“We recognize talent and nurture it as best as we can”
San Francisco, November 28th, 2018
A key part of obtaining good results at an agency is thinking on your staff and Melissa Elza is well aware of that. Working as the Director of People in North America at Beyond, she puts a strong focus on motivating and developing talent while encouraging a creative culture in the office.
With offices in several cities of the US, Beyond, a design and technology ideas company, has a strong focus on its staff and is frequently seeking new ways of helping them to achieve more.
In an interview with TIA, Elza described how they do that, and the strategies implemented, reviewing the agency’s main values and work strategy.
What important things or experiences have brought you to where you are today?
I started my career in operations for a financial company. The team spanned across the globe from New York to London to Mumbai. Analytics were at the core of everything we did. I worked with the Head of Research and Development to ensure that the team was optimally using the tools his team created. Those were my two areas of focus: training and analytics. I got a crash course in how to use Excel and how to teach adults new technology — two things I still use every day in HR.
Later in my career I worked in media. We employed a lot of new college grads and allowed them the ultimate freedom to create. Some very lucrative business ideas came out of that model. That entrepreneurial spirit was fascinating to see in action. There were some very big risks being taken, and the rewards were even bigger. For example, we tested our distributed content strategy when those Ice Bucket Challenge videos were going viral three years ago. It became a model for how digital publishers can create content, monetize that content, and diversify revenue. That company now has 225 advertisers from this scrappy test.
What is your approach to motivating and developing talent?
I want every person that leaves our agency to be better than when they joined. We should be helping our people grow in everything they do. That alone is its own intrinsic reward. Employee engagement is highest when you give them the power to make real change. Our managers should be developing both. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year building tools for our managers to make sure we’re providing the best employee experience.
There’s a lot of opportunity within agencies to climb the career jungle gym, as Sheryl Sandberg so aptly put it. This is, to me, the beauty of the digital sector. With technological advances, the landscape is constantly changing. Everyone, including those of us in operational roles, have to regularly evolve our skills.
I’ve seen a lot of people take a linear path, jumping from discipline to discipline. So, for example, someone might start in project management, then jump to product management, and on to strategy. When this trend started a few years ago, we’d refer to these people as “unicorns.” We see more of these “unicorns” nowadays. In fact, we have several at Beyond. We always want to allow space for that freedom to develop, grow, and evolve.
What are some of the characteristics of people that have been successful at your company?
Kind. Empathetic. Humble. Full of grit. There has always been this opportunity for people to forge their own path at Beyond. We recognize talent and nurture it as best as we can. Several of our leaders started in junior positions at the company and, through determination and growth, are now managing large teams. We have several tenured employees, and I think having these people stick around for 5+ years has helped keep the culture and values strong.
Do you focus more on problem-solving or opportunity creation?
Ideally, I’d focus on each equally. Unfortunately, I think most of us spend more time problem-solving than we’d like. I’ve worked at a few different agencies, and I’d say that’s par for the course in this environment. Having said that, I find that often when I’m trying to solve a problem, I’m also creating opportunity. Our D&I effort is the perfect example of this. We launched a U.S.-wide diversity and inclusion (D&I) effort earlier this year that was born from design thinking. So many companies have D&I programs that are failing. We were deciding how to tackle D&I when Starbucks announced they were closing their stores to do unconscious bias training, and it heightened our awareness of how these programs can fall short. What came out of the ideation sessions was an incredible endeavor. We were able to purposefully gather the studio to tackle this initiative with design thinking rather than setting quotas and targets. Several people across offices participated, and I think that was successful because we approached this area of thinking in the same way we approach our clients’ business challenges.
How would you describe the creativity culture at the agency?
We champion the creative spirit. One of our designers enjoys photography and asked if we would sponsor a charity exhibit of his photos, which we did. We love that our people bring their whole selves to work every day and are comfortable enough to share that side of themselves with us. Every one of our offices features hand painted murals. Our people take pride in, and want to have a hand in, creating their workspace.
How do you help a new employee understand the culture of your organization?
There are 4 values that make a Beyonder: we support each other, we have an entrepreneurial spirit, we aim to be inspirational, and we never stop learning. It’s funny because, before I came here, company values felt like something that lived only on a slide in an onboarding deck. I’ve never actually seen them embedded in the culture, and they really are at Beyond. When we say there aren’t any egos, it’s true.
People actually care very much about each other. Recently, there was an internal project that had just kicked off at the end of the day and had a tight turnaround. People were on their way out the door, saw what was happening, turned around, and chipped in to get it done. The project turned out beautifully because of everyone’s support. That desire to help is innate.
How important is working in teams at the agency and how is it managed?
Team design is incredibly important at Beyond. We run projects with small, agile teams that sit together. This allows our teams to run leaner than they might somewhere else. But it also means that some team members wear multiple hats.
I think this way of working is what has allowed our people to grow and expand their skill sets, and why our retention rate is higher than your average agency employee. This way of working also allows a high level of autonomy, which in turn, tends to accelerate the development of our less experienced employees.
What are the main features of the work environment at the agency?
We’ve been able to custom design our space, so it fits us. In our NY studio, we have a floor that doesn’t have any dedicated desks on it — there’s a large open space with beautiful rustic and industrial accents that we use for our company meetings or outside events. There is also a turntable that employees take turns DJing on after our company-wide meeting, we have an original fur vault that we converted into a meditation and mindfulness room, and, on the highest floor, there is a balcony overlooking midtown Manhattan and the Empire State Building.
Every quarter, all of our global offices have a meeting where we nominate people that have gone “above and beyond.” The winner of that gets a free one-week trip to any of our global offices in NYC, San Francisco, Austin, or London. It’s a nice way to recognize our people.
What keeps you up at night?
I’ve been putting together a series of learnings for our managers. I’ve been really digging into engagement and learning statistics, which I’ve found to be both motivating and terrifying. I also find that I get the best ideas in the middle of the night.
What advice would you give to a recent grad seeking to start in the digital sector?
Network, network, network. There are so many free events in the digital and technology space that are open to anyone who’s interested. Those events are a great place to meet and talk to people in the industry. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a great conversation with someone at an event and then ended up hiring them for a job that wasn’t posted. Agency job boards only tell part of the story. Sometimes, we don’t even know who we’re looking for until we find them.