The Value of Transparency with Liz Steblay at ProKo Agency

Many leaders are afraid to share everything with their people. I talk to so many CEOs who embrace sharing almost everything with their people that I believe it is essential. The value of transparency can’t be overlooked if you want your employees to feel like owners. Today’s guest is Liz Steblay, Founder & President at PrōKo Agency. Inc Magazine ranked his company #4610 on the 2021 Inc 5000 list. ProKo is the “Creative Artists Agency” for over 75 independent consultants specializing in organizational effectiveness and HR. Liz gives you insights on the value of transparency and the things she has learned the hard way. Discover how vital transparency is to company growth.

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Liz Steblay: The Transcript

About: Liz founded PrōKo in 2009 based on workplace trends and her own consulting experiences, particularly the challenges of being an independent consultant working with Fortune 500 clients. The idea of PrōKo’s unique business model was planted when Liz helped a client to implement a vendor compliance system and process with a contingent workforce management company. (“Parachuted behind enemy lines” is how Liz tells the story.) Over the last 20 years Liz has worked as an external consultant with a global “big four” consulting firm, as a member of a boutique consulting firm, as an internal consultant, and as an independent consultant. She has personally consulted with nearly all aspects of a business including marketing, IT, procurement, sales operations, HR, finance and accounting.

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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.

Liz Steblay: [00:00:00] I have a standing beanie every week with my CFO. And of course, with my, with my assistant who really basically runs this thing behind the curtain, we start each of those meetings with how you’re feeling what’s going on with you. What’s going on personally. What’s, you know, how are your kids doing? It takes five minutes, but then I know where, you know, if they’re distracted or if they’re not feeling well if the mother’s sick or right. It only takes five minutes, but it’s, it’s how we, how we round are grounded with each other. And we’ve become really tight friends. Over time, right? If you add five minutes, five minutes a week up over a period of years, then you really rank them trust and you get to know each other really well.

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 moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett: Where is your transparency line? Well, transparency is not a new conversation for us here on the podcast.[00:01:00] When I think about the transparency line, I believe it should be remarkable. I think you want to be open with financials as much as you can. You want to be open with candid feedback with people to give them insight on where they can improve. And I really believe transparency is an important part to growth. When I was doing some research, I interviewed 53 founder CEOs, and I had some sort of measurement calculations of what plays a role in the growth of their company. Transparency was one of the highest factors. 87% said it was either important or very important to the growth of their company. So just think about that for a second.

Our special guest today is going to talk about transparency. It is Liz Steblay. She is a powerhouse inside of her world, which is matchmaking for fortune 100 or fortune 1000 companies in the world of HR. And so her company is PROCO agency. They were number 4,610 on the Inc list this past year. And what we talked about today is transparency, how it plays out inside of her [00:02:00] organization, why it’s so important and why you should be transparent as well with your employees. With your partners with your clients, with your, you know, doesn’t matter. Everything should have a dose of transparency that allows you guys to connect and build trust. And I believe this too. So we’re going to unpack that in today’s episode, my job is to help you become the best leader you can be to be extraordinary.

And I want to help you do that with intention. The best thing I can do for you is not just to let you take in all this content passively and hope that you apply it. I think that what you’re looking for is probably someone to talk to about what’s going on in your business. What’s really getting in the way, how you sabotage it. You’re open to that conversation. If you’re have enough courage to say, you know what, I know I could do better and be better. And I know that there’s some specific I’d like to talk to about Gene. Then that’s a perfect fit for a conversation with me. Just go to and schedule a call. Now, inside that conversation, I promise not to sell you, but to serve you as deeply as possible, just like I would a paying client to help you see what’s getting in your way, come up with a [00:03:00] plan for you to move forward. And then we’ll talk about what’s next. Just build a relationship from there. My job is to help you become an extraordinary leader and help you become the leader that your people deserve. Just go to and schedule a call. Now here’s the interview with Liz.

Gene Hammett: Hi Liz How are you?

Liz Steblay: I’m great. Thanks for having me on here, gene.

Gene Hammett: Well, excited to have you on the podcast. We’re going to talk about transparency before we do. I’d love you to tell us about your company ProKo consulting.

Liz Steblay: Yeah, actually two years ago, we changed our name from ProKo consulting to ProKo agency. Part of that was driven by the new law in California. Known as AB five, that some of your listeners may be familiar with, but without going into the legal reasons, basically what ProKo agency does is we’re a matchmaker between consultants who specialize in org effectiveness, program management and HR and fortune 1000 companies.

So a little bit like creative artists agency in Hollywood represents the best actors we represent the best HR and org effectiveness consultants.

Gene Hammett: Well, excited to have you talk here today. We were doing some research on the company and just figuring out who you are and what [00:04:00] you’re up to. You guys made the Inc list. When was this the first time you guys made the Inc list?

Liz Steblay: Yeah, so it was the first time we made the Inc 5,000.

Gene Hammett: Well, it’s impressive to be able to do that. And especially with such a small staff, one of the reasons why you guys made it, and we’ve already kind of talked about this before we got the recorder on, which was transparency. So what is transparency as it relates to growing your company?

Liz Steblay: Well, that’s a huge question, gene, but it’s, it’s also, it goes all the way back to when we, I founded this business over about 13 years ago, , trust candor and collaboration and transparency are founding principles. And particularly with regard to transparency, It’s practically unheard of in the consulting industry to have transparent pricing, right? When, when your client and you hire a consultant, you’re paying the consulting firm $400 an hour or $450 an hour. You have no idea what the consultant is actually being paid, whether it’s a big firm or a boutique firm or. Or a matchmaking firm like ours, right? Or even an online [00:05:00] platform like Cadillac or a well-known agency across the country as BTG business talent group.

All of the pricing is, is a little bit of gear. The bigger the company, the more severe the pricing is. And I said, well, that’s kind of BS. So our model was very transparent in that we, all of our consultants set their own rates because they’re all independent. And we tell our clients, this is what the consultant’s rate is. And we add 10% as is our agency fee, which helps mitigate your risk and provides for $5 million of insurance. If the client comes to us and says, Hey, can you help us find a consultant that specializes in or is designed for global it, for example, We then charged the consultant a 10% sourcing fee. So we call it our 10 up 10 down model. And that’s it. That’s the transparent pricing. Everybody, everybody knows what everybody’s making.

Gene Hammett: It makes it simple. When you have one model that works and. When you’re able to talk about this, you don’t have to keep your story straight. Right.

Liz Steblay: It’s very easy. Right? That’s the other great thing about it is it’s low [00:06:00] stress because it’s, I mean, that’s the model. If that doesn’t matter, if it’s a fixed fee, if it’s a workshop, if it’s, you know, a one-year engagement, if it’s interim, if it’s going to backfilling an interim head of visual role, or if it’s a consulting project, the model works no matter what the pricing structure.

Gene Hammett: Well, let’s dive into this. You said that the guiding principles or the core principles of the business, you listed them out there.

Liz Steblay: List and force again, candor, trust, transparency, and collaboration.

Gene Hammett: And how’d you come up with those?

Liz Steblay: Oh, probably just based on my own life journey and my own, my own personal values. So I did have a situation once where I, as part of the growth of the company, right? It’s like, you’ve got to find the, got to hire talent. You’ve got to have the right talent in our case. It’s our whole business is represented the right talent. And I reached out to somebody on LinkedIn. Because they looked great on paper. They were, they had previously worked at like a couple of the big firms. I don’t know it was like Accenture and Deloitte or something. And they had the [00:07:00] kind of background that our clients are looking for. And I reached out to this person and, , went through our vetting process, but then a few months into it, this person stabbed me in the back. It was, and I was appalled. And the reason I even found out about it was because she said something about, , And the client came back to me and said, Liz, this doesn’t sound like something.

You would say, this doesn’t sound like you. And I said that’s cause I never said that this person completely made it up. And it was so alarming to me that somebody could damage my reputation via an email or a conversation. I actually had to go in and figure out how to unlink from somebody on LinkedIn. Cause I didn’t even want this person to my network anymore. And after that, that, happened, which really shook me to the core. I said, okay, from now on we’ll only represent people who are personally referred to us. So before you can even be interviewed by the PROCO agency, you have to be personally referred by somebody because just because somebody looks good on paper doesn’t mean that they’re going to share our values [00:08:00] of trust, candor, and collaboration.

Commentary: Liz just talked about her values came from her personal values, and we’re not going to go through that again, but I find that’s a really good place to start. If you don’t have. A clear set of values, or you need to refresh your values inside your organization. You want to look at your own personal values as the CEO or founder of this company, and you want to be able to clearly articulate why those values are so important to you. Why they’re so important to the business and the context of the culture and the people. And once you have that as a baseline, then you can start to add in other people across the organization, you get their feedback and see if they’ll participate in, be included inside of the values. And so that you guys find the workable words. They become your company’s core values. This is just one approach to you figuring out what are the guiding principles and the values of your company. Hopefully, you’ll take my advice on this. Just like Liz. It really does a good place to start is with your personal core values and back to Liz,

Gene Hammett: are you looking for vendors that share those values with you as kind of a baseline [00:09:00] before you will consider them to refer to one of your clients.

Liz Steblay: By then does you mean our talents or our consultants? So, yes, because that’s why we have that, that, that one gating item there is that somebody can reach out to me and this does happen. They’ll reach out on the website in the same interested in being represented by ProKo and then I’ll write back and I’ll say, well, the number one thing is you have to be referred to us by somebody we already know and trust at this is how you can find some, if you’re connected to any of our people that we already know. And I’m sure I turned away quality people, but I’m not willing to take that risk again with being stabbed in the back by somebody that I don’t trust,

Gene Hammett: now, I’ve been doing a lot of research on what I call the leverage points of how values are touching our organization right now. There’s about a dozen of them and what you’re describing is. You know, in order for us to grow the business, we look at our own personal values and core company core values, and we’re looking for a good match with that with the people we do business with. Is that, do I have that kind of summarized very well for your

Liz Steblay: Absolutely. [00:10:00] Yes.

Gene Hammett: I’m all. I’m kind of curious. Are there other areas that you would say in the organization that are touch points or leverage points that you use values?

Liz Steblay: Oh, wow. It permeates well, like any company, the values are going to permeate everything, everything that we do but one of the other things I would say is really important to us is, is making it personal particularly right now in the, when you hear about that, like the great resignation or the war for talent or whatever, and you’re looking to hire and, or keep your valued people. We we’ve always made it personal. It’s not just about handling a contract or, or, you know, doing the nuts and bolts of a contract together. We get to know people we’ve recognized their birthdays. We recognize their anniversaries. If we hear that they’re sick, we send them a care package in the mail. And it’s because of those personal relationships. That have people wanting to stay and continue to work with ProKo, probably because of the personal relationships, like I said, but also because of our spirit of [00:11:00] collaboration, and what I mean by collaboration is if, a lot of times what happens in the consulting world is, is a consultant should be working with, I don’t know, I’ll just say Nike and the person that Nike will say, Hey, can you also help us with X, Y, Z?

And that can someone with. I could, but that’s not what I’m currently hired to do. So we can have a conversation about extending, or expanding my scope of work, or it’s not really my sweet spot, but I’m a member of the organization and this network that represents other really high-quality consultants. Would you like me to ask them? And that’s where the heart of the pro quo model is because then that person comes to proclaim and says, Hey, Nike’s looking for somebody to do ABC. We make the match. We give the referral bonus back to that consultant. Brought it back, and brought it to us from Nike. Right? So that’s what the spirit of collaboration comes in. We’re sort of all in it together, helping keep each others. When I say, keep your plane in the air, all of our consultants are self-employed so all about making a living. So we all have each other.

Gene Hammett: Love that you were talking about making it personal. You gave some specific examples. This is with your core [00:12:00] employees, or is it with your partners and clients and just everyone?

Liz Steblay: Actually, I was, when I gave the example, I was talking about our consultants who are all independent contractors, right. They’re not employees, but it also works for clients. We also have to recognize, , client anniversaries, every November, we declined appreciation gifts. And also by recognizing the anniversaries of when they became a co a ProKo client, it’s just another touchpoint. So all of that. These are ways of keeping a relationship warm.

Gene Hammett: You had said before he cut the recorder on you, we’re going to be sharing practical tips. Let’s just drive this home. When you’re, you’re talking about making it personal. What is the thing that you feel like is making the most benefit to growing your company?

Liz Steblay: Well, for one thing, when somebody is goes through the process of being represented by ProKo. They interview with three, for three people, we have two, two different heads of talent and myself, and all three of us are going to get to know this person in that process. I’m always taking notes. Well, the main, the main objective is to determine what this person’s sweet-spot is. What are they really, really, really good at? What do they [00:13:00] love to. But aside from that, I’m also taking notes. Do they have kids? Where do they live? What do they do for hobbies? And it’s as simple as keeping, keeping track of those notes. I keep them in my, in my contact records. So for example, let’s say I know that Debra Glen loves to ski and has two kids.

And so when it comes to her birthday, I don’t just say. A generic birthday card. I actually send a birthday card that has something to do with one of her hobbies. Right. It may might be skiing or it might be another hobby and a handwrite these notes. Okay. A lot of people are going to say it’s really old-fashioned to send a birthday card in the mail, but who doesn’t like getting a handwritten note in the mail. Everybody does. So I think it’s worth taking the time to do handwritten notes. Thinking things with appreciation, I write thank you notes to clients or to consultants. Somebody re if somebody introduced me to somebody and then I ended up representing them. And then that went on to be a $200,000 contract. That’s worth taking five minutes to hand. Write a thank-you note. So it’s a little old-school I agree, but that’s how you make [00:14:00] it personal.

Gene Hammett: I want to go back into the transparency place. Cause we got into the part where pricing is transparent. Where were the other areas? That which you have transparency in your business.

Liz Steblay: Oh, so this kind of goes hand in hand with candor. So at sometimes, these are awkward conversations, but I believe that if I don’t give candid feedback to my consultants, it’s, I’m doing a disservice to them. This can be awkward to tell somebody. You know what your LinkedIn profile is really not up to par. Here’s some great examples of self-employed consultants and what these LinkedIn profiles look like. And you need to do a, B and C. And by the way, the photo you have is not doing you any favors. Sometimes it’s difficult to give that kind of feedback. If I don’t give that kind of feedback and be candid about how a person’s going to market and how, how they’re representing them. It’s a disservice to ProKo of course, but it’s also a disservice to them to not give that candid feedback and be transparent about how I perceive them in the marketplace

Commentary: Liz just talked about, if I don’t give the [00:15:00] feedback, it’s a disservice to that person. And I really believe this is a mindset shift that a lot of people need to wrestle with because they avoid these difficult conversations or the chance to give candid or candor feedback. And it just don’t do it quick enough. They eventually do. But they don’t do it quick enough. And I would like to encourage you to really get your mindset shift around. This is a disservice to them. If I don’t say these words, if I don’t have this conversation, if we don’t frame it and talk about it, now, it will be something that they don’t address because it’s a blind spot to them. And especially if people leave, it is a blind spot. They’re not aware of it. It’ll never get better on its own because the technician or the definition of blind spot. Sorry, I got tongue-tied is really about. You know, them not knowing. So make sure you make that mindset shift back to Liz.

Gene Hammett: I love these examples. When we started talking about transparency, I haven’t really explained one of the things I use inside my coaching, which is the transparency line. I think we all have an individual line. Yeah. Maybe it moves depending on who we’re [00:16:00] talking to because of how open we are with what’s going on in our personal lives or, or maybe there’s a doubt that we have, we don’t want to share openly with some people, but within our organization, I think that we should be remarkably transparent within your organization. I know you’ve got a smaller team there. Would you say that you guys are very transparent with each other?

Liz Steblay: I’d say probably we errie on the side of being too transparent, but it’s all part of making it personal. So I have a standing beanie every week with my CFO. And of course with my, with my assistant who really basically runs this thing behind the curtain, we start each of those meetings. With how you’re feeling what’s going on with you. What’s going on personally. What’s, you know, how are your kids doing? It takes five minutes, but, but, but then I know where, you know, if they’re distracted, if they’re not feeling well if their mother’s sick or right, it only takes five minutes, but it’s, it’s how we, how we are grounded with each other. And we’ve become really tight friends over, over time. Right? If you add five minutes, five minutes a week up [00:17:00] over a period of years. Then you really strengthen trust and you get to know each other really, really well.

Gene Hammett: I love the fact that you’re being honest with us and say it’s probably too transparent I think that’s a good sign when you have, could be a transparency hangover. You think about it, you know, a few hours later. And you’re like, did I really share that

Liz Steblay: I do that frequently or all say something maybe a little too candid to somebody and then I’ll carry it around with me all day. And then the next day I’ll send them a note and say, you know, I keep thinking about our conversation. I don’t want you to have misinterpreted this, this thing, the wrong way. And I just want to make sure that I didn’t misspeak or it didn’t offend them. And my daughter laughs at me, she’s 20. She laughs at me, she’s like, oh, you’re having, you’re doing that thing again. aren’t you mom? But, but it’s, you know if something, if I keep thinking about something, there’s a reason and I want to make sure that the area is clear. So, it does, it does take time, but it’s worth it.

Gene Hammett: I know a lot of people struggle with transparency. Aspects and words, do they have that transparency line? Some companies will share financials [00:18:00] openly. Some won’t, some will be candid when they have feedback. Some prefer not to be as candid as they could be. And I’m just wondering, have you seen a benefit as it relates to culture or the connection that you have across your team?

Liz Steblay: Absolutely. Because I think that our ability to be transparent and to give candid feedback opens lines of communication and which helps build. Right. Trust is built over time in these small, these small actions where every interaction is an opportunity to strengthen trust with somebody. So absolutely it has made it makes a huge difference. I want to do, I want to say one thing, now, Gene, I think it’s easier to be more transparent. And to deliver more candid feedback, the older you get, because your list is concerned with how you’re going to be perceived. You’re more comfortable in your own skin.

And I think really age has something to do with that, which probably isn’t very helpful for your young leaders who are 30 and 33 35, you know, but when you start giving, you know, in their forties and fifties, you really get a lot [00:19:00] more comfortable in your own skin and it’s easier. To be vulnerable and to give candid feedback, that might be a little awkward. Sometimes I’ll start a conversation with saying this is a little awkward for me, but in the interest of both of us, I’m going to give you some people’s feedback. It’s a little bit like when you do public speaking and they tell you, you know, the first thing you should can say. Wow. I’m really nervous. Look at all of you people out there, but acknowledging that you’re nervous or by acknowledging that it’s not core conversation, it kind of pulls the, , sucks. The wind out of that emotion.

Gene Hammett: The first time you’ve said that maybe think of, we all have older grandparents that basically don’t give a damn about what they say. Sometimes they say things like, I will give you an example. My,, my wife is doing videos similar to this and her mother said I watched all your videos. I cannot believe you didn’t fix your hair on this day and you did this and he did that. Like, she just doesn’t give a damn, I get the fact that it gets easier as you, it’s not, it’s not just the, the older it’s when you don’t care. What do other people think about you? You’re willing and you’re doing it in service [00:20:00] of them. Like the candid feedback really is an important piece to be able to say I owe it to them. And so I really love the fact that you, you did that. Liz. I really appreciate you being here today and sharing your insights and wisdom of leadership to grow your company.

Liz Steblay: My pleasure Gene anytime.

Gene Hammett: So my job in this moment is just to reflect back, what did you hear from today’s conversation? I personally believe transparency is a very, very good thing. We’re very personal with the team. I have. We talk about things that, you know, most teams don’t talk about I could give you examples, but I won’t bore you with the details, but it’s, it’s really is. Sometimes we start meetings with these personal elements. Every time and it’s a team meeting. And so we’re all kind of going around. What movies do we like to watch? Or what do we, what’s our, what skills do we want to grow or whatever it may be. And we’re just talking about these things. Now, those aren’t vulnerable moments, but it opens the door to those vulnerable moments, which what this was talking about is having the confidence and courage to be able to talk honestly, directly with the people that you need to talk to, instead of holding it back and going, you know, I really should say something, but I’m not sure how you just do it anyway.

It really is a sign of great leadership. [00:21:00] You want to encourage your people to do it because here’s, what’s happening. If your transparency line is, you know, sort of in the middle of the road, then your people will learn from you and they will cascade down. And so they won’t have the kind of connection that they could have. So I just remind you of that. If you have any questions about where your growth opportunities. As a leader are, make sure you check out some of the free content. We have at If you want to have a call with me, I’d love to talk to you about what’s going on there. Just schedule a call anytime you want and love to help you.

When you think of growth and you think of leadership, 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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