Do You Really Know What It's Like to Join Your Own Shop?

New Hires Can Feel Put Off, but You Won't Know Unless You Ask Them

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"You know, when I first got here, I didn't think Y&L was a very nice place."

Hearing this reflection from one of our account guys a few years ago was like a punch in the gut. I had never realized that new people felt that way. My impression was that from the beginning of someone's career with us, the agency had a close-knit, almost familial feel. Except for the few who didn't work out, people seemed to enjoy working here and stayed a long time.

Fortunately, the next part of the account guy's comment affirmed at least part of that view. "Now I do feel like part of the group," he said. "I don't know when it changed -- but it did."

Even so, his reflection made me curious to see if others in the company, especially our newer folks, felt the same way. It turned out that many had felt a chill at first, but then, at some point began feeling like a part of the gang. No one could pinpoint when exactly the shift had occurred.

It seemed that we had a really big problem, and had to become much more inviting to new hires.

As I was thinking about how to fix this, I was in the midst of interviewing a senior account applicant who asked about our agency's culture. She wanted to know what it was like to work here.

Then it hit me. We have a group of overachievers in this company who have high standards, natural curiosity and intellectual integrity. They don't put up with sloppy thinking. They never give up -- never settle. They want to hang with others who work the same way.

"You know," I told her, "entering Young & Laramore must be kind of like a space capsule entering the earth's atmosphere."

People are waiting, watching and passively judging to see if the new person fits in. "If you come in at the wrong angle, you could bounce off the atmosphere and back into space, never to be heard from again. Those are the people who don't connect at all. They're usually gone before anyone gets very close to them."

"If we've done the hiring process right, the vast majority of people make it into the atmosphere. But, like Apollo, the ride can be hot, bumpy and uncertain. There's a period of time where friction and heat build up as the capsule endures thousands of degrees of heat.

I realized in that moment that this experience is not as much about culture as human nature. People don't want to become too attached to a new person until they know the person can perform. Letting someone go that you really like but isn't working out professionally is much tougher than it is with someone you don't know well. This phenomenon is bound to exist no matter the culture.

To give new people the best opportunity for success -- and fit -- within your agency, I recommend a few key steps that have worked for our agency. First, honestly assess your culture. Consider what's critical and what types of people will both fit in and improve the creative process. At our agency, for example, we don't want pushovers. Questioning conventional wisdom is essential to what we do.

Second, understand what you're willing to tolerate. Critical thinkers will question everything, including how you run the agency. While there are certainly limits, in our case, we'd rather have uncomfortable meetings than uninspired work.

Third, provide new hires with clear expectations and rapid feedback. Without this, someone could dig themselves a hole too deep to get out of, without even knowing it. Once that happens, it's over.

I finished the interview with that senior account person by telling her: "The people who make it here come through that sometimes uncomfortable and uncertain journey emerging from the clouds, like the space capsule, parachutes open. They splash into the ocean. We're all there to rescue them, celebrating with a heroes' welcome. They've proven they're one of us."

Do you have a clear picture of what it's like for a new employee to find their way into your company? What kind of place are you?

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
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