex than a one-way communication channel. When you share information about challenges that the company is facing, it’s also essential to listen to the feedback that employees give, and that the decisions that arise feel like ones that have been made by all the invested parties.
If instead, you tell your employees what the problems are, but then you also decide the solution on your own and implement it, employees are not going to contribute with such investment to helping make sure that those goals are met. “Don’t be afraid to share more information. Get your employees in on those decisions, so that it’s not imposed on them, it’s something that they helped come up with.”
MAKE IT MEANINGFUL
The best way to get buy-in to company metrics is to connect the dots for everyone on the team—where do inputs have direct measurable outputs? Where can individual actions really affect the success of not just themselves or their team, but of the whole organization. Making it meaningful is the step where you connect the dots between the things that matter to employees and the things that matter to owners.
BE VULNERABLE AND CARE
Simultaneously one of the easiest and hardest things to do when running a company, it’s important to take a moment to be vulnerable with your team. Contrary to popular belief, showing vulnerability does not make you appear weak or like a poor leader. Instead, it allows you make meaningful connections with the people who come to work with you every day. And those connections are what help people make decisions like staying late to help another swamped coworker on a project, or to forgo a bonus during a crisis moment.
So, how did they handle the crisis?
You may be asking yourself, “okay, so what did they do about that big client?”. The answer is, all of it. They communicated transparently, letting the whole organization know that they were having difficulties working with the client. They were vulnerable about the issue, stating clearly that firing the client could lead to layoffs, as they dealt with the loss of revenue. Then, they asked the employees what to do. In a choose your own adventure slide deck, they walked through all the options.
Ultimately, the team decided to fire the client. But they also decided to forgo pay increases until they had made up the revenue loss, and to work together to cut down expenses so that nobody would have to lose their position. And it was a decision that had the buy-in of employees at every level.
A year later, Dan Golden stands on stage at TINYcon 2017 in a bright orange jacket, beaming as he tells us the BFO story: how his company not only persevered through one of the most difficult business decisions as an owner, but how his team made the decision to uphold the organization’s values, and the dedication and integrity they showed in doing it.
Better yet, for the 2nd consecutive year, BFO was nominated as a Finalist on the U.S Search Award Shortlist for Best Large PPC Agency, made their 6th consecutive appearance on the Inc. 5,000 list and was an honorable mention at the Chicago BBB’s Torch Awards for marketplace ethics.
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