Growing a Thriving Agency Culture at Breakneck Speed

Rational Interaction has grown from just 40 employees to more than 260 over 3 years. Here's how they've built a thriving agency culture in the process.

Rational Interaction interview with 10,000ft

Rational Interaction is a full-service, integrated agency that provides digital, technical, and consulting services to leading brands worldwide. They specialize in marketing and digital strategy, campaign design and execution management, and premium content production across digital, social, and mobile channels.

The Rational team has grown at an almost unbelievable pace. A few years ago, they had just 40 employees. Today, they have more than 260 employees across their offices in the greater Seattle area and Dublin, Ireland.

We sat down with Rebecca Weaver, Head of People and Culture, and Dennis O’Reilly, Group Creative Director, over beer and cider to talk about the difficult topics of running a growing agency — culture change, employee retention, and what to do when leadership doesn’t have all the answers.

Rebecca Weaver and Dennis O'Reilly at SIC

At Seattle Interactive 2017, Rebecca and Dennis shared a stellar presentation on how their creative approach to culture has made it their company's unfair advantage. You can watch the full talk here.

What sets Rational Interaction apart from other companies where you’ve worked?

Dennis: When I met Selina Petosa, the CCO and founder of Rational, it was clear that Rational was not yet where she wanted it to be, and that opportunity fascinated me.

I’ve been in different leadership roles, but I’ve never been in a position to say, “We’re not going to do that anymore,” and have anyone truly get on board with it. I think that’s the difference here. We change directions and policies daily. We’re in this unique environment where we can come to the conclusion that something’s not working and figure out how to fix it. It’s an amazing experience and opportunity.

Rebecca: It was a big part of the draw for me too. Rational, in many ways, represented a playground—an opportunity to build from the start. As we’ve built the leadership team over time, we’ve focused on agility, so we can adjust and learn as we go. We’re able to move at a really surprising speed.

Dennis: But with that comes responsibility. We might say, “Oh, we’re going over there,” and then we get there and it’s not working. Okay, that didn’t work. What are we going to do now? That’s part of the territory for sure, and we do more of that than we do the really fun “well, that worked.”

To have that ability and the willingness on the part of our leadership to do these things is a tremendous advantage here.

Rebecca: We’ve been talking a lot about how we shift our perception away from thinking of change as an inherently negative thing. Many of the changes we make are really about how we stay ahead of the trends. How do we position the organization for any changes that are coming in the business? It’s about adapting as we go.

With so much moving and changing so quickly, how do you create enough structure so everyone knows what’s changing and how to behave?

Rebecca: That’s probably our biggest challenge culturally. We over-communicate, sometimes on an hourly basis, about where we’re going. We’re trying to institutionalize some of the communication that needs to happen so everybody knows that when things change, this is the new direction we’re headed.

The natural tendency would be, “Let’s just document everything.” There’s definitely an element of that, but none of us are interested in creating a bureaucratic environment where you have to get six levels of approval for everything. We have so few of the handcuffs that I’ve experienced working in larger organizations.

Dennis: Agencies have to be something tomorrow that they’re not today and weren’t yesterday. They have to constantly evolve, so a lot of the expectations and norms we’re accustomed to are off the table.

There’s no precedent for what we’re doing. We’re constantly reexamining what we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to work. We’re figuring it out on almost a daily basis.

It’s the nature of where agencies are right now. How do you build a sustainable model and do great work while keeping people happy and creating a good culture? It’s this constant tug in every direction.

Rebecca: Some of the challenge is slowing down enough to recognize the critical things that somebody new is going to need to know—both the written rules and the unwritten rules of how things actually get done in this company. You have to start documenting that. Canonizing it and making sure those rules are shared in a more formal way with people when they come on board. That’s part of the process of putting structure in place.

How do you get the organization to rally around all this change without it being anxiety-provoking or stressful?

Dennis: Honesty.

Rebecca: Yes. Well, transparency is a buzzword that’s now perhaps a little too buzzy, and that’s why we use the term honesty.

You need to have honest conversations with people. It requires being courageous and having tough conversations sometimes, telling people something you know they don’t want to hear.

I appreciate the flexibility and the freedom to be far more transparent and far more open about things than in my corporate past. We look for those opportunities and we constantly ask the team, “What else do you need?”

What we keep hearing from the team is essentially just, “Tell us what you know. We get it if you don’t have all the answers.” And we try to communicate and update them as much as possible.

For example, we created a really simple feedback form for our team. We call it AMA (Ask Me Anything): Rational Edition. We set it up in a Google form for our team to ask questions anonymously—everything from “How are we doing with the business?” to “What happened with the bathroom?”

We recognized that we didn’t have a lot of anonymous venues for people to ask questions that maybe they were afraid to ask publicly. And this provided a huge opportunity for us to give direct answers about what was going well, what parts weren’t, and what we were going to do about it.

When we created the AMA, we also said, “We recognize that this is necessary now, but let’s also agree that at some point in time we won’t need this venue. Ours will be a culture where people can ask questions without any fear of appraisal or retribution."

Rational Interaction talk about company culture

Dennis: One of the questions I often get is, “Well, is this a temporary thing?” And I usually say, “It’s permanent, which means it’s going to last at least two weeks.” That’s kind of the reality. What I’ve been encouraging everyone to do here is to embrace it.

You run into two points of view about every issue. People either have a fear of change or they want more opportunity to do new or different things and push themselves in their careers. I think it’s a really tricky balance to get right. For us to be moving forward constantly, nothing can be permanent. If it is, then we’re not doing our jobs.

Rebecca: I think the key is to have an environment where you encourage that healthy tension.

What I’m responsible for on behalf of the company probably should, at some point in time, be in tension with some of Dennis’s goals. I think that’s important. I think it’s healthy that we’ve built that kind of relationship.

That needs to be the case organizationally, especially with the leadership team. You can say, “This doesn’t feel right to me” or “This is not the direction I think we should go, and here’s why.” But to do that effectively, people need a clear picture of what they’re responsible for in their roles. That was a huge challenge and continues to be in some ways. “My title says this, but I think I’m actually doing half of two jobs. Is that intentional?”

We did a lot of work over the past year to try to clarify what peoples’ roles should be. If we’re stepping outside of that, it’s intentional. We’re saying, “Hey, I’m just stepping in to help.” And to make that work, you need a really clear picture of those roles and accountabilities. That’s been a huge lesson for us.

How have you transitioned from a core group of flexible people who wear multiple hats to hiring more specialized people who need to feel well supported?

Rebecca: It’s a hard transition for a lot of organizations to make, regardless of your type of business.

Sometimes you can adapt and then become the specialist. And sometimes, as we’ve had over the past year and a half, quite a few people will decide to opt out. They wanted that early-stage experience. Or they want to be the person who has their hands in a lot of things. That’s great and it’s important to recognize, but those people can hold back the progress of the organization.

Dennis: We had one guy who was phenomenally talented, but as we started to define what we were doing moving forward, he didn’t feel like his skill set was being put to good use. So, he started the process of looking around. I even gave him a recommendation because I knew what he wanted to do, and I knew what we could offer wasn’t going to keep him happy.

It was definitely a bummer because he was a great culture fit. But it was a good decision across the board.

behind the scenes at Rational Interaction

How do you help make people feel like it’s okay to opt out?

Dennis: I have very blunt conversations with everyone on my team. I blame it on being from the East Coast, but I think it’s the most effective way to communicate. It clears out a lot of tension.

We had some people who were in a certain role that made sense at one time, but not anymore. I said, “Well, this isn’t actually a good fit. But we have a different role for you over here.” A couple of people are now thriving because they’re in the right role. It’s suited to their skill sets, their work style, and their personalities. They’re far less stressed out, which means I’m less stressed out.

Rebecca: Part of the question is how are we building in those opportunities for people to get that feedback? Once we identify that there’s a fit problem, let’s get as specific as we can about the problem. Is it a technical skill? Is it their ability to meet deadlines? Is it that they’re managing a team and they’ve never done that before and they don’t know how to give feedback?

The reality is we’re moving really quickly. I think the more direct you can be and the more specific you can be, the better. Sometimes it requires changing that person’s environment or changing the expectation, whether that’s their job, the team they’re on, or the client they’re responsible for. We give them the opportunity to improve, and if it’s ultimately not a fit, we tell them, “We don’t see this headed in a good direction. This isn’t working out. What can we do to help you find your next great thing?”

It doesn’t mean they’re a failure. It’s just not the right time or place for them.

We want people—whether they’re with us for a short period of time or a long period of time—to view their time with Rational as a valuable part of their overall career and development.

We recognize that this is a great place for some people to be over the long haul. We hope that’s the case for most, but sometimes it’s not the right time, place, or role. We’ve helped a lot of people make personal connections, provided references, introduced them to other people in the area or other cities if that’s where they’re headed.

It makes departure a positive experience. It’s not always going to be the case, but that’s what we want to strive for.

A lot of agencies’ number one concern is hiring and retention, and attrition is scary. For you, it seems like attrition has been a key part of growth.

Dennis: I had an experience in a leadership role at an agency where the other leads had all been there from the start, for 11 years or 12 years. They were the same group of people that got the agency up and running.

Then I came across an article in Inc. that said the people who get you through the first 10 years are not the same people that get you through the next 10. You have to acknowledge that. I shared that with my boss. He didn’t appreciate it at all at the time. But two years later, he moved a lot of those people on and brought in some fresh blood. He eventually figured it out.

That was definitely something we were thinking about at Rational because it had been such a small agency that grew so quickly. A lot of the leadership just expanded with the agency but didn’t necessarily grow into the more specialized roles that were needed.

Rebecca: Some people understand that it’s no longer the right fit for their skill sets. Some people don’t. How do we get them there? How do we bring in the talent we need in the right places?

Attrition has really been a key part of our growth. It’s important for organizations to recognize that attrition is not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s much more about the reasons behind why people are leaving. You don’t want attrition too high because that’s an indicator that there may be something wrong. If it’s too low, that could mean you may have people holding onto the job for the wrong reasons.

It’s important to view attrition as just another part of doing business. We can be realistic about it. You need the opportunity to bring in people who are the right fit, who will help you grow, and who will continue to thrive as you grow.

Do you use a culture test during the hiring process to assess someone’s fit?

Rebecca: I think it’s almost impossible. Red flags go off when we talk about culture fit because it’s so nebulous and can be so problematic, especially in interviewing.

We’re actually in the process right now of revamping our company values, and we’ll completely build our interview process off of them.

I’m in the camp of past behaviors as the best predictor of future performance. We value resiliency, adaptability, and being able to think on the fly. We’re going to ask you about times when you had to do that. It actually matters far less if it was in your job. We want to understand your thought process. How did you come to that conclusion? How did you work through that challenge?

Dennis: We make sure the conversation is very honest and open. One of the things that I say half-jokingly when I interview someone is that I spend an hour trying to talk the person out of taking a job. If they’re still interested, then we continue the conversation.

I do it because I know what we need here. I have a pretty clear idea of whether you can handle what we’re about to do. A lot of that comes down to telling people they need to come here if they want to build and lead at every level, no matter what the job description is. If they’re better suited to something where they’re just plugging into an existing system and there’s a process in place, then this isn’t the best environment.

How do you know it’s working? Are there any KPIs for the success of your culture change efforts?

Rebecca: I think there are, of course, traditional KPIs that any organization can look at—attrition, referrals, and all those kinds of things. But for me, data is always much more about the story it’s telling than about the numbers themselves.

What I look at are things like people showing up to completely voluntary events. A couple of weeks ago, we had an open forum that Dennis and I hosted with the team, called Company Culture in the Era of #MeToo. We wanted to have that open, honest dialogue with the team about what it’s like here at our company and what we want our culture to be.

Literally the entire agency—everybody who was working that day—was there at the meeting. It’s those kinds of things that are less obvious, but those are perhaps the most important KPIs for me and the team.

Then it’s also about how engaged everybody is in the conversation. Are people engaged in the process? They have to stick their necks out a little bit to say, “This is what I want it to be.” They have to speak up in a room or choose not to participate. Those are probably the most important indicators for me that we’re headed in the right direction.

Dennis: Early on, there were people who stayed because of what we were doing. They bought in right away. Some of them are still here, but each of them has had to change dramatically in their approach and how they work, how they carry themselves, how they work within the team and within our broader culture.

As we bring people in, I always think a good measure of whether or not it’s working is what the other people who interview our candidates are saying about the culture. Everyone has their own spin on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, but it’s very consistent in terms of building something and getting people to buy into what we’re building.

A lot of it is anecdotal, but you also see it in how passionate people are about the work, how much they own it, and how much they pour into it every day. We want people to come here and do the best work of their lives.

Rational Interaction logo office wall

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