Employer Brand Takes Center Stage

As news of a “Great Resignation” trend dominates headlines, HR and talent acquisition leaders alike are looking to their employer brand – some for the first time! – to differentiate and stand out in a highly competitive, ever-changing market. What does it take to attract and retain great talent today? And how can organizations adapt to the growing digital workplace while retaining their culture. Join Bruce Morton in his fascinating conversation with Ryan Schulz, managing director of brand and experience design at full-service digital agency One North, A TEKsystems company.

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Bruce Morton: Welcome to Subject to Talent. Brought to you by Allegis Global Solutions. Similar to you, we are always trying to learn more. On this podcast, we speak to workforce and talent experts from around the world. Covering market trends, technology, and our ever-evolving dynamic industry.

Hi, I'm Bruce Morton, the host of Allegis Global Solutions' Subject to Talent podcast. Today I'm joined by Ryan Schulz, Managing Director of Brand and Experience Design at One North, a TEKsystems company. One North is a full-service digital agency and that helps clients break through the sea of sameness. Which I love that phrase, breaking through the sea of sameness that plagues the world of digital marketing. Whether it's driving revenue, creating client stickiness or attracting or retaining talent. One North helps clients fall in love with the future, one initiative at a time. Welcome Ryan and thank you for joining us today on the podcast.

Ryan Schulz: Thanks for having me, Bruce. It's awesome to be here.

Bruce: We always ask our guests the same first question. So here we go. How did you get into this workforce industry and what was your journey to where you are today?

Ryan: It's a circuitous journey, but I can try and make it brief. I'm a failed art dealer, so that's kind of a fun little twist to my story. I started as a poet and writer back in college. Thought I was going to go into journalism after school and then very quickly within a couple of years realized I didn't want to be in the magazine world. And I met a person, I met a girl, and we decided to follow our passion and open up an art gallery and move to this very small town in Wisconsin of about maybe a thousand people. And we hired a bunch of artist friends. She had a bunch of artist friends. She was a painter and photographer and we opened up a gallery. And at that same time, everyone in that small town, this little boutique town, it was like a high-end shopping town, resort town was all going online. And everyone was creating sort of virtual experiences that tried to match their digital experiences or their in-person experiences.

There was a French bakery, there was a modern dry goods store, there was a home store that was sort of full of really interesting things from around the area. Everyone was trying to create their own unique personality, digitally with limited tools and limited budget. And so we were having to be really creative with copywriting and photography and design with these credit templates. That's where I sort of broke my chops, doing kind of the digital marketing thing. And very quickly I realized I was a business consultant and a brand consultant, just as much as I was maybe an art dealer.

I did the art dealer thing for eight years to some success and eventually found my way back to Chicago. 2008 happened, no one wants to buy any more art in 2008. Very quickly realized that I needed to get a real job. And so I took all the kind of skills that I'd been developing consulting on the side and doing things for friends and I helped a friend start a magazine and a bunch of other things during that time. Got a job at VSA Partners and the rest is sort of history. I've been in the business ever since.

Bruce: Wow. What year was that, back in the art gallery in Wisconsin?

Ryan: So the art gallery was from 2001 to 2008. So yeah, it was a good stretch for me.

Bruce: Yeah. It reminds me of the story of that the folks that made their money out of the gold rush were the guys that were selling Levi jeans to the miners, not digging for mine. You were like, there's more money in design and making them digital than in trying to sell the art.

Ryan: That's right. I don't know if you know this or not, but in the art world there's a lot of downtime. It is not a hustle-hustle job. So there are many, many hours during the day, during the evening where you can do other work and projects and a lot of dealers do that. So, it's easy way to make kind of two livings or two-half livings that make up a whole living.

Bruce: You were a gig worker all those years ago, you see? There you go, ahead of your time.

Ryan: That's right.

Bruce: That's great. Thank you. Fascinating story. So today we're covering a topic that's very, very hot in the workforce solutions industry right now. More organizations and some for the first time are looking beyond their consumer brand and putting their focus on employer branding to set all about retention, not just attraction anymore, but retention as well. How can, and should they be using their brand to attract and retain top talent? So, from your lens, Ryan, and in your world, what do you see your clients... How do you see them reacting to this? And what advice can you give in this space?

Ryan: I think there's this renewed focus on purpose that I've seen. Everyone's doing a lot of navel-gazing and soul-searching right now. And I think partly because the pandemic just shook everyone to the core and everyone realized how quickly: A, their businesses could go away. B, their people could disappear from their physical footprint. And C, the pipeline of work, whatever that might be, that's feeding the whole thing, it could be disrupted and changed. And not just that, it's not just for them, it's for everybody, right?

So it's one thing when your supply chain or where your supply chain of people or work product changes and you have to pivot in an environment that's stable. This is a completely unstable environment. So, I think it forces everyone to do a lot of, what are we actually doing here? What are we actually making here? What do we want to make here? Who do we want to be a part of this place?

I didn't even know, just for our agency, we had a pretty strong rule pre-pandemic that 99% of our employees were going to be hired out of Chicago. We had one office, we'd pride ourselves on having one office. We wanted to have an office with 200 and something people in it. We were about a hundred and something people at the time, 130 people going into the pandemic. And very quickly we realized, oh, that's not going to be sustainable. We need to shift and kind of look outward. And if we're going to do that, we need to clearly understand who we are, in order to communicate back to these new people that are in Denver and on the east coast and in Atlanta and in Seattle, that are never going to be in our office space, except maybe once a year, what it is we do and who we are, and purpose around what we do and what we make, how we do it. That's something that can translate time codes. That's something that can sort of, you can build virtually without physical office spaces supporting it.

Bruce: Yeah. There's a lot of talk about how companies are currently taking their culture. I mean, obviously this would amount into a hybrid workplace and you were just talking about that. So our purpose, obviously part of that, but how else do you think the role of culture in this changing workplace and how's the employer brand itself connected to that culture? What are organizations doing so they're screening their culture in a very overt way?

Ryan: Well, I think organizations for a long time got lazy and I think the .com boost over the course of maybe even just say 20 years, even though there was a bust in there. I think really gave people an easy way to create culture. Right? Let's make a cool office space. Let's have neat furniture and let's have snacks in the kitchen and let's have awesome, happy hours and let's do game nights and that kind of thing. And yeah, those can be handholds for creating culture, but that's not culture in and of itself, like that's window dressing.

And I think when we talk to clients about building a strong sense of culture, it really is directly connected to purpose. And then there's this other piece of kind of strategy. What's the strategy behind the business? What's the strategy behind kind of, your go to market? What's the strategy behind how you engage with clients? And when you start pulling those things together... I mean, let's be honest, work is work and home is home. It's not a club, right? If most people had a choice, they probably wouldn't go to work, right? They would go do something else. So work has to have a mission associated with it. And I think when that mission is super clear and everyone is sort of excited about that same mission, that can be a much stronger backbone for those cultural pieces. Rather than a cool couch or popcorn machine or whatever.

It's much harder to do. And I think that the other sort of part about the mission piece is, not everyone can have a cool, sexy mission. There are lots of businesses out there that aren't that cool and aren't that sexy. There are credit chasers that are huge employers, that have giant call centers, that their mission isn't really all that interesting. There are other kinds of companies out there where their mission is pretty banal. I still think it's incumbent upon that organization to figure out something that's going to drive those people.

I think the logistics industry has done a pretty incredible job of transforming what used to be call center activity into something that is culture building, that is really intense internally. They've taken cues from trading floors and sort of hothouses that do that kind of work. And then taking the best of, kind of what Silicon Valley has sort of served up and then created something new by knowing who they're going after, pulling those people in the door and training the living daylights out of them, and then setting them loose and enticing them with incredible benefits and bonuses and cash to perform and it becomes this adrenaline atmosphere. And you see it across a bunch of different 3PLs, sort of out there in the space.

Bruce: Right. So in a way, it's beyond just the brand that obviously, it has to be genuine, but also it sounds like organization design comes into this as well. Thinking about how that worker wants to work and what atmosphere and part of the job they're going to join is. It's interesting. Several years ago now, I started talking about this word that I made up, called "TalentSumers," which is obviously a mix of talent and consumers and got on my soapbox about working with our clients about, you have to stop thinking of applicants and candidates and employees in that way. You have to think about them as consumers. Back in the day, you could have an employer brand and a consumer brand and never the train did meet. And then all of a sudden it became the same thing because of the transparency of the web and so on.

So if you think about that concept of treating those people as consumers, that obviously means... I think the example you're just saying there, you need to research who you're going to go after, right? What kind of experience so those types of individuals that are ones that are going to hang about and have a decent tenure here, what are they looking for in their day-to-day. So, as we think about that, moving from the consumer era into an employee experience era in a way, do you have any examples you can think of where companies have really embraced that concept and actually understood that we're all human beings?

Ryan: I think that where that TalentSumers thing really comes into play is with HiPo employees, right? I mean, you can pay anybody to show up and a decent amount of people out there are going to show up and they're just going to sit in their seat and they're going to do their thing, but they're not going to outperform and over-perform. They're not going to go out of their way to sort of drive somebody else's productivity. They're not going to want to rise to the level of manager or director or VP. They're not going to want to climb the ranks and sort of build something in an entrepreneurial way within that environment.

I think when you treat your employees like they're consumers, like they're not just there to deliver something, but they're taking something away and there's an exchange, you can get HiPos to do some pretty incredible things. You can make them feel like they have ownership in the place. Even if they don't own stock, you can make them feel like they have the freedom and flexibility to build something within those walls, because there's been an equal exchange of ideas and information and whatever you want to put on the table. And so that's where I think it really powerful.

I think that professional services organizations have actually been doing this really well for a long time. We have a long history of working with some of the most highly matrix, globally focused organizations on the planet. These are big, complicated organizations in every country on the planet. They translate their work into every language. They have thousands of employees and hundreds of offices and they make their living out of high potential employees. And they do treat those folks in this kind of relationship where you're going to write their own schedule, but we know you're going to over deliver X, Y, or Z in the end of the day. And here's all the cool stuff that we're going to give you along the way. And I think that trying to figure out how to translate that to some of those unsexier businesses or some of those smaller businesses, or some of those other scale businesses that aren't used to doing that, it's a real challenge because I think, what are the things you can give away besides benefits?

One of the things we've talked about with clients in the past is, what are those intangible benefits that you're giving away for free, that you're not even thinking about packaging up and delivering to them and showing them? What are those cultural things that you're not taking credit for when you're showing them to clients or to your employees in a package kind of way? Are there specific cultural activities? Or are there intangible benefits of the way you like to travel as a business, the way you like to pay for meals, the outings you do, the kinds of clients you work on? Like those kinds of things can be enticing. Those are things you're giving, experiences that you're giving to people.

Bruce: What I'm getting from that Ryan is, this can't be a one size fits all. You can't just say, Hey, we're an organization of choice, we're a talent magnet, like the good old days of the 90s. This is about very personalized experiences, having enough on offer to attract many, many different people and retain them. You can't just put out one message, right? It has to be far more personalized there. So to do that, you really need to understand who your, in this time, consumers are, right?

Ryan: Well, that magnet thing has changed. I mean, again, think about the fact that we're hiring beyond boundaries now. We've proven that we can work wherever. We've proven that we can work kind of whenever. And now it's up to employers I think, in that TalentSumer kind of mindset, to trust employees. If you're going to deliver, I'm going to pay you and reward you, and you can kind of do what you want. And I think it used to be about, I'm going to live in the Silicon Valley, or I'm going to live in Chicago or I'm going to live in New York and that's part of my identity. And that's part of the retention strategy too. It's hard to leave, it's hard to go find another job.

Pretty easy to go find another job now, because my market just got a whole lot bigger and it makes it that much more, I think, important for organizations to pay attention to how they're treating their employees. What freedoms they're giving for them. And also measuring the performance and success that those employees are bringing to the table and making sure that they clearly understand how folks are contributing to the bigger experience.

Bruce: Yeah. There's a big theme of transparency coming through all of this. So let's dig into some real-world examples. Can you share how One North have helped organizations overcome some of these employer branding challenges?

Ryan: Yeah. One of the companies that we work with is Facebook. We've been working with Facebook's recruiting and talent brand organization for the last couple of years. And the nice thing about that relationship is we've had a couple of big meaty things with them, but we've also worked on a wide variety of different initiatives. And I can't comment specifically on exact things that we've done. I can say that the kinds of things that we've done with them have been everything from specific recruiting initiatives around specific talent. You know, we need this exact skillset, we're going to create a campaign for this exact skillset. Not only that we're going to create an experience around this exact skillset and create a digital footprint and create an entry point for people that just do this one very specific thing.

And I find that really interesting because you're setting an expectation in the employee's mind before day one, that they're special because of this thing that they can do. It might be a programming language, it might be a specific engineering capability, it might be a creative capability, but when you really draw attention to the fact that these folks are special, they come into the culture acting special and delivering that specialty. And when you do that across a handful of different capabilities and I think it's one thing that Facebook does really well, you get this really awesome mixing pot of collaboration. I know I'm not being asked to do 20 different things, I'm being asked to do this one thing really, really well. And I get to collaborate with other people that I know I need their skillsets too and it creates a ton of stickiness.

That's a really fun thing I think for us to see when we're working across those different pieces.

Bruce: I love that example Ryan, because especially with such a big name like Facebook, that everybody on the planet knows... so you're not just relying on the brand to attract people there, you're actually turning the thing on its head and attracting that person based on their craft. And all the research in Gen Y millennials is there's no loyalty anymore. I think it's just completely incorrect. They're just as loyal, but they're more loyal to their craft than what it says above their front door. That doesn't mean that isn't important, but I 100% agree, the approach should be very specific in a CRM type approach to those individuals. That's what's going to get their attention. And by the way, you get all of that and big bonuses for Facebook, as opposed to the other way around and just go, oh, well, I imagine their biggest challenge is too many people apply to work every day.

Ryan: Yeah. And I think the other thing about Facebook that's interesting is there've been lots of stories in the news, so I'm not spilling tea here, but there've been lots of stories in the news about Facebook's culture and the relationship that high performers have with the leadership and the demands and questioning that they sort of put forward on decisions that leadership has made. And I'll say this with all transparency, there's a really good faith effort on behalf of kind of leadership to engage with those folks in that conversation. And it's not just a one-way thing, it's that TalentSumers thing kind of coming into view again.

We understand we need these people to do what we need to do. We want to retain them. If we're going to retain them, we need to treat them like they have a voice and a stake in what we're doing in our mission and our vision or values and all those kinds of things. And so, they do put a good faith effort into trying to pull those pieces as closely together and create room for conversation. We've helped them with some of those initiatives too and that's been exciting to see. I want to see the fruits of that labor two years, three years down the road. I want to see what it yields, but it's been really interesting to watch.

Bruce: That's great. That's a great example. Thank you for that. So organizations that are listening into this podcast and think, Yeah, I get it. The world's changed. It's never going back to what it was. Where do I start? How do I even think about enhancing my employer brand now? Now I can no longer use my, ‘we give you free coffee’ and ‘we've got cool furniture to attract you.’ What lessons have you learned a bit more recently? Any advice you can give to those folks that are just starting out on this new journey in the new world of work?

Ryan: Well, I think there's two things. One of them is going to be really easy, and I think people are going to like it and the other one's going to be really hard and probably hard to hear.

The easy one is I think it's really easy to sort of build a coalition and look around for people, for like-minded people within your organization that are eager for change and without kind of bordering on mutiny, but like really building kind of a movement internally of, we want to change a couple of things here. We think there's room to evolve. We think there's room to grow. We think there's room to really clearly establish our purpose, to tie it to our strategy, to create a mission for our people and to do little test pilots and projects and things, to see how those things work, right? That's easy, especially in big-scale organizations.

The harder part is I have never seen those kinds of initiatives really achieve maximum momentum and scale without leadership alignment and true vision coming from often the biggest leader, single leader at the organization, because there are so many financial pieces that you have to put in place in terms of how you spend your budget, in terms of how you organize your people, how you change your hiring practices, all those different pieces that have to start at the top. And they require sort of that person communicating with the board and saying, this is why we're spending this money that way. This is why we're going to reorganize this thing that way. This is why we're going to rebuild our services. This is how we're going to restructure the people, teams. Without that piece, efforts often kind of fizzle and flail and kind of do their thing. That sets the downside.

I actually think maybe the silver lining in that is, there's a lot more room for executives to feel like they can actually make a change and really, to realize that they're in the driver's seat. And so if those folks on the ground have a connection point to those visionaries, those leaders at the top, encouraging them to make bold, big decisions and to move the needle and to pick one thing to focus on over the course of the year, we're going to focus on this one thing this year and try and make it better, you can really move the needle, but it requires that person kind of being in the driver's seat, driving decisions and being your partner. Otherwise, it's impossible to kind of get all the different pieces throughout an organization in a complex org chart to kind of start marching together.

Bruce: And I would say that right now, from our experience, organizations are more ready for change now than they've ever been before. They know the need to do things differently than pre-pandemic. So I think timing-wise, not saying it's easy, but it's perhaps slightly easier right now, as people are rabbit in the headlights, what are we going to do?

Ryan: That's that navel-gazing thing that I was talking about earlier. I mean, I really do think that the last 18 months has spooked so many leaders in the business world globally. All at the same time. Seeing that disruption to the talent pipeline. I mean, we're seeing the same reports everyone else is seeing, with 90% of employable people have considered quitting their job and finding a new job. I think that's probably inflated a little bit and it's probably taking everyone who's even for a moment thought, "I might want to leave my job," but like that statute scared the living daylights out of everybody and make them realize, I've got to give my people a different reason to show up every day besides a paycheck and whatever intangible benefits. I've got to give them something that they can believe in and make them feel a part of this thing.

Bruce: Yeah. Obviously, you don't want them just to show up, you want their discretionary effort as well. Which is the magic. Whatever percentage that really makes the difference.

Ryan: A hundred percent.

Bruce: Yeah.

Bruce: So I have one last question for you. I guess my crystal ball a few years ago was the TalentSumer, and it's come true a lot quicker than I thought it would. But so as you think about the crystal ball moment, a few years out, what do you think the industry will look like?

Ryan: I think at-will employment is going to shift quite a bit over the course of the next handful of years. I think we're going to see a lot more contract employees. I think we're going to see a lot more temporary workforces. I think we're going to see a lot more people being hired on scaled contract assignments. I think if we've seen one thing over the course of the last year and a half it's that, everything you think is certain is probably not. And I think that that is going to create a lot of instability in the way people think about hiring long-term. So maybe instead when we spin up this division, instead of taking a bunch of budget and hiring a bunch of full-time employees, maybe we hire 1,000 or 500 contract employees for two years and we put some different kinds of stakes and guard rails around them. And then when it works out, we figure out who we're going to retain and who we're not.

I think employees are going to like that. I also think employers are going to probably learn to like that. It's going to take some shifts, probably in employment law, to make that a reality. And ultimately benefits, I think are a big part of... How do you do benefits in that sort of environment? But I do think that's a shift that I'm seeing a hundred percent, happening already. This flexible workforce that can kind of slide in to fill a void and then slide out.

Bruce: And perhaps then finally we can drop the employer word for the employer brand, right? Because, you're not their employer any more, you still have to attract them.

Ryan: That's right. Do you want to work on this amazing project? Do you want to work on this really interesting initiative? Do you want to be a part of this possible movement? Again, the thing that's always attracted me to employers, the thing that's always attracted me back to the workforce, and the thing I've seen in other organizations that attracts people is; giving people the feeling like they can build something within the walls of that organization. Giving people the feeling that they can be a part of it and they can actually make a difference. They can come up with a new capability, create some new initiative, put some new process in place and make some change. That's the thing that brings HiPos to the table. And I think when you do that at scale, that can be really powerful.

Think about marketing a new initiative ahead of it hitting market and attracting people to that thing almost in the way that the crowdsourcing, crowdfunding apps have kind of made incredible headway over the course of the last couple of years. You want to buy that new barbecue grill that hasn't been designed yet? You buy into it now, and then two years from now, you get that barbecue grill. I think you could see something similar-ish with the talent market. We're going to do this thing. We need 200 people, who's in? Let's build some momentum. Let's build this thing out.

Bruce: And give them a piece of the action, I love it. So, on a high note, on a nice positive note, thank you, Ryan. Thank you so much for joining us today. And where should our listeners go if they want to learn more about One North?

Ryan: They can always go to onenorth.com or they can look for us on Instagram or on LinkedIn, we are hiring. If you want to join an incredible team of multidisciplinary strategists, designers, and technologists doing work for some of the biggest companies on the planet and some of the most interesting companies on the planet, hit us up and we'd love to talk.

Bruce: Great, and thanks for taking that moment and that opportunity. I appreciate it. Living in the brand. Thank you so much, Ryan. Great talking to you.

Ryan: Thanks, Bruce.

Bruce: To learn more about AGS, please check us out at AllegisGlobalSolutions.com. You can also send questions for me or our guests. Just tweet us @Allegis Global with the #SubjectToTalent or email us at SubjectToTalent@AllegisGlobalSolutions.com. Until next time, cheers! 

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