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'Don't Boil the Ocean': How RPA Hired 120 People in Four Months

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RPA office
RPA office Credit: RPA
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When L.A. shop RPA won back Honda's massive media account early this year, it needed some extra hands on deck. About 120 pairs of them.

The full-service indie agency employed 600 at the time, but realized it would need dozens more to tackle its newest business while managing existing clients, which include Apartments.com and La-Z-Boy.

So with several months before it was set to officially take over the Honda media business, it got to work, starting first with the most senior roles, then filling out the team with media, investment and digital directors, researchers and operations and analytics staffers.

"It was a really good approach to basically not try and boil the ocean, but to turn it into a task that was attainable at each step," EVP / chief operating officer Pete Imwalle said.

The goal: "Not just rush with a panic and say, 'We need 100 bodies really quickly.' … We wanted to make sure that we didn't violate some of our own philosophies in rushing to bring on all these people at once," he said.

Designing a not-so-efficient hiring process
When nearly a sixth of your company is new, maintaining an established internal culture can be a challenge. For RPA, which has been around under its current name for more than 30 years, that involved deeper conversations than hitting the high points of a resume. The company estimates it has vetted well over 1,000 candidates and interviewed about 400 so far. About seven positions remain open.

"Resumes tell you where someone has been and what work was going on when they were there, but they rarely tell you exactly how much value the person played to those things, and they don't tell you how well this person played as part of a team," Imwalle said.

The company tried to stay close to its "People First" philosophy: which it insists isn't a "manifesto or trademarked methodology," but an "open-source framework," a sort of ever-evolving culture of who the people of RPA are, which changes as it hires new people. That means not having an ideal candidate, but to look for people that can make the agency better and bring it forward.

Imwalle said that philosophy helped guide the right kind of talent to RPA, and helped serve as a check and balance for potential candidates.

"When I call a media rep and say, 'You worked with so-and-so, what do you think of them?,' they were very forthright and very honest in saying, 'You know what, I think the person would be great, I think you would love then, they would really fit in at RPA,'" Imwalle said. "I had other people that flat-out said, 'You know what, I don't think that person really fits your culture. They're not the kind of person that would do well at RPA."

But with only a few months, going deep with candidates, especially those critical ones at the top, in an efficient way is difficult.

"We got pretty personal with them. I won't say it was that efficient, to be honest with you," EVP / Chief Media Investment & Operations Officer Cathleen Campe said.

"I spent a lot of time myself interviewing people that ordinarily maybe I wouldn't have, because we didn't have those leaders in place yet … Once we started getting those people in place, it's like a trust of the kind of people we have in place and put in place that fit our culture, that will trickle down into the other people that they interview and hire."

RPA wants to get it right the first time. That means listening closely to the tone and language used by a candidate: If they're discussing a mistake, do they take responsiblity or blame others? Do they have a sense of humor? Can they work with others?

"It's much easier to live with an open position than it is to have the wrong person in one of those positions," SVP / Chief Marketing Officer Tim Leake said.

Some companies go even a step further to make sure potential candidates can walk the walk — by watching how candidates respond to taxi drivers, receptionists and other staff as they come in for an interview, said Nicholas Pearce, a clinical associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

"You're trying to collect as much data about the individual as you possibly can when they are not 'on,'" he said. "Any candidate can go on the internet and study a company's annual report or study their corporate values statement online. It is not enough to just have someone able to regurgitate the values and come up with a story abou teach. You want to see if put into a difficult situation or a stressful circumstance, will those values guide their behavior or not?"

Pearce added this can be especially important in the ad industry: "You are a reflection of our company's values in everything that you do."

Getting newbies up to speed
It's easier for new hires to be sucked into the rhythms of a company when there are a few. When a company is growing by the dozens, it can be trickier to manage.

"When you onboard 10 people a month, you can sort of bring them along organically," Imwalle said. "We were very concerned if we bring on this many people the oral history isn't going to be good enough."

The company did a few things to formalize that history and culture: Instead of just emailing out the "People First" flyer, it printed it and gave a copy to every employee. Executives have regular lunches with employees from various teams to take a pulse check on different parts of the company. It continued off-site all-hands meetings and frequent happy hours.

RPA also runs a program called 6F, which lets employees pitch new initiatives or new organizational structures for the company, then works with them to bring those ideas to life.

"It's a very empowering process for people," Leake said.

Knowing when it's time to cut
RPA admits it'll take some time before it can see how well the growth will play out. While some companies in rapid-growth mode find it to be a smooth, others struggle: Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann has discussed having to rightsize the company after hiring too many people more interested in joining a hot company than the company's original mission -- which he said ultimately hurt the company.

Pearce said it's important to weed out those mistakes before they sour the culture.

"What many organizations do is hire fast and then either fire slow or not fire at all, because you're trying to avoid the difficult conversation," he said. "Hiring slowly and firing quickly is a much more sustainable way to not only make sure the business survives. but make sure the organization's culture remains."

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