Episode 65 Transcript

Building a Culture of Transparency and Trust w/ Matt O’Dette

    Brent Trimble: Welcome again to the Professional Services Pursuit, a podcast featuring expert advice and insights on the professional services industry. I’m Brent, one of your co-hosts, and today I’m joined by Matt O’Dette. Matt is the VP of Operations and Talent Management at the event and experience agency, Cramer.

    Cramer is a great example of a business that puts people and values first in everything they do by building a culture that encourages collaboration, creativity, trust, and financial responsibility. Today, we’re going to talk about how they have built and fostered that culture over time and the steps, tools, and processes they’ve used to get there.

    Matt, thanks so much for joining, and I appreciate your time today.

    Matt O'Dette: Thank you so much for having me, Brent. I’m really excited. I will mention this is my first-ever podcast. I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts over the years, but this is my first time being a guest on a podcast, so excited to be here.

    Brent Trimble: Well, that’s fantastic. Next time you’re maybe in the car with the family driving, you can just flip it over on whatever your listening platform is of choice, and your voice will come through and sound really impressive because our producers do a great job, I think. But for those that are not familiar with Cramer and the shop, tell us a little bit about the firm, and then flip that into your role in how this notion of being the VP of Operations and Talent Management came to be.

    Matt O'Dette: First, let’s really start off with the history of Cramer. We’ve been in business for 42 years. As we know, that’s no easy feat for an agency. A lot of our success was really from our founder, Tom “Red” Martin, who unfortunately passed away in 2017. But he was just such an incredible leader, an incredible person, a visionary, and really instrumental in building Cramer into the organization that it is today.

    I think it’s important to look into our history to see what we do as a business. Now, we came up and grew up from the world of production, so that’s where we started, mainly in video production. We’re unique in the agency space because we really understand the execution of production first and foremost. We do it all under one roof, as we say, and we’ve grown the business into supporting over the multiple decades creative and strategy and overall positioning for event experiences and audience experiences to deliver some really incredible live event programs, content programs, and strategy engagements. That’s a nutshell of who we are and the uniqueness that we exist in our world and along with the rest of the agencies that are out there.

    In terms of my role and my journey, it’s informed a lot of who I am as I really started in the business from the ground floor, from the ground up, so to speak. I didn’t know this world really existed prior to coming into Cramer, and my first job was actually here in the warehouse. I was part of the warehouse production team, and I was loading trucks and really understood and learned the business from the ground up.

    From there, I grew my career into project management through living really one of our values, which is curiosity, and we’ll get into that. I know later on as we talk about how values are critical in how we manage our business. But that curiosity of really understanding and wanting to understand not only how we deliver the work but also understand how the business actually works, how does it function, how do we do all of this incredible, awesome creativity and production and design work, but also do it in a way that is profitable so that the business can continue to grow and continue to invest in talent.

    Through that journey, that curiosity is really what led me down a path of project management and then from there into operations and now currently on as a team member on the executive leadership team.

    Brent Trimble: I think that the notion of operations and talent management together is really interesting, and I think it’d be interesting to a lot of our listeners. We have a saying in professional services that the product really is the people, exceeding client expectations and bringing compelling solutions to the market. Cramer sounds like it has very strong values first infused by the founder and now carried on through the rest of the team. You’ve had a great tenure, so congratulations on that. As you note, it’s not an easy feat in a very volatile business. But being predominantly an independent shop, you’re in the greater Boston area serving global clients. It sounds to me, just in some of these intros, that talent cultivation, empowering talent, attracting great talent, cultivating talent, where does that fit into the values equation? It sounds like it’s really key to the success.

    Matt O'Dette: Absolutely, and it’s a great observation. I would agree 100% that in the professional services space, and particularly the creative services and agency space, it’s really all about the people and the team. It’s not easy work, as many of us know; there are a lot of trials and tribulations, a lot of challenges that we face day in and day out to deliver those exceptional experiences.

    But if we empower our people, trust our people, build that sense of collaboration and shared ownership in our collective vision, and really treat people like human beings, listen, make sure that we’re leading with empathy and understanding their challenges. The reality is, coming back to my journey and my path here at Cramer, the one thing that’s really apparent is that it’s so essential for professional services organizations, and for leadership, for that matter, to really understand the work at the level where the work is being done, and that’s at the people level.

    If you’re delivering exceptional experiences, if you’re facing challenges, if you want to continue to evolve and innovate and have a high level of engagement, you really need to rely on the people who are closest to the clients, closest to the work, who really understand what it takes to get the job done so that you can be top, best in class at what you deliver. You can’t do that from top-down leadership. You really have to start with the people doing the work who understand what it really takes and understand those challenges.

    Brent Trimble: That’s a great thing because it really is all about the work. That’s a great theme and explanation. Let’s talk a little bit about execution. Most shops, whether it’s consulting, hybrid, agency, branding, positioning, even IT consulting to a degree, will say we put our people and our values first. They’ll espouse this, you’ll see it on their website, give it all kinds of monikers, but give us some ideas of how you really execute that. How does that culture come through and infuse really the operations, how work gets done?

    Matt O'Dette: Sure. It’s a great question. It really starts with the culture of the organization. If we go back to our beginnings, that’s the culture that we’ve had, and Tom “Red” Martin had really established at the beginning, which is this sense of transparent leadership, this notion of being empathetic, being understanding, being human-led and driven, and also a culture of candor.

    It’s one thing, as we’ve all seen for organizations and companies, to put the values up on the website, to put them on a wall somewhere. But how do you actually, in practice, live those values? For us, it comes in a few different paths. We always make sure that we’re weighing our collaboration, our attitude, our communication with each other against those values. We’re always making sure that we’re talking about those values and then making sure that we put the systems and processes and accountability in place so that people really do understand what they mean.

    A lot of that comes down to also great storytelling. Having people throughout every level of the organization tell stories about how we put those values into action, as well as some of the programs in accountability things that we have in place like recognition, for example, we really strive to continue to not only improve but to really put recognition on the forefront. We know that’s so critical to human organizations. The more that we can recognize the great work of our teams, the great work of collaboration, that just has a snowball effect where people really see the results and the success. The more we talk about it, the more we’re open about it, the more we discuss what’s working and what’s not really helps foster and live those in a real way.

    Brent Trimble: For our listeners and in your description, the type of work with lots of event, experiential positioning, branding, audiovisual where you’re coming to us from one of the studio bays that you produce content for clients on, so very sophisticated types of work, comes with really complex types of engagements. With complexity comes some arduous work. I know putting on a major experiential event for a client can be a really daunting undertaking. The fact that you probably do well is testament to your duration and your longevity in the market. Give us maybe some ideas on that sheer tonnage of the work, doing it creatively, exceeding client expectations. But you spoke a little bit about not commoditizing people and talent and yet delivering really compelling work. In Cramer’s example, how do you do that? Are there unwritten rules, or are there processes in place that you utilize to really always look at that mechanism of the people and the deliverables?

    Matt O'Dette: We have a saying that we use quite a bit which ties back to the pillars of the organization which, I’ll get into in a moment. But we always say do what’s right for the client, what’s right for our people, and what’s right for the company. We talk about that in terms of balance. Every situation is unique. There are all kinds of scenarios that we get into where our teams, as well as leadership, are expected to make an incredible amount of decisions day in, day out that impact projects, client relationships, the culture of the organization, the business profitability, our overall growth, and success. By really thinking about it as a true balance of weighing each and every decision against those three criteria, our teams are able to make more informed decisions and have confidence in those informed decisions.

    For example, if there’s something going on in a project where we need to absorb additional resources, additional costs, additional time to make the project right, say there’s some tension between us and the client relationship, or maybe we missed the mark on a particular piece of the project, or there’s a new client in place and they have a set of stresses or maybe not as familiar with the type of program or project or the company if they’re newer to the organization, so with those scenarios, we want to make sure that we’re doing right by the client.

    We understand the value of deep client relationships and that it is truly a partnership, and our teams are empowered to make the right decision for the client in those scenarios, but balanced with, for example, obviously you can’t just give everything away. You can’t just discount, you can’t give away your resources or else the business is just not going to be profitable. You’re not going to exist for 42 years successfully if you’re doing that, if you’re just constantly giving everything away. Our teams understand that delicate balance, and by having good data, good insights around what is the client, what our resource capacity looks like, what the overall bigger picture of that relationship looks like, what’s the long-term relationship look like for that client, we can weigh all those factors and be able to make a more informed decision around how we approach certain challenges that may arise.

    Where if we have a particular job or client where margins are continuously challenged and struggling, or a project might have been discounted for one reason or another and there are scope changes that come up, those scenarios, we might lean more towards making sure that we’re getting compensated for some of those change of scope pieces of the project because we know that overall from a 3,000-foot view, the project already is having some other areas where we may have to make concessions.

    We want to do right by our people as well. We want to make sure that our people understand that they have the ability to make those right decisions, that they have the support from leadership to elevate and where to elevate situations where they might need additional guidance or mentorship around what the right decision may be. We want to make sure that we’re setting our people up for success. We never want to take on a client or a project that’s going to burn out our teams, that’s going to cause unnecessary strain to the organization, that’s going to create work that we aren’t proud of and that the team is proud of. We try and weigh all of those factors in the decision-making, and that really is implemented through our organizational pillars.

    Brent Trimble: So, repeat for me as we dovetail into our next question because I want to go a little deeper in that transparency. You said those three primary criteria points; I think it was people, the firm, and the client. Or did I invert those?

    Matt O'Dette: Yes, you’re right. The people, our company, and the clients are deployed by all three of those in balance, weighted by the 3,000-foot view and the detailed view of what’s happening at any point in time.

    Brent Trimble: That’s a really good point and a nice segue. We’re in the services space, meaning we’re a platform that provides enablement to the services industry. I talk to a large spectrum of services firms—management consulting, BPO, IT, management consulting agencies—and there’s always a persistent thread: people, of course, more or less power the offering, the product. There’s this question that arises around the notion of how transparent, how much power do we give our individual contributors, maybe our project managers, our team leads, however we dimensionalize that practice, to make decisions that inform profit?

    To your point, it could be a longstanding client, but there’s one project in the portfolio that has margin pressure. Do you give that leader the decision-making power to make those calls about making some concessions here for the greater good of the relationship? Those are cycles that happen in a lot of firms pretty consistently. Practically or tactically, how much power or transparency, or maybe commercial governance ability, do you give to the folks who are leading these teams, and how deep does that go?

    Matt O'Dette: We really believe in empowering the teams to make the right decisions so that we can move fast. But with that, it requires—and it’s part of our culture—a good conversation and dialogue, open candid dialogue. To your point, there are certain decisions that we clearly define can be made at any point by any team member, like if we’re on-site and something’s happening and we need to get a new piece of equipment or we need to get additional labor resources, the teams are going to do it. The project’s success matters. Paramount to everything is making sure that we deliver a quality product.

    But part of our culture is really fostering collaboration, so oftentimes we’ll get the stakeholders, including operations and account lead or project manager, technical lead into a discussion to understand the project if necessary. Our leadership, as well as all of our management team, as well as all the way down through every single level of the organization, has the ability to speak up, has the ability to say, “Hey, this isn’t right,” or “I think this can be done better,” or “Let’s have a conversation about this.” Everyone’s openness and willingness is part of how we operate to listen and to understand the perspectives.

    If one team member might not see or have access to some of that financial data, but they know, “Hey, I’m going to make a decision here, I need to know from the people who have access to the information, how are we looking?” This is the decision I’m looking to make, but I want to make sure I’m weighing all those other factors before making that decision so that we are informed and we have the right balanced perspective on any particular decision.

    Brent Trimble: We go into the dovetail into that is, okay, I’m a program lead or an engagement lead, account director, or client lead, however that’s conceptualized or labeled at Cramer, and running a portfolio, running some large engagements. How does your firm then take that transparency of maybe enablement and latitude in decision-making and share performance of the firm, or on the fiscal, commercial, however that might be, with everyone? Is that part of that culture of collaboration and transparency as well?

    Matt O'Dette: 100%. We have a bonus program in place that is really based on the two factors of revenue and profitability. We share that information openly at our all-team meetings, in our department team meetings, so folks do understand and have access to project margins. At the end of each project, we have our project manager as well as our operations team, along with every core team member who is a part of that project.

    We do really thorough debriefs, and we not only talk about what went well, what could be improved in terms of the project delivery or the creativity or the execution or client feedback, but we also do an in-depth review of the financials of each project. We have a healthy dialogue, healthy conflict as we like to call it, around where did we end up on this job? What decisions did we make? We look under the hood to really understand and get alignment around why we made the decisions that we did, and as a team collectively, if there were successes, we want to make sure that we’re celebrating that because that’s going to encourage that type of momentum to go forward.

    We look for what we call win-win-wins, which is again, going back to what’s right for our clients, our people, and our business. It’s when we can deliver an exceptional client experience with awesome creativity, our teams felt like they had the resources they needed and the support they needed to get it done successfully, and the project was profitable and met our project margin targets, which we are very transparent about with our teams of our goals.

    We also know that when we have to make concessions, which every professional service organization makes those decisions, that the teams are aware of those so that they can manage their own expectations and the client expectations around how are we going to deliver this successfully? We review those. We have really good, open, candid dialogue around what worked, what didn’t, and if we were to approach this project.

    A lot of our business is often cyclical. It’s repeat business in your project. Having good data and dialog, and having deep conversations while documenting those findings, allows us to report back on those the following year and take corrective action. We’ve had many success stories, particularly when you have a brand-new client or a brand-new project you’ve never worked with. There’s no past history there. Those first projects are always going to be some of the most challenging because you’re learning unique working styles and personalities. You’re learning that sometimes things that you would just naturally assume someone might know, the client side might know, or we might know about them, you don’t know because you don’t have that experience. It’s a bit of learning how they work, how they like to communicate, understanding and setting good, clear expectations on the front end. The reverse is also true. It’s just making sure there are clear expectations.

    We evaluate the success. As we work on these types of projects, we have good data and conversation, and a strong, transparent, team-minded approach. We aim to deliver excellent work, creative work, and client experiences on time and on budget. We take these learnings and insights and apply them to the next project or across multiple projects. We even apply them organizationally by spotting common trends or findings and sharing stories of success.

    We’ve had some great stories where we had a first-time project. It was challenging out of the gate, but we ultimately delivered an exceptional experience. The margins could have been better, and the client and Cramer communication on both sides could have been better. We’re transparent with the client, our teams, and what worked and what didn’t work. When we have the opportunity, which we thankfully have, to do that project the following year, we make the necessary adjustments. We go back to our values of continuous improvement to try and make incremental steps to make that project even better.

    This just happened where we went through a second-year program. Not only was the delivery, execution, and creativity better than the year before, but the client was also super impressed with the team. They loved everything that we did. They were complimentary of how the project ran, and we were able to significantly improve the margin on that project at the same time. That’s really where you get those win-wins. You don’t get that unless you’re willing to have that healthy conflict, open dialog, and transparency with the team so that you can continue to adjust. This isn’t a perfect science as we all know. Professional services is challenging.

    You’re dealing with people with different skill sets, different client expectations, and all kinds of budgetary pressures. All we can do is continue to try and do our best, weighing those three things, using the insights and data that we have available, and empowering our teams to take action with that data. We continue to get better, to improve the process, to work better together, and have fun along the way as well.

    Brent Trimble: Those are great examples. I’m struck that it would be tough to execute the type of work you do without those layers of transparency. But, I think having the goals clearly articulated, where the firm is tracking, and having talent be able to see what their efforts can help manifest in terms of overall profitability and performance, and share in some of those gains, is really compelling.

    You referenced data quite a bit and doing detailed post-mortems, which I think a lot of firms could probably do more of, just to know what worked, what didn’t. When did these decisions really impact the trajectory of both the project, the engagement, the relationship? What types of technologies were utilized to complete that work, both keeping track of work and time, but alternately also doing things like post-mortems, tracking the performance and so forth?

    Matt O'Dette: We use a suite of tools, but a lot of it really relies on the Kantata product that we use. That’s where we’re managing all of our hours, our budget, and our reporting. We have some best practices with that. Our project manager producer team is evaluating the actuals and the burn along the way and sending weekly burn updates to the team.

    Even though the teams, creative teams, technical team members, and others do have access and submit their time through Kantata, the reality is that if you’re on the creative team, your focus is on delivering creativity. We can’t expect them to spend as much time as we would love to have everybody in that tool, understanding all of their hours and seeing their burn along the way. But we understand that that’s just not the reality of their role.

    Our producer teams do a great job not only with our account teams kicking off the project and setting those clear expectations on the front end, but then providing weekly burn reports and spotting if things are going off the rails. Everyone has the ability to speak up, to hit the pause button and say, “Hey, things are going off the rails a little bit here, team,” or “The client doesn’t seem to be happy,” or “We’re missing the mark,” or “We’re burning really hot on this job.”

    Let’s get together and let’s discuss and have a shared look at the problem. Instead of having folks point at each other like, “Well, you didn’t scope this project right,” or “We didn’t manage expectations in the right way,” we don’t get into any of that type of dialog. We really say, “What does success look like on this project? Where are we tracking and how do we put our collective heads together to help get us back on track?” What are the ideas?

    We’ve implemented a design thinking methodology at Cramer, which I believe came out of an ideal methodology. We’re always thinking about “how might we.” How might we get this project back on track in a way that the client is really happy with the result and we can get the profitability back on the job?

    It’s a lot about the ways in which we communicate, the way in which we frame our problems, and the ways in which we share data. This includes weekly burn reports, debrief meetings at the end of a project, kick-off meetings, quarterly reviews, client reviews, and year-end reviews of those projects.

    We also focus on peer-to-peer feedback and recognition. If someone’s on a call, maybe a less experienced member of the team, and they handled a situation in a way that could have been done better or differently, the teams are really empowered to have a direct one-on-one conversation. They can say, “Hey, observe this. This is the impact,” or “This is how that might have made the client feel or made me feel,” or “This is the impact of that.” We’re open to not only providing real-time active feedback, but also being receptive to listening to that feedback and understanding that perspective. We aim to have a good conversation around it.

    Indeed, it goes deep. We use a lot of methodologies and tools. Obviously, we’re heavily in Teams as well, so we have good Team chats and project channels. We use the chat a lot to keep folks up-to-date on communication, obviously things like email and documented things like status notes and updates. We try to be really detailed and buttoned up with all those tools. But like anywhere, there’s always room for improvement. We’re not perfect and we continue to try and improve upon those processes as we go.

    Brent Trimble: Oh, that’s great. The last thing I think would be great to leave our listeners with, and we always endeavor to give some practical insight around something that you’re executing in your shop that’s having a great benefit and result. But we’ve talked about lots of dialog, transparency, people first, and then translating that into more practical execution such as sharing goals, objectives, performance of the firm all the way down to the individual project.

    In your type of work, this is really critical because a decision to absorb some margin from a particular third-party vendor could have big repercussions and ripple through the engagement as we know. But for those pondering, do we go more transparent? Do we go a little bit less? Do we give more control? Where do we strike that balance based on culture? What’s your advice on embarking on this journey and what’s the one or two things you’d consider or have a firm consider, leaving them with that as they start pondering this notion of lots of candor, post-mortems, transparency? What’s your advice to other firms of similar size or even a dissimilar size?

    Matt O'Dette: First, my mind would go to the fact that you have to do what works for your organization. Every business, every company is different. The culture and goals of every company are different. There’s no one-size-fits-all. But the one piece of advice or guidance that I could offer is to really be true to understanding and clearly articulating what is your vision and what is your purpose for being as an organization. Then, it’s about leaning on, listening to, and asking your teams what they need to be successful. What questions do they have? It’s about being open to having that candid feedback so that they understand the rules of the game. They understand how they can be successful. They clearly understand what success looks like. I feel like a lot of organizations and leaders, including myself, can do better at clearly articulating and defining what success looks like.

    To summarize that up, ask your people. Listen. Ask more questions. I think those are the two things I would say to take away: ask more questions and be open to listen for feedback from your teams who are actually doing the work. Do they understand where we’re headed as an organization? Do they understand the vision of the organization? Do they understand what’s expected? What questions do they have? Allow them that comfort, that psychological safety to be able to clearly, transparently, openly discuss those things so that they can be fixed, so that they can be addressed. Oftentimes, there might be challenges that are uncovered that leadership just might not know. Never lose sight of the people who are doing the work, the team who is getting it done day in and day out. That is the lifeblood of the organization.

    Continue to just understand what their needs are and where you can help be a servant leader to them, to help support them so that they are set up for success. Continue to grow their careers. Develop their skills in a coaching and mentoring mindset. You look at managers and department leads as more of coaches and mentors. Taking it back to my journey and looking back where I started, there was just so much that I just didn’t understand about how the business operated when I first started. I didn’t understand what was expected in terms of different profitability elements or the things that I could do directly that would have an immediate impact on the client experience or the people experience or the financial experience for the business.

    We have to just know that everyone is coming into and in a different spot in their careers and in their knowledge of how the business operates. The more we can help guide those team members along, help listen and ask what they may not be understanding, what may be confusing to them or what’s expected of them, then we’ll be able to really accelerate the productivity of those teams and their level of engagement and excitement because they’re part of a shared vision. They’re part of a shared team and a collaborative environment where ultimately, they understand what success looks like and everybody’s rowing in that same direction. Everybody’s working together as a collaborative unit, not in siloed departments or leadership closed doors where there’s just this complete separation between the decision makers and those that are actually doing the work.

    It’s really essential to get to the folks who are doing the work to understand where they’re at. They’re going to be the best ones fit to understand what our clients might need. They might help inform directions in innovation, directions in process developments or pain points that others in management or leadership positions just might not see.

    Brent Trimble: Oh, it’s great advice and very sound advice, particularly in this year, which is a challenging market. But it’s great to take to heart transparency, listening, and getting to those teams that really have their finger on the pulse of the client engagement, the relationship, the sentiment, and driving and propelling the organization forward.

    Again, Matt, thanks so much for joining us today, giving us some of these insights. For our listeners, again, our guest today is Matt O’Dette from the marketing services agency, Cramer, based up in Boston but serving global clients.

    For our listeners, as always, thanks for listening to the show. If you have any follow up questions for Matt, myself or team, please feel free to email them to podcast@kantata.com. We'd love to answer them. Thanks again, Matt.

    Matt O'Dette: Thanks so much for having me, Brent. This was a great conversation and best of luck to everyone out there. We’re all in the same boat where none of us have lived life on this journey at the points that we’re at, and we’re all on a continuous learning, continuous improvement journey. I really appreciate this type of thoughtful dialog.

    Brent: If you enjoyed this podcast, let us know by giving the show a five - star review on your favorite podcast platform and leaving a comment.If you haven't already subscribed to the show, you could do so anywhere you get podcasts on any podcast app. To learn more about the power of Kantata’s purpose-built technology, go to kantata.com. Thanks again for listening.