Greg Hoy, CEO of Happy Cog, talks digital leadership and the hot topic of creating organic company culture. With offices in New York and Philadelphia, this is no easy task. However, Greg gives some incredibly valuable insights on how to create a sense of community, even in the face of geographic barriers.
Greg Hoy: I’m Greg Hoy, the CEO of Happy Cog.
Richard Banfield: Thank you Greg for inviting us into your home.
Greg Hoy: This is my home away from home.
Richard Banfield: Your home away from home. So you’re in from the Philly office?
Greg Hoy: Yes yes.
Richard Banfield: Maybe you can explain to us what it’s like to run an office that has more small locations.
Greg Hoy: It’s never been that way for me; we’ve always been centralized in one spot. Before Greg and I combined our companies, it was always us in the same spot. He used to run a very virtual company. So this is kind of a new thing for me, and I think it’s more manageable to have two planets orbiting each other rather than having bunch of little asteroids all over the place. I think it’s more manageable to have groups of people that you can connect with. We installed a way-too-expensive video conferencing system that we use to connect with each other on a daily basis. Our project teams are intermingled with people from Philly and Austin, so it is—very much it feels like one family which, when we are operating separate companies flying the Happy Cog flag, we run into, kind of turf issues, and by combining we don’t do that anymore. By working with combined teams, that’s not an issue—it’s kind of a ‘one for all’ thing. So it’s worked out much better than I anticipated and certainly to the extent that I didn’t expect.
Richard Banfield: So team is obviously the critical part of designing this group in the service industry. Tell us a little about your experience in building those teams, retaining those teams, maybe nurturing them.
Greg Hoy: It’s been probably the biggest learning experience of my career, running an agency. When you’re small your team is your company, and we would sell ourselves as the company. So when we’d go in we’d say, “When you hire Happy Cog you hire Happy Cog. You don’t hire one person you hire everybody you see on our about page.” As you grow, you can’t make that promise anymore. So we found ourselves 15, 20, 25 people, and it was just scrambling to put together ad hoc teams for the right opportunities. There was no consistency with that. Some people unfortunately would get stuck with the same kind of work over and over again, so we wanted to have a little bit more control over that dynamic, so we started to commit to a team-based structure. We hired up to support five teams; we had enough people on staff for maybe three and a half or four—three and a half I would say. But with the number of opportunities we had in the pipeline we felt confident that we could hire up to five, to support five teams. So we went through a really intensive hiring process, which is something that we had never experienced before. We found a lot of great people fortunately in a short period of time. The thing with teams for me is to make it as entrepreneurial as possible and give team members a stake in the action. That hasn’t been fully realized yet, we’re still working through some of the team dynamic issues, but I’ve always thought of it as maybe structuring it like a sports league, like Major League Baseball, where you have divisions within the league and you have general managers associated with teams and there’s some sort of friendly competition going on and there are metrics that we apply to the success of each team where there are standings. You run into a bunch of things: well, my team is in last place, how demoralizing is that? So we’re thinking carefully through that stuff. What we have seen is by splitting into teams like that, team members are really generating a sense of self and a micro community within the organization and building cultures within their teams which is something that I hoped would happen but wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to artificially feed that but it definitely has. Over the holidays, you’ll have one team called the Tacos, and they made taco things for each other. Calendars and all of this stuff, they have T-shirts, we have custom emojis and Slack with happy taco and sad taco. It’s gone to that level and I’m thrilled about that and I know they are too, because they have a sense of decision making and autonomy that they did not have before. So it’s been fun to watch, it really has. We also have—We since scaled back from five teams down to three, because we felt that’s kind of the sweet spot where we need to be. So there’s more players on each team, there’s multiple … two or three designers, two developers which provides a bit of depth on the team that we didn’t have before. We keep our teams together for a year, so you work with the people you work with and if you have any differences or communication issues or things like you have to work it out. It provides for, at least the initial thinking is, it provides a period of stability where you are getting to know the people that you’re working with; the people who are on your team were selected in such a way that one person might be strong in prototyping, one person might be a little stronger in Photoshop, and so there’s opportunities for a cross pollination of skills and things like that. So that’s another benefit. It’s been great so far, it really has, it’s been a fun experiment.
Richard Banfield: So a lot of these things, like you say, leadership is a very big experiment because there’s no guide book for this, especially in our industry that’s only been around for a very short amount of time. Except it’s not a guide book, it would be a web-based guide book. So you’ve obviously had some experience along the way that maybe you’d call mistakes, or hard knocks.
Greg Hoy: Yes.
Richard Banfield: Do you remember any, one or two particularly that’s—
Greg Hoy: Greg and I did a whole workshop on mistakes, so yes. We only filled half a day; we probably could have filled half a week. Yeah, I mean there’s been mistakes we’ve made along the way. Sometimes we’re a bit—I don’t want to say moving more quickly than we probably should with respect to decisions. Some of the staffing decisions that we’ve made were probably a bit ambitious in terms of getting a number of people in at one time to satisfy a need that we anticipated. That need—working in this business you see your pipeline as one thing one day, it can be something else two weeks later. So staffing up to support a pipeline that looks one way one week, two weeks later it’s something else, is the roll of the dice. Hopefully you have enough thought behind it where it’s not going to be a situation where you have too many people. We’ve encountered that situation before so that’s one. Sometimes in an effort to address a lot of things at one time, you don’t have your eye on details enough; there’s been some reply-to-all issues with email that we’ve encountered before where potential clients have received some things buried in an email thread that’s not something that we’d want them to see. So you’ll learn from that very quickly. If you’re not going to say something to somebody in person you certainly don’t put it in an email. There’s been the whole client vetting process is something that we’ve learnt from. Sometimes you’ll go after the cash cow account because you think it’ll set you up for the next year or two. You’re not really thinking about the warning signs that they may be displaying through that process. You’re going to get a paycheck, but it’s going to be the most painful paycheck you’ve ever gotten. We’ve had a few relationships like that, that have dragged on for years. It’s because we were maybe a bit too ambitious to get that account and have that kind of security without really thinking about how it would make our lives for that period of time. So I mean those are some of the bigger ones. There’s certainly … There’s people, stuff that I learn from on a daily basis. Stuff that—I went to school for business, I didn’t go to school for psychology and to know how to necessarily understand what makes people tick. I’ve picked a lot of that up along the way, but I’m constantly making mistakes with people, I’m learning from those mistakes and trying to make sure that I don’t make those in the future.
Richard Banfield: So now that you’re decades into being a design leader, how would you describe that style, your style?
Greg Hoy: My style has evolved. My initial style was very—the super-detail-oriented part of my style still I think exists but I’ve learned to let go, which is something, as you grow, you have to do, otherwise you’re just going to go crazy. I was very much—I don’t want to say micromanaging, maybe approaching micromanaging, but I was certainly of the mindset of if I don’t do it myself it’s not going to get done. Maybe not right, but the way I would do it. So in the process of letting go it’s realizing that you trust your coworkers and realizing that they’re going to make mistakes along the way and that’s cool. Let them make mistakes that’s how you learn from them. I made, we’re just talking about mistakes, I made a ton of mistakes to get through the first few years of the company. So my style now is a bit more hands off, but I find if something goes … the trajectory of a decision somebody makes leads us too far down a path, I’m very much back in the mix of making sure that we make those corrections as we need to. I’ve always said I want to make an environment that I want to work in. That was the whole impetus for me starting a company. So I like to think that we treat our employees fairly, that we provide them opportunities. I want them to have experiences, too, and we’re focusing more on that these days; not only projects that pay the bills, but projects that get people out of the office and experiencing the world and having opportunities with nonprofits or other organizations that they never would have experienced before. That to me is incredibly fulfilling, so I like to introduce those opportunities when I can.
Richard Banfield: Do you think that your team would describe you in the same way that you just did?
Greg Hoy: They would probably skew more towards I’m still micromanaging. I wrote an article about this. Greg and I had ourselves reviewed last year, and we’re actually going through that again right now. We’re reviewing each other, we’re working with a colleague that we both know to do that, and we’re having our leadership team offer their insight into how we run the business. You’ll learn a lot through that process. When we first had that review I learned a lot about myself that I didn’t know, like people feared me to some extent.
Richard Banfield: You can be scary.
Greg Hoy: Yeah, well thanks. The people who knew me from when we were five people knew. The people who came in, employee 30, 31, one of our employees said to me, “I didn’t know you were a designer at one point. I found that on LinkedIn.” I was like, jeez. When you get to that size, you have to make time for people and get to know them. So yes, I think my perception of myself can be vastly different from what, especially new people who come into the organization, perceive me as. They might not know as much about me or what makes me tick or when I go back in my office what I’m doing back there.
Richard Banfield: So you’ve got obviously a lot of time ahead of you as well. Have you planned for that? Have you become a better leader?
Greg Hoy: For me it’s constantly learning. One of the absolute gifts that happened to me—and it just kind of happened—was when we started Owner Camp. It was purely—when we started it, one of the motivating factors was to create, potentially, an alternate revenue stream moving forward. I didn’t anticipate that it would provide so much kind of professional development opportunity for me and talking to people like yourself who do what we do and learning from them and learning what the life cycle of a leader can be. For me, I’m kind of in the awkward teenage years of running an agency. I’ve got braces and head gear and stuff, and I’m trying to figure out am I doing the right things, and at the end of this are we going to blossom or are we going to have to retreat. You think about all those things. And you think about what constantly energize you moving forward. Does client services still energize you moving forward? Does focusing on a particular niche energize you more than another? Can you construct an organization around you to keep you motivated so you are in that niche and constantly energized? I think about that stuff a lot. I’m not the guy to be in there, certainly designing sites and maybe not performing critiques and things like that, but I think I offer some experience in other areas that some newer people in our office don’t have that I could potentially leverage into some new business opportunities for us. I’m always thinking about what’s next and how I can add value to the organization where we’ve kind of filled the stuff that I used to do with other very talented people.
Richard Banfield: Good. How do you maintain some kind of balance in life, because being an entrepreneur, it can be quite consuming, and it may be also … you can answer also how you deal with stress?
Greg Hoy: So before I had kids, it was work and when I get home it was work, and I was married and it was fine. My wife understood that some of the stuff that I was working on at home was necessary. When I had kids, I realized that it’s a completely different ball game. You don’t have a choice in that decision. It’s your time, you have to commit to that, and you have to change the way that you approach your life. I have two kids, they’re just getting out of the sleepless stage. The youngest is now sleeping through the night, he’s still getting up at 5:30 in the mornings sometimes, which for me actually isn’t that bad. The 3:00 ams were pretty bad. I leave the office at five, five-thirty usually, and I spend two or three hours before the kids go to bed with them, and I spend as much time—my mornings are variable—so I spend as much time with my family in the morning as I can. Sometimes I leave early because I’ve got meetings, sometimes I stay until 10 and I come at 10:30am, but I try to balance a lot better. The other thing with kids is that sometimes when you’re working at work and you come home, your lifestyle starts to degrade a bit. You get hungry and you just grab whatever you want, or you’ll go out to one or two happy hours more than you’re used to and you’ll put on the beer weight and stuff like that. So I’m actively exercising again which is something that took a hiatus for some time, and I do find that it helps. I know you exercise a lot, and you know just getting out there. I actually think about work when I exercise. It’s kind of a therapeutic way of thinking about work. I cut my own grass, I do a lot of thinking when I sit on that stupid tractor. It’s actually a great time for me to kind of be away from it all and just stare at stripes that I’m cutting in the grass. It’s mundane, but it’s really good de-stress time.
Richard Banfield: I knew a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who used to do that.
Greg Hoy: Oh yeah?
Richard Banfield: He had a particularly large lawn, I’m sure Fortune 500, and he said those were the best four hours of his week.
Greg Hoy: I look forward to it, I do. It’s just … It’s therapeutic I guess.
Richard Banfield: Just bring you back to teams once more. How do you recognize the right kind of talent? What are the skills, more important the soft skills that you’re looking for?
Greg Hoy: First thing would be writing, and this is maybe a harder skill. The ability to write is key for every single position we have in the company. We haven’t taken it to the point yet where a writing sample is required, but we’ve been doing it lately, and I think we’re going to continue doing it. Being able to post intelligent comments to client based upon feedback, or to craft a communication brief, or to write a proposal, and not spell things incorrectly and not rely on grammar checkers and things like that. I can’t emphasize the importance of that enough, because you cannot escape it in your job, I don’t care what you do.
Richard Banfield: So your English teacher was right?
Greg Hoy: What’s that?
Richard Banfield: So your English teacher was right?
Greg Hoy: My English teacher was right, and I wasn’t that good with English in school, and somehow through my early work career I just got it and I actually remembered a lot of stuff that I didn’t think I would. I actually love editing, I remember I think Jason Cree talking about that. Editing is pretty therapeutic, it’s like pruning your garden, it’s like getting by with making sense out of the fewest words possible and making sure you’re speaking actively and things like that. I enjoy doing that. Some of the other soft skills, like interpersonal communications, they need the ability to communicate with each other. I mean that’s also still important. One of the things that tends to drive me crazy is people having conversations about other people without having the conversation with the person they want to have the conversation with. It’s been an ongoing thing, not only in my current work life but ever ever since I’ve been in professional, like working somewhere for a paycheck. It’s been, kind of hallway conversations about, I wish this person would do that, well did you talk to that person? That—if somebody exemplifies that ability upfront and you can diagnose that or identify that upfront, it’s not always easy. That’s a key thing. I think being able to present and being comfortable in the room. We use to, when we were a smaller company, subject our candidates to one interview with 13 people sitting around the table. You were presenting at that point, whether you knew it or not. So every question that was asked you were presenting to a room, and you either had a quivering voice and couldn’t think on your feet, or you spoke up, sat up, and commanded the room. That to me was a huge telling factor as to whether or not somebody could cut it in this … One of our core values is that people should share their knowledge and they should share it in public ways. They should write, they should speak, they should teach. If you’re not comfortable talking in a room of 13 people about something you do, you shouldn’t be able to learn that or maybe that particular role isn’t for you. So that’s one of the things we consider as well.
This interview was recorded Summer 2014.