Why Putting Employees First Drives Growth with Steve Pockross at Verblio

Founders and CEOs of fast-growth companies have one big idea in common. They know that putting employees first is a driver for revenue growth, customer satisfaction, and profit increases. The standard view is to put customers first, but you must understand the context before you decide what is essential. Today’s guest is Steve Pockross, CEO at Verblio. Inc Magazine ranked his company #3293 on the 2020 Inc 5000 list and #3251 in 2019. Verblio is committed to being the friendliest, easiest-to-use content creation platform in the business. Steve and I look at putting employees first, even when you are in the midst of chaos. Discover why putting employees first will help your bottom line.

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Steve Pockross: The Transcript

About: Steve Pockross brings more than 25 years of startup, Fortune 500, and nonprofit experience to his role at Verblio. As CEO, he applies leading marketplace and SaaS principles to create an industry-leading content creation platform with 3,000 U.S.-based writers supporting the creation of premium content at scale in every niche.Verblio has been named an Inc 5000 winner 2x, a Mercury growth winner 5x, and was named a Colorado Company to watch in 2020.Steve was part of the early management team at marketplace services pioneer LiveOps, growing the company into the largest virtual contact center in the world. At LiveOps, Steve served as vice president of business development and strategy, and also spearheaded the creation of the award-winning LiveOps Foundation. He also served in marketing, strategy, and operational leadership roles at Tendril, Western Union, Marketing Technologies Group, and HSBC.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Steve Pockross: Your employees are going to be with you at the entire time. They’re the ones who are going to drive the strategy and all of the client delivery behind it. They are going to be every touchpoint. And so your clients can come and go. They might not have that much allegiance to you. You know, there are will be some of those clients that, that critical inflection point. When if you have one that’s 80% of your company, you’re going to have a very different answer to me. We have over a thousand customers that we, that we answer every month and then the platform world. Delivering to all of those, the right touchpoint, I think is beyond the most critical point.

Intro: Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insights from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett: You’ve probably heard this before. Put your customers first and your company will grow. It’s only sort of the truth, from what my perspective on, what does it take to grow a fast company? You’ve got to have a team behind you that is willing to put the customers first. When you think about that, I want you to really think about this phrase that leaders should put employees first. Putting employees first is a very different concept inside of leadership that I want you to really think about the power of it. When employees are put first, they are aligning to the mission, the vision of what’s going on, everyone’s working together as a team. And this is what’s really important in order to have customers that feel serve. You want to make sure you’re putting employees first today’s interview is with the CEO of Verblio they are a fast-growth company on the Inc 5,000, two years in a row. We’re talking with Steve Pockross. What we talk about inside this interview will help you become a better leader, so that employees feel connected to the work.

He talks about the specific structures they use to connect with employees to develop them and what he does inside of one-on-one meetings that you can actually model from. You can steal it ethically and really increase your way of connecting with employees so that employees feel like they are first putting employees first is the core of this conversation. And it may challenge what you know about leadership. When you think about your job as a leader, one of the main things you have to do is evolve to be the leader that your team craves. When you evolve to this next level, you are able to serve them better. You’re able to coach them. You’re able to connect with them and communicate with them effectively. And if you’re worried about what your next steps are, then I want you to check out fast growth boardroom, because we have a group of people that are gathering together to talk about leadership. Talk about people, talk about culture. And talk about growth. All of this is with fast growth leaders from the Inc 5,000.

If you want to be a part of that community, if you want to check out what it is, make sure you get a fastgrowthboardroom.com inside that will help you understand what fast growth leadership really is. And what does it mean to be a fast-growth leader? If you think you’re a fit for this that I want to encourage you to apply because we make some special exceptions for companies that aren’t growing fast, that aren’t on the Inc list. But you’ve got to have the right qualities. You’ve gotta have the right desire to be a part of this very unique group. Just check out fastgrowthboardroom.com. If you think you’re a fit and you want to continue to evolve as a leader. Now here’s the interview with Steve, Steve, how are you?

Steve Pockross: Gene, I’m great. Thanks for having me on the show.

Gene Hammett: Excited to talk to you about leadership and growth. , before we get started, I’ve already let our audience know a little bit about you and what we talk about today, but I want you to tell us about,

Steve Pockross: Great. We are a content creation marketplace and SAS business based in Denver, Colorado. we combine those two elements to bring together 3,000 highly curated freelance writers onto our platform that delivers high-quality content at scale. And we produce about 80,000 pieces [00:04:00] of unique content to every year for about 40 different verticals. How we’ve grown about 500% in the last four and a half years. And we are completely bootstrapped.

Gene Hammett: Love it, I’m a big content creator as you know, the podcast, the writing I’ve done for different publications. , so I believe in creating content for your business and you’ve created a way to, for companies to streamline that. Is that fair to say?

Steve Pockross: That is what we try to do.

Gene Hammett: Perfect. Well, Steve, I have been doing some research on what you, your company is up to. And our team has really pulled together. Some of the things that we’re going to talk about today to help us, really help the audience understand growth, understand what’s really going on. But first, one of the things that you believe in the strategies behind your growth and the success has been putting people first. So what does that mean to you?

Steve Pockross: So, what it means to me is really focusing on our team first and by our team. I mean my employees, but also our extended group of writers that we consider an extension of our team. If we have engaged writers, you’re going to have much better content. I think we came to that through a there’s a lot of different places you can focus. I went to business school during the time where it was all about shareholder value and we were supposed to focus on these people who weren’t even in the room to always think of them first and what we could do most for them. But to me, employees first means employees drive everything in your strategy, their every contact point to their, every contact point with your clients, with your shareholders, with each other, with your writers, as far as what they’re going to build. And if you look at the classic golden triangle of how do you solve every problem with people, processes, and products. There is nothing without the people driving them first to. So what I focus on is how do you make people first as a competitive strategy and be very intentional about what it really means to bring that to life versus having it be a talking point.

Gene Hammett: I want to dive into that, but I have shared with you my impossible question, and you have answered this, but, but just to kind of get it out there for everyone as a fast-growth leader, what’s more, important employees or customers,

Steve Pockross: employees, employees, and employees.

Gene Hammett: Why would you say employees over customers.

Steve Pockross: Your employees are going to be with you the entire time. They’re the ones who are going to drive the strategy and all of the client delivery behind it. They are going to be every touchpoint. And so your clients can come and go. They might not have that much allegiance to you. You know, there are will be some of those clients. Critical inflection point, where if you have one that’s 80% of your company, you’re going to have a very different answer to me. We have over a thousand customers that we, that we answer every month and then the platform world delivering to all of those, the right touchpoint, I think is beyond the most critical point.

Gene Hammett: Now before we cut the recording on here. You had shared with this one, you know, phenomenally successful leader at the time of writing this, I think needs the most. High net worth person in the world. , Jeff Bezos, has a different approach to leadership and gives us your thoughts on what is different about the way he thinks and the way you think.

Steve Pockross: I don’t know if it’s that different. I think he has a, we were talking about having the open chair that has, it was a very famous Jeff Bezos, those kinds of story that there’s a chair that for the client and every single meeting is somebody representing the client, which I think is deeply important. We have the same thing for our writers as we make these product changes. Are we also are writer’s going to be engaged. Are they going to be incentive in the same way to follow the right behaviors? So I don’t think it’s that important. I think the most important thing is. We all trying to remember all of our constituencies at the same time when it’s very easy to block those out and only focus in one direction if you’re not being very intentional about it.

Gene Hammett: Okay. That’s perfect. I’m glad you talked about that because it really is when employees are keeping that customer in mind, that’s, that’s your perspective and that’s the way you’re running the company, but here’s the, here’s the thing that I want to make sure. That we talk about here, putting people first, putting people first is a very different leadership approach because there are so many things that it takes to be successful as companies.

So you’ve already talked about what it is and why you do it. I want to talk about how you do it. So what are some of the key things we would see in your organization that makes putting people first possible?

Steve Pockross: Great. So first we start with kind of our strategy of what it means to put people first. And so to me, we need a value proposition for our internal team. That’s very similar to what’s our value proposition and our mission to the external, to our clients, and with our product. And so we’ll think about that through every step of the process, through hiring and onboarding to performance and development, and all the stages, of employee engagement and also incentive structure. And so I can kind of go through each one of those three, cause I think. I think how you think about it actively is really important. The first piece that I think about, let me tell you, I think is a, I read, I read something super interesting about Steve Bomber and the way he thought about his, his scheduled many years ago, which is at the beginning of every year, or maybe he does this ongoing, he thinks of his schedule as a budget, his CEO time, which is what he’s giving oxygen to, which what he’s showing is the most important things to his company.

And he will say to his executive assistant, I would like to spend a certain allocation of my time internally versus with clients versus with sales versus with product. And that’s how he sets up his time is opposed to, it’s really hard when you get into this world, everything comes at you and you find yourself very responsive. I’m trying to spend over 50% of my time in. Very intentionally. And I think one of the differences in strategy is that when you talk about strategy and people strategy, everyone will talk about all the things you can do. And it starts to add up is kind of like all the things you’re supposed to do in your nightly routine. You’re supposed to floss and do push-ups and a thousand other things. And then you add them up and you’re like, that would take me three hours to do that nightly routine. So the real question and strategy. Is what are you sacrificing?

What are you not going to do as a leader, as a CEO, in order to get that extra time? I want 50% of my time to focus on people. I’m not going to spend as much time on sales calls. I’m not going to spend as much time on products. You might not be able to spend any time as much time in the areas that you can consider your sweet spot. So that’s kind of my starting premise. Then I can go through how we bring that to life. If that made sense.

Commentary: Now hold on Steve just said something really interesting. If he wants to spend 50% of his time on the people inside his businesses. Did that make you kind of quiver a little bit because you’re probably not spending that much? Well, the reason why spending 50% of your time on employees is really important is because you want to make sure you’re developing those employees and they’re connecting with them in a way that they are really protecting the culture. And they’re really serving the clients where they need. One of the things that get in the way of this time is you spend more time talking about the work that they’re doing, the projects, the milestones you’re managing, the work. What I want to encourage you to do is lead the person. When you lead the person you’re having different kinds of conversations. We’ve had a lot of content about this. I did an episode the other day about coaching your employees. So you want to make sure you understand what coaching our employees really means, and it’s not just managing the work. Now back to Steve.

Gene Hammett: I love that because time is one of the hardest things I think for CEOs to get a grasp on because they are responsive to what happens every day. But what you’re saying is being intentional and, and, and one of the big things that drive that is this 50% where you spend your time on the people. I want to, the question I have behind this, Steve is really what, what do you do with that 50% of your time?

Steve Pockross:  So I do a few things. So we’ll go through kind of three, the three key areas. So one is I spend a lot of my time on hiring. I want to bring in the app best people, and we’ve been, , we’ve grown from 11 people to almost almost 33 in the last couple of years. So it’s been a lot of intention that making sure our cultural stands keeps growing and building and getting better as we bring on more people. So we think about hiring differently, which is. Is thinking about who we want to target differently, which is if you’re targeting the exact same people, the been there done that successful types and you compete with everybody else in your industry. You’re going to lose a competitive advantage by not thinking differently about who to target. So we really focus on the quirky liberal arts, a players who have a lot of junior experience and a lot of enthusiasm, and to bring a lot of great ideas and curiosities from other areas. But at the same time, they’ve never done it before. So that. Starting with that. As our hiring philosophy changes the entire way that we manage the company and where I spend my time.

So because of that, I need to spend more time coaching them because of that. We need to have a lot more one-on-one meetings. So I have a one-on-one with everybody on my team weekly. I meet with everybody in the company. It used to be once a month. And now I’m up to at least once every three months to get a feel of what the. The whole company’s working on and to make sure that we’re aligned, but also to share what I have and to learn from them. Everyone in my company has like, not just top-down, across, we have a very strong one-on-one focus and that is to make sure that everybody’s aligned across silos. It’s going to save us time in the long run, but it’s going to feel like a lot of times. And we structure those. One-on-ones really carefully to try to get the most out of that time. So I spent a lot of time doing that once you created that hiring philosophy, which is we’re going to target these types, how do I track them? So we write very quirky, fun, interesting job recs that we want. We think stands out.

We don’t, we think this is a completely untapped source of great marketing in the world. How are you going to find your great employees? Write something to them. That seems to make sense, make it into a video, make it exciting. Then we have our enthusiastic team talk to them and see if they bring their same enthusiasm back. And then my time I interview every single person that’s coming into our company to Steve, they’re a great fit. I want to see if they’re comfortable talking to me, but I also want to see if they’re passionate about what we’re talking about in addition to having skillsets. So it’s kind of phase one and then we have performance management and then ongoing as goal setting and incentive structure of making sure we’re in a, we have aligned goals that everyone gets to create.

It’s really important to me that while all companies have the hierarchy in them, that we have a bottoms-up approach that everybody’s empowered as you as much as possible to create the vision that we’re doing together. But it’s not my vision, but it’s a joint vision. I often say that. I’m a lifelong ultimate Frisbee player that I try to manage my company, like an ultimate Frisbee team, but the spirit of the game, we’re cheering each other on where we’re creating a cheer for each other at the exact same time, but we still really want to win. But in our halftime, when we get together, we are not going to talk about the X’s and O’s, we are going to try to psych each other up. And so I spent a lot of the performance management time kind of working. Trying to repeat the key messages of what we’re trying to accomplish. And also, , getting everyone to each member of the team gets to have input. When we built our values in our mission together, it came across the company. When we built our social justice division, which has its own goals for our company. It was really bottoms up. As far as everybody, each one of the teams, starting their ideas, coming up with a draft, bringing it up, and then also having an agreement as we came back down.

And the last is incentive structure, which is how do we make it so that each member of the team has its incentive as possible to show our commitment to increasing salaries. Each year we do this with our writers. Every time we increase pricing, we always increase our rates with our writers to bring them into our, our community. We do it with our equity in that, we are bootstrap company, so we don’t need to have equity, which is not a requirement, but we structure ourselves the same way. So that everybody’s a partial owner. We even do that for our writers. We created a once in a, we don’t know very many other companies doing this out there, but a shadow rewards program for a writer. So if the company does better, they also profit from it.

And the last is thinking really creative about our benefits we have. Yeah. When the crisis started, we started doing last Friday’s off of the month as a mental health day, that was deeply appreciated by the team and communicating really openly with them about why this is so important and empathetically. And it’s gone a long way, both for my mental health. And I think for the companies too, Long answer, but there’s if I can sum up ongoing management, putting people first is a million small interactions every single day. It is not about that one inflection point. Where, how did you sell your company, or what’s the one pivot you made? It is a million small things that you have to do right? Every single day. And then that your team then has to do right every day and then their teams need to do right every day. And it’s really hard work. And if it’s fun and you enjoy it and you get passionate about it. It’s going to be really great. And if it’s not, it’s going to be a really hard thing to make work.

Gene Hammett: That’s an incredible way to look at it because there are a million things. And I know that seems overwhelming, but you know, simple things like listening to the people and really understanding what their fears are and what, what will help them move forward? I think is a big part of the leadership that people just don’t take into account. How important these little small things are. It’s not just the performance reviews. It’s not just the critical conversations that we have to have with people. Really everything in leadership. So I appreciate you saying that Steve, when you, you mentioned something very a while ago about that one-on-one conversation and the structure you put behind it, what have you learned about that structure? I’m sure it’s changed over time, but can you walk us through what that structure is?

Steve Pockross: Yeah. So one of the first big investments that we’ve made as a company, this kind of goes back to how do you create a performance-driven? First is we brought in, in addition to me helping mentor and, and other leaders, we brought in an executive coach to work with all of my executive team. That was kind of many of them in there for the very first time. And so we worked with her on coming up with that structure. And so first we just used to meet. To, you know, to sync up what are your priorities and things like that. And what we found is that those conversations very quickly went into what are all the things we need to do next, but it was very hard to celebrate a success, focus on like the, the good and no matter how you structured it.

So we started structuring the conversations that we started out with. What’s your thing. You’re most excited, right? That you just accomplished. What are the next three big things that you’re most excited about? So it starts with enthusiasm and excitement before it starts with a to-do list that starts to really change your mentality. Then we talk about what are your challenges to overcome those and what can I do for you? So in addition to it opens up the space, but it also makes it, this is a group challenge in order to get there. And then the last is, I want all of, everyone in the company to always be asking each other for feedback in a way that really elicits feedback, which is a very hard question to ask. And so the question is anything else I could be doing, you know, better or tips that you have for me of what I could do next time, we really focus this on next time as opposed to criticize and what you’ve done in the past, what I’ve found is that we get a very succinct, much more positive version and much more understanding of that. Kind of how are we jointly solving this in a positive way that helps the culture.

Commentary: Now, Steve just said something really interesting about executive leadership coaching. Now not a lot of companies are actually leveraging this possibility, but have you ever thought about what it would take to align your executive leadership team to the highest level. Well, I’ve done some executive leadership coaching with teams and it really is a powerful experience. I had one team recently that was struggling as a team is struggling with relationships and I helped them understand not only how to be better leaders, but how to connect together at a deeper level, how to truly drive the business forward. The work we’ve done has been profound and a really want you to think about what you could be doing as a leader, by hiring an outside coach to this. I’m not saying you should hire me, but you start someone that understands your industry or someone who understands what growing fast really means and create that space for executive leadership coaching as a team. It really can be a powerful experience back to Steve.

Gene Hammett: Now you walked us through that structure, which I think is pretty fantastic. What have you learned as a leader by having so many of these over the years that you could share with us?

Steve Pockross: The first thing is I was just listening to your episode with Chef and, and how. Nobody wants to tell his no one in the company is allowed to say that Chef says that the CEO said that this is what they do, and it’s really hard to get it back. So it felt very similar to that, which is that it’s very hard for a CEO to get honest feedback. You have to really structure your question actively and show that you deeply want to hear these things, or no, one’s going to give you anything, anything of value. And you’re basically just going to leave here feeling, you know, oh, everything’s great. I’m doing an amazing job. So you have to deeply want to get feedback and push me before and then reward them for it and say, thank you to them in an all-hands as you address the issue for everyone. That was really hard for me to figure out how to, how to make that, make that pivot.

Gene Hammett: Well, Steve, I appreciate you sharing your examples of how you’re putting people first. That really is part of the story I’m trying to get out is how differently fast-growth companies think about their employees. So thank you for being here.

Steve Pockross: Oh, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Gene Hammett: Well, I want to wrap up Steve, still listening in here, but from my perspective, what we just talked about was really important pieces of you stepping up to be an extraordinary leader that if you’re willing to realize, and really say out loud that you’re going to put employees first, it doesn’t make your customers want to go away from you because I really believe that those kinds of companies that are sharing that employee first is such an important strategy. That they’re willing to connect with and attract the right customers because they know that there’ll be taken care of. That’s what I’ve seen. That’s what I wanted to share with you. And if you are, you know, looking at what’s your playbook, how do you need to evolve as a leader to keep growth going? I want you to check out something that we’ve been putting together.

That’s really amazing. Fast growth boardroom. If you want to be an extraordinary leader, we have this group of people that are really coming together to have fun with each other, to challenge each other. And they’re really a lot of fast growth founders, leaders, and CEOs inside this group that are really connecting in a very different way. If you think you’re a good fit for fast-growth boardroom, just check it out. You can apply and we’ll get on the phone. We’ll talk about it. And if it is a good fit, I’ll invite you to come in. If you’re not, then I’ll suggest other resources that will help you get ready for that. Just go to fastgrowthboardroom.com.

When you think of growth, you think of leadership. Think of Growth Think Tank as always lead with courage. See you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.




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