Welcome to another Going. Ahead. With Gage interview! I had the privilege of interviewing our Head of Technology Practice, Aaron Strout, who shared insight on being a leader and how his team operates. I hope you all gain some valuable insights and enjoy the read!
What are you doing to ensure that W2O Group is at the cutting edge?
One of the things that always help me stay fresh is speaking at events — both client and external — blogging, and doing interviews helps me organize my thoughts and synthesize some of the things that I’m seeing. I would also say that blogging on our Common Sense blog or on Marketing land with a combination of trying to read articles that push me forward help as well. I try to always be a magnet for ideas by working with clients and my team, thinking about things, creating a thesis, arguing for or against that thesis, and turning it into words, video, or audio. The key is finding effective ways to share these with the broader company. Certainly posting on the Hallway is one such way, or sharing via our private Facebook page. Another is to bring in outside guests to staff meetings or creating group sharing sessions like your “Break to Educate” series.
In a few words, describe what your team does for the company.
Our team – the Tech Practice — oversees our relationships with tech companies like HP, Verizon, Intel, BMC Software, McAfee and INRIX. They are the leads partnering with CCX, analytics, strategy and software to help our clients solve problems, create content, develop communication plans or run their social channels. The group I still oversee is marketing. They are the team that handles all of the marketing for W2O Group and it’s agencies. They write press releases, manage our social channels, run events, and lead thought leadership efforts.
Thinking of your most successful current employees, what characteristics do they share?
I would break my team into two buckets and both of them share traits across these. I have some that are exceptionally savvy from an operational perspective meaning they have the right resources, they keep those resources fully utilized, they keep the client happy, and they stay within budget. Then I have some that are very creative, outside the box, and always looking at things, pushing the envelope, and looking at new ways to address them. The two work synergistically together because if your operational and pushing things forward, you aren’t necessarily innovating and opening up new opportunities, and if you’re always opening up new opportunities, and you’re not operationalizing it then you’re stunting your growth because you can’t scale.
How do you empower your employees to do their best possible work?
I love this question because I pride myself on being more of a facilitative leader versus one that leads via command and control tactics.. I don’t like to sit down and tell people what to do. I like to ask questions and then make recommendations that enable my team to do their best work. It’s also my job to help get resources and move things out of the way; provide air cover. I also make sure that people are feeling motivated, recognized, appreciated and as though they are able to do their best work. All of this can be tricky at times and it can take a lot of energy. I draw upon my parenting skills for this – life can be hard sometimes and can take a lot of energy – sometimes it’s just taking that ability to dig down a little deeper and thank someone, pat someone on the back, or go that extra mile. I know there’s more that I can do, but it’s that ability to do that that helps make people feel motivated and want show up to work everyday.
How do you encourage creative/innovative thinking within your organization?
The tactical way is doing staff meetings and I like to bring people in that have done case studies, so it’s very process oriented; how do I get you to see things differently based work that other groups have done. Some of the work we do here is more analytics focused, marketing content focused, and some is PR focused. Those three all work in harmony so how can we make sure we are always sharing across that. One of the things I’ve done a little bit, but would like to do more of is off sites or half-day meetings where we can get together, think outside the box, and be strategic because we don’t always have the opportunity to do that.
What is the most difficult leadership decision you’ve had to make in the recent past?
Letting good people go is always the hardest thing to do as a manager and I’ve had to do probably 100 times plus over the course of my career, and every single time it’s difficult. Most of the time when you’re letting someone go it isn’t because they aren’t a good person, but because they aren’t a good fit for the job. I would say that about 99% of the time that letting someone go has been for that reason. There was someone over the past year plus that I became close with, and having to sit down and look that person in the eye and say “you’re a good person, we appreciate your contributions, but your services are no longer needed here,” was a very difficult conversation to have. Anyone that has managerial aspirations needs to realize that there is so much good that comes with it, but this is one of the things that’s tough. It should keep you honest with who you’re hiring – there’s no better incentive to make sure you’re doing your do diligence when you’re interviewing someone for hire than to remember those possible conversations.
The key, if you turn that around into a learning moment, is how do you do it as infrequently as possible and how do you make sure that as you’re giving that feedback that you almost depersonalize. By that I mean make it to where you are saying: “we have specific needs and you have specific skill sets and right now they just aren’t matching up,” but making it not a personal thing by making them understand that they still have lots of value.
What did you learn from that experience?
I wouldn’t exactly say that I learned anything as much as it reminded me to be very careful when you’re interviewing people. But then again, I wouldn’t say be careful because I think the world would not be as good a place if you weren’t building relationships with the people you work with, but to walk that fine line of not getting too close for when and if that conversations has to happen.