Hanson Dodge: On Building a (Positive) Culture of Dissent

We talked with the Hanson Dodge team about maintaining employee happiness while driving profitability.

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In our new interview series, we sit down over drinks with leaders of companies we admire to talk about design, innovation, and how they balance team creativity with the complexities of running a business.

In this edition, we video-chatted with Hanson Dodge's Director of Talent Acquisition & Resourcing, Kelly Klawonn and Director of Operations, Jonathan Gundlach as they sipped semi-cold beers in their Milwaukee office.

Kelly Klawonn and Jonathan Gundlach of Hanson Dodge

Kelly Klawonn and Jonathan Gundlach of Hanson Dodge

Kelly: Before we start, did you know there's an agency in Minneapolis that uses a key badge for their beer tap? Whenever people enter their time, they receive beer tokens that unlock the tap.

We should make that our next API integration. Sounds pretty inspiring. To get started, how would you define your company culture in a sentence or two?

Kelly: I would say we're open. Open to input, ideas, experiences. There's a broadness to our thinking.

Jonathan: We're extremely fun-loving. People have a lot of energy and passion for the work they're doing.

Kelly: We're optimists. Not very curmudgeonous.

How do you keep the office environment fun?

Jonathan: We have surprise activities planned by different teams. Our account services team actually has one planned for tomorrow. No idea what we're doing. We only know there's a taco bar, beer, and they said to wear tennis shoes.

Kelly: It's a very playful environment. No one's afraid to do something ridiculous.

Jonathan: I have a big whiteboard where I post a new question every week for people to answer. Last week was "New Things You Can Do With Your Arms". Someone wrote "threshing wheat". This week's is "Best Named Diseases" which spun off into "Is That a Food or a Disease?" because someone got cholera confused with cauliflower.

Kelly: We also have a sound system throughout the office, which creates really good energy, and anyone can play whatever music they want.

Jonathan: Except bagpipes.

What's your strategy for balancing that fun environment with the nitty gritty side of running an agency?

Jonathan: Well, we recently decided we wanted to focus more on hitting deadlines and less on how long it takes to do things. We kick projects off with an estimation meeting where we talk about time parameters, which types of people we'll need, and how long we think it will realistically take them to finish the work. All of that ultimately leads to the price. From there, we create a contract and get the project plan in place, then present it to the team and say, "Here are your deadlines. Just work and don't worry about how many hours it takes."

Kelly: If the work sucks, and it's going to take us another 70 hours to make it great, we're going to do the 70 hours. We don't want anyone to get bogged down by tasks, time sheets, hours, or reports, so we try really hard to push those things to a higher-level business conversation instead of an agency-wide conversation.

Jonathan: It's hard. Things are shifting and adjusting. We try to boil it down to: Are we delivering great work that's innovative and game changing? Are our teams happy? Are our clients happy? Are we hitting our deadlines? And are we profitable?

Deadlines and profitability seem pretty straightforward to measure, but how do you measure happiness?

Jonathan: In a couple ways. We have Monday morning staff meetings where we show everyone's work and people get to vote on whether they think it's transformative. We also ask individuals to assess their own work on a transformative scale.

Kelly: Our assumption is that if people are doing innovative, transformative, good work, they're probably going to be happier. I don't think creative people are typically motivated by money, but they care very deeply that it's good work. They're going to do it regardless of profitability, so our challenge is to give them the opportunity to do the best work they can and figure out how to make money in the background.

Jonathan: The big thing for us is to foster an environment where people feel they can focus on the work, and not worry about all these other things. They just want a place where they can have fun and be creative. In our weekly meetings, people can also give a shout out to someone else and talk about something great that person did. Everyone at any level – from the CEO to the intern – can get or give a shout out. It means a lot to the team member getting the shout out and to everyone around them who hears it.

How do you motivate your team?

Kelly: It depends. I think business development people are more easily motivated by competition and the drive to win; the pursuit naturally motivates them. Then other people are motivated by very different things. There can be a cultural clash if our creative or strategy people don't find the clients to be interesting. They want to solve complex challenges. A cash cow isn't in and of itself going to be inspiring.

Can you give us an example of a project where your approach to management and motivation helped you do better work?

Jonathan: We're working with a client whose approach is unique and their audience is pretty niche - a really underserved market. So we're building this brand and messaging that's very different from their competition.

Kelly: Being very cross-disciplinary pushes us forward. It wouldn't be very successful if we brought the client to our team and said, "Here's the client and here's what you need to do." Instead, our teams work closely to define the problem and find an innovative solution. Planning and strategy informs creative, but creative can push planning and strategy in a different direction. Same thing with our technology team - there's a lot of overlap. I think we're building a culture of dissent that's very positive. It's okay if you disagree with someone at a leadership level and you want to explain why. Without that discussion between our teams, our creative process would be a little muted.

Jonathan: We're also distinct in the services we offer. We have teams for branding, research, strategy, creative, social media, e-marketing, and tech that builds our sites. We're pretty full service, which gives our team a lot of ownership and pride in the work we produce.

Hanson Dodge team

How do you teach such a cross-collaborative style of teamwork to new employees?

Kelly: We try to pull it out during the recruiting process. How well do they work with others? What's been their experience with people outside their discipline? A lot of people know how to collaborate within their discipline, but it can be tough when you ask an art director to collaborate with a technologist. They may not want to do it right away, but it's vital for us.

Jonathan: We work hard to find the right people. If you join our team, even if you're an intern, we want you to dig in and put your everything into what we do. People know they're going to come in and hit the ground running.

How do you keep communication from breaking down when people from different disciplines work together? It can be a challenge when they don't speak the same work language.

Kelly: We have an open culture where people are pretty receptive to different points of view, but sometime it's a challenge. It might be a Milwaukee or Wisconsin thing, but we tend to be very nice and polite, so conflict is not always seen as a positive thing. When people get passionate and fiery and raise their voice and stand up for their points of view, we need to embrace that as meaningful and not be offended or think that person is being too rash.

Jonathan: We're going through a cultural shift in how we work and bringing in more people who aren't so Midwestern-nice.

Kelly: We're putting more people in the room with different perspectives. Feathers can get ruffled a little bit. It's important that we don't lose site of the value in that, because it's not personal - people are just passionate. Working through that to find a solution is the exciting part.

What else should we know about life at Hanson Dodge?

Kelly: Much of our success comes from how passionate everyone here is. People can bring their outside interests in and we support them. For example, Ken Hanson, our founder and CEO created an organization called Greater Together which works on issues of discrimination and poverty in the city. Our company has been very supportive of that effort. People here feel a good sense of work-life balance. 

It's not just about how much time you're at work, it's also about how much life you bring to work... hold on, that was really good, wasn't it?

Jonathan: That was very good.

Hanson Dodge Creative (HDC) is a fully integrated, strategically driven agency — a mashup of designers, developers, writers, inventors, strategists, dreamers and analysts. We unleash the full power of our collective mind to inspire audiences and transform business. See their work at hansondodge.com.

Read more conversations with smart operations leaders in our Two Beers interview series.

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