Leading a Hybrid Team with Bill Austin & Associates

The future of work has changed. Most organizations will never go back to 100 percent back to the office. It would help if you learned the power of leading a hybrid team. Today’s guest is Bill Austin, President at Bill Austin & Associates. Inc Magazine ranked his company #4124 on the 2020 Inc 5000 list. Bill Austin & Associates, Provides system engineering services for heavy-duty systems, which is also called information engineering. Bill shares how he is leading a hybrid team during today’s challenges. We discuss the key elements of accountability with remote workers. When you understand leading a hybrid team, you have a better chance of leading your company to the next level.

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Bill Austin: The Transcript

About: Bill Austin & Associates, Inc. is a business systems improvement company that specializes in system engineering. Bill Austin & Associates, Inc pride itself on their ability to provide a flexible, creative, and dynamic environment that suits ambitious people of all ages and gender. Since engineering systems is a multidisciplinary, holistic effort, it’s necessary for an SE company to be broad in its outlook and approach. System modeling, requirement definition, and project management are all key components of SE.

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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.

Bill Austin: We knew that we needed to be flexible because of the nature of the work that we’re engaged in. And so, in fact, early on, we figured out that we work more with sort of the diamond in the rough sort of people. And then as the pandemic hit. , we immediately went from a lot of companies from totally in-house to totally working offsite. And that flexibility is what helped us get to that point. And then as we thought about it, more, we sort of experimented and said, well, there was a reason for people to be in the office in the first place, but now we’re finding there’s a lot of reasons to be out of the office. And so we just worked on what that dynamic was and said, it’s gotta be a little bit of both. And so that said it was hybrid. So then the question just became, how exactly does that work? Cause that’s a nebulous term.

Intro: Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight 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 moment of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett: Today’s work environments are going to be different than what you’re probably used to. In fact, I think there’s going to be more of a hybrid work environment than anything we’ve ever seen before through the pandemic we had to go virtual and many companies are getting back to work, but they’re learning quickly that we’ve got to create a different way of working together. So today we look at leading a hybrid team, leading a hybrid team requires you to think about how you gather in small groups or big groups, not every day, but maybe once a week or once a month or once a quarter. And all of those cadences really matter about building the relations. And creating the culture that you want. Leading a hybrid team takes a lot of intention and takes a lot of things that have to be worked out. You know, one system for one company may not work for you. You have to be willing to say what works and what doesn’t work and have transparent conversations around that journey. Today’s guest is the founder of Bill Austin & Associates.

We have Bill Austin, himself, he’s on the Inc list. And he talks about leading a hybrid team. He has started really early inside the pandemic of bringing key people into the office one day a week. , some of the core executive team were in for another day. During the week, we look at some of the details behind that, why he did what he did, some of the mistakes they made in this journey. And you can learn from them too if you want to be a leader of a fast-growth company, and you want to really push yourself to make sure you check out fastgrowthboardroom.com. It is where extraordinary leaders come to gather together with others be coached, be challenged and it really is a place for you to grow, create a higher value for your company. When you’re ready to sell down the road. All of this is at fastgrowthboardroom.com. Just apply. We’ll have a conversation, make sure it’s a fit. I’ll answer all your questions. Love to have you on board. If you are a fit for this. , you don’t have to be on the Inc 5,000, just check out fastgrowthboardroom.com. Thanks for being here.

Here’s the interview with Bill,

Bill. How are you?

Bill Austin: I am great. How are you?

Gene Hammett: I am fantastic. Excited to have you on Growth Think Tank

Bill Austin: Well, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

Gene Hammett: I’ve already let our audience know a little bit about you and what you stand for, but I’d love to know about the company. So tell us about Bill Austin & Associates.

Bill Austin: Okay. Well, as we had talked previously, I think you and I both shared in the idea of working out some detailed engineering, aspects of the world, but, found that backing up to a higher level was, in our case, maybe both of us, a little more interesting. And so, I sort of took to the idea of system engineering, which sounds a little, unclear to some people. And we tend to think of it as how do you work with information to assist companies who are engineering products? And so by that, an example would be working on, something as straightforward as service manuals or information on how to use products, but a more complicated topic is what are the requirements necessary to make a product. And so kind of the front end, And the back end, how does information relate to people and to products that you’re creating?

Gene Hammett: Is it fair to say that a big part of your staff is required to think?

Bill Austin: Yes, yes. Required. Yes. , and, and we actually look at three things as we talk to people, culture, communication, and then capability in that order. So, the thinking part affects the culture. The communication is obvious is necessary bringing with information. And then lastly, you have to have your basic capability, whatever that is.

Gene Hammett: I love that. Where did that come from? Those three, three words.

Bill Austin: I think I made it up. Yeah, it was just struck me one day. I found that as I’m, I’ve Middlemore, , advanced in years and some people working in this business and I found over time that I needed to put things in terms of algorithms, formulas. And so forth. ’cause, clarifying the complexity had to start with me and that’s one of our mottoes is clarifying complexity.

Gene Hammett: You know, you started with the culture there first I ask a lot of people what their biggest mistake is, and I’ll just kind of give you the numbers about 60% said they decided to hire based on a skill fit instead of a culture fit. And that caused a lot of habits. Cross-organization you put culture first? Why do you put it first?

Bill Austin: I think I put it first. , we’re actually celebrating our 25th year of the company this year. And, the first few years I probably spent time in some of those other aspects. And I finally figured out that I wanted to work with people that I wanted to work with. And that’s really what a lot of cultures is all about. So that’s why we came up with culture.

Gene Hammett: And it probably has some other aspects to it too, because when you really dive into it, people that want to work together, they’re kind of aligned around certain values. , they actually do collaborate at a deeper level. Have you found that?

Bill Austin: Yeah. With very much so, in fact, if we get to that point, you know, I’ll talk about some of the relationships we try to establish with people and customers and how do we improve all those. And so, it’s really all about the relationships that you have with is establishes the culture

Gene Hammett: Bill, we’re here today to not necessarily talk about the systems engineering that you guys do and perform and individual people and whatnot. We’re here to talk about the bigger idea of leading in a hybrid team environment we don’t have to put too much word work around this, but why hybrid?

Bill Austin: Well, as, as thinking of systems and what the entire system is composed of, you know, that’s always been part of the struggle with, creating the culture, having a people that are, needed. And so we knew that we needed to be flexible because of the nature of the work that we’re engaged in. And so, in fact, early on, we figured out that we work more with sort of the diamond in the rough sort of people. And then as the pandemic hit. , we immediately went from a lot of companies from totally in-house to totally working offsite. And that flexibility is what helped us get to that point. And then as we thought about it, more, we sort of experimented and said, well, there was a reason for people to be in the office in the first place, but now we’re finding there’s a lot of reasons to be out of the office. And so we just worked on what that dynamic was and said, it’s gotta be a little bit of both. And so that said it was hybrid. So then the question just became, how exactly does that work? Cause that’s a nebulous term.

Gene Hammett: Let’s dive-in in into how that works. And I know you’re probably early into this because, , I don’t know when you got back into the office, but you know, management teams probably coming in first and then others will come in later as they need to. Walk me through kind of the way you thought through this and how it’s playing out in the real world.

Bill Austin: Well, actually, I, I concluded that in order to be competitive, we had to put, we had to use the, as some people talk about it, use the crisis as an opportunity. So actually as early as May or June of last year, we started bringing people back into the office on a temporary basis. And it turned out that we’ve had a consistent, meeting of a portion of the company a first, a one day, a week, Mondays. And then, the second was on Wednesday. And so we’ve actually had a year’s worth of experience because we’re pushing the envelope. And we said we needed to get out there and try these things because we’re going to have to understand how it works. So we’ve had, a team of the old, more management than not on Mondays. And then, just my staff on Wednesdays.

Gene Hammett: Now, managements. Is these frontline managers, mid-level managers, and the executive team?

Bill Austin: Actually, all of our management team comes in with a few others on Mondays and then, my direct staff of, four of us, actually then took the flexibility for the Wednesday slot and said you know, we’re really independent of time, but we’re also independent of place. So we actually started meeting at my house on Wednesdays.

Gene Hammett: Okay.

Bill Austin: We came into the actual office on Mondays with the larger group and then a subset of us, at the staff level management staff, meet on Wednesdays.

Gene Hammett: What have you learned looking back over this of what has worked?

Bill Austin: Well, Early on one of the impetuses for me, because, I had, I had been something of a road warrior in my career. So I knew a lot about working remotely, but when we were forced to work a video all day long, it really emphasized that those of us that were having meetings were really getting burnt out on the street video meetings. And so we gained pretty quickly, a lot of value. From having those meetings in person and that just became obvious from the discussions that we needed, the face-to-face we needed the culture. And we discovered that actually, the hiring manager, you were the more, that was a problem, the more that that was needed to have the face-to-face. So our hybrid model is actually, , some of the people. And the office, but then certain people in the office, more than others based on the management. ,

Commentary: Now, Bill, just said that meetings are better in person. Now you probably don’t disagree with that. I wouldn’t disagree with that. You can also create the same kind of relationships inside of virtual meetings that you have in-person now in in-person meetings are something that never goes away. You want to make sure that you actually protect those, but you can actually provide some moments of relationship building inside of the meeting. One of the suggestions I want to give you today is instead of just getting right to work inside your virtual meetings, make sure that you are having a moment to be personal. Maybe it’s asking questions about the weekend or asking questions about the kids and what they’re up to understand people at a personal level because if they feel you care, they’re more likely to listen to you. When we get into the heart, the work now I took this from a book I read called the billion-dollar coach, a guy named bill Campbell was the coach at apple and in many other companies in the Silicon Valley. And he mentioned the importance instead of checking email when people were sitting down gathering in a meeting. Of kicking off the meeting with a little personal element, really having this moment. I share this with you because I think it would help you create more connections inside your meetings and you can use it virtually or in-person back to Bill.

Gene Hammett: I don’t know if you’d be willing to share with me and hopefully you’ve worked through some of the challenges, but what did you try that didn’t work out in this hybrid model?

Bill Austin: Well, I think we tried to, we tried to make suggestions, early on to sort of test the waters to say, what are people going to be happy with. You know, is it one day, two days, three days. And, it was pretty obvious that most of us, including myself, did not ever want to go back to the office five days, for sure, but not even four. And so we’re narrowing it down pretty rapidly as we’ve sort of tested that to say, you know, really what do we gain? And there are certain instances. I think a lot of people are discovering that in terms of onboarding people or having certain types of meetings that really do benefit from face-to-face. But for the most part, we’re in a one to the three-day max in the office. I think probably from this point on.

Gene Hammett: You know, I think that that probably be a common approach across a lot of organizations. Are you tracking time, the way, you used to, or have you had to change the way you track on?

Bill Austin: Actually interestingly, a lot of us started out, once we left some of our other roles on a, more of a contractor basis being paid by the hour and we’ve kept that model actually. And it turns out that that model gives us the flexibility of working, as we choose. And using the hours that we choose, because we track everything by the hour. So we have a hundred, I’d say 95% of our workforce is degreed and professional. And yet everybody paid by the hour.

Gene Hammett: One of the things that you had shared with my team, or we were researching your company, Was the importance of relationships and that’s, that’s really hard to do in a completely virtual world. And you guys have had this hybrid model. Are you doing anything special to make sure the relationships are, are developing and evolving the way you want them to? ,

Bill Austin: We’ve had, we’ve been fortunate to have a fairly mature workforce. And so we recognize that we’re working off of. , some stored relationship knowledge, and yet as we onboard new people, we have to think about that. So, certainly the bringing people in is a part of that compared to some companies. , I think we’ve been very different than almost every meeting we have is video a video of people. A lot of companies that we’ve worked with are not using the video at all, or they’re just using it for PowerPoints. And so pretty much across the board. Every meeting is a video meeting. We’ve also established that a hybrid works in a certain sense, but hybrid doesn’t work very well when some people are video and some people are not. So it’s sort of a rule that if you’re going to have a meeting, you’re going to try as, as hard as you can have everybody face-to-face or everybody video.

But on the relationship part, I can say more about that. The relationship piece is, kind of inherent in some of the system engineering work. And so we say in our vision statement that establishing relationships is an important aspect of what we do. So we were already looking at relationships from our professional standpoint.

Gene Hammett: I love that what you’re talking about here, about the hybrid. I’ve heard a lot of kinds of experts weigh in on this, and they are very determined not to have a hybrid meeting where video and in-person are going on at the same time. The dynamics just are much more difficult. The technology’s a little bit difficult these cameras aren’t meant for, you know, getting 12 people into one shot. Are you, is that a hard and fast rule for you guys right now?

Bill Austin: Pretty much is. And even, as you probably have seen as well, a lot of this plays over into your facilities needs. And so, we are pretty actively looking at what type of facilities, including having a variable facility. If we have a larger group, we’ll have a larger facility that we may rent on a regular basis. And so that’s part of that, working on a relationship there.

Gene Hammett: I am kind of curious, you know, what is you had to change in your style of leadership and leading a hybrid team? ,

Bill Austin: I think it’s been obvious as a lot of people have that. I’ve had to think a lot more about making projections with confidence as to where things are going, even things surprisingly, you know, you read the news and you try to form an opinion about the world. And sometimes it’s just restating the news, but people are looking for, the CEO to have, some confidence and tell them about where the world is going. So that’s been a surprise that I’ve had to push that a lot more, and I felt that important to give people that certainty.

Commentary: Bill just talked about projections with confidence. Now confidence is a really necessary part of leadership, but not many people think about what does it take to be more confident. Now, if you look back on where you were a year ago, my hope is that you’re much more confident than you were. And what I found in my own journey as a leader, entrepreneur, that, that those ceilings of confidence really are kind of invisible and that you, you, you keep moving, you think you can’t be even more confident and you look back and you realize. Wow. You know what? I realized that within myself, that confidence comes from a deep trust in yourself. You don’t have to have done something before you have to trust that you can figure it out and you have to trust that you have the ethics and the skill and the mental capacity to move forward. Whether it be a technical problem that you’re trying to solve, whether it be a personal problem that you’re trying to work out, or something in marketing or sales, trusting in yourself is the core to confidence. The more you trust, the more you deeply trust yourself, the more likely you’ll have confidence and will show up in every part of your life, back to Bill.

Gene Hammett: Is it something you had to work on and be intentional about or did it come naturally to make that shift?

Bill Austin: Well, I think as, I think I might’ve said earlier, some of the things we deal with they’re fairly complex. And you have to work at simplifying, and then when you simplify it, you have to communicate it. So yes, it became a recognition on my part that, people will tell me that I’m a complicated thinker. And so I have to, have to put things in simple statements that, you know, are a little more. Affirmative then it probably would be natural for me.

Gene Hammett: Now you’ve walked us through some of the key things to leading a hybrid team. Is there anything we left out? ,

Bill Austin: I think, the part that I, like you say, I, I, I believe that we’re all evolving to this hybrid model as the optimum, in most cases, certainly. Manufacturing plants and others that are in office. But, I think, I think the office itself, the space itself, is what I still see as the challenge. And, and I say that because, I think there’s a lot of variation, but for example, we’re seeing. , we’re probably going to have to have available larger spaces, but not ones that we own. And the spaces that we own are going to be two-person kinds of spaces to allow for face-to-face one-on-ones or to, allow maybe a space to go to when you’re having the bigger meeting.

Gene Hammett: Are you looking at co-working spaces or something else in the marketplace? ,

Bill Austin: we’re in the area where we are in central Indiana. We’re not seeing, the market deliver to us to kind of spaces that we think we’re wanting. So actually I’m sort of looking at how do we locate a base office? Sort of, I don’t know if I’m familiar with the client-server model of IT, but the server, which is where the basic office is, has to be, you know, accessible and connected to the client. Looking at maybe, you know, space that we would, own next to hotels, where we could rent.

Gene Hammett: Well, there’s a lot of different options out there. I know in the Atlanta area, coworking is a big boom for many reasons, but one of them is because of the flexibility for bigger room spaces, even smaller spaces on demand. You know, you can schedule them in advance. They have technology that. Higher-level than most people, but that is something that’s changing across this hybrid world.

Bill Austin: Well, what I’m being, I’ll be curious to see is because there’s a lot of forces driving people out of the more congested areas and cities, and you’re going out in areas where some of those kinds of things may not be available. So what will be the answer? Will people have those coworking spaces in the suburbs or will there be some other solutions? And right now, as I say, going to a conference room in a hotel is probably the best option for where we are.

Gene Hammett: Well, time will tell. I think the commercial real estate market in office spaces, similar to what you’re talking about. I wouldn’t want to be in that business right now because of all these changes. So Bill, I really appreciate you sharing your wisdom about leading a hybrid team and really appreciate you being here.

Bill Austin: Thank you, Gene. It’s nice to meet you, and, , I look forward to many more of your podcasts. ,

Gene Hammett: This interview was a really powerful one because I think a lot of people are not sure about what it takes to lead a hybrid team. If you’re considering this. Well, they’ve taken some notes about the frequency of meetings and the types of things that you’re doing and why they’re necessary to be willing to try things that you’ve never tried before. Be willing to test things out, be willing for it, to not work out, and look for places where you can improve on what used to be, not just do what you’ve always done.

Leading a hybrid team is something I think would be around here to stay, make sure you become the leader that can evolve and quickly be the leader that your team wants to follow.

When you think of leadership and you think of growth. Think of Growth Think Tank as always lead with courage. We’ll 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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