Acceleration Partners, the performance marketing firm, isn’t your average marketing agency. For starters, the company operates fully remotely from six “hubs” around the country.
Ladders spoke with Acceleration Partners founder and CEO – as well as the author of Elevate – Robert Glazer, to find out how to manage a company of 150+ employees remotely, and what managers need to focus on as their company grows.
What’s the biggest industry trend to watch right now?
“I’d say the biggest trend actually is the shift to performance. I think there are a lot more direct to consumer companies. Brands are shifting their marketing budget to more performance-oriented budgets. They want to pay for outcomes. They don’t want to pay for someone having seen or heard about their product, they want to pay for someone who bought their product.
“With all the digital marketing and tracking out there, the biggest trend is tying input to outcome. If you can help me sell my dress, I’ll pay you 10% of that dress all day long, but I don’t want to pay for something that doesn’t work.”
“If companies want to attract the best talent, they’re going to have to make it a great place.”
How do you think the future of work will play into what you do?
“I think the future of work is going to be a lot more flexible. Companies are going to have to accommodate different types of employees, different types of schedules. I think people will agree with a book that Reid Hoffman just wrote, called The Alliance, that says employees and employers will be in alliance than necessarily a long-term relationship.
“If companies want to attract the best talent, they’re going to have to make it a great place, make it compelling, have a mission that people believe in, and be flexible about how people come in or come out over time.”
Can you describe the core Acceleration Partners company values? Why are they so important to you?
“I should preface this by saying that I didn’t really believe in the whole core value thing a few years ago. I heard a lot of companies talk about core values and they’d put all this stuff on the wall about integrity, and trust, and treat people well … all of these sorts of things that they really didn’t act.
“Core values need to represent a differentiated point of view. Every company can say innovation and integrity and respect. Ours, that we’ve really narrowed it down to, and it’s made a huge difference are: own it, embrace relationships, and excel and improve. They’re a key part of our hiring, they’re a key part of our promotion, they’re a key part of our rewards systems. We do shout outs based on them, we do end of year awards based on them.
“We encourage people to make decisions based on them. I use a line that I’ve heard that goes, ‘People who make a decision within the lines of one or more core values are always safe.’ That’s how we actualize them. When people don’t work out at our company it is largely because they don’t demonstrate one or more of those core values on a consistent basis.”
What’s special about the work culture at Acceleration Partners?
“We do what we say and we say what we do. As I said before, it’s not for everyone. If it doesn’t work out here, hopefully, somebody will say ‘Hey, this is just not the right team for me. I’m a running quarterback and this is a passing offense.’ What really frustrates people is a company that says one thing and does another. We try to be really consistent. That doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. If we can find the right people, it makes us a great culture for those people and probably the best and most rewarding place they’ve ever worked.
“We’re on a mission to find that 1% that matches up with our culture. It’s certainly not everyone and I think there are people that would say, ‘Yea, I don’t like those corporate values. I’d rather be held to something different.’ And that’s totally fine. But we’re consistent about it. If you come here and you own it and you embrace relationships…you will do great. If you don’t own it, the first time there’s a mistake and you’re asked to write that up and share all the learning, and you blame all external factors and people and don’t do all that stuff, you will really struggle here.
“Also, we’re client services. I always talk about ‘fly your flag.’ Those are core values I use. We are a client-service business. We are super fast-paced. These are all things we try to be really honest about. If you don’t like client services, no matter how many awards we win and all that stuff, you probably won’t like it here. If you don’t like a super-fast pace, if that stresses you out, then you probably won’t like it here. People that were bored in their last job love working here. People who had it really easy in their last job may struggle to adjust. We’re really trying to get that all out on the table before they come. We are not trying to sell anyone saying that we’re different than we are. We’re trying to sell them on exactly what they are.
“We’re also fully remote. I think we’re one of the largest fully remote at this point. Because of that, we do a lot of hub get-togethers. The thing that differentiates us, is that we do something called AP Summit every year where we fly in everyone from around the world and do a three- to four-day, really deep team-building summit. We have world-class speakers and get way outside of the normal workday so that people really get to know each other. It’s very much about personal development and growth. For CEOs who have done leadership conferences…it’s very similar to that experience.”
Does being fully remote change the culture of Acceleration Partners?
“I think it forces us to be really intentional about things. People say that they feel closer to their peers here than they did in other companies. One of the challenges and disadvantages of being fully remote is that it makes on-boarding a little harder. For a lot of companies on-boarding is like, ‘Hey, you started today. Oh, we forgot you were starting. Go follow around Steve.’ We can’t afford to do that, so we script out their first two to three weeks of training, being matched up with peers, what they’re doing, etc. It forces us to be really intentional about everything.
“The result is that we have processes that are a lot stronger than other companies. I do think people feel really connected because we’re intentional about that. There are a lot of studies that have come out in the last couple months debunking the whole open office workspace and that it’s really not productive and people are distracted all day long. People like social connection, but they also just need some time and space to do work uninterrupted.”
What’s your one, most important piece of interview advice?
“I hear a lot of people talk about their ‘voodoo’ questions or the one thing that they ask people, and I think most people have no proof, have never looked at the data. So, we really systematize everything. We try to make interviews a consistent process, consistent questions, people are scored, we come to a table and we look at those scores, we match them up against the actual job requirements.
“I think that humans are very fallible in interviewing. I think we’re attracted to the people that are like us, when we do the personality testing and stuff like that, later on we’ll find that people hired people that really matched them. So we try to put a lot of checks and balances in place.
So my big thing is to not over-rely on the voodoo question or the one thing that they think works and make it a holistic process. In fact, one of the things that we started stressing a year or two ago is for people to look between the interviews. For example, are people sending a thank you note, were they easy to schedule with, were they responsive … these were all the types of clues that would tell us what kind of employee they would be.
“Even if they crush the interview but we could never get a hold of them, or they’re not responsive…those have a high degree of correlation to someone who would work out well or not work out well.”
“I think a good CEO should do very few things, but do them well.”
What’s the most surprising aspect of being CEO?
“I didn’t actually call myself a CEO until we had about 70 or 80 employees and we started to have general managers in different regions and that was my title and it was getting confusing. Your job really changes. I think a good CEO should do very few things, but do them well. Own the culture, set the vision, and help find and develop and grow the people. That means getting out of a lot of operational things that a lot of people grew up in or spent time in. In terms of absolutely impacting and growing the business, that’s the most important place for a CEO to spend their time.
“For you to call yourself a CEO, and I think a lot of people do that too early, you’re the Chief Executive Officer, so you’re coordinating and removing obstacles and helping your other executives. If you are doing everything in your company – if you’re the head of finance, and the head of delivery and the head of marketing, you are not a CEO. You’re a founder/entrepreneur who’s playing every role. So I think people should really think about when they take that role and how it’s relative to the actual job they have. But also, I think that a lot of founders don’t want to be CEOs and they are much happier when they figure it out. What do they love? Do they love the marketing? Do they love the selling? Do they love the finance? At that point, it really becomes around people and helping develop other people.”
Did you want to be the CEO of Acceleration Partners?
“Yea, I realized I liked that stuff. Originally, I didn’t because I didn’t think I would like all this process, and red tape, and HR. Then I realized that wasn’t my job. My job was to set the vision and I enjoy helping people become better. That’s a personal passion of mine, so I think it fits well into the role that I need to play.”
Does being the founder of Acceleration Partners change the role of CEO?
“I think you have to evolve. What you’re doing at 10 employees doesn’t work at 50, it doesn’t work at 100, so you have to decide if you want that, and then completely evolve or you will not serve your company in the right way. So for a lot of people, I don’t think they want it. That was a decision of, I want to stay the CEO of this company, so for me to do that, I need to learn faster than anybody else. If a company is growing by 30% or 40% every year, you need to get better by 30% or 40% every year in order to keep your job.”
Did delegating come naturally to you, or did you have to learn how to do it?
“No, it definitely didn’t come naturally. It’s actually the biggest struggle I see with new managers who are really good doers and they struggle to delegate. I had to learn to let go, I had to learn that it will probably be done 85% how you want it, but if it’s 85% how you want it and you weren’t involved, then that’s a win. Thinking everything will be done 100% how you want it is not realistic and your organization can’t scale. Also, when you start delegating, it’s more work in the beginning. A lot of people go through this cycle of delegating where they get some help, they’re like ‘hey, go do all this stuff,’ and they don’t give them a lot of direction and soon they’re frustrated because they screw everything up. My experience is that it gets harder before it gets easier.
“One of the first things I really let go of is, well I need to look at it because I have experience, I know the right things I’m looking for. I always ask people to codify that and think of it as sort of an algorithm. Can you actually break down what is in your head so it’s teachable? I used to read all our monthly reports before they went out because I believed that I had the right judgment and knew the right issues and what I actually needed to do was sit down and write a two-page paper and say here’s what I’m looking for.
“When it’s a good month, I’m looking for us to say these things and when it’s a bad month, I’m looking that we’ve said these things. I really broke it down into something that other people could use and that over time if I found another exception I would add it to it. I hear a lot of people say that no one else can do it as well as they do, and I think most people just have not broken down the steps in their heads to make it repeatable or realized that what they’ve learned is actually trainable if they take the time to train.”
“Part of development is taking something that’s a little bit messy and figuring how to do it.”
Does your management style at Acceleration Partners change at all with Millennial or Gen Z employees?
“I think there are some best practices. We are mostly Gen X and Millennials – now more Gen Z. But we have a culture that really crosses that, so where the Millennials and Gen X see eye to eye is that they want to be clear about the goals, they want to be clear about where they’re going, they want to be outcome-oriented. If Millennials know the score, and they know the goal and they feel part of a mission, then they’re willing to be held accountable. In terms of open-book management, very public goals, they really appeal across the generations.
“The one thing that I’ve been hearing a lot these days is about Gen Z is that they really like to be told what to do. They like clarity, tell me what to do and I will do it. Part of development is taking something that’s a little bit messy and figuring how to do it. I think this will be a challenge because we encourage a lot of autonomy. I think that’s something that we’ll continue to be cognizant of. I don’t think that’s something we should necessarily support.
“I don’t think you develop someone by telling them what to do. I don’t think you develop good managers and leaders like that. We’ll have to push that cohort to make decisions more on their own and do things that are a little outside their comfort zone. I don’t think it will help anyone to just tell them what to do. That’s not very in line with our culture.”