Interview with Wil Reynolds and Emily Allen of SEER Interactive
June 22, 2018
This is the 100th blog post!
To mark this special event, I wanted to interview a thought leader, someone who could share their thoughts with me, and you, to help us put the professional world we navigate into some perspective. As I began to sift through potential interviewees, I realized that what I really wanted was someone who is actively engaged in making our working world a better place – someone who is leading by example.
I had the pleasure of interviewing two leaders from Philadelphia-based SEER Interactive (a digital marketing firm that focuses on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Paid Search (PPC) and analytics with locations in Philadelphia and San Diego, CA): Wil Reynolds, the founder, and Director of Strategy and Emily Allen, the Director of People Operations.
I asked both of them to define corporate culture and to talk about how they foster it, as well as their approach to engaging and sustaining talent. We also discussed corporate responses to unprofessional and poor behavior such as Uber’s and Starbuck’s. Their insight and leadership makes sense, it is, in some ways, common sense – however, for many companies it is not common practice, but at SEER, Wil Reynolds and Emily Allen lead by example.
Wil Reynolds believes corporate culture is simple – it’s how people treat one another. “At the end of the day, after you go through all of the rah rah, the perks, etc. it’s the ties that bind people together.” He then turned it and asked, “What are the values?”
His colleague, Emily Allen explained their values: ETHIC: Enablement, Transparency, Humility, Intelligence, and Collaboration. “We’ve codified our values (ETHIC) and have infused them into every new hire’s on-boarding so that everyone on the team understands how to use ETHIC as a north star.” She went on further to say, “So if we screw up, what do we do? We tell folks, our team, our client, etc.”
As the CEO, Reynolds embodies by these values. In 2017, he was one of the first to delete his Uber account when Uber decided to profit off of the protesters at JFK Airport due to the migrant and refugee ban. In a Philly Mag piece, he stated, “So many of their [Uber] drivers come from the seven countries where the administration isn’t allowing people in…as a CEO I would stand up for the people using my platform. It’s time to show solidarity with these workers and not turn your back on them.” He applauded Starbuck’s reaction to the racially-based event that happened in Philadelphia earlier this Spring, “Starbucks has so many employees who touch customers every day, so it’s impossible to police them all. I judge Starbucks based on how they reacted, how their leadership reacted, and I feel like they did it swift, and in a way that says we’re doing something. I can respect that.”
But Reynolds can’t do it alone. Allen adds, “I’m a firm believer that culture starts at the top (with the CEO/Founder/Pres) and trickles down throughout the organization. So, we ensure this throughout the company by being really, REALLY, insanely picky about who we hire from a culture perspective.” Reynolds, Allen and SEER are so committed to this approach that Allen added, “We will choose not to take on a project (and its associated revenue) versus hire a person who checks the requirements on paper, but we are uncertain if they are a culture fit.” In other words, Reynolds and Allen put their beliefs and values into practice to ensure the culture at SEER is the one they envision.
Fostering a positive, engaging, and compassionate culture is also about making employees and clients feel valued. Allen points out, “We want every single person who interacts with someone at SEER to feel included, supported, trusted, and special.” While correct, that can be a tall order because what they are trying to create is an environment where empathy prevails, where employees step out of their own shoes and into the shoes of others for a moment. This goes back to the people they hire. As Allen noted, they are “insanely picky” and as a result, “People at SEER are curious, respectful, and seek to learn about things/people/culture they haven’t been exposed to – this also helps to foster an environment of inclusivity.” It’s also about valuing employees by being transparent. As Allen noted, the company values transparency – it’s part of the core values (ETHIC). Transparency fosters trust, which then allows employees to make better decisions and be more productive. Reynolds pointed out, “I feel all employees should know the dynamics of the push and pull of the company. If you understand what kills margins, creates margins, etc., you are more empowered to understand how the things you want from your company are or are not doable.”
Trust, however, is not simply handed to leaders because they hold a specific title. Once cannot confuse trust with fear – trust is built and it cultivated, whereas fear occurs when a manager uses their power to manipulate, i.e. using a person’s job as leverage. When asked about advice for newly minted managers, Allen said, “Be painfully and uncomfortably ‘real,’ honest, and transparent with your team. Don’t hide your weaknesses and vulnerabilities, but rather show them; put them on blast actually – it allows you to connect with your team. Just be human, not a robot.” This approach is a perfect example of building trust. The manager who leads via fear, is often unable or unwilling to share their weaknesses. Allen added, “Your team should be comfortable coming to you with tough stuff in ‘real time,’ so that you can be a partner.” Reynolds believes in change management and as a result, he is a process person, one who, as he put it, “I’m down for the struggle, I learn when I struggle,” which also breeds trust and collaboration because when his employees see him struggle, and see the failures and misfires, and the subsequent successes, he is one of them, not someone sitting high above them on a pedestal. He’s willing to risk failure to learn, which in turn, means they can do the same.
Another aspect that fosters a positive culture, but something I did not ask about, is their commitment to giving back. Today, more and more employees are adding this aspect to the top of the wish lists. According to SEER’s website, one of the reasons Wil Reynolds started SEER was because he was unable to change his schedule to accommodate volunteering once a week, so he quit. In starting SEER, “his vision was to give everyone the flexibility they needed to contribute to the community in meaningful ways.” As a result, in 2016 the employees logged 962 volunteer hours. They make donations to the philanthropic organizations their employees volunteer and on behalf of their clients to the tune of $93,028 in 2016.
Corporate culture is about the environment of the workplace. It is the people and the place. And while an onsite dry cleaner or ergonomic sleeping pods may be nice, what really matters is the people at the top. Wil Reynolds and Emily Allen have not only made SEER a great place to work, but their example is one other companies can, and should, follow. They live and practice what they preach. And in the end, that’s the best advice.
Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department Head of Graduate Studies